Bipartisanship – and constituent anger – raise their heads in apportionment battle

By Rob Roper & Lindsay Smith

On Friday, the Democrats flexed their super-majority muscle in the reapportionment process. In a last-minute effort, House Assistant Majority Leader Willem Jewett announced a plan in the Government Operations Committee on Friday that would have forced three well-respected Rutland County Republican legislators (Bob Helm of Castleton, Andy Donaghy of Poultney, and Bill Canfield of Castleton) to run against each in a newly drawn, two-seat district.

The move, understandably, had Republicans seething. Mike Bertrand, Executive Director for the Vermont Republican Party, expressed frustration over the power of the super-majority, stating, “We can’t understand why the Democrats would want to make this last minute change, and ignore the recommendations of the Legislative Apportionment Board . . . and the only reason we can think of is that they want to make three veteran Republican lawmakers fight each other for 2 seats. This is an unfortunate display of power by the Democrats… they want to flex their muscle even more and force a Republican lawmaker out of office.”

However, Tuesday found the Democrats singing a very different tune.

At the Democratic caucus meeting, Rep. Donna Sweaney (D-Windsor), who chairs the House Government Operations Commitee, announced that the committee had cast a bipartisan vote of 8-3 to abandon their plans for the Castleton/Poultney district and, instead, created a new district composed of Shrewsbury, Ludlow and Mt. Holly.

Sweaney explained the need to alter lines in the Rutland/Windsor districts due to the area’s a loss of population as counted in the last census. The region fairly must lose one of Vermont’s 150 house seats to either Chittenden or Franklin County, which both experienced population growth over the past ten years.

Sweaney admitted that the plan to pit Helm, Canfield and Donaghy against one another “looked really bad,” and that the opportunity of a weekend’s contemplation raised second thoughts amongst the committee. Helping that thought process along were the calls and emails of over one hundred angry constituents from the affected legislators’ districts.

Still, the new map is not without controversy. The Ludlow, Shrewsbury, Mt. Holly district will pit an incumbent Republican, Dennis Deveraux, against and incumbent Democrat, Eldred French. Sweaney referred to both incumbents as her “heroes,” for accepting the arrangement. Deveraux, the Republican, would appear to have the advantage in that an overwhelming majority of his current constituents will make up the new district. This has some Democrats upset.

Also speaking to the Democratic caucus, Speaker of the House Shap Smith praised the committee for their decision and the bipartisan nature of the compromise. Although he allowed that the map would cause some unhappiness, Smith, in a clear expression of his wishes, said, “it’s going to make me very proud as a Vermonter when we vote this apportionment plan out….”

The action will move to the floor of the House where Sweaney will recommend a strike all amendment to the apportionment bill to reflect the new change in the Rutland/Windsor districts. We will see then how well the Democratic caucus adheres to Speaker Smith’s desire to vote the plan out.