Peter Shumlin served three terms as Vermont’s 81st governor before stepping down in 2017. A native Vermonter, he has also served as President Pro Tempore of the Vermont State Senate and as chair of the Democratic Governors Association. Outside of public service, Shumlin runs his family business, Putney Student Travel.
HPR: On a national scale, the political conversation is focused on how divided the country is, but there is more homogeneity in Vermont, a predominantly white and progressive state. How did that affect your governing style?
PS: My terms as governor coincided with former President Barack Obama’s administration. I had a different challenge than the governor does now––with President Donald Trump in the White House––because I had an ally, someone who saw the world the same way that I did. We did great stuff together. The challenge now would be entirely different from what I confronted. I worked with a president who agreed with me that we should have a single-payer health care system, even though he could not do it on a national level; agreed with me that we should reform our criminal justice system and stop putting addicts in jail, non-violent offenders in jail, and we should treat opiate addiction as a disease, not a crime; agreed with me that we should move to renewables as fast as we know how, get off of coal and oil, and hope that we do it fast enough that the next generation has some hope of being able to survive on this planet; agreed with me that early childhood education was the most important years, and where we should be investing; agreed with me that we have to clean up our lakes and waterways.
We worked with Administrator Gina McCarthy and the Environmental Protection Agency to pass the most comprehensive clean water bill in the history of our state. Past governors had always sued the EPA and fought them. I was blessed to serve as a chief executive at a time when we had a chief executive in the White House who had a team who wanted to work with us. Today, you would be playing defense. I had the pleasure of doing offense.
HPR: The current governor, Phil Scott, is of the same party as President Trump, but is not necessarily ideologically aligned with him. If you had any advice to give Governor Scott, what would it be?
PS: It’s funny, when we were talking while he was governor-elect, my advice to him was to participate in everything in Washington, D.C. Do not protest by not going. Try to build relationships there, because you have to do the best you can. Every governor relies on the federal government. About 80 cents of every dollar you get comes from the Feds. If that dries up, you are screwed. At the same time that you oppose Trump on policies that none of us would ever agree to, like the crazy stuff he is doing around immigration, the crazy stuff he is doing on energy policy, the crazy stuff he is doing on health care, you’d better have the best relationships you can with his team in hopes of blunting the damage. They can do real damage to us. My advice was to tread softly and carry a big stick, but you’d better do the treading softly and form good relationships in the hope that you can mitigate some of the damage.
HPR: You pushed for single-payer healthcare during all three terms as governor. It was not successful. What did that experience teach you about how difficult health care policy is and how do you see that playing out in Washington?
PS: I went in with my eyes wide-open on that one. I had never known a political leader from any party who has done health care reform and won with the public. In other words, you do it because you believe in it, not because you think it is going to help you. It never does. If you do not believe me, ask Bill Clinton, ask Hillary Clinton, ask Barack Obama, or ask any governor who has tried to make real change. Frankly, go ask Donald Trump. He has learned that lesson. Even though I did not agree with what he was trying to do, or undo, healthcare is a political dog. But it is one of the most important things we have to fix in America. We spend roughly 30 percent of every dollar on healthcare. If we keep spending money at a rate that is three or four times our income growth, which is what we have been doing for a long time, it will literally bankrupt every single one of us.
We have a dual task of figuring out how we deliver better healthcare for less money and how we stop giving money to for-profit insurance companies, which could go toward our healthcare. How do we make it a right and not a privilege? If you are the president of the United States, you could say, “Let’s do Medicare for all.” In effect, we have a single-payer system right now in America. It is called Medicare, and it just age-discriminates. You cannot get it until you are 65. We know how to do single-payer and we do it well. Whenever people talk about single-payer, they say, “That is so different from what we are doing. That is so radical.” If you think it is radical, talk to my mom and dad. My dad was on it until he died. My mom is on it.
The problem that I ran into was that it was difficult for a state to do single-payer. It was even more difficult for a small state because 70 to 80 cents of every dollar you spend on healthcare in a state comes from the federal government. Their system is so rigid in the way it allocates dollars. It is hard to have a little state turn into a comprehensive, single-payer, publicly-financed plan. My problems were doubly compounded when the Republican Congress took over two years ago. I was trying to get waivers from the Secretary, which I needed to move to a single-payer plan. When they realized they were going to be spending all of their time playing defense on Obamacare, it was much more difficult to get the waivers we needed. Single-payer is coming. It is coming on a national level, certainly state by state. It is the most sensible way to do healthcare. It is how the rest of the world does it. But it is tough for a single state to do. I learned that the hard way.
HPR: Vermont experienced an increase in national political relevance with the Bernie Sanders campaign. How do you think that Vermont’s political and social ideals shaped the national political conversation?
PS: I would go a step further and say it is not the first time. Howard Dean was the first candidate to take social media, raise small donations, and, until the scream, almost become the democratic nominee. He became chair of the party and transformed politics. Without the fifty-state strategy, Barack Obama would not have been elected. Vermont has had an outsize influence informing national democratic politics for the last several cycles.
The question is why, and I think the answer is simple: whether you like it or not, one reason President Trump won was because he appeared to a whole segment of the population to be authentic and say what he thinks, despite what he “should” say or what is politically correct. Bernie, I would say, did well for exactly the same reasons: a different message. But people believed in Bernie Sanders. They knew he would say it how he saw it, even though he was saying things that they had maybe never heard before: single-payer healthcare, education for all.
