As the longtime chairwoman of the House Committee on Appropriations, Rep. Martha Heath, D-Westford, is a powerful lawmaker in Montpelier. Her tenure coincided with one of the most severe downturns in state history. And Health says she considers the budgets constructed during the heart of the Great Recession to be among her more important accomplishments.
But after 22 years in the Vermont House, Heath is calling it quits.
“You know there are a whole lot of reasons, but when you add them up they come down to the fact that my head and my heart are telling me that it’s time,” Heath said Monday.
Heath is the latest, and the highest-profile Democrat, to announce her departure from public office over the past week. And with the candidate filing deadline looming Thursday, the developments have introduced some eleventh hour intrigue to the 2014 election cycle.
David Sunderland, chairman of the Vermont GOP, is hoping that Heath’s departure will clear the way for a gain in her district. All told, 15 Democratic incumbents thus far have decided against reelection for the House and Senate.
“We’re very much focused on House and Senate races this cycle,” Sunderland says. “It’s been our strategy all along, and it continues to be our strategy.”
In a year when the GOP could be giving the governor and other Democratic statewide officeholders a free ride, Republicans will put most of their effort into picking up seats in the House and Senate.
The big announcements of late have come from the Senate, where Bennington Sen. Bob Hartwell, Windham Sen. Peter Galbraith and Franlin Sen. Don Collins – all Democrats – unexpectedly announced in recent days that they wouldn’t be seeking reelection.
Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning says the GOP is racing to recruit high-caliber candidates who might have previously been cool to the idea of taking on an incumbent. But Benning says his party won’t necessarily be able to make hay from the recent shake-ups.
“(Vermont Republicans) are trying to re-brand the message. We are trying to have a unified approach to elections, but getting candidates who are able to present that message and articulate it how we want it articulated – that’s a process that takes a long time,” Benning says. “So I don’t know that this recent spate of resignations is going to make it any different for us.”
Benning says the GOP has a quote “fair” chance of picking up Senate seats in Franklin, Washington, Rutland and Orange Counties. Ben Sarle, communications director for the Vermont Democratic Party, says Democrats are geared up to protect their blue turf.
“We have certainly a lot of work to do, but we have never been more confident in our Democratic candidates throughout the state,” Sarle says.
One major unknown for the Democrats continues to be whether House Speaker Shap Smith will run for reelection. Candidates have until the end of the day Thursday to submit petitions to get on the November ballot.
Heath says she’ll miss her colleagues in the Legislature but that she’s known for more than a year now that this year would probably be her last. Heath says she was compelled to run for public office to fix a school-financing system that, at the time, was causing so much pain for districts like Westford.
More than two decades later, the education funding system Heath helped create – Act 60 – has come under fire as being the culprit for rising property tax rates. But Heath says she thinks the funding formula has been unduly maligned.
“I think it has more to do with the fact that we have relied more and more on the property tax instead of other sources of revenue,” Heath says.
Heath is endorsing Democrat Liz Subin in the race for her open Westford House seat. But House Minority Leader Don Turner says Republican Bob Bancroft, chairman of the Westford Selectboard, will give the GOP a strong chance at a pick-up in November.
Heath says she’ll continue to perform off-session duties, which include a seat on the newly formed Health Care Reform Oversight Committee, through the end of 2014.