Phil Scott probably did little to impress Democrats in his inaugural address Thursday. And more than a few conservatives who were hoping the Republican would roll out some initiatives more to their liking probably left Montpelier irritated.
That was not Scott’s charge.
The moderate governor boldly played to the middle, and actually used much of his historic address to urge dialogue, civility and compromise. Kicking off his second term and a new biennium during some of the most tumultuous times in generations, Scott sought middle ground and problem-solving.
Policy wonks were left wondering where to attack. Idealists probably swooned a bit. And cynics rolled their eyes at such unlikely outcomes, knowing the challenges facing Vermont require bold direction paved with rocky political intervention and disappointment — not smooth consensus.
But we commend Scott for setting a tone and calling for not only a working relationship with lawmakers, but a call toward bipartisanship and community building at all levels. Faced with a Democratic supermajority, the move served a dual purpose.
“Each time, we’ve gone about our work against the backdrop of a national political environment that’s brought out the worst in the public process,” he began. “Unfortunately, this still exists today, as too many value political points over policy solutions.”
Before outlining the state’s struggles in population, student enrollment, workforce decline and revenue speed bumps, Scott put out an olive branch.
“I truly believe that in Vermont, we can set a standard that others across the nation can aspire to; and elected officials can look to, as a better way — the right way — to go about the work of the people.”
He went on: “And when the work gets difficult, when tensions build — which they will — when divisions seem too deep to overcome, when we need to be reminded that there’s still good in the world — look no further than the people of Vermont.”
Scott pointed to the backdrop of Washington, D.C., without ever mentioning the president’s name; every person in the House chamber Thursday understood why the governor was not lighting fuses or picking fights. We’re tired of tantrums and gridlock.
“The good, the courage to show a better path, is the same courage that allowed those who came before us to persevere through harsh winters, to carve our way of life from granite mountains and rocky hillside pastures,” Scott noted. “The good is in our hearts, it’s in our minds and it’s who we’ve always been. Today, more than ever, it’s who America needs us to be. And to meet the challenges ahead, to best serve Vermonters, it’s who we have to be.”
Scott insisted this is a time for solutions, pointing to a crossroads in order to reverse demographic trends before the state can begin to grow and prosper again.
“We must look for common ground instead of highlighting or exploiting our differences, view consensus and compromise not as a weakness, but as a strength. … And if we can, our work, our actions and our results will inspire a renewed faith in government and give hope to every community.”
He drew his loudest applause when he stated, “Together, we can work toward a more prosperous future for our state and her people. Where families in every town are moving up the economic ladder with a good-paying job and a way of life they can afford. Where all kids get a quality education, with the same opportunity, to achieve their full potential. And where we do all we can to provide for our neighbors who need us most, when they need us most. … An affordable Vermont, with opportunity and economic growth, with great schools in every corner of the state and policies that benefit all Vermonters. This can be our legacy.”
Scott has made a lot of enemies in the state — one of whom attempted to disrupt the inaugural address by heckling from the gallery — when he signed gun control legislation into law last April. His base was irritated with him, and has been, but not to the point of letting the governor’s office go to Democrats, who now have majorities in the House and Senate.
Scott is not the shrewd politician of his Republican predecessor, Jim Douglas, whose political acumen led to some masterful maneuvers when he had the seat for four terms. And Scott is certainly not as progressive and cavalier as his Democratic predecessor, Peter Shumlin.
By all accounts, Phil Scott is just a nice guy. He may have proven it once again Thursday.
With all eyes on his agenda, he asked — mostly non-specifically and yet quite hopefully — for progress.
That’s not nothing. It’s necessary, and often understated. It warrants tremendous admiration, because at a time when haters will hate, Scott knew this speech would be met with criticism against his “nice guy” approach.
After ticking off the areas where consensus was reached in his first term (and aptly omitting some notable bipartisan failures), he concluded, “As partisanship and division have eroded the trust many have in our democracy; as conflict captures headlines far more often than the good work we’ve done to strengthen Vermont; and as reports of our disagreements overshadow all we agree on and the progress we’ve made working together — let’s solve problems and help people.”
This was not a political speech. It was a very human one. We needed that.