Democrats will nominate candidate to powerful speaker post

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(Host) Vermont Democrats are preparing to nominate their choice for House Speaker this Saturday.

There are two candidates in the race, Mark Larson of Burlington and Shap Smith of Morrisville. Today, Democratic Leader Carolyn Partridge said she would withdraw from the contest.

Because the Democrats have a large majority, their nominee will almost certainly be elected speaker by the full House in January.

The job is an important one, because the speaker chooses the makeup of the committees and which bills will be considered where.

And as VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports, the job has evolved over the years.

(Gavel sounds)
One of the first orders of business at the beginning of a legislative session is the election of the House Speaker.

Usually the majority party is able to determine who will be Speaker but there have been two exceptions in the past 35 years – Timothy O’Connor, in the late 1970s, and Ralph Wright, in the late 1980s, were both elected even though the Democrats were the minority party.

Although the person who’s been elected Speaker has always been a member of the House, State Archivist Gregory Sanford says that’s not a requirement:

(Sanford)"Section 14, Chapter 2 of the Vermont Constitution just simply says that the representatives shall elect the Speaker and then they put no further qualification after that."

(Kinzel) Sanford says the position of Speaker has evolved since 1870. In the early years, most Speakers served a two year term and the office was viewed as a stepping stone to Congress or the Judiciary – John Stewart in 1876 and Kitteridge Haskins in 1898 fit this model:

(Sanford) "Now over time the Speaker has been perceived in different ways, let’s say from the mid- to late 19th century to early 20th century Speakers tended to be younger than governors, they were seen as part of the political elite, and it was generally understood in an informal way that a Speaker would either go to Congress or go onto the Court."

(Kinzel) Sanford says this trend began to change with the election of George Aiken as Speaker in 1933.

(Sanford ) "There were efforts in the 20th century starting around the 1920s, 1930s to make the Speakership a stepping stone towards the governorship so that you would serve as Speaker, then lieutenant governor and then governor. An example would be George Aiken who followed that route."

(Kinzel) Over the last 30 years, the pattern changed again with the election of Stephan Morse in 1981, Ralph Wright in 1985, Michael Obuchowksi in 1995 and Walt Freed in 2001. Sanford says these Speakers never ran for higher office.

(Sanford) "It’s very interesting the Speakership seemed to have come an end in itself."

(Kinzel) This pattern was broken this year when Gaye Symington stepped down to run for Governor.

Only time will tell if her decision marks a return to the past or will stand as an exception to a nearly 3 decade pattern.

For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.


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