Rep. Paul Poirier
BARRE — Rep. Paul Poirier, a Barre independent, said Friday he’s planning to challenge House Speaker Shap Smith, a Morrisville Democrat, for the leadership post in January.
“I’m quite sure that is what I’m going to do,” said Poirier, who plans to make a formal announcement Wednesday. But leaving the door open to a change of heart, he said he’s about “90 percent” certain he’ll run.
A longtime Democrat who first ran as an independent in 2010, Poirier said he has been troubled by what he sees as Smith’s autocratic leadership style — a style he said has marginalized minority parties and chilled debate in Vermont’s House of Representatives.
“We don’t have debates anymore,” said Poirier. “Every time a member of a minority party raises an issue it’s immediately ruled out of order by the majority. I don’t think that’s right.”
Poirier blames Smith, who was first elected to the Legislature in 2002 and has served as speaker since 2009.
“The role of the speaker is to make sure that all sides are heard and that you bring forward the best possible ideas, and that’s what my speakership would be about,” he said. “Republicans have good ideas, Progressives have good ideas, independents have good ideas, and I think to make sure that all those voices are adequately represented in committees and … in conference committees is important.”
Poirier, who was easily re-elected in a contested citywide race in Barre this week, said he has considered the post-election complexion of the House, reached out to lawmakers from all parties and concluded that he should run for speaker when the Legislature convenes in January.
“I feel I can make this a competitive race, and then momentum takes over,” he said.
Poirier acknowledged that his candidacy looks like a long shot. Assuming there is a race for speaker, it will be decided by 96 Democrats — Smith included — 45 Republicans, five Progressives and four independents.
“I know this looks like a huge uphill battle, but I also know that there are people of all political persuasions that have not been happy about the lack of debate on the House floor, which is one of my big issues,” Poirier said.
If the vote were strictly partisan, Smith would win in a landslide even if Poirier persuaded all the Republicans, Progressives and independents to back his candidacy. However, Poirier was a Democrat not all that long ago and has deep roots in the party. As a Democrat he served as House majority leader from 1985 to 1988 and was minority leader before that.
To beat Smith, Poirier would likely need to persuade at least two dozen Democrats to vote for him — something he thinks he has a reasonable chance to do given his ties to the party and the fact that the election is conducted by secret ballot.
“I’ve been through this rodeo before,” he said. “I’m well respected amongst all the political parties and have 16 years of legislative experience.”
Poirier said he doesn’t expect anyone else to enter the race and believes offering an alternative to the status quo is important.
“People should have choices in elections, and I have the backbone to withstand the pressure that the majority party can bring,” he said.
Poirier was first elected to the Legislature in 1980 and served four terms before unsuccessfully running as the Democratic nominee for Vermont’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1988. He was re-elected to his legislative seat in Barre in 1996 and again in 1998 and was just granted his third consecutive two-year term. He said he will bring the same intensity to the speaker’s race as he did to his door-to-door campaign in Barre.
“I may not win, but nobody will outwork me,” he said.
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