As Shumlin's Approval Numbers Fade, Bruce Lisman Finds His Political Voice
It’s been almost four years since former Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman founded his public policy outfit, Campaign for Vermont. But only recently has he begun using his public platform to castigate the Shumlin administration directly. And his pointed criticism suggests Lisman might be setting the stage for what could be a wide-open race for governor in 2016.
On the day after the November election, Bruce Lisman fired off a missive to media outlets across Vermont. Lisman’s comments went mostly unnoticed in the post-election hubbub. But they were notable for the sharpness of their barbs, including one in which Lisman lamented the “special hell” of “bad ideas executed badly” under the tenure of Gov. Peter Shumlin.
Earlier this month, the retired Wall Street executive circulated another op-ed decrying Shumlin’s quote “disastrous management of the budget.”
Amid technological failures at Vermont Health Connect and the emergence of a $112 million budget shortfall, Lisman said “it appears [Shumlin] is listening little, pointing the finger at others, and not delivering accountability to Vermonters.
In a recent interview, Lisman said there’s a reason for the shift in tone.
“I wouldn’t call anyone from a distance incompetent, unless I thought, well this is fairly obvious to me, and let me explain to you why that’s so,” Lisman says.
"I wouldn't call anyone from a distance incompetent, unless I thought, well this is fairly obvious to me, and let me explain to you why that's so." - Bruce Lisman, Campaign for Vermont
After working on the fringes of the public policy arena, Bruce Lisman seems to be finding his political voice. And it comes in advance of what could be the most wide-open race for governor since 2010.
Lisman has poured well over $1 million of his own money into Campaign for Vermont, the public policy group that has pushed for broad reforms in public education, government spending, and economic development.
Until Shumlin’s near defeat in November, Lisman had mostly refrained from personal attacks on the governor, or no-holds-barred criticism of initiatives undertaken under his watch.
“We really were a high-road, certainly nothing that smacked of political action – more policy action,” Lisman says.
Lately though, Lisman has assumed a more contentious tone. And it comes after a close election that Lisman characterizes as a “rebuke” of the sitting governor.
“And one of the consequences of this election was that people declared what they wanted was someone who was thinking of them and working on their behalf,” Lisman says.
So is he gunning to be that guy? Since founding Campaign for Vermont in 2011, Lisman has deflected inquiries about his political ambition.
He continues to do so today.
“I don’t give it a lot of thought,” Lisman says. “I guess I’m in the same place I’ve been. I don’t give it a ton of thought. Thank you. It’s nice of you to ask it in that way.”
However Lisman, who moved back to his native Vermont in 2008 after a retiring from a lucrative career on Wall Street, has apparently given the prospect of a gubernatorial run enough consideration to have purchased the Internet domain name lismanforgovernor.com.
The domain name was registered on Lisman's behalf last May by the same Burlington design firm that built his Campaign for Vermont website.
He also is polishing his brand with his own website: brucelismanvt.com.
Lisman says he doesn’t regret not running against a Democratic incumbent who proved far more vulnerable than almost anyone had predicted.
“And lots of people have post-election said to me, gosh you should have run, or I hope you run next time,” Lisman says. “And that’s nice. I mean it’s a nice thing to hear. It’s very flattering.”
Lisman says that, for now, he’ll work to influence public policy from under the auspices of Campaign for Vermont, where the organization has given special focus to management of the state budget under Shumlin and the Democratic majority in the Legislature.
The group has a fulltime executive director, Cyrus Patten, who this session has become a fixture inside the Statehouse.
“Growing a budget at nearly 5 percent a year when incomes were coming in at significantly lower rates was a recipe for disaster, particularly because they were using one-time funds and were expanding programs,” Lisman says.
Lisman has also derided the revenue proposal Peter Shumlin has offered to boost funding for Medicaid.
“Do we need a payroll tax? We think not. Should we have a payroll tax? It’s a terrible idea – so an example of bad policy resulting in really bad tactics,” Lisman says.
Lisman donated $25,000 to the Republican Governors Association last spring but says he’s neither a Democrat nor a Republican. He has, in the past, given far lesser sums to individual Democratic candidates for federal office.
"Growing a budget at nearly 5 percent a year when incomes were coming in at significantly lower rates was a recipe for disaster, particularly because they were using one-time funds and were expanding programs," Lisman says.
Lisman’s analyses on the budget, tax policy and education reform borrow heavily from the mind of Tom Pelham, a co-founder of Campaign for Vermont, and a former commissioner of finance and taxes under the administrations of Howard Dean and James Douglas.
Lisman earned perhaps his most prominent public policy role to date in Vermont politics earlier this month when House Speaker Shap Smith asked him to help craft economic development legislation for the Legislature.
In Smith’s lone appearance before a House committee this session, he offered public praise for the 68-year-old Shelburne resident.
“I’d like to say that Bruce and Campaign for Vermont had suggested that this might be a good idea, and I appreciated his willingness to participate in it,” Smith says.
Lisman references his role on the economic development task force as an example of Campaign for Vermont’s mounting influence in the public policy arena.
“We don’t have the answer. Who’s to say this is the right way to do things?” Lisman says. “But we have an answer. And in many cases, it proves to be among the best answers.”
But Lisman doesn’t appear to have any immediate interest in forging alliances with Democratic leaders in Montpelier.
Shortly after House lawmakers gave approval to a $5.6 billion budget Friday evening, Lisman issued a press release. He said the budget featured a nearly 5-percent increase in the general fund – a figure he said far outpaces the 3-percent growth in revenues projected for next year.
“(M)ost of our elected leaders during the campaign season promised to mend their ways and put state government back on a sustainable spending track,” Lisman wrote. “However, now that the Governor and legislators have returned to the Golden Dome, it’s clear they’ve abandoned their promise of moving us toward a more affordable Vermont.”
Campaign for Vermont will unveil its latest policy proposals later this week, when Lisman presents a reform plan for the Agency of Human Services.