MORRISVILLE — Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith formally launched his bid for governor Wednesday, saying he wants to help towns and cities across the state realize the same type of revitalization that his hometown of Morrisville has seen in recent years.
Speaking behind the former Arthur’s Department Store in downtown Morrisville, and flanked by his wife, Dr. Melissa Volansky, his two young children and many members of the House Democratic caucus, Smith said he would look to help Vermont grow and renew itself as his hometown has done.
“Today I asked you, my family, my friends and my colleagues, to gather here in the heart of Morrisville, in the heart of Vermont, to announce my candidacy for governor of the state of Vermont,” Smith said. “I’m running for governor because the success of towns like Morrisville will be a vital part of Vermont’s future. And because I want every Vermonter to have the opportunities and choices that I’ve had.”
Smith, 49, noted that his parents moved to Wolcott in the 1970s. He said his father, who had been a bank manager, took a job working on a Christmas tree farm and a carpenter before starting a farm. “He had to create his own way and his own business so that he could make a living,” Smith said.
His mother, meanwhile, “followed the time honored tradition of public service in Vermont” and became town clerk, “where you find out everything that’s going on,” he said.
Smith, who attended schools in Morrisville and the University of Vermont, eventually left the state to attend law school at Indiana University. His first job as a lawyer was in New York City. But two years later he found himself asking, ‘Is this all there is?”
“I felt the pull to return to Vermont. I felt the pull to have the sense of community that Vermont offered, and the opportunity to raise a family and build a career where I had grown up,” he said.
He returned to Vermont and married Volansky, who introduced Smith to the crowd of about 100 at the announcement. She called him “a great dad, a loving husband and the hardest working man in politics,” and said his “commitment to Vermont has been tireless and unwavering.”
Volansky, a physician, also noted Smith’s familiarity with many of the struggles young families experience.
“We’ve been a working family for 13 years,” she said. “Ours has been a great partnership and I just couldn’t do what I do if it weren’t for him. Shap’s always been there helping us make it work. And no matter what happened, whether our daughter had a basketball or a soccer game, or Eli had to be at the mountain or ski race or the ski club needed parent volunteers … we managed because we did it together. Shap understands how hard it is to juggle day care, sick days, after school care, family meals, school lunches. He gets it because he lives it every day.”
Smith said the building where he chose to make his announcement had previously served as the town’s meeting place. After the former anchor store closed, new opportunities arose, including housing, retail space and a restaurant.
“It’s not an accident. Morrisville has invested in its downtown, in its Oxbow Park, its transportation infrastructure, and its entrepreneurs and community volunteers, educators and artists, have all come together to shape the community over the years,” Smith said. “And Morrisville’s not alone throughout the state. Cities and towns across the state are leading the way. From St. Albans to Winooski to Rutland, from Hardwick to Barre to Brattleboro, these communities and others are investing in their downtowns and in their local businesses and are seeing returns on those investments. And it’s why I am so optimistic about this great state.”
Smith said state government must be an “active partner” in supporting downtowns because “we know that strengthening local communities is the key to our success.”
“It is what will attract and retain young and old Vermonters alike. And we know that we all want that to happen. So together, we can build on this together, we can invest in our strengths and keep Vermont a place where people want to live, work grow up and grow old,” he said.
The announcement speech was light on policy details, providing a broad outlook on Smith’s vision. He said he wants to oversee “a state of opportunity,” and ensure equal educational opportunities for all Vermonters. That means providing access to an affordable college education and job training for those who seek it, according to Smith. It also means providing access to affordable health care and ensuring “every Vermonter has the ability to earn a good living,” he said.
“As governor, I want our state to be the state of opportunity — for entrepreneurs, for working families, for our young people. I will support local businesses that invest in their workers, invest in their communities and protect the landscape,” he said.
Smith said helping the Legislature override former Republican Gov. James Douglas’ veto of legislation legalizing same-sex marriage is among his greatest accomplishments as speaker.
“As governor, I want Vermont to be the state of equality. When we lead the nation in establishing the right of people to marry those whom they love, one of the most meaningful and emotional moments that I’ve had in public service, we were building on a core belief that all of us are equaling, sending a message from school yards to work places that we should all be treated the same,” he said.
First elected to the House in 2002, Smith has served has speaker since 2009. During his speakership Smith has never lost a vote on the House floor and has been seen as a skilled manager of his Democratic caucus. He cautiously pushed forward legislation he knew would have majority support.
But having never appeared on a statewide ballot before, Smith could face a challenge with name recognition with voters who do not closely follow Vermont politics. And opponents are likely to paint Smith has a key ally of Shumlin, who has seen his approval ratings slip since he won re-election by a wide margin.
