Beyond The Burn: An Interview With David Zuckerman
BURLINGTON, Vt. — If there’s someone who represents the Bernie Sanders recipe for success as a progressive politician, it’s David Zuckerman. Since he was first elected to represent the UVM district in Burlington in 1996, Zuckerman has stood out in Vermont politics for his political positions, his ponytail, and his day job as an organic farmer. More than anyone else in Vermont politics, he’s been the champion for cannabis reform, but that’s only been one plank in his progressive platform.
During his two decades in Vermont politics, Zuckerman’s true success has been mobilizing and organizing grassroots support for progressive issues from same-sex marriage to GMO labelling to livable wage — and earning enough political clout to guide these issues into mainstream political conversations. Now, he’s almost a full year into his statewide campaign for Lieutenant Governor, running against the ambitious Kesha Ram and Democratic establishment darling House Speaker Shap Smith. Zuckerman sat down with Heady Vermont Editor Eli Harrington to discuss his campaign, the progressive political playbook, and how cannabis reform efforts have evolved over the course of his decades of advocacy.
Bern’ing Before It Was Cool
It’s one of those perfect Vermont summer afternoons around 4 p.m. and a sweet breeze is blowing through the Intervale Center in Burlington. Roughly five minutes into my conversation with Chittenden County Senator and Lt. Governor candidate David Zuckerman, a man with white hair and a beard who has just picked up his CSA slows down to yell, “I’m voting for you!” “I’m glad to hear that, thank you,” responds Zuckerman, and a few lines later, the car rolls slowly out of the unpaved parking lot.
Roughly five minutes into my conversation with Zuckerman, a man with white hair and a beard who has just picked up his CSA slows down to yell, “I’m voting for you!” “I’m glad to hear that, thank you,” responds Zuckerman, and a few lines later, the car rolls slowly out of the unpaved parking lot.
We had just been discussing Zuckerman’s political origins and how as a UVM student in the early 1990s, he was inspired by a local politician by the name of Bernie Sanders. “In ’92, I heard about Bernie Sanders, our congressman and I thought, ‘wow, there’s an independent, someone who’s not bought out by corporate politics and who just states what he believes and he wins or loses based on straightforward ‘here’s what I stand for,” and that really inspired me to shed some of my cynicism about politics as many young people rightly have.”
“You were the original Bernie Bro!” I half-jokingly exclaimed. Zuckerman smiles and gives a glancing and knowing chuckle, There were plenty of others as well, but ultimately, I was inspired by Bernie in ’92 the same way that so many people are inspired by him in 2016. I volunteered for his campaign, got to know a lot of other folks in the Burlington area who were active in progressive politics — moving an agenda of social and environmental justice forward — and I helped those folks in their campaigns and merged as a campus organizer for many of them, and I was asked to consider running in 1994; I actually hadn’t quite graduated yet.
I did lose that race by 59 votes and I did have Bernie’s endorsement then— I’ve had it ten times, every House and Senate Race, I’m the only candidate in this race to ever have been endorsed by Bernie and maybe more than anyone else ever has been, ten times!
“I’m the only candidate in this race to ever have been endorsed by Bernie and maybe more than anyone else ever has been, ten times!”
It’s this point in our conversation when the gentleman in the hybrid pulls up to give Zuckerman the shout-out of support. “Yea it’s for Heady Vermont, an online cannabis publication,” he yells to the driver before turning back to me, “I don’t know if you know Huck Gutman? Longtime friend of Bernie.” “Only in name,” I reply, downplaying that the longtime UVM English professor we’re speaking to is Senator Bernie Sanders’ former chief of staff, co-author of his political biography, and a confidante who’s been at the center of progressive politics in Vermont (and by extension, the rest of the country). Zuckerman then turns back to excitedly remind Gutman that this Saturday at the farmers’ market he’ll likely be selling his first sweet corn of the season … Vermont politics.
Unfortunately for Zuckerman and his campaign, he also shares another common trait with Bernie that give his establishment opponent an advantage in the Democratic Party: resistance from the entrenched Democratic party power brokers. For political campaigns, data about voters is absolutely crucial, allowing them to target and deliver their messages to very specific groups of voters, even more crucial during a primary election. However, as WCAX noted, the Vermont Democratic Party leadership has determined Zuckerman isn’t enough of a party loyalist and therefore can’t subscribe and buy the same voter data as his opponents. Sound familiar?
As Zuckerman told WCAX, “I think a lot of Vermonters and voters both here and across the country are showing that folks are tired of party establishment politics and really issues matter more, and I’ve always been an issues-based political figure.”
