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May 21, 2012

Prog Candidate to Challenge Gov. Shumlin — At Least For Now

Republican Sen. Randy Brock isn't the only one challenging Gov. Peter Shumlin for the state's top job. Progressive Party Chairwoman and perennial candidate Martha Abbott is also gathering signatures to run for governor.

But the Underhill resident, who has run for governor and state auditor before — twice each — says she's not necessarily in it for the long haul.

"There's a lot of issues we don't agree with [Shumlin] on," she says. "But I'm not saying I'm going to stay in the race. I'm not saying I'm not going to stay in the race."

Why all the indecision?

Abbott and Progressive Party executive director Morgan Daybell say the party is fielding a candidate for three reasons: One of their statewide candidates has to win five percent of the vote for the party to retain major party status; they want to keep candidates from other parties from hijacking the nomination; and, most importantly, they want to push Shumlin to the left.

According to Daybell, by putting the squeeze on the Democratic governor, they can "sort of hold Shumlin's feet to the fire on budget, tax and labor issues that the Progressives feel he's not been doing well on."

If you think you've seen this movie before, you have. During the 2010 election cycle, the Progs also put  Abbott forward as a candidate for governor. They said at the time she would exit the race if the winner of a heavily-contested, five-way Democratic primary focused sufficiently on providing single-payer health care and shutting down Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.

"Peter Shumlin was really the only one doing those two things. Lo and behold, he won the primary primarily on those two issues, so we got out of the race and he won the general election," Abbott says. "We thought it worked out quite well."

Abbott says the party will make a similar determination about whether to pull her from the ballot after the August primary.

While Daybell says Shumlin "gets high marks" for his work on health care and Vermont Yankee, he contends that the governor has not fared so well addressing income inequality or workers' rights. But Daybell concedes that, with the legislature adjourned, the governor may not have a chance to show he's committed to the Progs' goals.

"It may just be making promises, but certainly if he is out there saying there are things he's going to do or not do, our presence in the race helps pull him to the left a little bit," Daybell says. "It gives us some ammunition in the next session to remind him of the things he promised. Obviously, it's not perfect, but that's sort of the tools we have now."

According to Shumlin aide Alex MacLean, the governor is already on the case.

"Governor Shumlin has worked closely with Progressives on issues like single payer health care and Vermont Yankee, and looks forward to continuing to do so," she said in a statement. "He is proud of his record and believes that on the vast majority of issues facing Vermont, he and Progressives share common goals and a common agenda."

Abbott isn't the party's only candidate for statewide office. Marjorie Powers of Montpelier is challenging Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, while Don Schramm of Burlington is challenging appointed State Treasurer Beth Pearce, a Democrat. Rutland Republican Wendy Wilton has also entered that race. The Progs are also planning a write-in campaign to back Doug Hoffer for state auditor, though Hoffer is seeking the Democratic nomination.

According to Daybell, his party is focused more on legislative seats than statewide races. He says the party is courting new candidates to run for Senate in both Chittenden and Washington counties — possibly as Democratic Party "hybrid" candidates, like incumbent Sens. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) and Anthony Pollina (D/P-Washington).

The party currently holds five seats in the House, though Rep. Sarah Edwards (P-Brattleboro) is not running for reelection. Daybell says the Progs hope to field 10 "strong" candidates for that body.

It is a sign of weakness that the party is focused principally on legislative races rather than statewide contests?

"No, it's a sign that we're sticking to our strategy, which has always been that we can run most effectively in a system that's tilted toward two parties when you do it at the local level," Daybell says. "You can overcome party recognition and fundraising and media bias, which is hard to do statewide."

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