Listen to Lisman discuss the issues:
MONTPELIER — After a long and lucrative career on Wall Street, Bruce Lisman is looking to transition from high finance to politics in his bid for governor.
The 69-year-old Burlington native is facing off in a Republican primary against Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, a popular politician with a nice-guy image. Despite having founded the advocacy group Campaign for Vermont in 2011 and serving as its voice and face, Lisman has faced a substantial disadvantage in name recognition.
As a result, he has launched several television ads seeking to link Scott with Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin, who is not seeking a fourth two-year term. For some, the commercials have come across as negative campaigning, but Lisman has maintained that they are contrast ads designed to show how Lisman would take Vermont in a new direction.
Lisman was born and raised in Burlington and attended the University of Vermont. He credits his work ethic that helped him achieve success on Wall Street to the lessons he learned as a youngster from his parents, including the importance of community service.
“For my brother and me they offered tremendous security and safety. They had things to say, and frankly, said the right things, generally. My father believed in the value of work. He was a product of the Depression,” he said. “My mother believed in working hard but also working smart. She was intellectually a very strong woman who could read a book a day. She taught us the value of understanding things.”
Lisman said he began working at the age of 15 as a dishwasher. After completing college and exiting the Army Reserves, Lisman found himself in New York City where, with the help of his father’s cousin, he landed a job as a file clerk for a Wall Street firm.
“I had planned, actually, to go to law school,” Lisman said. “Filing papers on Wall Street was a start to a career, though I didn’t plan it.”
Lisman said he was initially admonished by his boss for doing more than was asked of him.
“I did for him the wrong thing. Instead of filing it, I read it. He kept saying to me, ‘Your college education is in the way of your future. Don’t read it, file it,’” Lisman said. “He thought I was smart enough to do other things and he wanted me to think about it.”
Although employed, Lisman said he took on more jobs to make ends meet. He drove a taxi at night and worked a third job as a bartender.
But soon, his efforts on Wall Street began to pay off. He soon became an analyst and would later become director of global research for Lehman Brothers.
“It was a place where people from all over the world would congregate in an industry where you worked hard and if you could deliver you’d have not only a career, you’d meet other terrific people along the way. I was lucky enough to fall into management at a young age, at 34, roughly. At 34 I was managing people twice as old as me,” Lisman said.
In 1984 he became senior research managing director at Bear Stearns and rose again in 2006 to co-head of global equities at the firm.
“It wasn’t but a few years later … that I was running a $50 million business at a different firm,” he said. “I took over and 21 years later it did turn into a $2.3 billion business.”
After the financial collapse in 2008, Bear Stearns crumbled and was gobbled up by JPMorgan, where Lisman worked until retiring in 2009. He said his division had nothing to do with the cause of the financial meltdown that led to a deep recession.
It was, without doubt, a lucrative career for Lisman. He reported a net worth of more than $50 million when he launched his campaign for governor. And he rejects the notion that Wall Street is a bad place.
“It was just a career. I didn’t ever view it different than a career in medicine or the law or journalism. I didn’t think like that. I was something I enjoyed with people I liked,” he said.
Now, after attempting to influence public policy through Campaign for Vermont, Lisman is looking to do it as the state’s chief executive. He said his experience on Wall Street has prepared him to lead Vermont.
“I learned how to manage people and I learned about strategic planning, about adjusting to moments in time and keeping the perspective that’s longer term. I learned about building coalitions and getting the best talent I could find,” Lisman said.
He also learned when he needed to learn more, and to ask for help. He experienced that as technology took over on Wall Street and required a new set of skills.
“I was among the first to say I don’t understand it enough, get me someone who can explain it to me in English,” he said. “As we migrated more quickly to technology that would matter a great deal, I looked for people who could get it done.”
For some people, Wall Street carries a negative connotation. But Lisman said he never hears that on the campaign trail, and he has no problem connecting with the voters he meets — despite his immense personal wealth.
“I’ve been working since I was 15. My job was a dishwasher and, frankly, nobody on the road ever says to me, ‘Gosh, you’re a different kind of guy than me because you were on Wall Street.’ It’s not what they’re saying. They’re saying, ‘Nobody listens to me. You actually stand here and listen to everything I have to say and then sometimes you call me back later and say what do you mean by that,’” Lisman said.
Over the years, Lisman has given campaign contributions to both Democrats and Republicans. He resists describing his political views in a traditional sense, such as conservative or liberal. Instead, Lisman said he describes himself “as a solution finder, someone who believes that ideology doesn’t get us the answers unless we’ve analyzed the problems well and have real solutions that you can illustrate to people.”
“I think the whole basis for my campaign is this — people say nobody’s listening to me. They say it about Washington, but that’s too far away and too big for me or for you,” Lisman said. “But they say it about Montpelier, where you can run into your legislator at a gas station. I think what they’re saying is there are problems here and they want somebody to say those are real and offer solutions. That’s why I say that I’m the guy with a different direction.”
He said his own political philosophy was not solidified until his later years, as he moved closer to retiring and moving back to Vermont.
“I don’t think I was committed to a particular ideology early on. I was busy working. Then you get married and have children and you work harder and you’re looking for a place to live that fits the child. That wasn’t really something I spent a lot of time thinking about,” he said. “I would say as a I got closer to retirement I began thinking about things differently. That’s the moment where I began saying this is more specifically what I believe in.”
Lisman’s top campaign themes have been about restricting the growth of the state budget to 2 percent and changing the way government is managed.
“You don’t have to have a political affiliation to say the cost of living here is too high. We’ve just raised taxes, fees and surcharges by $700 million. That affects how expensive it is to live here, so let’s look at every one and show people what they’re paying,” he said.
Defeating Scott, who has a healthy lead in the only publicly released poll on the race, will not be easy, Lisman admits.
“I think he’s had the benefit of 16 years in public office, eight election cycles, so he’s better known than I am. When we started I’m certain a few people knew me, but today 90 percent of the people we call know me. In some parts of the state, I’m better known than he is,” he said.
Lisman regularly knocks Scott for his lengthy service in public office — 10 years as a state senator from Washington County and six years as lieutenant governor. Scott, Lisman said, has failed to present solutions during that time.
“(Phil Scott) is more popular, but it doesn’t mean that he’s got the right answers. The reason that I’m running is that over the last 16 years he has not offered answers. His history is largely blank,” Lisman said. “I’m running because I offer definitive ideas.”
Lisman said his campaign slogan is more than just that. It is how his candidacy differs from Scott and the top three Democrats seeking the governorship.
“I say regularly, if you think we’re in great shape, like the direction we’re taking, there are four people that will take you there. Democrats think the direction that this governor has set is a good direction and they just want to get there faster. I happen to think this governor has failed in so many ways they should reconsider. I think among Republicans I’m the right choice. I am not an insider. I don’t talk in the usual fashion and I believe the people who support me believe I offer a new direction that is achievable and is what Vermonters want,” Lisman said.
With less than a month before the primary, Lisman said he is having more fun than ever on the campaign trail. But, the tall task of taking on a popular candidate continues.
“What have I learned? This is a winnable race. It’s hard work, though, because we need to get a message out to those who would vote, and those who weren’t sure they were going to vote at all,” Lisman said.