Ask Bob: How Are Statehouse Leaders Elected?

Mar 28, 2018

Our veteran statehouse reporter Bob Kinzel is answering your questions about state government, history and politics.

Today’s question is from Alison in Middlebury: 

I would like to better understand the various leadership roles within the legislature: majority and minority Leaders, pro Tempore, Speaker of the house. How do legislators end up in those roles? Are they appointed or elected? What are their responsibilities? Who are they accountable to? How long do they hold the role?

The House and Senate follow slightly different procedures to select their leaders.

How is the Speaker of the House chosen?

In December, just weeks after the general election the political parties hold caucuses at the Statehouse and there are usually some pretty competitive races for the position of speaker.

After the election, candidates for the position often spend weeks traveling around the state campaigning for their job by meeting with as many caucus members as possible.

On the very first day of the session the House holds an election to choose the new speaker. There are nominating speeches that take place.

The vote is by secret ballot. Sometimes this can lead to some very interesting vote tallies.

Can anybody run for Speaker?

Any House member can run for speaker as long as they have the nominating speeches lined up. When Vermont was predominantly a Republican state up until the mid-1960s, it would be common for two Republicans to face off for House Speaker.

In those days the Democrats made up less than 25 percent of the House. And then in 1995 two Democrats squared off, Mike Obuchowski and Peter Mallory, with most of the Republicans backing Mallory, but he did not win.

Have any candidates of the minority party been elected Speaker?

It’s happened twice.

First in 1975, Democrat Tim O'Connor was elected when the Republicans enjoyed a four vote margin. O'Connor was viewed as a relatively conservative politician. He had served as the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He was really well liked. He had a very collaborative leadership style and that appealed to a lot of Republicans.

In 1985, when the Republicans held a 6 vote advantage in the House, Bennington Democrat Ralph Wright was elected Speaker. Wright really changed the whole nature of the job of House Speaker. Previously it was viewed as a stepping stone to higher office. But for Ralph Wright, being House Speaker was an end in itself and he ruled with a very strong style.

How did Ralph Wright pull that off?

First, Wright had to win the Democratic caucus election and he was a liberal Democrat and he was able to defeat a more conservative member. Then, he needed to hold on to virtually all those Democrats when the January vote came, and some were much more conservative than Wright.

Democratic House Speaker Ralph Wright, pictured here, right, with Gov. Howard Dean in 1996.
Credit Toby Talbot / AP/file

He also had to persuade four to six Republicans to vote for him. Who knows what promises were made, work Committee assignments promised, but when all was said and done, Wright emerge the winner by two votes.

Those Republicans who supported him became known as the hockey team because Wright would take them to Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins games.

When Wright was seeking re-election as speaker, the Republicans claimed that Wright and his lieutenants were interfering with the secret ballot.

They alleged that Wright would seat a supporter next to a wavering member and then require that wavering member to actually show their ballot to the Wright supporter to prove that the person had voted for Ralph Wright. The Republicans enlisted the support of then Secretary of State Jim Douglas who suggested bringing a voting booth into the Statehouse so House members could vote in a truly secret manner. But the Democrats said no way.

They strongly objected to this interference of the legislative process. The voting booth never made it into the statehouse and Ralph Wright became the longest serving House Speaker in Vermont history. He was Speaker for five terms or ten years.

How are the House majority and minority leaders chosen?

These leaders are chosen at those party caucuses in December. It's quite usual to have very competitive races for these positions because the person who serves as majority leader today might be a candidate for Speaker in a couple of years.

How are the Senate leaders elected?

Those candidates are selected at a party caucus, then there’s an election on the first day of the session. But the whole leadership structure of the Senate is quite different from the House. The leader of the Senate is known as the president pro tem and like the House Speaker, this person largely determines the flow of legislation to the Senate floor.

The pro tem is kind of the operational leader of the Senate. The lieutenant governor is the president of the Senate and presides over the chamber. Then there's another leadership position. It's the election by the full Senate of a third person to be on the so-called Committee on Committees.

Not many people know about this committee but they serve a very important function. The three members of the committee are the Senate President Pro Tem, Lieutenant Governor, and this third person who was elected by the Senate at-large.

It has one major function, that's the selection of all committee members at the start of this session and senators serve on two committees, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. So there's a lot of interests to consider when making these assignments and it's like three people putting together a jigsaw puzzle. You move one piece here and it or magically has an effect over there.

Since they're both Democrats do the House Speaker and Senate President agree on most issues?
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, seen here in 2017
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR file

This session there is a Democratic Speaker of the House, Grand Isle Rep. Mitzi Johnson and Democratic Senate President Pro Tem that's Chittenden Sen. Tim Ashe.

Each chamber has its own set of legislative priorities even if the leaders are from the same political party.

House districts are much smaller than the Senate districts and this situation sometimes results in House members reflecting a smaller constituency base than members of the Senate who might be taking a broader view on a particular issue.

That may be why these two chambers were created in the way that they were.

This year, Speaker Johnson has made it really clear that the passage of a paid family leave bill is one of her top priorities, while Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe has identified legislation raising the state minimum wage as one of his top issues.

We also sometimes see differences on school financing bills between the two chambers because these changes can have a dramatic impact on a much smaller individual House district, but it can have a different impact in a much larger Senate district.

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