Building The Pot Platform and Walking The Plank
Zuckerman’s first campaign signs in the 1990s were all black with his name in white text and the Rastafarian red, yellow, and green colors in the background to show his support for cannabis reform. With the drug war in full swing in the mid-90’s, a young, pony-tailed recent UVM graduate supporting cannabis might not have been a surprise, but it was still a bold position to take. However, Zuckerman demurs:
Well, we do have to put a little context into it, that I represented the UVM district so it wasn’t quite as bold from that district as it might have been from others, but I felt a real opportunity as someone representing a district that was both the UVM student district, but also the permanent residents in that area who were also very progressive-minded — on this issue, on universal health care, on environmental reforms for the future for our kids. So in some ways, being from that district, I felt there was a real obligation to push the envelope as far as possible. Ultimately, some people from other districts couldn’t be so bold on the issues, so there’s both an honor and an opportunity when you represent a district like that, but also a responsibility because if you don’t push the issues, folks from other districts can’t.
While Zuckerman has found greater political success than some other longtime reform advocates (see ‘Ericson, Cris’), he certainly wasn’t the only one who saw marijuana legalization as a gateway issue to engage voters, especially younger ones. Some will remember homegrown activist and political catalyst Hardy Machia — a sincere RIP to a homegrown Vermonter who inspired and affected thousands with his civic and community service — who ran for governor of Vermont as a Libertarian in 2004 and even brought a “Party Hardy” banner to the “Pharewell” Phish show in 2004, while also campaigning with green lighters to show his support. Catchy slogan aside, Machia’s political interests also went far beyond, similar to Zuckerman’s.
The challenge is that with social issues like same-sex marriage or cannabis reform, the pace of reform might be glacial and any steps forward are likely small and incremental.
The challenge is that with social issues like same-sex marriage or cannabis reform, the pace of reform might be glacial and any steps forward are likely small and incremental. Our discussions of the origins of the medical marijuana political debates in the Vermont legislature in the early 2000’s were an appropriate reminder of how those first steps were taken and the kind of alliances and processes that facilitated those first legislative steps.
The medical law was a curious one — I had introduced a law for a couple of cycles and it was in 2000…I had brought it up and we had just come off the election when civil unions had passed and it was a very contentious time in Vermont and in 2001, the Republicans actually controlled the House in Vermont and Howard Dean was Governor and the Democrats had held onto the Senate by a seat or two and Howard Dean had only held on by a few percent.
It was very interesting because I worked with my Republican colleagues in the House on medical cannabis and the chair, Peg Flory (R-Rutland County), who’s now a colleague of mine in the Senate, was chair of judiciary and I talked to her a number of times with her and she was open to the idea because she understood individual liberties, do to your body what you want (in some respects) and actually her son had Crohn’s Disease and it turned out, as the issue moved along she and I talked a lot about the medical potential for the digestive system challenges that her son was having and how it might help with his appetite and help stabilize his ability to eat and ultimately, the House passed it — the Republican House was the first body to pass medical cannabis.
During the trip down memory lane, Zuckerman reminded me that while considering a run for president, Democratic Governor Howard Dean was in no rush to see Vermont make national news with marijuana legalization. More than a dozen years later, pressing for legalization was Democratic Governor Peter Shumlin’s last grasp at salvaging a positive political legacy that didn’t involve a catastrophic natural disaster.
Pot Pols: The Next Generation
I mention to Zuckerman that cannabis reform is an issue that’s got a lot of Millennials excited and engaged, but that we’re the instant gratification generation and most who haven’t been political junkies don’t — or can’t — appreciate the now seemingly-bizarre #vtpoli setting that featured “Take Back Vermont” bumper stickers in Chittenden County and a Rutland County Republican like Peg Flory supporting medical marijuana.
For better or worse, Millennials want (and expect) political change to happen at snapchat speed, but curiously, even as more young Vermonters are running for office, most are curiously cautious about making cannabis a central part of their platform, or even taking a clear public stand on the issue. As a former 20-something representative himself, I asked Zuckerman why he thinks younger Vermont candidates are still so cautious, even as the political winds have so drastically changed, and when 68% of Vermonters ages 18-44 support legalization.
Repeating many of the same talking points that he’s been discussing since the mid 1990’s — and now armed with considerably more information and public support for cannabis — Zuckerman shared his advice for politicians of all ages, related to cannabis, but germane to all political issues and straight from the Bernie:
If you’ve got the facts on your side, take a position and argue the facts. And I think we have the facts on our side on this issue. I think there are some legitimate concerns, but I think they can be addressed by good policy and management and that frankly, those concerns should exist today under the unregulated, free-for-all system that we have and that in fact, those concerns can be better managed in a regulated environment.
