MONTPELIER — Republican Gov.-elect Phil Scott claimed a mandate Wednesday for his incoming administration to focus on the economy while pledging to work with the Democratic-led Legislature to improve the fiscal lives of Vermonters.
Scott, 58, defeated Democratic gubernatorial nominee Sue Minter Tuesday by a 52 percent to 43.5 percent margin. In January he will be sworn in as the state’s 82nd governor. But Vermonters send mixed signals at the voting booth. They opted for Progress and Democratic nominee David Zuckerman over Republican Randy Brock for lieutenant governor, and Senate Democrats expanded their dominance by two seats and now control 23 of the 30 total seats.
Still, Scott, in a State House news conference, said Wednesday he believes Vermonters spoke clearly and definitely and support his economic agenda over that of Democrats in the Legislature.
“I think Vermonters are putting them on notice. I think my election was a mandate in terms of this crisis of affordability is real. They want some action on the economy. They don’t want to have to struggle. They don’t want to have to work two and three jobs to make ends meet. They want a better Vermont, so my election, I believe, is a mandate,” Scott, standing in front of a bust of Abraham Lincoln, told reporters.
Scott said Vermonters looked at the differing views he and Zuckerman hold and chose him to be the state’s chief executive.
“I think they’re very independent, as we know, throughout Vermont. I was elected — this is my ninth election — and I was elected and served in the minority my entire time. So, I think Vermonters just look for having trust and faith in their leadership and are independently minded,” he said, describing himself as “a moderate, centrist Republican,”
Scott will take office in January with plenty of uncertainty because Republican President-elect Donald Trump’s victory. Trump has advocated for repealing the federal Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. If he does, it’s unclear where health care reform in Vermont and around the country will stand. Scott has said he wants to transition the state’s online health insurance marketplace created under Obamacare to the federal exchange — but it may not exist in Trump’s administration.
“We’ll see. I know there’s a lot of campaign promises made on the national level, but we’ll wait and see. I’m sure we’ll have something in place and we’ll act accordingly,” Scott said.
He acknowledged the unease that many Vermonters and Americans felt Wednesday as they processed Trump’s victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton — an outcome that seemed unfathomable just a day before.
“Whether it was a Clinton administration or a Trump administration, I have a deep amount of respect for the office and I will do whatever I can to support Vermont in any way I can,” Scott said. “Of course, we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future but I look forward to working with the administration in any way we can to make sure Vermont is put up in the front.”
Scott, who said he cast a write-in vote for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, said he has faith in America’s constitutional democracy in the years months and years ahead. Scott was less than reassuring, however, saying Vermont and the country would “survive this.”
“There is a deep amount of trepidation, I think, for the future, but at the same time, I think we all need to pull together and realize that we have a democracy in place, we have a Senate and House on the federal level and we will come together as one and work through this. I have a deep amount of faith and trust in the process and I believe it will be OK,” he said.
Scott was already working on the transition from the administration of outgoing Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin on Wednesday. He announced that Tim Hayward, who served as chief of staff to former Republican Gov. Jim Douglas, will lead his transition team. Another former Douglas official, Neale Lunderville, who served as secretary of Administration, will head the budget committee that will help craft Scott’s first state budget.
Despite tapping the former Douglas staffers to aid the transition, Scott said he will be staking out his own agenda rather than rehashing what Douglas sought to do between 2003 and 2011.
“I’m very fortunate to have some people that were very capable during that time that have stopped forward and will help us through the transition, but that’s as far as it goes at this point,” he said. “I think they have a level of expertise. Certainly, my thoughts matter — I’m the governor-elect and they’ll take their lead from me.”
Meanwhile, Debbie Winters, owner of Firetech Sprinklers, and independent state Rep. Laura Sibilia, will lead Scott’s Leadership Advisory Committee that will help find appointees in Scott’s administration “so we can find the best and brightest minds,” he said.
