Let’s say you are a first-term republican governor running for re-election in a very blue state. There’s a deeply unpopular president who isn’t on the ballot but might as well be. And then, of course, the progressive junior senator who is up for re-election at the same time has gone from being a popular politician to the guy throngs of people write folk ballads about. This is the political view from Governor Phil Scott’s window at the Executive Office Building in Montpelier.
Scott is desperate to prove that he is a different kind of republican. As a tactical matter, he needs to retain the thousands of ticket splitters who helped him win the governor’s office the first time, and making sure these soft votes stay on his side is challenging under the best of circumstances. After all, these folks voted up and down the ballot for the Democrats but crossed over and voted for him. They are the very embodiment of Vermont’s contrarian politics.
But that’s only the beginning of the problem. He is the only statewide Republican officeholder in an overwhelmingly liberal state. Much of his mystique is based on his ability to win, but the governor has yet to really win the hearts and minds of his own right-leaning base, and electability means very little if his base is split and enthusiasm is down amongst voters. Hurt feelings and long primary campaigns are the things of electoral nightmares, and this feud goes right to the core of GOP primary politics in Vermont; moderates and the principle of winnability versus conservatism and purity.
It gets worse. 70% of Vermonters support some form of marijuana legalization, and to believe his rhetoric one would assume that he is feeling rather ambivalent on the issue. On one hand, the job creation angle is compelling, and republicans have always liked to claim that they’re the job creators — Scott is no exception. The problem is that a significant portion of his base are law-and-order types, who have completely bought into the “Reefer Madness” notion of cannabis, cultivated by federal law enforcement over more than seventy years.
Scott also knows that Vermont is being quickly surrounded by places where Vermonters can purchase legal pot. Massachusetts and Maine already have legal access, and Quebec and the rest of Canada will have legal cannabis available by July 1, 2018. Already, Vermonters can access recreational cannabis with little trouble, and legal cannabis is a just a stone’s throw away for the vast majority of residents. So, how and when will we reap the benefits of the “green rush?”
The practical question of access exists in a broader constellation of political concerns, not all of which work in the context of a 2018 re-election fight. Incumbents are most vulnerable in their first re-election bid, and for Scott, that makes the politics of marijuana a no-win issue. He’s bound to alienate part of his base either way, so what’s a first-term Republican governor to do?
If he supports full legalization he is less than authentically conservative. If he opposes and puts up obstacles to full legalization he is stymieing job creation and economic growth. His answer is to duck. The first step, manufacturing political cover for tabling the debate and stretching out a decision beyond the 2018 election. Second, continue to raise questions about a regulatory framework, even though the legislature has already laid one out. Third, throw some red meat to the base by questioning the public safety and law enforcement concerns. Eight states have already figured out ways to make it work but apparently, Vermont, with some of the best cannabis policy minds in the country can’t?
This is a red herring, total balderdash! Scott faces an inconvenient political reality when it comes to pot. Regulated adult-use cannabis is a coming reality, and the governor needs to decide if he’s prepared to lose out on the tax revenue of Vermonters who will happily skip across the state lines to purchase a legal product. His continued obstruction will only serve to diminish Vermont’s position of excellence in the northeast market. Already, tax revenues from the sale of regulated cannabis products are being siphoned from state coffers through Scott’s veto and subsequent inaction; decisions that have lost Vermont millions of dollars.
Cannabis legalization slices right across the republican base and threatens to fracture the majority Phil Scott needs to win re-election. It pits homesteading libertarians against the conservative law and order crowd, and a bullish business community against values voters who see the Green Mountains as slouching towards Gomorrah.
Meanwhile, the 70% of Vermonters who support legalization remain in limbo while Democratic politicians give Scott ample room to punt this issue beyond the 2018 election. Former legalization bill sponsors and supporters are now signing up for his new advisory commission, whose reporting timetable would effectively push the legalization debate out to 2019. This move offers the impression of bipartisan progress without actually doing anything to change the law, while burying the issue in plain sight.
These are the prevailing terms unless Vermonters decide to step up and hold him to account for the promise of a signed legalization bill in 2018 and to extract a political toll from the governor should he fail that commitment. To the extent that politics is the preservation and maintenance of power, his hold on power must remain in question until he proves accountable. To that end, the response must be a vocal and sustained reminder that inaction on legalization will lead to an undesirable political outcome at the ballot box. Nothing short of this will do.
Editor’s Note: Steve May is a licensed independent clinical social worker specializing in addiction medicine, a member of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Advisory Board, and a member of the Richmond Selectboard.