Speaker Withdraws From Gubernatorial Race Due To Wife’s Illness
The Speaker of the Vermont House Shap Smith announced in August that he would run for governor. Three months later, the seven-term state representative stood on the steps of the Statehouse yesterday to tell Vermonters he was withdrawing from the race. As WAMC’s North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley reports, the high-profile Democrat’s exit has shaken up the race for the open seat.
Smith was first elected to the Vermont House in 2002 and has been its Speaker for eight years. After Governor Peter Shumlin announced he would not run for re-election in 2016, Smith was the first Democrat to announce he would seek the state’s highest seat. But three months after starting his campaign, Speaker Smith described how his wife Melissa had been diagnosed with breast cancer earlier in the fall and needs intensive treatment. “A diagnosis like this reshapes one’s priorities. This is a time when Melissa and the kids need me most. Throughout my career Melissa has been my partner. We are partners in everything we do. And I intend to be by her side as she gets better. Although I am stepping away from my campaign I will continue to represent my constituents in the Vermont House and serve the state as Speaker.”
Smith will fulfill his term in the House as speaker but does not plan to run for re-election.
Seven Days Political Editor Paul Heintz says Smith had let some people around the capital know his wife was ill but his campaign suspension came as a surprise. “The speaker has obviously been dealing with this issue somewhat quietly for some time now and I do think that this was a big surprise to a lot of people outside of Montpelier where it was not widely known the Speaker was facing this situation.”
Middlebury College Professor Emeritus of Political Science Eric Davis was also surprised. “We saw after he made his announcement there was an outpouring of support for him from other candidates for the Democratic nomination, from other people in the Vermont community, from Republicans as well as Democrats. So I think this says something about the close-knit nature of the political community in Vermont.”
House Minority Leader Don Turner says he had talked with Smith in the past about his wife’s health issues but was taken aback that his Democratic rival withdrew from the gubernatorial race. “I have respect for the Speaker. You know I’m the voice of opposition so a lot of times I’m questioning him and challenging him and that is my role. We are on totally opposite sides of the political spectrum on a lot of issues, but we do have a cordial relationship. And our thoughts and prayers are with Shap and his family and I respect that he’s taking the time to do what I feel he needs to do and what he obviously feels he needs to do: to be with his wife and family at this time.”
Republican Party Chair Dave Sunderland, who had worked alongside Smith in the House for five years, issued a statement praising Smith’s devotion to his family. “We definitely come from very different perspectives politically. But you know in the end it’s working together with people and having a degree of mutual respect that I think both Shap and I shared for each other, and continue to share. And although we disagree and will lock horns politically I still think of him as a friend and I certainly feel badly for the challenges that he and his family are facing.”
The House Majority Leader has said the Democratic caucus will aid the Speaker during the upcoming session, taking more responsibility so that Smith will have more family time. Seven Days’ Paul Heintz says Smith’s withdrawal from the gubernatorial campaign may keep the legislature on a more even keel during the second half of its biennium. “I think a lot of people were bracing for a legislative session this winter that was going to be filled with political distractions. Because not only was Speaker Smith running but a number of legislators were running or looking at running for Lieutenant Governor and of course everybody is up for re-election next year. So it is possible that with the Speaker focusing on his legislative duties and his family rather than the political campaign that may settle things down a little bit within the statehouse. But I do expect it to be a highly politicized session.”