“I’m putting together a very capable team to make sure we have a strong budget in place, that the transition is smooth for Vermonters as we accomplish the goals we set during the election. And I will keep everyone updated as that process continues,” Scott said. “This is an important time for our state. There’s no doubt the challenges we face are real, but the opportunities are also real, and together we’re going to move our state forward for all Vermonters.”
Shumlin told the Vermont Press Bureau Wednesday that he and his team will assist Scott in any way they can.
“Phil ran a good campaign. He’s a friend of mine. We’ve worked together for years, both in the Senate and he was on my cabinet throughout my governorship. So, my job now is to ensure that we do everything we can. This is a very tough job, being governor, and it’s the most important job in Vermont,” Shumlin said. “It helps that we have a friendship. We know each other well. We’re just going to be available to them in any way that they wish.”
Scott promised to consider all qualified people for appointments in his administration.
“Being a Republican isn’t a litmus test for our administration. What I’m looking for is talent, people that understand that the economy is important, that the affordability crisis is real and share my vision for a much better Vermont. So, I will look forward to anyone who wants to apply and submit their resume,” he said.
Scott also signaled that he is prepared to hold his ground against some of the Democratic-led initiatives that may come his way during the upcoming legislative session. He will not support any new restrictions on guns, including universal background checks, he said, but stopped short of issuing a veto threat.
“I think I was pretty clear in the campaign that I don’t believe that we need to take this subject up at this time. We’ll wait and see if this comes to my desk,
He also remains opposed to legalizing marijuana any time soon, even as Massachusetts voters to the immediate south of Vermont passed a referendum for recreational cannabis.
“As I said during the campaign, I was never one to say never in terms of legalization. I just said that it wasn’t time at this point. I look forward to learning from the other states who have legalized and maybe Massachusetts as well, learning from them,” he said. “We’ll keep in mind that we have to deal with the edibles. We have to deal with impairment on our highways, as well as the tax structure if that’s the way they move forward.”
And, Scott said he will continue to follow the rate of economic growth and wages in Vermont to determine how much the state budget will grow under his administration. He promised during the campaign that he would not sign a budget that grows faster than economic growth.
“It will be a combination of the two,” Scott said.
Advocates hoping to usher in major changes in Vermont, like raising the minimum wage beyond where it is already set to rise and paid family leave will also find hurdles under Scott. He indicated he would look to raise incomes through an improved economy rather than by boosting the minimum wage even more.
“We just did that and I think they’re putting the cart before the horse. I made that pretty clear during the campaign. I just think the struggling businesses on Main Street are just that — they’re right on the edge and I’m not sure they can afford that increase at this point in time,” the governor-elect said.
Scott said he would look to work with advocates on some issues.
“I want everyone to make more money in Vermont and I think having a thriving, prosperous economy is one way of getting there. I’m going to look for more affordability with our higher ed, so I look forward to working with them on that,” he said. “I think there are a number of ways we can work together. Early childhood development is something I’m passionate about. I think it’s important and I think we can find ways to work together there as well.”
Despite is comfortable margin of victory of Minter, Scott told reporters that he was unsure how the race would end.
“I didn’t know what to expect yesterday morning when I woke up. I was fully prepared to not be successful, but I was comfortable in the fact that I ran the campaign that I wanted to run and I ran it in a positive way. I wouldn’t change a thing. I was comfortable win, lose or draw,” he said.
With victory in hand, Scott must now look ahead to working with opposition Democrats in the Legislature and work on a budget and legislation that will work for both sides.
“I look forward to working with them. We’ll sit down. We’ll talk about the issues where we find common ground and we’ll try and advocate for that. I believe having the economy grow and prosper is something that everyone should be interested in. We’ll look at the housing issue and find ways to work together in that regard and deal with this affordability crisis,” he said. “I look for common ground and working together. I’ve been a consensus builder my entire political life. I’ve always served in the minority, so this is nothing new. I’m sure we can find common ground.”