Out of the Margins: The Vermont Progressive Party
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One measure of the Progressive impact on public policy is the single-payer bill passed in Vermont last year. Prior health care reform campaigns failed either because Vermont had a Republican governor opposed to single-payer or a Democratic governor (Dr. Howard Dean) who pledged support when running for office, but then turned against it after getting elected.
In coordination with a strong grassroots movement, Sanders and the VPP continued to make single-payer a central political issue, keeping the pressure on local Democrats. Current Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin’s previous bid for statewide office—a run for lieutenant governor in 2002—ended in defeat when Progressive Anthony Pollina, a strong single-payer advocate and now a state senator, received 25 percent of the vote.
Determined to avoid that fate again, Shumlin, a millionaire businessman and former Senate president, tacked left on healthcare reform in the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial primary and the general election. He narrowly won the five-way primary and then, with no Prog in the race, defeated Republican Brian Dubie by a 2-percent margin after getting much-needed help from Sanders with last-minute working-class voter turnout. With a Democratic-Progressive majority in both houses of the legislature in 2011, Shumlin followed through on his campaign pledge to introduce a state-level single payer plan—but this first-in-the-nation innovation may still be thwarted, due to business opposition during a complicated multi-year implementation process or any intervening loss of Democratic Party control over the legislature or governor’s office.
In many other states, most labor activists like Vermont NEA organizer Ellen David-Friedman have shied away from “pure” third party activity because they don’t want to back political “spoilers” or, short of that, just mount losing campaigns with no impact on major party behavior or election results. Elsewhere in the northeast, labor-financed Working Families Parties (WFP) were launched instead so “fusion voting” could be used, where permitted under state law, to reward the friends of union causes by giving cross-endorsed candidates an additional ballot line. Banned in most of the nation a century ago (as part of the corporate counter-attack against Populism), fusion allows major party candidates, in states like New York, to garner additional votes on each endorsing minor party’s separate ballot line.
In theory (and sometimes, in practice), this system provides small parties on the left or right with greater leverage because they can punish unresponsive mainstream candidates by withholding their support and running their own competing candidates. New York’s union-dominated WFP has proved generally reluctant to do this, however. Two years ago, WFP leaders cross-endorsed Andrew Cuomo for governor even though he favored public employee benefit cuts and curtailment of labor’s clout in Albany.