University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Bridge Builders

Shap Smith and Phil Scott
Divisive dogma and polarizing politicians may be increasingly the norm in Washington, D.C., but things are typically more civil under the gold dome in Montpelier, Vermont. Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and Democratic Speaker of the House Shap Smith share a heritage as UVM alumni and similar skill in the rare art of reaching across the aisle. 

Phil Scott ’80 has spent much of his life moving between two distinctly different worlds. In one, he’s an industrial arts-loving vocational student who opened a motorcycle repair shop, worked construction, and still races stock cars. In the other, he took college prep courses, earned his degree at UVM, and became a successful businessman and political leader, Vermont’s lieutenant governor since 2010.

Call them what you will—technical versus academic, blue collar versus white, country versus city—spanning these different domains has earned the state’s second-highest-ranking official the respect of legislators from both sides of the aisle and from Vermonters of all walks of life.

Scott, co-owner of DuBois Construction in Middlesex since 1986, appears just as comfortable presiding over the senate as he does hanging out at Thunder Road in his hometown of Barre, where he still races on Thursday nights and is the winningest driver in the modern era.

Under the dome in Montpelier, Scott’s ability to connect broadly once earned him a spot as chair of a senate committee, though he was one of just two Republicans represented. Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin asked Scott to join his cabinet, a designation not automatically assumed by Vermont’s lieutenant governor.

“I’ve never seen Phil do anything that was politically motivated,” says Sen. Dick Mazza of Colchester, a Democrat. “He does whatever is in the best interest of Vermonters. I like his fairness and the fact that he treats everyone with respect and gives them a fair shake. He doesn’t like to take credit for things he’s done, many of which go unrecognized, and that’s rare for a politician.”

Scott says, “I don’t have much patience for political games. I think people know who I am. If I’m not what they want, I’m ok with that, but I don’t want to change to be someone else.”

Scott is a fiscal conservative with a touch of libertarianism who occasionally votes for socially liberal issues like marriage equality. He’s thrifty by nature; while his peers attending recent meetings of the National Governors Association mostly took limos from the airport to the hotel, Scott opted for a $3.05 ride on the Washington, D.C. Metro. “I have a Libertarian streak in me that I think has guided me in different ways,” he says. “I have to look myself in the mirror the next day, and there is something liberating about knowing you did what you thought was the right thing.”

Scott is deeply influenced by the memory of his father, Howard, a World War II veteran who lost his legs, teeth, and part of his liver when a land mine hit his tank during the D-Day Invasion. A series of Western Union messages sent from Walter Reed Hospital to Scott’s grandmother indicated that her son’s condition was grave: “It doesn’t look good for Howard. He isn’t doing well. He has hepatitis. His condition is grave.” After two years in the hospital, however, Howard Scott returned to Vermont, where he worked for state government in vehicle permitting, married Marian Beckley in 1955, and raised a family.

“I thought a lot about my father when I voted against Death with Dignity,” says Scott. “Doctors could have asked my father ‘Do you want to call it a day? Because we don’t think you are going to make it’ and given him something for the pain and let him check out on his own. Had he taken that route, I would not be here today, and that resonated with me. The Death with Dignity vote was a difficult decision, but my background, history, and family brought me to where I was—which is how we form our opinions, based on these experiences.” After leading a full life despite the trauma of World War II, Howard Scott passed away in 1969.

When Phil Scott was a teenager, his mother was remarried to Bob Dubois, co-owner of Dubois Construction. Scott started working construction in the summer, delivering newspapers, mowing camp lawns at Lake Elmore, and taking a youthful venture into entrepreneurship with the purchase of a paddleboat that he rented to campers.

“I’ve tried to bring that work ethic to this office,” says Scott, whose day starts with a stop at Dubois Construction at 6:30 a.m., then on to the statehouse by 8 a.m.  Job creation is one of his top priorities, he says, and part of the reason he started the “Vermont Everyday Jobs Tour” that took him to dozens of businesses. Scott says, “It confirmed my belief that we have an affordability crisis. I worked alongside a lot people working two or three jobs and not making ends meet. I see them at Thunder Road in the pit area, just regular folks trying to get by.”

For his college years, Scott’s dueling desires to work with ‘anything mechanical’ and to become a teacher led him to the University of Maine at Gorham (now the University of Southern Maine) to become an industrial arts teacher. He eventually transferred to UVM, where he graduated with a bachelor’s in industrial engineering and a teaching certificate. But the immersion of the student teaching experience gave Scott a sense the profession wasn’t for him after all. Calling on both his mechanical and entrepreneurial inclinations, he opened a motorcycle shop in Morrisville.

A series of frustrating experiences with government, including a cease and desist order from the Act 250 Commission after he’d finished building about 90 percent of a new motorcycle shop, prompted Scott to enter politics by  “naively,” as he puts it, running for the state senate in 2000. 

