MONTPELIER — Chittenden County Sen. Tim Ashe is poised to become the next president pro tem of the Senate after the Democratic caucus unanimously nominated him for the post Monday.
Ashe, 39, who serves as both a Progressive and Democratic in the Senate, will replace Democratic Windsor County Sen. John Campbell in the critical leadership post. Campbell, who now works as the executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys & Sheriffs, did not seek re-election.
“I’m, obviously, totally humbled to get the caucus support for the position. Many people outside the building don’t understand the role of the pro tem is really to be the shepherd of the entire Senate,” he said.
The Democratic caucus met at the State House Monday to reorganize following last week’s general election. The caucus now controls 23 of the Senate’s 30 seats. Ashe and Lt. Gov.-elect David Zuckerman, who was the Progressive and Democratic nominee, will become the highest-ranking Progressives ever to serve in state government.
Several senators initially expressed interest in the job after Campbell made clear he would not be seeking re-election. Addison County Sen. Claire Ayer, Chittenden County Sen. Phil Baruth and Washington County Sen. Ann Cummings all dropped out of the running before Monday’s meeting. Ayer was the last, abandoning her bid on Sunday.
Ayer dropped her challenge to Ashe, but she did attempt to unseat Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, from his coveted spot on the three-person Committee on Committees. The group is responsible for doling out committee assignments and chairmanships. That effort also fell short.
The caucus voted 14 to 8 by secret ballot to return Mazza to the position. The committee also includes the lieutenant governor and the pro tem.
Ayer challenged Mazza on the grounds that his reappointment would mean that the committee was comprised of three men from Chittenden County. Left unsaid, however, was the fact that Mazza, a conservative Democratic, was an enthusiastic supporter of Republican Gov.-elect Phil Scott during the campaign. Despite that, Mazza’s Democratic colleagues again chose him.
Ashe said he believes women should be in leadership roles and argued they are currently in very important ones.
“I absolutely think it is critical that we have women in many leadership positions. The good news is that in many regards we have women in leadership positions — absolutely critical roles,” he said. “I would suggest the single most important legislative position is chair of Appropriations. Both of our chairs writing the $6 billion budget are women and have been for a number of years.”
When lawmakers return in January, Ashe said he has three main objectives. The first will be “to prioritize along with other members of the Senate our goals for the upcoming two years.” For Ashe, the list should include a continued effort to control health care costs, focusing on the state’s rural economy, dealing with water quality issues and trying to improve mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Ashe said he also wants to establish a working relationship with the incoming administration of Republican Gov.-elect Phil Scott.
“Of course, the proposals that will come from the Scott administration will look different and we’ll settle into a relationship as a Senate and administration to make sure we’re working together wherever we can, and I think there will be a lot of opportunities,” he said.
Ashe said he believes Scott wants to work with both chambers on a number of issues.
“I know many people say he is a nice guy and I think that actually minimizes what he really is, which is a thoughtful person who wants to work with people to reach solutions. I’ve found another open-minded person every time I talk to Phil,” Ashe said. “We won’t agree on everything, we’re not always coming at issues the same way, but I know that he is open-minded just as most members of the Senate are.”
The third goal may be the most difficult — “keeping the ship of state straight with the unpredictability in the Trump administration.” He said lawmakers and the Scott administration may be required to deal with big policy changes at the federal level.
“We are a state that is highly dependent on federal money and federal policies and we’re not going to know what we’re getting on almost any major policy issue,” he said. “As we set policies and the budget in motion for the following year there’s going to be so much unpredictability. It’s just going to require a level of dexterity to keep making smart decisions for Vermont when there are things out of our control.”