The race for lieutenant governor is shaping up to be the most competitive electoral contest of 2014. But one candidate’s prospects hinge largely on his ability to secure the Democratic nomination. And at least one Democratic power broker isn’t so keen on seeing him succeed.
Dean Corren helped found the Progressive Party back in the 1980s. And his allegiance to the organization remains unwavering. But Corren says the party can’t fulfill its platform unless its members occupy the seats of power. And as he looks to unseat Phil Scott, the popular two-term Republican lieutenant governor, Dean Corren knows he could use some help.
“We did not form this party to complain, we formed it to govern. And that means getting elected,” Corren says. “And I am happy not only to accept it if I get it, but to actively seek the support of the Democratic Party.”
Corren’s political fate rests in large part on his ability to enlist the support of the Vermont Democratic Party, whose political resources dwarf those on hand at the Progressive Party. In seeking the Democratic nomination, Corren will look to become Vermont’s latest so-called fusion candidate, which has in recent years become the most expeditious route to elected office for Progressives battling for office against a two-party system.
State Auditor Doug Hoffer used the fusion strategy to win statewide office in 2012. Hoffer is unequivocal in assessing how he would have fared without the Democratic nomination and endorsement.
“I think it’s pretty clear that I could not have won without them,” Hoffer says.
Tim Jerman, vice-chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party, says many Democrats back Corren’s candidacy, and will support him as a write-in candidate in the Democratic primary. That’s an election Corren has to win if he hopes to enjoy the aid of Democrat’s organizational apparatus in the general election.
That pro-Corren push, however, is not universal.
“There are Democrats that just wouldn’t like to endorse a Progressive or somebody from any other party anytime,” Jerman says. “But I don’t think that’s a majority sentiment. But we’d certainly find out.”
Among Corren’s Democratic detractors is state Sen. Dick Mazza, a political power broker from Grand Isle who will attempt to use his sway to thwart Corren’s bid for the nomination. A longtime Phil Scott ally, Mazza says he isn’t the only influential Democrat who will be supporting Scott.
After Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin expressed support for Corren’s candidacy last week, Mazza says he was flooded with calls from angry pro-Scott Democrats. The result is a newly sprouted coalition of Democrats that Mazza says will work hard to deliver Scott to a third term.
“They’re interested in fundraisers. They’re interested in getting the vote out for him. They’re interested in using their names as supporters,” Mazza says.
And Mazza says a write-in campaign on Scott’s behalf for the Democratic primary isn’t off the table. If successful, it could deal a crushing blow to Corren's candidacy.
“You know, this only happened a couple days ago,” Mazza says. “But certainly I think we’d be open to anything. I just know we there’s a group of us who want to do something for Phil, because he does have a lot of Democratic support. And I know there are a lot of Democrats who will be looking for ways to show that support.”
Corren is working hard to win the backing of Democrats. He went to a major Democratic Party fundraiser earlier this month, where he says he asked for, and received, the support of many Democrats. And Corren says he’s calling members of the Democratic Party State Committee in advance of delivering a speech at the group’s meeting next month.
Corren says Progressives’ relationship with Democrats’ has seen its moments of discord.
But he says his commitment to helping Shumlin secure the legislative support needed to pass a universal, publicly funded health care system transcends whatever ideological differences they may have. And while Corren says he and the governor may at times find themselves at odds on subjects like tax policy, he says he’s more interested in moving the ball forward on major issues than having public fights over areas where they disagree.
“We’ve had our differences over the years with them, and with some of the people they’ve elected,” Corren says. “But it would be a great help obviously if what you’re interested in is not just raising issues, but in getting elected so you can carry them out.”
Mazza says that if Corren wanted to run as a Democrat, and avail himself of all the benefits that designation carries, then he should have filed a petition to be in the Democratic primary.
“I don’t know what his platform is,” Mazza says. “I do know that he did not seek the Democratic nomination. He did not go on the ballot. And so that leads me to believe that he ran as a Progressive and was not interested in the Democratic platform.”
Winning the backing of the Democratic Party means far more than just a label. The party’s fundraising prowess supports a paid staff that at its peak numbered 17 in 2012. The party that year had nine offices across the state, from which it mounted field organizations and get-out-the-vote operations credited with the party’s dominant showing.
“It’s critical in statewide races to have an organization for all those people, and there are many of them, who do all the grunt work in an election – the ones who process the absentee ballots, the ones who make the phone calls, all those volunteer and paid staff,” Hoffer says. “I don’t have that kind of organization, and for that matter the Progressive Party doesn’t have that kind of organization.”
Corren has qualified for public financing, and will receive $200,000 from the state for his campaign. The Progressive Party, which does not accept money from corporate donors, raised about $82,000 in the 2012 election cycle. The Democratic Party, which does accept money from corporations, raised more than $1.3 million.
That Corren has to win the Democratic primary in order to earn the party’s stamp of approval is in part of a strategic calculus employed by Corren at the outset of the campaign season. Unlike Hoffer, who filed his candidate’s petition as a Democrat, with the understanding that Progressives would then nominate him to carry their banner as well, Corren filed as a Progressive.
That’s creating some extra work for Corren now, since Democrats, under their party bylaws, reserve their endorsements, and considerable party resources, for “Democrats in good standing.” And by failing to file as a Democrat in June, Corren’s ability to get that ‘D’ now depends on him winning the Democratic primary in August.
The backstory surrounding Shumlin’s comments about Corren’s candidacy last week illustrate the significance of party labels, and their capacity to bring Corren into view of mainstream voters.
Shumlin’s endorsement of Corren came at a press conference in Montpelier, in response to a question from a reporter about whether he supported Corren’s candidacy. Shumlin said he did, noting not only Corren’s dedication to the governor’s flagship issue – single-payer health care – but the fact that Corren, like him, was a Democrat.
“I will be supporting the Democrat/Progressive as I always have and probably always will,” Shumlin said. “It shouldn’t surprise anyone that as a Democrat I am supporting a Democrat.”
But Corren isn’t a Democrat, not yet anyway; Shumlin later said he was unaware of that. Asked the next day whether, in light of that fact, his Corren endorsement stood, Shumlin didn’t provide a direct answer.
Asked whether his support for Corren’s candidacy was contingent on Corren ultimately securing the Democratic nomination, Shumlin said he has “every confidence” that Corren will eventually be the Democratic nominee.
Corren says Shumlin has since reached out in a phone call.
“He wished me well and we talked about his support and how grateful I am for it, and he offered me some sage advice, which I will undoubtedly take most of, and I am incredibly appreciative of him reaching out and supporting me,” Corren says.
Phil Scott says he was taken aback Shumlin’s endorsement of Corren, and says that he, like Mazza, was inundated with calls from Democrats affirming their continued support. Scott says he isn’t part of any coordinated effort to win the Democratic primary. But he says he welcomes the support of Mazza and others
“I’m not sure what form that’s going to take,” Scott says. “But they want to do something to support me … so we’ll see where it goes from here.”
If Corren does win the Democratic nomination, then Scott says incumbency aside, he’ll become the underdog.
“To have the support of both the Democratic Party and the Progressive Party would be daunting, and with the money, the $200k of tax money, or public financing that (Corren is) going to receive, then financially, and from a party structure standpoint, it’s an uphill battle,” Scott says.