Independent Rep. Poirier Challenges Smith For House Leadership

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With the election over, the political jostling is heating up at the Vermont Statehouse.

Veteran lawmaker Paul Poirier plans to run for House Speaker against Democrat Shap Smith. He says he’s running because he believes Smith has not allowed full debate from Progressives, Independents and Republicans.

Paul Poirier was a Democrat for years. In the 1980s he was a House majority leader and a key lieutenant to then-House Speaker Ralph Wright.

But Poirier, who’s from Barre City, became an independent two years ago, and says he’s dissatisfied with Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith. He says Smith has used his position to limit debate on issues such as last year’s controversy over the merger between the state’s largest utilities.

"Many times, when people would get up (to debate), they’d be ruled out of order. And they just bothered me," Poirier said. "We have 150 members in the House; they all represent about the same number of people and I just believe that the House floor should be a place where we encourage debate."

Poirier was on the losing end of that utility merger battle, which centered around whether the power company should refund $21 million to ratepayers .

Poirier describes himself as more liberal than Smith. And Poirier says he’d only put people on the Appropriations Committee who support using the state’s budget reserves – commonly known as the rainy day fund – to fund human services programs

"I think we have gone way beyond the point of just cutting services to the people who are in most desperate need of those services," he said.

Speaker Smith says he welcomes Poirier’s challenge.

"I think it’s great. Democracy’s about having elections. And I look forward to going around and talking to people about why I’d like to continue to be speaker," he said.

But Smith disagrees with Poirier’s charge that he limits debate. Smith says that’s not what the record reflects, and that’s not his style as leader.

"Anybody who got a chance to observe the health care debate last year, or the debate over the energy bill. Certainly over the budget, if people wanted to debate the budget, it certainly wasn’t stifled," he said. "I don’t know what he’s referring too specifically. As somebody who presides over the body most of the time, I can tell you that many of the debates are quite long."

Poirier acknowledges it’s an uphill fight to unseat Smith in the House where Democrats control 96 out of 150 seats.

He says he’ll reach out to independents, Democrats, Progressives – even Republicans – to try to win the speaker’s race. The election is held by secret ballot on the first day of the session.

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