By Tommy Gardner
Despite hanging up his gavel after using it to end the most recent legislative session, House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, is running for office again this fall. The seven-term lawmaker announced Wednesday he will seek the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.
Smith also sat down for an hourlong talk, looking back on nearly 14 years of policy, politics and personal stories, seven biennia of often-grueling legislation. He now wants to run for a different office, where he can have a bigger soapbox but not have to stand behind a lectern for four months out of the year.
“You can focus on those issues in a way you can’t as speaker, because you’re not running the day-to-day operations of the House,” Smith said Tuesday over the phone. “I think it’s a job that has specific responsibilities, presiding over the Senate. But I think it’s a job where you can make it what you want.”
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott is running for the Republican nomination for governor, leaving a hot spot on the ticket. Smith isn’t a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination; David Zuckerman, a senator and farmer from Burlington elected as both a Democrat and a Progressive, is also running for lieutenant governor on the Democratic primary ballot; so is Rep. Kesha Ram, D-Burlington.
Randy Brock is, so far, running unopposed in the Republican primary.
Smith thinks being Vermont’s No. 2 executive would give him more freedom to shape and advocate for policies, and he thinks the office “can be used more aggressively” to push policy agendas. Asked if the job is a stepping-stone toward the governor’s office — he began a run for governor last year, but dropped out for family reasons — Smith demurred, saying anything is possible.
“My view is the lieutenant governor’s office is where you can convene stakeholders and address issues that are critical to the state, like tax reform, building downtown, and issuing health care,” Smith said.
Speaking of the House
Smith has a real sense of humor and a sometimes-fiery temper — according to Smith.
He likes IPAs from local breweries and walks the annual Lamoille Area Cancer Network walk barefoot. He loves his kids and he stopped running for governor when his wife got sick. He’s the man whose voice cracked audibly when he announced the roll call in 2009 that passed same-sex marriage, over a Republican governor’s veto.
“Yeah, I think I was going through puberty at that point,” said Smith, 51.
PHOTOS BY ANDREW MARTIN
After wrapping up his tenure as speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives,
Shap Smith takes stock of where he’s been and where Vermont is going.
Spend an hour or so talking with him and you comes away with a vibe different from the wonky, scholarly image the mostly-goateed gavel bearer of the Vermont House of Representatives has given off the past 13 years.
And that’s just what Smith did last week in Morrisville, a week after his last bang of his session-ending gavel: spent a hour talking about what it what it was like to grow up here, and then represent the whole state.
So it might be a surprise that, when asked to name a few things he’s most proud of in his 13 years in the House, Smith points to some more recent legislation, in renewable energy and in education governance. He thinks there’s something in those laws for Vermonters to live with and send reverberations through the rest of the nation.
Recent laws ‘historic’
On renewable energy, Smith said not only is it an important thing to tackle for the whole rapidly warming globe, it’s just good business.
He said places like SunCommon and AllEarth Renewables are hiring exactly the kind of workers — and keeping skilled homegrown residents — Vermont needs.
“I think that climate change is one of the defining issues of our time, and transitioning to an energy portfolio that is less reliant on fossil fuels is critical, not only here but throughout the country,” he said. “Our progress in that area has been accelerating and I think it’s been important, since the federal government’s not doing anything, for the states to take the lead.”
Smith also points to Act 46 as a nice swan song to exit the chamber, even if people in his own county are grumbling about it. If it’s not as groundbreaking as Act 60 was in the 1990s, it also wasn’t as divisive as that landmark bill, even in Stowe.
Smith and his cohorts have come up through the ranks as social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter make everyone armchair members of the commentariat. As much as people in opposition to Act 46 have decried it, how bad would it have been if Facebook had been around in the 1990s when Act 60 was being drafted?
“It would have been pretty awful, frankly,” Smith said. It would have still passed, because it was court-mandated, he said. “But it would have been more difficult.”
Smith is bullish on education, and he likes to mention how his own kids’ journey through public education — son Eli is going to be a freshman at Peoples Academy next fall, and daughter Mia is wrapping up fifth grade — helps color that view. Vermont does well by its kids, he said, but it can do better.
