Democrats unanimously nominate Phil Baruth to serve as president of the Vermont Senate

Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, speaks after being nominated pro tempore for Senate President during a Senate Democrat caucus at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Sunday, November 13, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Vermont Senate Democrats met Sunday to elect a new list of leaders and unanimously named Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, as president pro tempore, the leader of the chamber.

The pro tem will be officially elected by the entire chamber when the legislature reconvenes in January, but with Democrats and progressives again expected to control 23 votes in the chamber, their nominee is all but certain of taking the job. Baruth is set to replace Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, who is leaving office to represent Vermont in the US House of Representatives.

A novelist and English professor at the University of Vermont, Baruth was first elected to the Vermont Senate in 2010 after making a name for himself as a political blogger and commentator on Vermont Public Radio. The Burlington resident was previously Senate Majority Leader and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Education. As one of the more liberal members of the Senate, Baruth is perhaps best known for his support of gun control — an issue likely to return to the Legislature’s agenda next year.

The competition for the top Senate post was being played out behind the scenes weeks, if not months, ago, and Sunday’s election, held in the Statehouse Legislative Lounge (six senators also zoomed in), was largely a formality. There were no public challenges, and all votes were unanimous.

Senate Majority Leader Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, was re-elected to her current post. Sen. Andrew Perchlik, D/P-Washington, was elected Deputy Majority Leader, a role informally known as Senate Committee Whip. Senator Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, the longest-serving member of the Senate, was reappointed as the “third member” of the chamber. Alongside the protem and lieutenant governor, the third member sits on the Committee on Committees, the tacitly influential body responsible for distributing committee assignments and chairs.

Senator Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, speaks during a Senate Democrat gathering at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Sunday, November 13, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

When asked by a reporter during a break in the afternoon sessions how long he had served in that capacity, Mazza, who entered the House of Representatives in 1973 and the Senate in 1985, estimated it was more than 20 years. Senate Secretary John Bloomer, who kindly answered VTDigger’s call on a Sunday, knew the exact answer right away: 1997.

But while the caucus welcomed back many old—or, like Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, jokingly “familiar” faces, it also saw unusually high turnover. Seven new Senate Democrats will be inaugurated in January.

They include Rep. Becca White, D-Hartford (the youngest woman ever elected to the upper chamber); Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Essex Junction; Nader Hashim, a former member of the Vermont House; Wendy Harrison, former interim city manager of Winooski; Montpelier Mayor Anne Watson; Burlington School Board member Martine Gulick; and former Essex Selectboard member Irene Wrenner, who surprised many – including Democrats – by winning her race in the newly created Chittenden North Borough, which was widely believed to be a roadblock to Republicans.

A familiar face who practically showed up Sunday was Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, who was zoomed in from rehab after a stroke that sidelined him from campaigning in the weeks leading up to the election.

“I understand that many of the senators who have been knocking on doors door-to-door in Orange County and campaigned for me over the last week deserve some badges of merit,” said MacDonald, who faced a tough challenge from Republican John Klar .

Senator Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, speaks remotely at a Senate Democrat caucus at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Sunday, November 13, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Democrats won supermajorities in the Vermont House and Senate on election night, and expectations are high that the party will fulfill long-held priorities now that it has enough votes — and more — to overturn the Republican governor’s vetoes Override Phil Scott.

It takes 20 votes in the 30-seat Senate to override a veto. And in a brief speech after his nomination, Baruth noted that it takes 23 members – what he called the “magic” number – to suspend the rules. Having enough votes to suspend the rules is a powerful tool, especially in the final days of the legislature when many high-priority bills often simply fall by the wayside due to lack of time.

“That’s the difference last week between getting your entire agenda and getting half your agenda,” Baruth said. “People who are here know that sometimes we lose a lot of bills in the last three days. My intention is not to lose any more notes in the final.”

But even as Baruth celebrated the power of his caucus, he tried to manage the expectations. Democrats and progressives in the Senate are not a monolith – and sometimes come from very different districts. He signaled that he was particularly sensitive to concerns that an “arrogant” majority would not perceive the “average Vermonters’ lives, their wallets, their wallets, their bills.”

Senator Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, speaks during a Senate Democrat gathering at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Sunday, November 13, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“I just want to be clear that Democrats and progressives in the House and Senate, when we make legislation, we do it on data, we can do it on testimony, and we do it with hard skull sweat in politics – but always agonizes about the costs. Always,” he said.

The senators-elect also walked around the table for nearly an hour to outline their top three priorities for the upcoming two-year term. White succinctly summed up what was at the top of the list for nearly all of her colleagues. “My three are: climate change, affordable housing and child care,” she said.

The Democratic faction of the House of Representatives is scheduled to meet on December 3 to elect its leaders. House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, has previously said she will ask her peers to re-nominate her for her current position and no challengers are expected.

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