House Majority Leader Sarah Copeland-Hanzas is abandoning her bid to be speaker of the house, clearing a path for Grand Isle Democrat Mitzi Johnson to be Vermont’s next speaker when the Vermont Legislature convenes in 2017.
Copeland-Hanzas of Bradford and Johnson have been the two leading candidates in the race to replace outgoing speaker Shap Smith. Copeland-Hanzas confirmed to VPR Monday morning that she has dropped out of the race and is encouraging caucus members to support Johnson’s bid.
Johnson, who currently chairs the House Appropriations committee, would be the third female speaker in Vermont history.
Because the Democrats hold a roughly 30-seat majority in the House, the person who wins the nomination for speaker at an upcoming party caucus is virtually assured of being elected on the first day of the session in January.
Both Copeland-Hanzas and Johnson have been actively campaigning with many of the 84 members of the Democratic caucus over the past few weeks.
Over the weekend, Copeland-Hanzas evaluated her support and concluded that she didn't have enough votes to win the Democratic nomination.
“There comes a time in any political contest when it becomes clear who ... has the numbers to prevail and it is better for us moving forward together as a caucus,” Copeland-Hanzays says. “If, when, that happens, the person who has fallen behind steps out.”
Johnson was first elected to the House in 2002 and has served on the appropriations committee for the past 10 years. In the most recent session, she was the chairwoman of the panel.
Johnson says her leadership style is to build consensus on difficult issues, and she notes that many of the votes in her committee over the past two years were strongly bi-partisan.
“I feel that what you see is what you get with me, and folks had a good sense of how I've led a politically-diverse group of people through some pretty big challenges in the past couple of years,” Johnson says. “And that's what I'll keep bringing with me to the speaker's office."
Johnson says her goal is to collaborate with Republican Governor-elect Phil Scott on as many issues as possible.
“Vermonters want us to get stuff done and cooperate, so I think there are a lot places where we have overlapping interests,” she says. “And I think there are places that we can make a lot of progress."
Johnson also says Vermont has changed dramatically over the past 25 years, and she thinks it's time for lawmakers to conduct a systematic review of the operations of state government.
"I want to make the Legislature an equal partner in serving Vermonters, and I want to make sure that across the House, we are engaged in really understanding what government does already, and how we are serving Vermonters, and how we can improve that,” Johnson says.
Milton Rep. Don Turner serves as House Minority leader. He says his caucus still plans to run a candidate for speaker, even though the chances of winning the election are quite slim.
Turner says he wants to send a message to the new house speaker.
“The speaker represents the entire body of the House,” Turner says, “and we want a Speaker that's going to be willing to bring our ideas up for debate in committee where the last eight years … most of the Republican proposals are still sitting on the wall."
Turner says one of the biggest concerns for his caucus over the past six years is that the state budget has often increased faster than revenue growth. He hopes that this trend will be modified in 2017.
“We have been talking about spending far in excess of the revenue, and Mitzi is part of the problem. She was the appropriations chair. She's the one that put the budget on the table. So I hope that that's going to change if she is elected speaker,” Turner says.
House Democrats will meet this weekend to formally nominate Rep. Johnson as their candidate for Speaker.
Update 5:34 p.m. This story has been updated to include comments from Rep. Johnson, Rep. Copeland-Hanzas and Rep. Turner.