Quick - guess who the most popular politician is in Vermont. Hint: It’s a Republican.
I thought it was Bernie Sanders or Patrick Leahy. But Governor Phil Scott won re-election this November with 67 percent of the vote. Bernie won by a similar margin in his re-election but Scott won far more votes - 248,412 to Bernie’s 183,649. Their campaigns came in different years and may be apples and oranges.
But there is little question that Gov. Scott is hugely popular; that Vermonters approve of his work.
For out of state readers, Gov. Phil Scott is a Republican in a Democratic state who just won an overwhelming victory with the support of a lot of Democrats.
Over a sometimes reluctant political career, Scott has built a trust with voters as a state senator, Lt. Governor and Governor. He is also a local champion on the car racing track, a construction company CEO and a VERY disciplined person. And he is from Barre, VT. More on that later.
Democrats like me can quibble. Slow on climate change. Reluctant to spend money and take risks. He steered federal COVID relief dollars to businesses instead of people. Friends on the left have a long list of criticisms. Those on the right are always on alert to Scott leaning to far to the middle.
But on COVID, the governor has distinguished himself.
He has held twice a week press conferences for months to update Vermonters on the status of the virus and government’s response.
These press conferences are open to all reporters from around the state. This is an under-reported innovation. Press conferences are usually attended by the Montpelier press corps, which can be insular and out of touch. These days, the governor takes questions from any reporter calling in from Barton to Bennington. The questions can sometimes sound silly. But it is worth it for both sides because many of the questions come from readers themselves about basic issues.
He has his entire cabinet on the press conference calls, ready to answer questions. The star is unquestionably Health Commissioner Mark Levine, MD, who takes all questions, technical and stupid. Other cabinet secretaries are on the call. Scott freely defers to Levine and the cabinet when he doesn’t know the answer. It is core to Scott’s success: lack of ego. Political lightweights could not handle this kind of pressure.
He has made tough choices and corrects mistakes. When the governor banned gatherings recently, he took a lot of backlash from Vermonters angry about being banned from taking walks on their back roads when restaurants were allowed to stay open. The next week, he changed the policy.
Two weeks ago, amid the national absurdity around whether to wear masks, Scott had had enough. During his press conference he demanded that people wears masks and take responsibility for the health of their community. It was the statement that summed up his approach to the virus, which makes us the safest state in the country. By contrast, South Dakota, whose Republican govenor refuses to push mask-wearing, is the most dangerous.
The statement took personal and political courage in part because Scott is a member of a political party that has yet to acknowledge Joe Biden as the next president and continues to disparage people who wear masks. He is politically safe in Vermont. (He voted for Biden and disapproves of Trump) But our right-wing here is constantly eyeing him for lefty leanings. After all, this is a governor who signed a moderate gun-control bill.
So Scott walks a middle line between the Democrats on one side and the Trump-style Republicans on the other.
But beyond the politics, it is worth asking where the statement came from.
You can read the entire transcript Here. It is on the governor’s website, a sign that he’s not second-guessing himself.
But here is the key line where he takes on those folks refusing to wear masks because it doesn’t fit their looney, faux freedom loving, or more properly - their selfish, ignorant behavior that threatens the lives of others. It is also a strong statement of repudiation of the national Republican party.
"They can do what they want. But please don’t call it patriotic or pretend it’s about freedom. Because real patriots serve and sacrifice for all, whether they agree with them or not. Patriots also stand up and fight when our nation’s health and security is threatened, and right now, our country and way of life is being attacked by this virus, not the protections we put in place."
Wow. Where did that come from? Part of it came from a governor dealing with the virus every day, watching up close as people get sick and die, sometimes because of carelessness and selfishness.
But it goes deeper. Scott doesn’t talk too much about his family. But we know his father was seriously wounded in World War II. He has two daughters and his mom lives in Florida. He said a few weeks ago that he has not seen one of his daughters and his mother in a year. That’s better than the Democratic mayor of Denver who traveled on Thanksgiving despite telling his staff and constituents not to. Or the governor of California who attended a party at a luxury restaurant with no masks last month.
Being from Barre is a little like being from Staten Island, or Canarsie in Brooklyn or parts of the Jersey shore. It's cheaper, so working people live there. Firefighters, cops, government workers and young people starting out can get a good house for under $200,000. It has lots of challenges today. Drug abuse, suicide, neglect of all kinds. It is the granite capital of the world and has a deep heritage around that stone.
The granite was discovered in the 1800s, leading to a massive immigration flow from Italy, Spain, Scotland and elsewhere to mine, cut, transport and polish the stone. Their descendants are still there today.
Phil Scott grew up here and after graduating from the University of Vermont went right to work for his uncle’s construction firm. Years later he became an owner.
I once took a client to see Scott in his business office years ago when he was Lt. Governor. Always good to get there early because you get to learn about people. I asked him about his daily routine. He is up around 4 a.m. for a long bike ride. Mountain bikes, road bikes. He does it all. Then to the office to plan the business day, submitting bids, managing jobs. Then to his office at the Statehouse for politics and governing.
Scott is shy. Not a glad hander. Hates fundraising. Again, he is from Barre. But he grew up around a kitchen table with his Dad and Mom, living symbols of sacrifice and commitment to others, even people they didn’t know in other countries.
Friends refer to him as a “mechanic’’ who takes problems apart and fixes them. I have always thought that Scott doesn’t really like the political thing too much. He has an ego, but he buries it deep.
But he is arguably the most successful, popular Republican governor in the country. That is in part due to his handling of COVID. But it has a lot to do with Barre and growing up with parents who surely would have worn masks.
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