Ever since Gov. Peter Shumlin announced last summer that he would not seek re-election, former Windham County Sen. Peter Galbraith has been openly considering a run for the state’s top office. Today, at a late-morning news conference in the Statehouse, Galbraith, a Democrat, will officially announce his candidacy.
Galbraith says he’ll bring the progressive voice he thinks the race is now lacking. And he says the most important thing the next governor can do is to raise the minimum wage.
“I think we can raise it to $12 an hour immediately,” says Galbraith, who wants to move to a $15 minimum wage by 2021. “It would be the most effective anti-poverty program we could have.”
Though he’s an accomplished diplomat who’s already served two terms in the Vermont Senate, Galbraith isn’t the best-known member of his family. That distinction belongs to his father, the famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who was perhaps the 20th century’s most influential champion of liberalism.
On a walk through the grounds of his old family farm in Townshend this past weekend, Galbraith distilled his father’s worldview.
“Conservative ideology was an elaborate justification for greed, and I feel more or less the same way,” Galbraith says.
Galbraith says neither Matt Dunne nor Sue Minter, his rivals in the Democratic primary, have adopted suitably progressive campaign platforms. He says his entry into the race will bring proposals for publicly financed health care, and tax increases on the wealthy, back to the Democratic fore.
“First, we can go to universal, publicly financed primary health care,” Galbraith says. “And I would propose to finance it by a 1.5-percent payroll tax. And here’s another thing: I do not intend to put any proposals forward that cost money unless I explain how they’re going to be paid for.”
Bold assertions from the former diplomat — he served as U.S. Ambassador to Croatia under Bill Clinton and as Deputy United Nations Envoy to Afghanistan — are nothing new. But former colleagues say his brash and at times, antagonizing style makes it unlikely he’d be able to push any of his agenda through.
Galbraith, 65, served in the Statehouse from 2011 until 2015. His seatmate, Sen. Jeannette White, served as chairwoman of a committee on which Galbraith sat.
“Many times he told me I was a terrible chair and I didn’t know how to run a committee, and that may be true, but I was the chair,” White says. “And I didn’t think I did a horrible job, but he was very confrontational in the committee.”
White says Galbraith was arrogant and uncompromising.
“His conviction that he really is the only one who knows how it should be done, and he’s going to show us all how it should be done, I don’t think will serve well in the governor’s role,” White says.
Not everyone shares that assessment. Chittenden Sen. Tim Ashe, the powerful Democratic chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, says Galbraith’s principled stances helped ensure passage of bills such as the minimum-wage increase.
Ashe says Galbraith could be gruff.
“And if that cost him some kind words from other legislators, then ultimately the public should care less about that than whether he was articulating a vision that public policy should rightly gravitate towards,” Ashe says.
As for whether Galbraith would make a good governor, Ashe says, “I don’t know.”
“I know that Peter has the intellect to be a great governor, there’s no question about that,” Ashe says.
He says there’s also no question that Galbraith has the mental bandwidth to deal with the broad array of issues the state’s chief executive needs to balance simultaneously. Ashe says that in the Statehouse, some legislators are “worker bees” who focus on the iterative minutiae of lawmaking while others push for dramatic policy change “because they want to change the way things are done.”
“And Peter was definitely in that latter camp,” Ashe says. “He came here because he has strong beliefs, and he wanted to be as aggressive as possible to advance those beliefs.”
But Galbraith’s approach to fellow lawmakers, some people argue, made it impossible for him to advance those beliefs successfully.
Galbraith favors a total ban on the development of wind turbines on Vermont mountaintops, a prohibition he says he’ll pursue as governor. He also wants to change the regulatory protocols governing solar energy projects and give towns the ability to reject unilaterally proposals that violate municipal plans.
Paul Burns, the executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, often tangled vocally with Galbraith during energy debates in the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy. Burns says a governor with views like Galbraith’s could be a catastrophic setback for green energy development in the state.
But Burns says that even on areas where he and Galbraith agreed in the Statehouse — they both supported a ban on corporate contributions to political candidates, for instance — the senator was more of a liability than an asset.
“Instead of building a strong coalition or an alliance that will bring others along to that position, he’ll wag his finger and say, ‘I’ve very smart, I have this position, and if you don’t agree with me, you’re foolish,’” Burns says. “When Sen. Galbraith was serving, it was not ultimately to your advantage to have Sen. Galbraith on your side, and certainly not to your advantage to have Sen. Galbraith as the chief sponsor.”