Howard Dean did the same thing. He came to national prominence not because he was a well-known governor. No one had heard of him. But he is the one who stood up during a time when all the Democrats, including Clinton, were supporting the Iraq War. Dean stood up and said, “I represent the democratic wing of the Democratic Party, and this war is crazy.” In Vermont, we are so small. We are defined by direct democracy. Vermonters expect you to tell it just like you see it, even if they disagree. They do not want to be told what you think they want to hear. That served both Dean and Sanders well. As a result, we have had an outsize influence in American politics recently.
The worst thing about American politics, in my view, is that it has become a career. People do it and they stay there. Last election, Congress had the lowest approval rating in the history of poll-taking, but they still win reelection. They become brilliant at being reelected but fail at getting anything done. You have two kinds of politicians in America. One is the people who do it for a career. They cannot take big risks. They do not dare tell you how they see it because they care about getting reelected. Then there is the group that wants to get things done. That is a dying group in the American political system. They care more about doing it than about getting reelected. I think Howard Dean and Bernie Sanders are both good examples of people who care more about seeing their beliefs become law than they do about having a career in political office.
HPR: What was your big risk?
PS: I took so many of them. I never wanted to go to Congress. I am someone who has to get things done and get a lot of things done. I could not sit through those endless hearings where nothing happens. I cannot wait six years for something to happen. I wanted to be governor of Vermont, give back to the state I love, do three terms, get out of the way, and know that I was never going back. I never worried about getting reelected because I was not making it a career in the first place.
People would argue I took too many risks; I had too many balls in the air; I tried to do too much, and some things failed. People remember the failures and not the successes. I took over during one of the worst recessions in American history, just like Barack Obama. I went in saying, “Listen, to build the economy and jobs we have to be really bold. We are going to be the state that gets early childhood education right because without an educated workforce, we have no future.” It is not like the old days, where you could go to high school and get a great job and make a good living in this state. If we have one of the highest high school graduation rates, which we do, and one of the lowest rates of education beyond high school, we have to fix that. That is an issue of excitement about learning and education as well as financial challenges. I said, “The first thing we have to do is focus on early childhood education and getting a strong start. Let’s be the first state that has universal quality pre-K for three and four-year-olds.” We now do. We are the only state where it is paid for by the education fund.
I said, “Second, we have to totally transform the way we do energy. We are shutting down the aging nuclear power plant that we relied on, which is leaking and tired. We are going to build up our renewables like mad. We are going to turn our utilities into energy efficiency companies from electric distributing companies. We are going to be all in on going green. We will create jobs and reduce our carbon footprint. We will lower rates and put money in Vermonters’ pockets.” All three of those things happened. Vermont is now the number one solar jobs state. We have eleven times the number of solar panels we did when I took office and 24 times the number of windmills. Our biggest utility, Green Mountain Power, is now in the energy efficiency business.
We created the jobs and in Vermont, three of the years I was governor, rates for basic utilities went down while our neighbors’ were all going up. We have the second-lowest rates in New England, lower than any state that borders us. It worked. Then I said, “We are going to try and get a single-payer, government-financed public health care system. And we are going to move from a system that rewards quantity for one that rewards quality.” I failed on single-payer. But we are the first state that has a waiver to reimburse our providers across the state, including Medicaid and Medicare, based on keeping you healthy, not the number of things we do to you. That will transform our healthcare spending.
Then I said, “We have to reform our criminal justice system, treat addictions as a disease and not a crime, empty out our prisons, and use that money to invest in education.” That is what we have been doing. We ended up with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. We ended up with huge job growth. We ended up with incomes actually rising, a big challenge, for all categories of income.
I took a lot of risks. Some of them succeeded, and some of them did not. But that sure beats the politics of today, where people are so averse to risk, because they want to get reelected, that they do not do much in the first place. It is easy to stay popular if you stay in place.
HPR: What is your biggest regret over the past six years?
PS: My biggest regret is getting caught in what a lot of the governors did across America, which was buying into the belief that technology was ready to deliver Obamacare with the push of a button. I am talking about the technology, not the plan. I made the mistake. Every governor that I know, with the exception of one or two, made the same mistake. President Obama faced the same challenges.
The dream in Washington of having technology deliver this product was way ahead of the ability of the companies to deliver. It hurt big-time, because when our exchange was a miserable mess—it works well now, by the way—it undermined my ability to get single-payer done. People said, “If he cannot do that, how is he going to transform our entire healthcare system?” That was a challenge.
HPR: What’s next?
PS: Next for me is nothing to do with electoral politics. I say that with a sense of pride. I do not believe that I would have gotten done what I did if I had been running a popularity contest. Public service did not used to be a career. It used to be a moment in time where you gave back to your country, state, or community. If it becomes a career, you are trapped by the need to get reelected. If you combine that with big money in politics, you have our current democracy.
I am now directing Putney Student Travel, sending high school kids all over the world doing great programs. We have a partnership with National Geographic where we do great summer programs. We have a partnership with the New York Times where we put journalists in different parts of the world with high school kids. They show the students how to be good journalists. We hire graduating seniors and graduate students to lead these programs all over the world. I love doing that, traveling all over the world. It is what I did before I was governor, and I am back doing it again. It is a great life.
Regarding the question “What are you doing now?” people always expect you to say, “Well I’m running for this” or “I want to be the ambassador to somewhere.” I never had those ambitions.
HPR: Now, the most important question: what is your favorite Ben & Jerry’s flavor?
PS: It is hard to pick a favorite, but Cherry Garcia is my favorite. Here is one of the problems with being governor and ice cream: you stop moving. You are always sitting, and I was getting governor’s gut. I had to stop eating as much Ben & Jerry’s as I did before I became governor because it was getting kind of bad. Not the ice cream—my gut.
Image Source: Flickr/Community College of Vermont