But the current governor — who announced in June he would not seek a fourth, two-year term — and the aspiring speaker, have markedly different personalities. While Shumlin is often seen as brash, and a smooth-talking politician, Smith has cultivated an image as a quieter, policy-oriented political leader. That distinction could prove to be beneficial for Smith if voters are seeking a reprieve from Shumlin’s bold style.
“I think that anybody who has met us knows that we are pretty different people, and I think Vermonters will figure that out pretty quickly,” Smith said in a question and answer session with reporters following his speech.
Smith is the first to formally enter the gubernatorial race, but he certainly won’t be the last. A Democratic Party primary is expected.
Former Windsor County state Sen. Matt Dunne has registered as a candidate with the Secretary of State’s Office, a move required when a candidate raises or spends more than $500. Dunne has raised more than $100,000, so far, for a potential campaign. He is expected to announce his bid this fall.
And, Agency of Transportation Secretary Sue Minter, a former state representative, is considered a run.
On the Republican side, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott is considering his options, as is former State Auditor, state senator and unsuccessful 2012 gubernatorial nominee Randy Brock. Additionally, former Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman, the founder of the advocacy group Campaign for Vermont, is considering a bid as either a Republican or an independent candidate.
Speaking to reporters after the speech, Smith said his record “is one pragmatic progressivism.” He said he will make his case to progressive-minded Vermonters who may be disillusioned by his effort, alongside Shumlin, to see concessions from state workers during the last legislative session, and his position that it is not the right time to seek a single-payer health care system in the state.
“I say, ‘Look at how we’ve invested in our schools.’ I say, ‘Look at the fact that we have a 3.7 percent uninsured rate in this state.’ I say, ‘Look at how we’re investing in our communities — affordable housing like this.’ I say, ‘Look at how we have moved forward with marriage equality, equal pay for equal work for both men and women, making sure that people who need to organize can organizing, making sure that if you’re the beneficiary of collective bargaining you’ve also paid for that collective bargaining,’” he said.
He said being involved in shaping policy has required him to make decisions that are in the best interests of all Vermonters.
“Here’s the difference between being involved in the process and being outside the process: you have to make difficult choices and decisions, and I’m confident that when people see the choices that we’ve made and how we’ve moved forward that people will understand that we’ve done a really good job to move Vermont forward in a way that supports her people and her infrastructure,” he said.
The speaker said he intends to remain in that role for the second half of the legislative biennium.
“I gave a commitment to the people of the state and at the people of my district in 2014 when I said I would run for speaker of the House to continue with that job and I plan to do it,” he said. “I’ve talked with a bunch of people who’ve got through this before and I feel confident that I’ll be able to fulfill both roles.”
However, Smith said he plans to reduce his workload at his Burlington law firm, Dinse, Knapp and McAndrew, through the fall before taking a leave of absence beginning Jan. 1.
Many of Smith’s House Democratic colleagues were on hand for his announcement, including House Education Committee Chairman David Sharpe, D-Bristol, who worked with Smith on an education reform bill during the last legislative session.
“The state and the nation needs leadership and I have seen incredibly valuable and competent leadership from Shap in the House and I’m looking forward to that going statewide,” Sharpe said. “We came in together as freshmen. He rose more quickly in leadership than I did because of his talent and his ability. As he took each step forward in leadership he demonstrated that incredible ability.”
Sharpe also noted how Smith built a bipartisan coalition to override the same-sex marriage veto.
“The marriage vote, it wasn’t the super-majority that overrode that veto. It was across party lines and that’s the ability of Shap’s leadership, to work across party lines and listen to all quarters,” he said.
Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, the chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said Smith has demonstrated his leadership through his management of the House committees and the Democratic caucus.
“I’ve watched him be a leader. That’s what he is. He’s really sharp, he’s really funny, has a vision. I just want the rest of the people in the state of Vermont to get to know that same person,” she said. “He will be an extraordinary governor. He has great leadership abilities and great management abilities.”
Former Shumlin Chief of Staff Elizabeth Miller was also on hand to support Smith. “I’ve known Shap for 18 years and love the guy,” she said.
For Smith, Wednesday’s announcement begins the long slog toward Election Day in November 2016. It will provide plenty of time for him to make his case to Vermonters that he should succeed Shumlin.
“The candidacy I announce to today and the vision I will bring to the governor’s office, are rooted in a deep appreciation of the strengths of these hills and of these people,” he said. “Vermont is the state I grew up in, it’s the state I came back to, it’s the state I love and it’s the state I seek to lead. Today, I ask for your trust and your support in my candidacy for governor of the state of Vermont.”