Heading into gubernatorial election, Governor Scott sustains as Lieutenant Governor Zuckerman campaigns
As the pandemic heightens the responsibility of state governments across the country, Vermont has emerged as a success story in controlling the virus — and for Republican Gov. Phil Scott, the proof is in the polling. Scott’s statewide acceptance rate peaked at 96% over the summer, and he remains one of the most popular governors in the nation. Up for re-election in the fall, Scott has eschewed typical campaigning to stay focused on pandemic response — but for his challenger, Progressive/Democratic Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, the race is far from over.
Working alongside each other in Montpelier, the two aren’t exactly allies. Scott has used his veto pen more liberally than nearly any other leader in state history, rejecting progressive legislation sent from the majority-Democrat Vermont House and Senate. These bills have included a minimum wage hike, a paid family leave program and, most recently, steps to combat climate change — all causes that Zuckerman has championed for decades.
“I’ve been fighting for environmental causes since before I was in elected office. It’s really at the core of who I am,” Zuckerman told The Campus. He announced his candidacy pre-pandemic in January 2020, citing the climate crisis as his primary motivation. His focus has not changed, earning him the endorsement of Sunrise Middlebury, Bernie Sanders and even the co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s. “The climate crisis did not go away because the global pandemic has occurred,” he said. “We have multiple crises happening.”
Yet Scott’s moderate “New England Republican” style of leadership has allowed for overlap between the two as well. In a heavily Democratic state, Scott has retained popularity in part by breaking with the national Republican party, openly supporting President Trump’s impeachment and signing perhaps the most progressive abortion rights legislation in the country in 2019. Both candidates have said, too, that if Biden wins the presidential election and Senator Sanders joins his cabinet — most likely as labor secretary — they would appoint a temporary replacement Senator who caucuses with Democrats.
Now, through mask mandates and careful science-based health guidelines, Scott has managed to steer Vermont away from the pandemic partisanship that other states have seen — even garnering praise from Dr. Fauci himself.
“The safety measures we have in place are there for a reason, and they’re working,” Scott said at one of his twice-weekly coronavirus briefings. “We’ve put ourselves in a great position.”
These briefings have been conducted both in his capacity as governor and, some have noted, in lieu of traditional re-election campaigning. His campaign manager and only full-time re-election staffer, Jason Maulucci, told The Campus that the campaign is at the bottom of Scott’s priority list.
“Vermonters deserve a governor who’s focused full-time on the job he was elected to do,” Maulucci said. “For an incumbent, there’s nothing a campaign apparatus can say or do that can replace the effect of a good job performance.”
For Zuckerman, pandemic success is great — but not enough. Since his time as a student at the University of Vermont, where he was deeply engaged in the environmental movement and worked on then-Representative Bernie Sanders’s campaign, the lieutenant governor has advocated for cutting-edge progressive causes like marijuana legalization and LGBTQ rights.
He first ran for the Vermont House of Representatives while in college in 1994, though he won his first seat in the House in 1996. Ever since, his style of electoral politics has stemmed from both Sanders and the activists he worked alongside.
“I met a lot of people who were living the efforts they were espousing,” Zuckerman said. “They were housing advocates, they were fair pay advocates, they were reducing toxic substances in municipal services, they were fighting for universal healthcare. And they were all involved in not only electoral politics but also, in their daily living, working to make life better.”
This nexus is where Zuckerman resides: he and his wife, Rachel Nevitt, are organic farmers and have owned Full Moon Farm, Inc. in Hinesburg, Vt. for over a decade. The couple farms seasonal fruits and vegetables, meats and eggs, and CBD, which they sell at the Burlington Farmers Markets and through their Community Farm Share. “To me, our economy, our food sources, and our climate are all incredibly intricately linked,” he said.
If Zuckerman is cut from an activist’s cloth, Scott is cut from a businessman’s. Gov. Scott, too, graduated from UVM and bases much of his ideology in his entrepreneurial experience: he started his first business at 18, mowing lawns and renting boats on Lake Elmore. He worked his way through several other mechanics and construction companies before entering the Vermont State Senate in 2000, promising to fight for the voices of small businesses and working families in Vermont.
This experience has also been inextricably tied to his governorship, which he has used to keep state spending, taxes and the cost of living relatively low. “Too many families and employers are on the economic edge,” Scott said when announcing his run for governor in 2015. “I believe our state needs a leader who listens instead of lectures, someone who’s been in the shoes of the people who are struggling, and […] who will never forget where they came from.”
Priding himself on consistency and steady-handed guidance, Scott told VTDigger this year that he thinks of himself as the “only thing” standing between the Democratic House and Senate majority and “continuing to increase the unaffordability of Vermont.” Former Gov. Jim Douglas, also a Republican, has lauded Scott for playing “budget hawk” by rejecting progressive legislation that would be costly for the state.
Yet for Zuckerman, the status quo is no longer tenable — even financially. Zuckerman has proposed a Green Mountain New Deal, a plan that would impose a temporary tax increase on the top 5% of Vermont earners to be used to bankroll environmental and infrastructure projects. “My idea with the temporary tax is to sequester some of the Trump tax cuts to the wealthiest in our state,” he said.
This is also the reason that the lieutenant governor entered the race this year as opposed to waiting for a less competitive election cycle. “I just don’t think with the climate crisis we have two years to be casually waiting,” he said. In this vein, Zuckerman has committed to working with youth activists as he has done for decades. For him, meaningful climate policy can be something of a chicken-and-egg issue: when young people don’t vote, their interests can go unaddressed.
Heading into the gubernatorial election on Nov. 3, Zuckerman is campaigning hard, holding virtual events and “Honk & Wave” sessions across the state — and, as a fundraising gimmick, an opportunity to donate to either team “Keep it” or team “Cut it” to decide the fate of his signature ponytail. Meanwhile, Gov. Scott is unfazed. Running without a real campaign platform, Scott has kept his eyes on maintaining the state’s successful pandemic response.
Both candidates hope to prepare the state for a future that neither can predict. Above all, each sees protecting the well-being of Vermonters as paramount — and voters are tasked with choosing between their decidedly different visions in achieving it.