Scott's Constitutional Successor And Political Rival Cries Foul Over Gov.'s COVID-19 Planning

Oct 13, 2020

After President Donald Trump contracted COVID-19, many Americans were suddenly wondering, “What happens if the President dies?”

Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman says Vermonters should be asking the same question about their own governor.

Zuckerman is trying to unseat incumbent Gov. Phil Scott in November. But he’s also the person who would succeed him, if Scott were to become incapacitated or die.

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Zuckerman says Scott has excluded him from the administration’s COVID-19 response team, and he says Scott’s failure to keep his lieutenant governor in the loop could have dire consequences for Vermonters, if the governor is no longer able to fulfill his duties.

“I think when you have something like what’s going on right now, you do as the governor says, which is ‘Plan for the worst, hope for the best.’ How is planning for the worst excluding the next-in-line from being ready to take over if he got sick?”

Scott, who's 62, has won almost universal approval for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. And recent poll numbers suggest he’s doing well with both Republicans and Democrats heading into the November election.

Gov. Phil Scott in May, speaking at one of his administration's regular briefings on the pandemic.
Credit Screenshot / ORCA Media

But Zuckerman, 49, said he doesn’t think voters are aware of what he says is one serious weakness in the governor’s response to COVID-19.

“How would they feel about his handling of COVID if they learned that his administration said, ‘We’re not going include the lieutenant governor in the conference calls to keep him updated on what’s going on in this state during the pandemic?” Zuckerman said in an interview with VPR.

Zuckerman said the issue of succession is no small matter during a deadly pandemic. And he said Trump’s recent bout with COVID-19 underscores the importance of succession contingencies.

“Should the lieutenant governor be aware so that if the governor becomes incapacitated, and I have to make the decisions tomorrow about what we open up and don’t, I would have two months of information about the evolution of our knowledge on COVID-19?” Zuckerman asked.

It’s a line of attack that Zuckerman took to Scott directly at a televised debate on WPTZ recently.

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Scott said he appreciated Zuckerman’s offer to attend meetings of the administration’s COVID response team.

“But we simply didn’t need the help at that point in time,” Scott said. “There’s no playbook here, and we’ve been working very diligently to provide for the relief of Vermonters, and I think we’ve proven that we’ve been very capable of doing so.”

In a subsequent interview with VPR, Scott’s Chief of Staff, Jason Gibbs, was somewhat less diplomatic.

“It is not the responsibility of the governor who is leading the response to a once-in-a-century pandemic to provide an internship to a lieutenant governor who is independently elected,” Gibbs said.

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Gibbs said if Zuckerman wants to be ready to take the reins, then he can do his own homework to prepare.

"How would [people] feel about his handling of COVID if they learned that [Gov. Phil Scott's] administration said, 'We're not going include the lieutenant governor in the conference calls to keep him updated on what's going on in this state during the pandemic?'" - Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman

Gibbs said Scott’s cabinet members are available to Zuckerman to field his questions. He said Zuckerman is also included in a daily update on COVID planning that goes out to all state employees.

Gibbs said there’s a reason the administration has chosen not to include Zuckerman in their cabinet meetings: The governor, he said, places a high value on the chemistry of his team.

“And the reality is Gov. Scott knows David Zuckerman. They’ve worked together in the Legislature for a long time. And Lt. Gov. Zuckerman would not contribute to the chemistry of our team,” Gibbs said.

The death of a sitting governor isn’t without precedent in Vermont.

In August of 1991, Republican Gov. Richard Snelling died of a heart attack less than a year into his two-year term. Then-Lt. Gov. Howard Dean, a Democrat, was sworn in shortly after.

Dean said he liked Snelling, and that they got on well enough.

But he said Snelling hadn’t done much to prepare him for the job.

“He did not include me in anything,” Dean said.

Dean said his lack of insight into the inner workings of the administration initially affected his ability to perform the duties of the office.

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“Absolutely it did, of course, because I knew nothing about what was going on,” Dean said. “I mean, there’s a huge jump between lieutenant governor to governor.”

But Dean said Snelling’s cabinet provided the crash course he needed to get up to speed. And he said he has no doubt that Scott’s team would do the same for Zuckerman.

“The whole administration, if something like that happened, would surround David and help him through all that,” Dean said.

Gibbs said Dean’s assessment is accurate.

“We do have a cabinet of extremely talented and extremely experienced executives that would be ready to brief the lieutenant governor, get him up to speed, should that ever be necessary under any circumstance,” Gibbs said.

"It is not the responsibility of the governor who is leading the response to a once-in-a-century pandemic to provide an internship to a lieutenant governor who is independently elected." - Jason Gibbs, Scott's chief of staff

Gibbs also said that the administration has taken extraordinary steps to ensure Scott does not contract COVID-19.

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“There are a range of health security measures in place in our office and for our staff that are all aimed at significantly reducing the risk to the governor and to the operations of the office,” Gibbs said. “So I think it’s really important for Vermonters to understand that the scenario that you’re contemplating is incredibly unlikely.”

Zuckerman, however, said the pandemic has raised the stakes, and that Scott’s successor needs to be prepared to make critical decisions the moment they assume the office.

And he said for all the good work Scott has done on COVID-19, excluding the lieutenant governor from his coronavirus response team is one shortcoming that’s left the state vulnerable.

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