Politics

In a crowded primary field, Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor are lining up their resumes

Clockwise from top left: Patricia Preston, Kitty Toll, David Zuckerman and Charlie Kimbell. Photos by Glenn Russell and Mike Dougherty/VTDigger and courtesy of Patricia Preston

In the open and heavily contested Democratic primary race to be Vermont’s next lieutenant governor, four candidates are lining up their resumes to make the case to voters that they’re the one with the experience to take on the state’s second-in-command role.

Vermont’s lieutenant governor position is, most often, largely ceremonial. The bulk of the job is to preside over the state Senate during the legislative session. Lieutenant governors can and often do speak up on major policy issues, but unlike legislators or the governor, they don't vote on legislation, sign it into law or veto it. The lieutenant governor also has to be prepared to take the reins should the governor become unable to serve.

Nevertheless, most of this year’s Democratic contenders are emphasizing their years of experience in the Statehouse in their pitches to replace incumbent Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, a Democrat who is stepping aside to run for Vermont’s open U.S. House seat.

Former Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman has been reminding voters that he spent four years in the first-floor Statehouse office, and before that, nearly 20 years in the Legislature as a Progressive-Democrat. In 2020, Zuckerman vacated the No. 2 spot to challenge Republican Gov. Phil Scott for the state’s top executive position, but lost in the general election with 27.4% of the vote to Scott’s 68.5%.

Now, he wants his old job back.

“I think when people see David, when they're reminded that he's running, they remember the 20-plus years that he spent in public service, championing issues that people really care about, from marriage equality to cannabis reform,” Lisa Gerlach, Zuckerman’s campaign manager, told VTDigger last week. “And we get this extraordinary response of people just being excited to see his leadership back in Montpelier.”

Zuckerman’s list of endorsers emphasizes his progressive chops: He has the backing of labor unions like Vermont’s AFL-CIO and Vermont State Employees' Association, progressive groups like Rights & Democracy and Sunrise Montpelier, as well as a who’s who of Vermont Progressive lawmakers.

Former Rep. Kitty Toll, D-Danville, served in Vermont’s House of Representatives for 12 years, including two terms leading the House’s powerful budget writing committee — a post she has particularly emphasized in her campaign. In those years, she earned a reputation as a socially liberal and fiscally moderate Democrat. She did not seek reelection in 2020, and launched her LG bid in February.

Toll’s campaign manager, David Kunin, told VTDigger last week that the campaign is trying to get the message across that Toll “is a unifier and a consensus builder.”

“If you look at her record, both as a legislator and you look at her time as chair of House Appropriations, she brings people together from all sides of the aisle, both Republicans, Democrats, progressives,” Kunin said. “That's how she works and that's how she would really serve in the lieutenant governor's role.”

Toll’s campaign has also emphasized her existing ties to Montpelier. She’s garnered endorsements from former Govs. Madeleine Kunin and Howard Dean, who both also served as lieutenant governor before assuming higher office. In a recent campaign television advertisement, Toll strides through the Statehouse halls with Dean by her side.

Of all four candidates, Rep. Charlie Kimbell, D-Woodstock, has the most recent experience on State Street; he is finishing out his current term in the Statehouse, where he has served for five years. 

Kimbell grew up in Woodstock and has spent much of his career as an entrepreneur and banker. He’s positioned himself to voters as the moderate contender of the race, including at a VTDigger-hosted debate among the four candidates last month, where he said he gets along well with the Scott administration and “(has) no problems working with a Republican administration.”

He’s called for more police officers to combat drug crime and has said he would be well suited to address workforce development and rural issues as lieutenant governor.

“I have a much different approach,” he said in a recent interview. “I'm a moderate running and I'm currently in the Legislature, where I've had to work through the issues of trying to help businesses stay open or employees stay employed through the pandemic, so that's been the point of differentiation for me.”

Nonprofit executive Patricia Preston, who serves as executive director of the Vermont Council on World Affairs, doesn’t have the same Statehouse experience — nor the name recognition it can bring — as her three opponents. But her campaign manager Liz Amler told VTDigger last week that she thinks voters are excited for the possibility of a “new voice and new perspective,” and many are familiar with Preston’s work in the nonprofit sector.

“It's a new voice in Montpelier, but it's not new to communities across Vermont that she has been on the ground in for nearly the last decade,” Amler said. “I think that's an interesting component of this that, you know, I think frankly has been underestimated, and it's really powering our campaign.”

Even without having served in office, Preston’s campaign has courted financial backing from political heavy hitters well known in Montpelier: Former state Sen. and U.S. Ambassador Peter Galbraith offered up $1,000. Vermont real estate mogul Ernie Pomerleau has sent a total of $4,000 Preston’s way, and his wife, Dee Pomerleau, contributed another $2,000. OnLogic co-founders Lisa and Roland ​​Groeneveld have each donated $2,000 to date, former-Burlington Airport Director Gene Richards contributed $1,500 total and former Merrill Lynch executive and Sugarbush Resort President Win Smith sent over $2,000 total.

Amler said the campaign’s wide breadth of financial backers shows Preston’s appeal across the political spectrum, not just from within the Democratic Party, but with Republicans, as well. As for where Preston considers herself, Amler said, “It’s not about where you fall on the political spectrum.”

“Patricia is not siloed to a particular political segment on the spectrum when we look at progressives or center-left Democrats or anything like that,” Amler said. “And that puts her in the best position to win the primary and the general election.”

Despite its lack of legislative or executive might, the role of LG is a highly visible position in state government, with ample opportunity to interface directly with Vermonters — especially once the Legislature gavels out for the year. During those off months, lieutenant governors in recent memory have made a point to travel around the state and interact with their constituents. Zuckerman himself did so while in office, as did Gray. Scott and Dean have both emphasized their statewide outreach effort while they served in the role before ascending to the governor’s office.

Former LGs have often attempted to propel themselves to higher office, as Zuckerman did in 2020 and Gray is now. Asked at VTDigger’s candidate debate in June whether they would seek higher office, none of the four candidates ruled it out as a possibility.

When it comes to fundraising, Toll has recently had her competition beat. She took an early lead in fundraising, and is also spending big — particularly on television ad buys. According to her most recent campaign finance report with the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office, her camp dumped more than $70,000 into mass media ad buys as of July 1.

How much had her competitors spent on television ad buys in that same time period? None.

But Zuckerman did on Thursday, July 14 launch his first television ad. And according to their campaigns, Preston and Kimbell plan to launch their own in the imminent future, hoping to pack a punch and get their money’s worth closer to primary day.

Asked about Zuckerman’s lack of an appearance on the TV screen thus far, Gerlach was unconcerned. While media is “important,” she said, “it’s just not the biggest focus of our campaign.” Instead, they’re focusing on staffing and face time with voters.

“We're really focusing on our field game and making sure that we can get folks excited and talk to Vermonters, listen to their concerns,” Gerlach said. “Because that's how you really do transformative politics, is by talking to people — not necessarily by throwing all of your money into media.”

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Sarah Mearhoff

About Sarah

Sarah Mearhoff is one of VTDigger's political reporters, covering the Vermont statehouse, executive branch and congressional delegation. Prior to joining Digger, she covered Minnesota and South Dakota state politics for Forum Communications' newspapers across the Upper Midwest for three years. She has also covered politics in Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, she is a proud alumna of the Pennsylvania State University where she studied journalism.

Email: [email protected]

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