Vt. GOP Opts for New Leader
Former Rutland Town representative David Sunderland gives a speech before being elected chair of the Vermont Republican Party during their convention
in Montpelier on Nov. 9, 2013. (Times Argus - Jeb Wallace-Brodeur)
Vermont Republican Party members hold up their ballots while voting for a new chairman during their convention in Montpelier on Nov. 9, 2013. (Times Argus - Jeb Wallace-Brodeur)
Montpelier — Escalating discord within the Vermont Republican Party came to a head Saturday in Montpelier, where the organization’s state committee rebuked current leadership by selecting a new chairman who promises “to rebuild.” Former Rutland Town Rep. David Sunderland won a decisive victory over John MacGovern on a platform that hews to the fiscal issues — taxes, health care and spending — on which Sunderland said all Republicans can agree.
The race between Sunderland and MacGovern, a Windsor resident, was in many ways a proxy war between two factions that have been battling for nearly a year now.
And it represents a win for a bloc of disaffected Republicans who faulted outgoing chairman Jack Lindley for his allegiance to a Republican National Committee whose social conservatism, they said, repelled the centrists who swing elections in Vermont.
“At this critical, pivotal moment in our party’s history, we have a unique opportunity to change,” Sunderland told nearly 200 GOP diehards who crowded into the Elks Club in Montpelier. “We can change the way we do business, shedding the past legacies of top-down management and opting instead for teamwork, openness and transparency.”
The event was the party’s biannual reorganization at which members of the state committee elect officers for their party’s governing board.
Candidates for positions on the board offered kind words to Lindley, who nearly died last month after falling suddenly ill. But their remarks about the state of the party amounted to a stinging indictment of his tenure.
Lindley, for health reasons, did not seek another term and threw his weight behind MacGovern, who fell by a 48-30 margin to Sunderland.
“The policies of the past have failed. The losses in 2012 were devastating,” Sunderland said. “This is our chance to change for a better tomorrow.”
The five-person board elected Saturday, however, doesn’t represent a total departure from the past. Incumbent party treasurer Mark Snelling retained his seat, despite his very public war of words with Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and Sunderland in recent weeks.
Snelling had accused them of seeking to commandeer the party apparatus and use it for the benefit of Scott’s personal political fortunes.
Sunderland, in turn, issued an especially ardent plea to the 78 voting members of the GOP state committee Saturday to dispatch Snelling, and elect Deb Bucknam, who most recently served as interim chairman when Lindley was incapacitated.
Sunderland laid blame at Snelling’s feet for a feeble fundraising effort by the party that has landed it in a $27,000 hole as of Oct. 31.
But Snelling prevailed, by a two-vote margin.
Both men said they’ll be work together, despite their differences.
“We’ll get along just fine,” Sunderland said. “Mark’s a very capable leader and I look forward to working with him on the executive committee.”
After weeks of inter-party bickering, much of it conducted through the media, GOP leaders prevailed on each other for magnanimity going forward.
“The last couple of weeks have been a bit rough for all of us in our party,” Scott told the crowd. “The good news is that Vermonters are talking about us. The bad news is that it may not always be in a positive light.”
Jay Shepard, one of the GOP’s three delegates to the Republican National Committee, said the party needs to unify heading into the 2014 election year, and stop airing its dirty laundry in the public.
“We as a party need to stop taking family matters into the street,” Shepard said. “As we sit here the Democrats are planning another step in taking away our liberties, our freedom and our way of life … We need to come together and we need to know who the real enemy is. The worst Republican I know is a much better person than Barack Obama.”
Saturday was in most respects a win for the moderate wing of the party, members of which said the GOP can be inclusive of its more socially conservative members without allowing issues like abortion and gay marriage to occupy space in the party’s public messaging.
Scott, who angered many conservatives recently by standing next to Gov. Peter Shumlin during a press conference about problems with the state’s new online insurance exchange, said no one should doubt his commitment to the party.
“I realize some of you have been concerned about my perceived closeness to the current administration, and I want to be loud and clear about this: I would much rather there was a Republican governor,” he said.
In his nomination speech, MacGovern advocated for a more forceful public defense of the divisive issues that moderate Republicans view as political liabilities in one of the most socially liberal states in the nation.
“And when I hear Republican elected leaders talking about not mentioning, mollifying, even abandoning some of those principles, I’m deeply, deeply concerned,” MacGovern said.
MacGovern, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate against Bernie Sanders last year, said two conservative principles in particular need of defense from Vermont Republicans are “the right to life,” and the “protection of marriage and of family.”
Brady Toensing, a longtime GOP operative who once defended Brian Dubie against alleged campaign finance violations, was the unanimous choice for vice chairman. Supporters said the “opposition research guru” would provide needed tactical expertise to an organization looking to refine its electoral strategies.
Jackie Barnett was reelected secretary. Randy Brock and Wendy Wilton of Rutland, who ran unsuccessfully for governor and treasurer, respectively, last year, were selected as at-large delegates to the executive committee.
Despite its brutal showing in the last election and its recent internal strife, Scott said the GOP is a party on the rise. Since announcing a fundraiser next month at which New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will deliver the keynote, Scott said the party has already sold more than 160 tickets, and secured $50,000 in sponsorships.
“Self-identified Independents, and Republicans we haven’t seen for quite some time, are giving us another look,” Scott said. “I truly believe that things are looking up for us.”