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New Leader For Vermont Democrats Has Labor Roots

Peter Hirschfeld
Conor Casey, incoming executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party, says his background as a labor organizer will boost the party's ground game in 2016.

The Vermont Democratic Party has announced a change in leadership as it heads into the next election cycle.

Conor Casey, the former director of legislative affairs at the Vermont State Employees Association, is replacing Julia Barnes as executive director of the party. Casey says his roots in labor organizing will help Democrats improve their ground game in 2016.

Casey grew up in Ireland and says he still remembers the British soldiers patrolling the streets when he was young. Casey’s family left the country for Vermont when he was a child, and he says it was his return to Ireland, after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, that set him a career in politics.

“The British soldiers were no longer there. People were no longer getting harassed,” Casey says. “And so that really made me interested in politics, and saw the good it can do.”

Casey is known best in Montpelier as the former legislative director for the Vermont State Employees Association, where he oversaw politics for the state workers' union. He most recently worked as political coordinator at the Connecticut affiliate of the National Education Association. Starting Aug. 1, he’ll be the new executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party.

“My career has been based on the pursuit of economic justice. And I think that’s what the party stands for. That’s the vision we have to present up and down the ticket, and that’s what’s going to resonate with Vermonters,” Casey says.

The Democratic Party maintains its stronghold over politics in this state, where its members occupy eight of nine statewide offices, and have a near super-majority in the Statehouse.

But GOP gains in the last election cycle, and the loss of a Democratic incumbent at the top of the ticket make this a critical transition year for both parties.

"My career has been based on the pursuit of economic justice. And I think that's what the party stands for." - Conor Casey, incoming executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party

Casey says his predecessor, Julia Barnes, used an analogy to explain his new role to him.

“You need to be the glue that holds everything together,” Casey says.

In a party where members are split over divisive issues like tax policy and the need for more government spending, maintaining cohesion can be a battle.

“Are there disagreements internally? Everybody has disagreements internally,” Casey says. “The important thing is to have a respectful conversation, and to stand unified at the end of the day.”

Attempts at coalition building won’t be limited to within the Democratic Party. A fragile alliance with the Vermont Progressive Party in recent cycles has seen both major parties in many instances unify behind a common candidate.

After the dissolution of a single-payer health proposal, and the adoption of a spending plan deemed too austere by many Progressives and liberal Democrats, preserving that unification will likely become more difficult.

Casey says he thinks his background in labor rights issues will give him credibility with the Progressives. But he says he expects to run Democrats up and down the 2016 ticket. And while he looks forward to bringing Progressives to the table, he says Democratic success doesn’t hinge on their cooperation.

“I believe candidates will emerge who can be supported by both parties, ideally,” Casey says. “But at the end of the day it’s not a make-or-break for us.”

As executive director, Casey will be responsible for the behind-the-scenes work that often means the difference between victory and defeat on Election Day. Democrats have used an impressive fundraising apparatus to bankroll a well-staffed field organization. And its well-honed voter database has allowed the organization to target its outreach.

“But the ground game is what’s going to win it,” Casey says. “Vermont’s a rural state, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to knock on every door.”

According to Vermont Republican Party Chairman David Sunderland, the selection of a longtime labor organizer for the job reflects Democratic priorities that he says are out of touch with Vermont voters.

“Well I think it underscores the close ties between Vermont Democrats and special interest groups who are very motivated by higher state spending and higher taxes on Vermonters,” Sunderland says.

The Vermont Democratic Party has taken in more than $200,000 since the beginning of the year, compared to about $90,000 for the Vermont GOP, according to the latest federal disclosures.

Casey was among a number of long-serving VSEA employees to depart the organization in 2013, amid internal strife that flared when some headquarter staffers tried to oust then-director Mark Mitchell.

Casey says he’s on excellent terms with the VSEA’s current director, Steve Howard, and its president, Shelley Martin, and that he looks forward to partnering with labor leaders in the coming election cycle.

Outgoing Democratic Party director Barnes is leaving to head up Bernie Sanders' presidential primary campaign in New Hampshire.

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