“I can tell you with certainty that I didn’t have a political bone in my body until I was in my thirties,” Scott says. “I don’t have to be in politics; it’s not something that drives me. Some people are devastated if they don’t get elected to a certain position; I’m not one of them. So if I were to lose tomorrow, life would go on. I’d feel good about my time serving Vermont.”

Shap Smith
It’s day thirty-one of the 2013-14 Vermont legislative session, and the docket before the Vermont House of Representatives looks somewhat dry. Gas pipeline safety, veterinary dentistry, and a resolution congratulating the Montpelier Bridge on its twentieth anniversary are among the agenda items. But things start to roll when Speaker of the House Shap Smith ’87 walks into the chamber. He chats with legislators, cracks a few jokes, looks over his notes, then walks to the podium and brings the room to order with the pound of his gavel.

You wouldn’t know it from his demeanor, but the six-term representative from Morrisville, known for his quick wit and boundless energy, finds the job he’s held since 2009 a bit lonely and not unlike that of a traffic cop. That said, he loves almost every second of it.       

“I enjoy the job, but it can be incredibly intense and is much more all-encompassing than I ever thought it would be,” says Smith, who graduated from UVM with a degree in political science. “One of the biggest challenges of being in the speaker’s office is that it can be isolating. Even though you see a lot of people, they are sometimes less inclined to be as forthright as they might be with others because of the power of the position. So trying to pull that out of people is challenging. You have to figure out who you can trust to give you the straight scoop.” 

Smith, an attorney and shareholder with the Burlington law firm of Dinse, Knapp & McAndrew, has received high marks for his performance in a job known for rapid turnover, brutal hours, and little gratification. “You better take advantage of the good cigars,” U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said, because “you don’t get much else in that job.”

 “I’m always trying to get the pulse on issues by trying to understand the people who are making the decisions, what’s important to them, and where you can push and where you can’t push people,” Smith says. “You have to be a really active listener in this job to be successful. The more that you’re talking, probably the worse job you are doing. In the end, while the policy is incredibly important, it doesn’t happen if you don’t understand the people who are making it. And I enjoy that part of it.”

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin says Smith has a rare skill for building consensus among disparate groups.  “I’ve worked with a lot speakers over the years, and he has to be considered the best, most capable speaker in recent memory,” says Shumlin. “Part of the reason for Shap’s success is that he’s a bright, thoughtful person who people want to work with, laugh with, and just be around.”

Rep. Carolyn Branagan, a Republican from Georgia, Vermont, joined the house the same year as Smith. “I really respect him as speaker, and I trust him as a fellow legislator and as a friend,” she says. “We are from different parties and don’t often vote together, but I feel that I have access to him in spite of that. He’s always willing to share ideas with me.”

Smith says his job would be impossible without adhering to a strict daily schedule that starts at 5:45 a.m. with a check of his legislative email. After getting his two kids ready for school with wife and fellow UVM alum Dr. Melissa Volansky ’89 MD ’96, he drives to Montpelier, surfing the radio between Vermont Public Radio, WDEV, and the Newstalk 620 WVMT for the news and issues that might influence the day’s agenda. He then joins about a dozen “early bird legislators” to get a sense of the buzz about various bills under consideration before meetings with the leadership team, house members, senate leadership, the administration, advocacy groups, and constituencies. Keeping an eye out for potential jams in the legislative flow, places where intervention and conflict resolution might be called for, is a high priority. 

A runner since his high school years, Smith makes the time amidst the mayhem for five miles or so daily. He says it’s essential to clearing his head, maintaining perspective. Smith competed in cross-country for one year at UVM, but mostly his priorities were elsewhere. He was active in student government, the Boulder Society, and his fraternity, worked as a resident assistant, and led campus tours for the admissions office.

Smith arrived on campus a Republican, but soon realized he thought more like a Democrat. “I wasn’t a particularly avid Republican when I got to UVM; I was pretty wayward actually,” he says. “Shortly thereafter I self-identified with the Democrats. I think it probably had to do with divestment from South Africa, which I voted for in the student senate. All of my experiences at UVM shaped the person I am today in a really positive way.”

Smith earned his law degree from Indiana University, then worked with a New York City law firm for several years before returning to Vermont and joining his current firm. He ran for the Vermont House in 2002 and has built his legislative career with a particular focus on issues around education, poverty, infrastructure, and the environment.

Smith says he’d like to serve the state in a different capacity at some point in the future, but those considerations take a back seat for the time being. “For me, it’s really important to live in the moment of what I’m doing,” Smith says. “If I’m thinking about what my next step is, I’m worried that I’m not doing the job that I should be doing now.”

Smith is grateful for Montpelier’s relatively cool political climate and spirit of cooperation. “The majority of the time legislators are going to put aside their partisan differences to try to make sure that we do the things that are going to make Vermont a better place. We get a lot of things done and have the opportunity to do a lot of different things that many other states wouldn’t because of our size and scale. There really is a personal touch to the legislature that does not exist in other places.”
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