But you’ve got to be ready with the facts … If you support it, but you don’t campaign indicating you support it — and I’ve seen it over and over again — colleagues say, ‘ya know, I’m with you, but I didn’t tell my constituents that’s where I was, and so I’ve got to vote more cautiously until I feel out my constituents more’ and that delays it another couple years. I just think that if you’re straightforward about it, it’s a topic that’s being talked about, ask your constituents what they feel, give them information and say, do you still feel that way, or do you see that in Colorado, the sky didn’t fall and teen use didn’t go up, one of the big fears. If you can alleviate those fears and acknowledge there are short-term lessons that we can learn. Unless you want to wait 20 years, there’s really no point in waiting any longer.
“If you’ve got the facts on your side, take a position and argue the facts. And I think we have the facts on our side on this issue. I think there are some legitimate concerns, but I think they can be addressed by good policy and management … in fact, those concerns can be better managed in a regulated environment.”
He also acknowledged that even as the political winds have changed, the stigma of supporting cannabis reform hasn’t necessarily been dissolved, and that for so many Vermonters, the fear of that stigma has prevented many from contacting representatives or supporting reform publicly.
If you’re a teacher, you didn’t call your representative and say, ‘ya know, you should support this’, because you don’t want someone to say that the person teaching your kids is smoking pot and the teacher is at risk of being stigmatized, or ostracized, or potentially losing his or her job … When you go home at the end of the day on a Friday and have a beer or share a joint with some adult friends, so what? That doesn’t affect your ability to do your job, whether you’re a teacher, a doctor, a business person, an engineer — there are a lot of people out there who can’t say, ‘yea, I do this now,’ or ‘it would be okay,’ or that, ‘yea, I’d do it on occasion just like I drink beer or wine on occasion.’ The stigma that’s against that in a professional perspective is significant, but I think that people can go into the voting booth and make it clear if they’ve got clear choices and have the safety of anonymity.
Clear Contrast to Competition
In terms of the politics of cannabis reform in Vermont, there is a clear contrast between Zuckerman and his opponents in the Democratic Primary, Rep. Kesha Ram and House Speaker Shap Smith. For her part, Ram spoke to Heady Vermont in April about the issue, offering a degree of conditional support. However, at a recent forum in Strafford when asked about an issue where her positioned had changed, Ram — perhaps trying to distinguish herself — indicated that she no longer supported legalization.
In August 2015, when he was running for the Democratic nomination for Governor, Vermont Public Radio reported that ‘backers of legalizing marijuana in Vermont have received some significant legislative support from House Speaker Shap Smith’, in an article titled, “Previously Undecided, House Speaker Shap Smith Now Favors Legalization.”
As Zuckerman accurately — if not, opportunistically — points out, when it came time for the House to seriously consider legalization legislation in 2016 (an issue that most insiders expected to come up at the end of the biennium, even without Senate passage of S.241), Speaker — but not yet LG candidate — Shap Smith was far from the shepard to guide legalization through the House, instead letting it languish and lose momentum in crowded committee rooms (despite overt pressure and borderline begging from Administration officials) for over six weeks until a frenzied final two days of floor debate which ultimately resulted in a 121-28 drubbing of the Senate version of S.241 and a failure to find even the House votes to pass a watered-down amended version that would have decriminalized growing two plants at home.
I tried to coach Speaker Smith that he ought to take up the issue early with the RAND report and start getting his Health Committee, Human Services Committee, Education Committee, Judiciary Committee to look at the issues through the Rand Report for a few days so they’re ready for when the bill comes, and he didn’t do that and I think that it was an uphill battle anyway and that by not softening the ground a little bit, that really hurt the chances.
The desire to reform cannabis laws is not the only place where Zuckerman distinguishes himself from his opponents as he touted not only his experience as a small business owner, but also his political experience as a former Senator who knows the procedures and players in the Senate, over which he would preside as Lieutenant Governor.
I started a small business, I started a farm here in the Intervale with just a couple acres of production and learned how to grow the food, sell the food, market it and figure out the numbers at the end of the year and I’ve grown that into 20 acres of vegetables, 50 pigs, 1000 chickens with ten employees in the summer and three year-round — a legitimate small business here in Vermont, the backbone of Vermont is these kinds of businesses with five to ten people.
