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November 28, 2012

Nominated to Second Term as President Pro Tem, Campbell Promises End to Senate Drama

DSC04544It started with chaos and ended with chaos. But for a brief period during the Senate Democrats' reorganizational meeting Tuesday afternoon, the chaos was interrupted by promises that, next year, the Senate will no longer be subsumed by chaos.

We'll see about that.

Meeting for the first time since their reelection at Montpelier's Capitol Plaza, Senate Democrats found plenty to bicker about: whether someone should moderate the meeting, when their next meeting should take place, and whether vote tallies in a leadership election should be released to the public.

"I hope the next two years go better than this," Sen.-elect David Zuckerman (P/D-Chittenden) muttered not-quite-under-his-breath from the back of the room.

The news of the day was that incumbent Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor) easily fended off his sole challenger, Sen. Ann Cummings (D-Washington), for the Democratic nomination to that post. The vote, which reporters learned only after pressing reluctant senators, was 15 to 6.

Campbell still faces a challenge from Sen. Diane Snelling (R-Chittenden) when the full Senate reconvenes in January.

DSC04545Any suspense about the outcome of Tuesday's vote immediately dissipated at the start of the meeting when an unlikely character, Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden), rose to nominate Campbell (pictured at left) for the position. A strident critic of Campbell's leadership in the past, Baruth said that at the end of the last legislative session he was "looking for either a change in leadership or a real productive change in procedure."

But after meeting with Campbell several times over the past few months, Baruth came around, saying, "I really believe that John is committed to making the Vermont Senate a more stable, smoothly functioning, fair and equitable institution."

Baruth joked, "James Carville likes to say the Democratic Party is a party of second chances, and I think in that, and in nothing else, James Carville is absolutely right."

When Campbell rose to speak, it was as if he was taking part in some sort of leadership 12-step program, apologizing for past mistakes and promising to do right by his fellow senators if they'd just take him back.

"There were a lot of shortcomings during my first term here as Pro Tem," he said. "I won't back away from them. I'm not going to make excuses for them. But I can tell you this, is that I've certainly learned from them."

Calling himself "a poster child for ADD," Campbell said he'd hired a new assistant, Rebecca Ramos, who he promised would help him address his organizational deficiencies. And he said he wouldn't let his personal political views impede the Senate's work next year, as he said he did with a childcare-workers unionization bill last session.

Campbell said that while Vermonters may not follow every maneuver each senator makes, they read the headlines — and when they do, "They see the headlines of a dysfunctional Senate."

"It was a personal embarrassment and one that, again, I'm not going to back away from. I was the one at the top and I will take responsibility. But I can tell you, as I said, I believe that you all will be proud when we close this biennium in two years, and I think we're going to be able to do some really wonderful things together."

DSC04553Cummings (pictured at right), a 16-year veteran of the Senate and chairwoman of its Finance Committee, wasn't having any of Campbell's come-to-Jesus moment.

"There was no reassessment until there was a challenge," she said. "And I'm challenging because I think we can do things better. I've listened to the other candidate and he's given us an impressive list of what he did wrong and a promise that he'll change. But to change almost requires a personality change. There was an awful lot of things that did not go well."

Cummings pointed to the last-minute scheduling of Tuesday's meeting as a case in point that Campell has failed to mend his ways.

"I don't think that really demonstrates there's been a change here," she said.

In the end, change in leadership was not in the offing. After Campbell and Cummings left the room, their colleagues deliberated briefly — with Sens. Peter Galbraith (D-Windham) and Dick Sears (D-Bennington) offering their support for Campbell — and then the Dems voted.

The 15-6 vote for Campbell was not even close.

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