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For Democratic Party Leaders, Labels Matter

The Vermont Democratic Party is among the most powerful political organizations in the state. And its vast electoral resources have been the difference between victory and defeat for many candidates.

But not everyone with a ‘D’ before their name gets to enjoy all the benefits that the Democratic Party has to offer.

Late last month, glossy color mailings arrived in the mailboxes of likely Democratic voters across the state. Replete with pictures of smiling candidates, they served as a sort of voters’ guide to the 2014 elections. And they listed all the Democrats the party wants Vermonters to support in November.

Conspicuously absent from the list, however, was Progressive/Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor Dean Corren. Not a single Progressive/Democratic fusion candidate running for House or Senate made the cut either.

It’s an omission that doesn’t sit well with some issue-oriented Democratic activists.

"I'm disappointed that the Dems aren't working with the Progressives to do this together. You know the old saying - a liberal firing squad is a circle." - Renewable energy entrepreneur and Democratic donor David Blittersdorf

Blittersdorf is among the  Democrats’ biggest benefactors. And he says if Progressive/Democrats are going to support issues dear to the hearts of Democratic diehards, then the party ought to give them the nudge they need to best their Republican opponents.

Not every Democrat sees it that way.

“There are people that I think realize that the only way they are going to get any traction on a statewide basis or even, let’s say local Senate or House races, if they are both a Democrat and a Progressive,” says Senate President John Campbell. “And I just think that is not being true to one’s political self.”

Campbell, a Democrat who is backing Republican Phil Scott over Dean Corren, says party resources should be limited to party purists.

Campbell says he lobbied party officials to keep Corren’s name off the mailings. And he says he’s sought to limit the Democratic Party’s electoral support for P/Ds in other ways as well.

So who decides who’s on and who’s off? That power falls to a group of party leaders, members of which the Vermont Democratic Party won’t name. Julia Barnes is the executive director of the party. She says part of the rationale for the differential treatment is that Progressives haven’t paid for the substantial costs associated with the party’s work.

“They’re also Progressives. They have a different party, they do different kinds of work,” Barnes says. “And I don’t think this would even be a question if we were talking about Republican/Democrats.”

The political platforms of Democrats and Progressives happen to overlap on a great many issues, however, and the fate of P/D candidates this fall could figure in Gov. Peter Shumlin’s ability to secure a public financing package for his single-payer health care proposal.

According to several people familiar with the process, decisions about what level of support to provide to Corren have been made by representatives of federal and statewide officeholders paying into what’s known as the “coordinated campaign.”

Barnes says Democrats will support Progressive/Democratic candidates. It’s just that when it comes time to get out the vote, support for Corren and other P/D candidates won’t be as robust as it is for straight Dems.

Barnes won’t say precisely how support for Corren will differ from that being provided to straight Democratic candidates. She said there won’t be another statewide mailing before the election that features specific candidates.

Washington County Sen. Anthony Pollina is a P/D fusion candidate who faces a tough Republican challenger. Pollina says he could use the Democrats help this year. And he says he know a lot of Democrats who wish the party was willing to give more of it.

“So I actually think it means that sometimes the party leaders are out of step with what majority of their members are doing or feeling around the state,” Pollina says.

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