“My view is that one of the most fundamental things that a government does is ensure equitable opportunities for education, for the young people of the state,” Smith said. “And having a system where peoples’ opportunities defined by which side of an invisible line they live on seems to me an anachronism that we should not tolerate.”
Early years, early splash
When Smith was elected in 2002, Lamoille County was something of a power center in Montpelier politics. Floyd Nease, D-Johnson, was the House majority leader; Sen. Sue Bartlett, D-Hyde Park, the chairwoman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee; Sen. Richard Westman, R-Cambridge, the transportation committee chairman; Richard Marron, R-Stowe, a leading figure in the House.
“There was a lot of power in Lamoille County. There has been for a long time,” Smith said. “In fact, when I was running for speaker, that was an issue. There was an issue about, do you want to have two people from Lamoille County in leadership positions in the House?”
He was elected in 2002, and spent six years as a voting House member before picking up the Speaker’s gavel in 2009. He learned that session that sometimes the hardest act to follow is yourself, with these 16 words: “Please listen to the results of your vote. Those voting ‘Yes,’ 100; those voting ‘No,’ 49.”
That was Smith on April 7, 2009, as he announced that Vermont was the fourth state to legalize gay marriage, and the first to do so without a court ordering it. And it took an override of Gov. Jim Douglas’s veto to make it happen. Only seven times in Vermont’s history had lawmakers overridden a governor’s veto.
Make that eight. Less than a month later, the general assembly again overrode a Douglas veto, this time to pass the state budget. The 2009 session was a heck of a way to start your tenure as leader of the House, and Smith had help from a lot of friends, veterans and the political newbies he sat with in the cafeteria at lunchtime.
“In both those moments, sort of, my reputation was forged, and it really gave me some latitude to be flexible about the decisions I made in the future,” he said. “It was like walking on a tightrope without a net. It was terrifying, but you knew that to survive you needed to get across the wire. Just don’t look down.”
Representatives and senators are meant to listen to and vote the way their constituents want them to. As House Speaker, though, Smith hasn’t cast many votes since 2009. So who are his constituents, the people of Morristown, Elmore, Worcester and Woodbury — that awkward dual-county, can’t-get-there-from-here district carved out after the 2000 census — or a larger group of people? Lawmakers pledge an oath to serve the sate of Vermont, so how about both?
“Your oath is to do right by the state,” Smith said. “It just so happens that this district is a good cross-section, and representative of what the state looks like.”
He thinks Lamoille County is an even better cross-section of the state. He grew up in Morristown — he was born in Danbury, Conn., in 1965 — and spent plenty of time bopping around the area. It’s a county that has two ski resorts and two colleges. It has a couple of towns with triple-digit populations, and another with more than half of its wealthy property owners absent much the year.
Smith is a Democrat, although he notes, “nobody in my party has really accused me of being too liberal.” But as he has gotten older, both in the General Assembly and just puttering around the state, he’s tacked further left. And he’s concerned about how the haves and have-nots are going to be able to live harmoniously together, and he sees Lamoille County as a microcosm of the whole.
“All you have to do is drive through this county, and you realize the incredible economic disparity that’s out there. And you wonder if that is sustainable in the long run,” he said.
Sustainable. It’s a word with which Smith peppers his sentences, whether he’s talking about renewable energy, education funding, the tax structure, or the state’s social fabric. And he looks at the differences between Morristown and Stowe and wonders whether its sustainable for either town — “They, in their own ways, drive the economy of Lamoille County,” he said — to try and forge their own paths forward without leaning on one another.
It wasn’t always that way growing up, when his brother went to Stowe High School with Heidi Scheuermann, now the Republican representative from Stowe. Smith’s wife, Melissa Volanksy, also went to Stowe High, and Smith spent a lot of time in the town. His dad lives there now.
“The differences are more real than they were when I was growing up. There wasn’t quite a difference on the socioeconomic front,” he said. “I don’t think we think enough about the fact that communities need each other. And I wish we realized that a little bit more.”