Following months of hints and whispers, former state Sen. Peter Galbraith officially announced he is running for governor Tuesday, laying out a progressive agenda aimed at shaking up a Democratic primary race that has seen few major policy disagreements.
“This is a remarkable state, but that doesn’t mean we should continue to do things as we have,” Galbraith said in a Statehouse news conference. “So I am running to change a system in Montpelier that too often favors the special interests over the broader public interest.”
Galbraith’s platform boiled down to three big promises: raising the minimum wage in increments to $15 an hour, banning big money from politics and protecting Green Mountain ridgelines from industrial wind projects.
Speaking to a crowd of anti-wind advocates who brought their message to the Statehouse Tuesday, Galbraith was cheered when he pledged to ban industrial wind.
“Global warming is the most serious long-term threat that our planet faces, but this doesn’t mean that all solutions make sense,” he said. “Giant turbines, and the roads built to construct and service them, are destroying Vermont’s most pristine ecosystems.”
The projects are being built, he said, by large companies that have “chosen mostly to locate wind projects in the most remote and poorest communities in our state – in short, in the very places where people are least able to fight back.”
Galbraith repeatedly knocked outgoing Gov. Peter Shumlin, taking issue with what he said was the governor’s modest work on health care and aggressive courting of energy interests.
He called Shumlin’s efforts to award companies financial incentives to stay in Vermont “a sucker’s game that we cannot win.”
Galbraith, 65, of Townshend, served two terms representing Windham County in the Vermont Senate from 2011 to 2015. Prior to that, he held several diplomatic positions including ambassador to Croatia.
Galbraith also took issue with calls from Republican gubernatorial candidates Phil Scott and Bruce Lisman to cap any budget increases to the state’s level of economic growth.
“Holding budget increases to 2 percent will put next to nothing into the pockets of most Vermonters,” he said. “It might mean an extra $5 to those making minimum wage.”
As for the two other Democrats in the race, Sue Minter and Matt Dunne, Galbraith portrayed them as candidates with few differences and with agendas lacking vision.
Galbraith said the other Democrats weren’t progressive enough and that “somebody has to step up to carry the issues.”
The two Democrats welcomed Galbraith into the race Tuesday but steered clear of making policy contrasts.
Former Senate colleagues were mixed in their views of Galbraith. Many said he was difficult to work with, and some questioned his progressive credentials.
At his announcement, Galbraith directly addressed the issue of his “sandbox skills.”
“I make no apology for having stood up for progressive values,” he said. “When you take some of the issues I’ve taken, you annoy the special interests, and there’s nothing like getting the fairy tale out there that ‘Oh, he couldn’t get along.’”
Sen. Anthony Pollina, who ran for governor in 2000 on the Progressive Party ticket and in 2008 as an independent, said Galbraith’s agenda was a “mixed bag.”
“I know that Peter will espouse progressive issues. I think he’ll do his best to sound like a Progressive, but I think as the campaign unfolds, we’ll have some idea about who’s really serious about moving forward with a progressive agenda,” Pollina said.
Even when pushing a progressive issue, he said, Galbraith tended to seek the perfect solution or be willing to consider only his own view, such as when he advocated campaign finance reform.
“He championed it,” Pollina said, “but it had to be his way or the highway. There were times he slowed down the progress we could have made because it wasn’t quite the way he thought it should be.”
Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, one of the more liberal members of the Senate, put it bluntly: “I think his stand on many issues is genuinely progressive. I think his problem has been one of temperament that he does not work well with colleagues.”
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said Galbraith was the toughest legislator to work with in her more than 10 years in state politics. From coffee invitations to her work as chair of Government Operations, White said, Galbraith constantly brushed her off. She said Galbraith once called her a “terrible chair.”
“He managed to let people know that he had the answers,” White said. “He knew not only what we should be doing, but how we should do it.”
Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, was among those who suggested Galbraith’s temperament might be better suited to being a governor than a senator.
“He had very strong ideas that he wanted to push forward,” said Baruth, who considers Galbraith a friend. “In the legislative branch, you have to sort of accept other people’s ideas, weaken what you’re doing to the point where it can eke its way through the building. And he usually had a very strong idea and wanted that, and … that’s more how someone running the operation works rather than someone who’s legislating.”
One of Galbraith’s friends of 40 years, historian Howard Coffin, agreed.
“I know there’s a stubborn streak in him, but I’ll tell you something: A lot of that is based on the fact that he is absolutely brilliant,” Coffin said. “I have known some very intelligent men. This is the smartest person I’ve ever met. His mind moves so fast that he becomes impatient easy.”
Coffin also agreed Galbraith might be better suited for the top job.
“The structure of the Senate, long committee meetings, discussing things over and over again, didn’t fit well with him,” Coffin said. “But he would be, and you’ll see it in the campaign, a governor who has command of all the issues.”
Eric Davis, a retired professor of political science at Middlebury College, said Galbraith could pose a serious challenge in the Democratic primary, pointing to a recent Vermont Public Radio poll in which 51 percent of respondents were unsure of who they would vote for.
Davis also said Galbraith’s jabs at the unpopular Shumlin could help.
Davis and others said Galbraith sounded as though he was trying to adopt a message similar to that of Sen. Bernie Sanders on the presidential campaign trail and could benefit greatly.
“A candidate who puts together a progressive package, the same sort of thing Sanders is talking about nationally, could get some traction,” Davis said.
Baruth, who said Galbraith was always “slightly left” of his Democratic colleagues, concurred.
“His impact is not unlike Bernie Sanders actually, in the sense that if you listen to him today, he’s going to be a loud advocate for a (health care) public option, which hasn’t been heard in years, a loud advocate for a continued approach to single-payer, a loud advocate for a $15 minimum wage,” Baruth said. Those issues haven’t been at the forefront in the race, he said, because the candidates are focusing on economic development, which they believe will be important in the general election.
Coffin added: “The fact that he is something of an outsider, or at least perceived as that, seems to me is an advantage this year where people like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, somewhat outsiders, are running very strongly.”
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