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Gov. Peter Shumlin and the Human Side of Vermont Politics

It’s easy to watch political figures on television or read about them in the paper and forget one thing.

Those are human beings up there.

It may seem that those who live and breathe politics are thick-skinned creatures programmed to the point of being semi-robots. Different from you and me.Shumlin photo

They look completely consumed by the process. Everything is a calculation, and every move an important political figure makes is dissected under the microscope. By friend and foe alike.

But the people at the podiums also bring every emotion to the table.

When Gov. Peter Shumlin set the Vermont political world on fire by announcing that he won’t seek reelection, political observers turned to musing about who’ll run to succeed him.

Lost in all our handicapping, though, was the human side of the story.

Shumlin survived a crowded and contentious Democratic primary to ascend to the governor’s seat. He then had to put together a fresh administration after many years in which Middlebury’s Jim Douglas occupied the governor’s seat.

It must’ve been quite a roller coaster ride. Shumlin got divorced somewhere in there, but he also soared to the heights of victory with the closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and early euphoria about expanding healthcare coverage to all.

Then the bottom began to fall out.

The governor dared to greatness, leading the effort to make Vermont the first-ever state to have single-payer, government run healthcare.

Several years down that long rocky road, he threw in the towel, announcing last December that Vermont couldn’t afford the benefits of such a system.

In the meantime, the state’s health care insurance exchange – which Shumlin had so long championed – was in a shambles. It remains there.

Running against an empty suit last fall, Shamlin barely survived reelection. His signature healthcare initiative was a source of ongoing aggravation for thousands of Vermonters.

You could hardly blame him for wondering if it was all worth it.

In his personal life, though, it emerged last year that the bachelor Shumlin had fallen in love with a beautiful woman. It must have greatly brightened some of his darker days.

I’ve had many friends in politics over the years – largely people I knew from covering them as a journalist. I’ve even drawn close to that particular flame myself. Close enough to know that I don’t have the stomach for political combat. And that compared to the political grind, the love of a woman – and the lure of time to oneself – are powerful countervailing forces.

So when I see someone say “enough is enough,” I don’t blame him. A part of me congratulations them, in fact, for realizing that as important as politics remains, it’s not the only game in town.

When Shumlin stood at the podium in Montpelier on Monday and announced he won’t seek reelection, he did more than shake up the snow globe of Vermont politics. He offered a verbal nod to “my partner, Katie,” and gave testament to how hard it is to be a political leader, to what a personal toll it takes.

Shumlin is already well-off and has, along with his brother, built a successful travel business. Perhaps he will marry the woman he loves. And he certainly must today be breathing a huge sigh of relief, that in 18 months or so, he can go back to having a relatively normal life – one where his every move isn’t second-guessed.

He has also, with his impending departure, gifted the political oddsmakers with a bonanza that will last through next year’s gubernatorial campaign.

Who will take up Shumlin’s mantle?

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, the one Republican who can run a credible statewide race and potentially even win, certainly sounds like he wants to take a shot at it.

Shap Smith, the likable and articulate House of Representatives leader, made no secret Monday afternoon about his interest in the job. Matt Dunne, who was one of the several who lost to Shumlin in the Democratic primary a few years back, has for months been talking to friends about another possible run.

Maybe Doug Racine, who narrowly lost that primary to Shumlin, wants to take another shot at it, though he doesn’t sound like he has the fire in the belly. Nor does the estimable Sen. Anthony Mollina, who previously ran the strongest gubernatorial campaign ever by a Vermont Progressive.

One Democrat, however, would clear the field and probably win by a wide margin in 2016. That’s Congressman Peter Welch.

He was the top Democrat in the State Senate before going to Washington. He’s a likable and impressive politician who’s stayed close to Vermont while doing well in his Washington day job. Welch has powerful name recognition and the respect of his peers.

It seems likely that most serious Democratic contenders would bow out – and perhaps run for Welch’s House seat – if he decides he wants to come home and be governor.

And again the human factor here. Being a Congressman can be fun. But it’s not a whole lot of fun to be a Democrat in the US House of Representatives these days.

Serving in a permanent minority, working in a small office and settling for legislative tidbits gets old after awhile. It’s tiring to take those US Airways flights back and forth from Washington, to live in two places and really nowhere it all.

Will Welch make the jump? There’s no rush. Shumlin has a year and a half remaining in his term. But the Congressman certainly sounds interested.

On Monday, after Shumlin’s shock announcement, Welch’s chief of staff emailed this to the media:

“It’s likely Congressman Welch will seek re-election to Congress but this news comes as a surprise so he will be taking the time he needs to thoughtfully consider how he can best serve Vermonters.”

Translation, near as I can tell: At this point in his life, Welch wouldn’t at all mind being governor.

While Peter Shumlin may be happy to leave the office behind, another element the of the human side of politics is this: It’s sometimes very gratifying to truly make a difference, and it can be a lot of fun.

Just not for Peter Shumlin anymore.

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