Howard Coffin, a noted Civil War historian, former political reporter for the Rutland Herald and former press aide to Sen. James Jeffords, says he doesn’t think the senate position suited Galbraith’s strengths.
“I’m not sure that he was put on earth to be a legislator,” Coffin says. “I think he was put on earth to be a leader.”
Coffin says he’ll be supporting Galbraith’s candidacy, and that he counts him as “as smart a person as I’ve ever met.”
Coffin says Galbraith showed his capacity to politick at a statewide level when he won a long shot candidacy to be chairman of the state’s Democratic Committee when he was just 25 years old.
“And he knows Vermont,” Coffin says. “He knows Vermont politics, knows Vermont government. Yeah, he’s ready.”
And Coffin says he thinks Vermont Democrats are hungry for the brand of liberalism Galbraith will try to sell them.
Galbraith says he’ll distinguish himself from his Democratic competitors with unabashed calls for the increases in revenue he says are needed to bolster government spending and bridge the gap between the rich and poor.
Galbraith says he won’t raise taxes on the wealthy through rate increases, rather he says he’ll work to eliminate deductions and exemptions that allow mostly wealthy filers to lower their income tax obligations.
Galbraith says he’ll also end “corporate handouts” to businesses in the state. He says the allocation earlier this year of $1 million to Global Foundries, the multinational corporation that purchased IBM’s chipmaking plant in Essex, is emblematic of Montpelier’s misplaced priorities.
“As if a few million in taxpayer money would make a difference to a $1.5 billion deal, and meanwhile budgets are being cut for essential services and Vermonters are not getting a fair deal in terms of work,” Galbraith says.
Galbraith, for his part, attributes any lingering hard feelings in the Senate to his propensity force votes on measures that he says many of his colleagues would have preferred to remain silent on.
“As Sen. Claiborne Pell for whom I worked on the Foreign Relations Committee often said, 'if you’re going to make an omelet, you’re going to break some eggs,'” Galbraith says. “It’s not personal, it’s about debating public policy and having a choice.”
Galbraith grew up in Massachusetts but has listed Vermont as his primary residence ever since he moved here in 1970 to work on the U.S. Senate campaign of anti-war candidate Phil Hoff.
Galbraith is married, though his wife lives in Norway. He has one grown son, 37, a college-age daughter and teenage son.
Galbraith says he won’t accept contributions from corporate entities. And he says he’ll rely primarily on outside donations to fund his campaign, not his own personal wealth, which became the subject of intense media scrutiny in 2009 when news outlets learned of his stake in an oil field in Kurdistan.
It’s a stake Galbraith held when, in 2005, he helped the Kurds negotiate constitutional provisions with the Iraq government that gave them rights over new oil discoveries in their region.
Those provisions dramatically increased the value of Galbraith’s stake and sparked controversy over the appropriateness of his role in negotiations from which he stood to profit so handsomely.
Galbraith maintains there was no conflict of interest in his role as adviser. He says he disclosed his oil stake to all interested parties, and that he served at the Kurds’ request, and worked for their interests.
“I played a role in establishing the oil industry in Kurdistan, the result of which is that Kurdistan has the wherewithal both for independence, which its people want, and to defend itself,” Galbraith says. “And frankly, if that industry weren’t there, the Islamic State would have overrun that area because they would have had no means to defend themselves.”
Galbraith continues to work with Kurdish leaders on issues of governance and was in the region as recently as last Friday.
As for the wealth generated by his oil stake, Galbraith says media accounts of his enrichment, which reported the holdings to be worth more than $100 million, were wildly off base. And he says that he has no intention of pouring significant sums of his own money into the campaign.
“I am in any event not in a position to be able to outspend the candidates who have already raised a significant amount of money,” Galbraith says. “Unless I have great success in fundraising, I do not imagine that I will necessarily be the person who has raised the most money in the race.”
Dunne, a former senator from Windsor County, has already raised more than $500,000. Former Transportation Secretary Sue Minter has raised about $475,000.
Galbraith’s campaign manager, and only paid staff member for now, is Ian Moskowitz, who until February worked as political director of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. His campaign treasurer is Roger Allbee, a former secretary of agriculture under Gov. James Douglas.