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Though top offices remain elusive, Vt. Progressives still carry influence

Published: Nov. 26, 2020 at 5:10 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The year 2020 has been a roller coaster in politics at the national level and at the Vermont Statehouse. While Gov. Phil Scott resoundingly came out on top, some Progressive heavy-hitters are temporarily out of the mix in Montpelier.

At the beginning of 2020, independent Sen. Bernie Sanders was hot on the trail for the White House, running as a Democrat. In Montpelier, Chittenden County Sen. Tim Ashe and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman were seeking the state’s two highest offices. Zuckerman, a longtime Progressive ran as a Democrat and held a write-in campaign during the August Primaries. And though Ashe has served as a Democrat at the State House for the last decade, he has brought Progressive ideals to the Senate.

But then, the coronavirus pandemic threw off politics and campaigning as we know it.

“COVID reoriented, I think, a lot of Vermonters’ perspectives and nationally on things like health and education,” said Middlebury College Political Science Professor Matt Dickinson.

Sanders and Ashe lost during the primaries, while in the general election, Vermonters overwhelmingly reelected Governor Scott by a whopping 41 points. Add to that Waterbury House Progressive caucus leader Robin Chesnut-Tangerman was also voted out. Now, just a handful of Progressives at the Statehouse are from outside Chittenden County.

So is this Vermonters pushing back on Progressive ideals?

Political analysts say it’s a little more complicated than that.

“This is not just a personality-based party like some third parties have been in the past,” said Bert Johnson, a professor of political science at Middlebury College. “This is a party that is born of decades of organizing by a lot of different people so it has some resilience that other parties may not have.”

Experts say it’s difficult to paint Sanders, Zuckerman and Ashe’s losses with a broad brush. Johnson says Sanders fell behind in a sea of Democrats seeking the White House. Ashe lost to a political newcomer carrying heavy endorsements, and Zuckerman took on arguably one of the most popular governors in the country during a pandemic.

“Each one of those people lost for a different reason and I’m not sure it says that much about the strength of the party statewide,” Johnson said.

Progressives still have an influence on Democrats being able to override vetoes from Governor Scott. Experts say the third party will always be able to influence the conversation to bring their policies to the table. Jack Gierzynski, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont, said that Progressives have shifted the dialogue in Montpelier.

“Vermont Democrats were pretty middle of the road, and so the progs claim that they’re offering a choice for once,” Gierzynski said. “That resonated with a lot of voters.”

From their conception in Burlington in the 1980s, Progressives have championed issues such as minimum wage and health care bringing those issues to the main Democratic Party. This cycle, Progressives invested time and resources into local grassroots races instead of filing candidates for every office.

“It is a party who key ideas are accepted by the Democratic Party but often in diluted form,” Dickinson said. “And I think they will continue to influence the conversation.”

It’s unclear what specific policies they’ll push in the 2020 legislative session but we can expect another go at past proposals such as a paid family leave plan.

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