MONTPELIER — With the clock winding down on the legislative biennium, one major political question remains unanswered — the future of Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith.
Smith, 50, was briefly a candidate for governor late last summer, hoping to succeed Gov. Peter Shumlin, a fellow Democrat who is not seeking a fourth term. He launched his gubernatorial bid in his hometown of Morrisville, flanked by dozens of the House members he has led for the previous seven years.
But Smith suspended his campaign soon after when his wife, Dr. Melissa Volansky, began a battle with breast cancer. His focus shifted from a political race to ensuring the well-being of his wife, a physician, and their two children.
Now, months later, Smith says his wife’s health has improved. As a result, his focus appears to be shifting back toward politics and where his place might be in Vermont’s future.
“Things are good. Melissa’s returned to work part-time. She’s finishing out her radiation treatment and so things are going pretty well,” he said.
The State House has been buzzing for months about what Smith might do. Speculation throughout the halls early on was that he would re-enter the Democratic primary for governor against Matt Dunne, Sue Minter and Peter Galbraith, who joined the race last month. Now, the conventional wisdom has the speaker joining the primary for lieutenant governor, which already includes Chittenden County Sen. David Zuckerman and Burlington Rep. Kesha Ram.
Both options are on the table, according to Smith, who has done little to scuttle the speculation in recent months.
“I haven’t made any decisions. I’ve had a number of people encourage me to think about running both for governor and lieutenant governor. My primary focus has been trying to make sure that we have a successful session and also focus on family and everything that’s happening there,” he said.
It appears that a bid for lieutenant governor is more likely. Dunne and Minter have already raised more than $400,000, and Galbraith, who has significant personal wealth, can easily keep pace with their spending. Smith has about $30,000 remaining in his campaign account.
Among State House regulars, most people believe Smith is more likely to enter the race for lieutenant governor. But there’s no consensus on whether he will enter either race. Even some of Smith’s closest colleagues say they remain unsure if he will run at all.
Ram, who announced her candidacy last October, isn’t one of the people encouraging Smith to run.
“I consider Shap a friend and a mentor. He came to my kick off,” Ram said. “It’s difficult to think about running against him, but I’m going to work hard and I have a pretty solid head start with the relationships I’ve built around the state.”
After meeting with Smith Tuesday about the rumors, Ram said she remains committed to her campaign.
If Smith were to jump into the race, Ram is likely to face pressure to drop out and make way for his candidacy from some of their shared House colleagues. So far, Ram has yet to face that issue as the rumors have swirled.
“Thankfully, and perhaps as a testament to my candidacy, not many people have asked me that,” she said. “We have a lot of momentum and we’re running a strong campaign. I don’t see any reason to step aside, as difficult as it is to run against someone I care about and has been through a lot in the last year.”
Smith said he is “giving consideration to the options,” but any potential announcement is still weeks away.
“I would expect to announce anything I was going to do, if I was going to do anything, after the session,” he said.
There are several factors to be considered, according to Smith, beginning with how his family views his options. He considers that “the defining issue.”
“It’s always an ongoing dialogue on the home front about the work-life balance,” he said.
Other factors include whether holding the state’s second-highest office is what he desires.
“I have talked to people who have been in that office before about the possibilities. I will admit that I didn’t start out thinking that that would be something I would be interested in, but I do think there are things that you can do,” the speaker said.
“I think that’s been the question that I’ve been asking about — why I would want to do it and whether I would want to do it. I like working with the people that are there,” Smith added. “I think that it has a quietly influential role within the legislative body in a way that’s different from the speaker’s office — it’s a soft power vs. hard power. I think that it’s an office where you can really highlight particular issues that you’re interested in.”
Smith said he is also grappling with the thought of stepping away from politics — at least for now.
“The secondary factors are one, whether I think I can make a difference and whether I would enjoy the role and whether people would want me in it, and two, whether I would prefer to just leave public service and just go back to the private sector, maybe make some money,” he said.
Zuckerman said Smith’s entry into his race would present new challenges, but believes he is well-prepared for it. He said he has “a strong, proven track record regardless of who gets into the race.”
“Certainly, when a speaker gets in a race that’s a formidable challenge. We both have extensive experience in the State House and in our communities, but I think it’s a winnable race for me whether he enters the race or not,” Zuckerman said. “A good, healthy, dynamic race is a positive thing for Vermont regardless of who those candidates are.”
Like Ram, Zuckerman said he has spoken directly with Smith about the race.
“He and I have spoken briefly. In Vermont we all know each other and we have good, frank conversations and my understanding is he is thinking about all his options and is really focused on doing the work that’s necessary here. That’s true for myself as well,” he said.
Smith said he isn’t worried about disturbing the political waters by entering either race. Other potential candidates could also be considering it, he said.
“The race is always undefined until the filing deadline and so there’s always the possibility that people will get in. You have to face that as a candidate in any race that you’re in. So, I don’t think that there’s really anything to be said about it,” he said. “It’s not like there haven’t been rumors out there for months that I was going to run either for governor or lieutenant governor. So, people have been asking me, including the candidates, since the rumors first came out.”
For now, Smith said he will focus on closing out his tenure in the House, a body he has served in since 2002, and led as speaker since 2009.
“A decision has to be made sooner rather than later. Really, I want to be fair to the people who are in the race already, I want to be fair to my family and if I’m going to sail off into the sunset I want to start enjoying the sail,” he said.