MONTPELIER — Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith announced at a news conference Tuesday that he is dropping out of the race for governor as his wife battles cancer.
Smith, 49, said his wife, who recently had surgery as part of her treatment, must now undergo additional treatment for breast cancer. He said he is choosing to suspend his campaign to spend more time with his family because it is “the right thing to do.”
“As of today I am suspending my campaign for governor. My wife Melissa was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this fall and she recently underwent surgery. We were very optimistic that that was the course of treatment that she would need when the surgery took place but the doctors have told us that more treatment is necessary to ensure a full recovery,” Smith told reporters and a crowd of supporters on the steps of the State House.
Smith, a partner in the Burlington law firm Dinse Knapp McAndrew, was the first candidate to launch a campaign for governor in August. He was one of three Democrats seeking the party’s gubernatorial nomination. Remaining in the race are former Secretary of Transportation Sue Minter and former state senator and Google executive Matt Dunne.
The seven-term House member, who has served three terms as speaker, had quietly told reporters earlier in the fall that his wife, Melissa Volansky, a physician, had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time he said he intended to continue his campaign for governor but acknowledged Monday that circumstances had changed. Smith and Volansky have two children, Eli and Mia, ages 13 and 10, respectively.
“This is a time when Melissa and the kids need me most. Throughout this political partnership and throughout my career Melissa has been my partner. We are partners in everything we do and I intend to be by her side as she gets better,” he said. “Our experience is one that many Vermonters share and I think that we’re dealing with what a lot of Vermonters have to deal with and balancing the priorities that are important. At the end of the day, my wife and my kids are what’s important to me.”
Although Smith said he was suspending his campaign, he said it is unlikely the campaign will resume in the future.
Volansky introduced Smith at his campaign kick-off event, calling him “a great dad, a loving husband and the hardest working man in politics.” She said his “commitment to Vermont has been tireless and unwavering.”
The decision to step down was made after Volansky received word from her doctors that the additional treatment was necessary, according to Smith. He said his decision was based on wanting to ensure his children could maintain their normal lives, and was made despite Volansky urging him to remain in the race.
“I think that right now I need to focus on making sure that Melissa gets better and helping the kids out,” he said. “What it came down to is that when we were talking about whether I was going to run for governor we made some decisions about who was going to shoulder the burden on the home front and who was going to get the kids to practice and who was going to get the kids to games and their activities on the weekends.”
“Melissa was going to do that on the weekends during the campaign and that was what we had agreed to. She can’t. It’s really important to me that the kids have as normal a life as possible and that Melissa does too. I’m just not ready to think about anything beyond what the next couple of months look like,” Smith added.
Smith said he will continue to serve out his term in the House and as speaker, but will not seek re-election to the House in 2016. He said he does not foresee having to step aside as speaker.
“I’m optimistic that I will be able to continue my duties as speaker. I have a great team in place. The body is full of people who will step up to the plate. I don’t have a transition plan and I don’t think that will be necessary,” he said.
House Majority Leader Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, who was on hand Tuesday for Smith’s announcement, called him “a rock solid speaker that everyone has turned to for eight years.” She said the leadership team in the House will look to take on more responsibilities to help Smith spend more time with his family.
“Obviously, as a caucus, whenever one of our colleagues is going through something like this we want to rally around and come to support. I think that the best that we will be able to do for them right now is to buckle down and make sure that we get prepared for a legislative session and prepare to take on some of the burden so that he will have time come January to be home on weekends and not making a ton of phone calls to move legislation,” she said.
Several state officials issued statements Tuesday, as did Minter, Smith’s former primary opponent.
“My heart goes out to Shap and his family during this difficult time. Shap is a friend, who I admire greatly, and it is not surprising to me that he is putting his family ahead of all else. My thoughts are with Shap and Melissa, who I have faith will have the strength to beat this terrible disease,” she said.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, calling Smith a “dear friend,” wished Smith and his family well.
“I have so much love and support for Shap and Melissa. Along with their two wonderful children they are an incredibly strong family. I know they will get through this with the help of their loved ones as well as all of us in their extended Vermont family here in Montpelier and throughout the state,” Shumlin said.
Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell also voiced his support for Smith and his family.
“Many Vermonters have had a friend or family member diagnosed with cancer and it is a daunting and scary illness to confront. I know that the Speaker did not make this decision lightly and in all the years I have known Shap, he has always been a tremendous legislator, friend, and most importantly, husband and father. My thoughts and prayers are with Shap, Melissa, Eli, and Mia,” Campbell said.
While asking for privacy, Smith noted the outpouring of support his family has received in recent days.
“Your friendship has meant the world to me and has given Melissa and I strength in the past and will give us strength in the weeks and months ahead. We have been both heartened by how much outpouring of support we have gotten. Our fridge is full of food. Our foyer is full of flowers. We have many friends to be thankful for, he said.
Smith said he plans to support the eventual Democratic nominee for governor and has not considered endorsing one of his primary opponents. His departure from the race puts his strong network of Democratic House members in play. Most of the Democratic House caucus had been supporting Smith and were planning to work in their districts on his behalf.
Many of those House members may now choose to back Minter over Dunne, who has worked to position himself as the outsider. Smith, who worked alongside Shumlin during several difficult budget years, and Minter, a former member of Shumlin’s administration, are closer to the Democratic establishment in Vermont.
Watch video of Smith’s announcement below: