Sept. 15 (Bloomberg) -- Vermont has one farm for every 90 people, one cow for every three and, lately, at least two bulldozers, backhoes or other heavy equipment for almost every road. The last statistic is good luck for Governor Peter Shumlin.
After Hurricane Irene damaged hundreds of homes and miles of byways across Vermont’s southern half, entire towns were cut off. The damage to roads and bridges, which may cost as much as $500 million to fix, was heaviest in places such as Wardsboro, a mountain hamlet of 900 people, roughly equidistant from the Mount Snow and Stratton ski resorts. Roads through the town were washed out, homes teetered on stream edges and trees tumbled down hillsides.
Shumlin, a 55-year-old Democrat, helicoptered in to Wardsboro three days after the storm. People hadn’t been waiting. A small fleet of machinery owned by farmers, towns, loggers and construction firms had started rebuilding roads, improvising bridge crossings and removing debris from flooded rivers before the storm had entirely left.
“It was amazing,” said Lora Barrows, working at the town’s general store. “Without those crews, we wouldn’t have any roads. We didn’t see anyone from the state until three or four days after the storm.”
Did she expect much help?
Health and Nukes
Even with floods twice this year, Shumlin has been lucky. In most states, a politician who promised to eliminate a nuclear power plant, provide single-payer health care and expand broadband access to small mountain communities would be a fringe candidate. In Vermont, that candidate became governor.
Shumlin has made strides on two of his three promises. The Legislature voted in February 2010 not to renew the license for the Vermont Yankee facility, owned by Entergy Corp. Shumlin signed legislation in May creating a panel to recommend steps for implementing the nation’s first single-payer health- insurance plan. Broadband access may take longer, mostly because of topography.
Shumlin was optimistic in a telephone call made as he bounced over roads leading out of the Mad River Valley that ranged from rutted to nonexistent. The rains will make fall foliage better than ever, he said. The damage is an opportunity to rebuild roads and bridges. Three-quarters of the state was untouched, and the cleanup showcases residents’ character, he said.
Shumlin has avoided weather-related pitfalls that ensnared other elected leaders. Former Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco decided not to run for re-election after the state’s preparation for hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which destroyed much of New Orleans and the state’s coast, became an object of derision. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News LP, faced criticism last year after a post- Christmas blizzard dumped 20 inches of snow and some streets went unplowed for a week.
At a national level, Vermont voters are among the nation’s most partisan. They gave President Barack Obama his second- largest margin of victory in 2008, trailing only his native Hawaii and going Democratic every year since 1992. Shumlin, however, hired his Republican predecessor’s transportation and administration chief, Neale Lunderville, to supervise recovery.
Pat McDonald, head of the Vermont Republican Party, said in a telephone interview from Montpelier that one of Shumlin’s biggest assets at the moment is his constituency. Both Democrats and Republicans can fix things, she said.
“We all have backhoes and chainsaws,” she said. “That’s just Vermont.”
Putney to Montpelier
Shumlin, who grew up in Putney, is the first native elected governor in a generation. Mildly dyslexic, he helped steer Landmark College, a school that prepares learning-disabled students for broader academic work, from Prides Crossing, Massachusetts, to his hometown. Governor Madeline Kunin plucked him from its select board in 1990 to fill a Vermont House of Representatives seat. He was elected to the state Senate in 1992, and became its leader in 1994.
He took a break in 2003 after being defeated in the lieutenant governor’s race by Brian Dubie, an American Airlines pilot and Air Force reservist who helped direct flights into New York City after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Shumlin and his brother, Jeff, expanded their parents’ student travel business created in 1951 into a firm that offers more than 50 programs, including co-sponsored expeditions with National Geographic, while operating out of a restored cow barn.
Shumlin ran for his former Senate seat in 2006 and returned to lead the body, pushing its vote to close Vermont Yankee. He also clashed with Republican Governor Jim Douglas, resulting in the state’s first veto and legislative override of a budget.
In 2010, Shumlin defeated Dubie by 3,000 votes in a rematch to succeed the retiring Douglas as governor.
Three months into the job, Shumlin faced his first disaster. Record floods along Lake Champlain in April and May destroyed or damaged about 500 homes near Burlington, the state’s largest city. Shumlin called it “a dress rehearsal. And four months after the flooding, most of our businesses are back.”
Tough on Business
Shumlin acknowledged that after Irene, many businesses “have been knocked off their feet.” They weren’t on the best footing before. A February study by the Washington-based Tax Foundation said the state has the eighth-highest tax burden of any state. A May survey of the best states for businesses by ChiefExecutive.net ranked Vermont No. 40. Kiplinger’s magazine described it in June as the most tax-unfriendly state for retirees.
Lawmakers had to close a $176 million deficit in the $4.8 billion spending blueprint this year, largely through cutting social services and raising taxes. Before Irene, the Legislature’s joint fiscal office estimated a $45.6 million gap next year.
Moody’s Investors Service in November gave the state its top rating because of its “strong history of financial management, which includes conservative fiscal policies and the maintenance of healthy reserve balances.” Moody’s warned of an aging population, below-average income and slow job growth.
McDonald, the Republican leader, said her party has been able to work with Shumlin on a few issues, such as strengthening small farms and expanding broadband.
“There’s been a real lack of focus on job creation,” she said. The state had a 5.7 percent unemployment rate in July, compared with 9.1 percent nationally, continuing a steady rise from 5.3 percent in April.
The storm isn’t likely to help the economy, heavily dependent upon tourism. The University of Vermont’s Tourism Data Center estimated in 2009 that 11.5 percent of all Vermont jobs are supported by tourists, who spend $1.4 billion annually. From September through November 2009, 3.6 million visitors spent $332 million, or 23 percent of the $1.4 billion annual total, according to the latest state data.
Vermont employees have their own problems. The flooding swept through an office complex near Waterbury, which was built around the 1894 State Asylum for the Insane. About 2,000 employees who normally operate from the offices need to find somewhere else to work for the next three or four months; damage has been estimated at $15 million to $20 million.
Still, tourism department officials are stemming a tide of cancellations. Crews are working long hours to fix roads. Shumlin has been shuttling from town to town, dispensing hugs, offers of assistance ranging from refrigerators to reduced rent, and generally being “cheerleader-in-chief,” according to Chris Graff, a Montpelier author who covered politics for 28 years.
“The truth is,” Graff said, “he usually ends up on his feet.”
Peter Shumlin at a glance:
Born: March 24, 1956, Brattleboro, Vermont
Children: Olivia, 20, and Rebecca, 19
Education: Bachelor of arts, English and government, Wesleyan University, 1979
Career: Co-director, Putney Student Travel Partner; Vermont real estate companies; Putney Select Board, 1980-90; Vermont House of Representatives, 1990-93; Vermont Senate, 1994-2003, 2006-2011
Favorite dish: Pasta carbonara
By the power vested in him: Shumlin is the first sitting governor to preside over a same-sex wedding ceremony.
--Editors: Stephen Merelman, Mark Schoifet
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