I’m the only one in this race who’s working while running for office, I don’t know that many Vermonters that can take three to nine months off from their job to run for office and I think I represent that reality for a lot of folks.
I’ve also served in the Senate — neither of my opponents have — and I understand the goings-on of the Senate and it’s a very different body than the House, it’s much less partisan and everybody needs everybody to get the work done. Having served as a Progressive in the House, I only got things done by working with people from both other parties — hardcore Democrats, they can ultimately work pretty much within the party to get things done; They make reach outs to the Republicans, but they don’t need to as much and in the Senate it’s a very different feel.
“Having served as a Progressive in the House, I only got things done by working with people from both other parties.”
Zuckerman also noted that in addition to his understanding of the Senate itself, he’s got a track record for building coalitions around various issues, and that his skill-set and experience would fit well with the job description and allow for him to spend even more time reaching across party lines and bringing new ideas and people into the Statehouse.
I’ve got experience bringing controversial topics up, that the political class wasn’t ready for and being patient and giving information and giving grassroots support — working with people all over the state to pass those issues, whether it was marriage equality, end-of-life choices, raising the minimum wage, GMO labeling and regulation — those are all bills that the political class were not excited about but people involved in the process — much like Bernie has been talking about at the national level — is what’s made those things happen.
All of my opponents in this race talk about bringing people into this process, and I think all of us genuinely would like to do that, but only one of us has years of experience doing that and a track record of doing that. Not only of doing that, but doing it successfully on some of the biggest issues Vermont has dealt with over the last twenty years. To be able to take that experience and bring it to a whole new level as Lieutenant Governor where you preside over the Senate for a few hours a day and then have the rest of the day to either be in the Statehouse, bringing people to the Statehouse, helping them to learn the building and how to engage in the process; or, traveling the state going to different districts and generating support for different issues, whether it be cannabis reform or moving towards universal health care, more affordable housing throughout the state for economic stability, or whether it’s around climate change issues.
When speaking to economic statewide issues, Zuckerman started by recalling a conversation he had with a Franklin County farmer after a big dairy meeting (Zuckerman proudly notes that he would be the first executive branch leader who is an active Vermont farmer in over 50 years, “at least as far back as we looked”), who asked about the chances.
We’re sitting here at the Intervale with a bunch of barns around and a lot of farmers have a lot of barns around, some have cows, some have storage equipment, some are empty. This farmer said, ‘Look, I’ve got a couple of rooms in a couple of my barns that I could convert to make some money if it was legal and I was legitimate and it would really help stabilize my farm income–I work with plants all the time and know how to use electronic equipment, so what do you think’? Zuckerman continued with this farmers’ anecdote, He also told me that ‘my wife and I had split, she was having all kind of issues, mostly with alcohol and was unhappy and we finally split. She stopped drinking and started smoking marijuana occasionally and she’s much calmer, much happier, not addicted and smoking all the time, but much calmer for her than alcohol and now we’re back together.’
So A-he talked about his relationship and their kids in terms of being parents that were together again, and B-as an economic opportunity as a farmer. This is a guy who 100% disagrees with me on other agricultural policy–a conventional dairy farmer who sometimes disagreed with me on my GMO policies but was ready to work with me and talk with me about this bill. So I think that it politically crosses all boundaries.
Beyond his fellow farmers, he acknowledged another seemingly obvious potential economic benefit of legalization: That it could actually boost Vermont tourism and have a positive impact on existing restaurants, B&B’s, breweries, and small businesses all around the state.
Politically, there was kind of a decision made a year ago to say, ‘Ya know, we need to focus on issues around youth prevention, around driving, and point out how we’d be better off with an educated, legal regulated adult use system’, and we went with that route. But I think that for a lot of Vermonters, they see all of those things, but also the economic development potential, from the farmer to most of Southern Vermont who have access to a marketplace that can drive two hours, stay at a B&B for the weekend, go for a hike, and buy a small bag of marijuana for the weekend and enjoy Vermont — the bed and breakfast increases, the skiing tourism increases, the canoeing and kayaking and other outdoor adventure folks who would come to Vermont and who are within a couple hours driving distance. HUGE economic development potential far behind buying pot.
“That’s one of the big differences with Colorado. If you’re going to go to Colorado, that’s a week, that’s a flight, that’s once a year. You might get people that want to come to Vermont five or six weekends a year — or even dozens of weekends if they’re skiers.”
People can go to New Hampshire, they can go to Maine, they can go to New York, they can go to Vermont — Maine may beat us to it. We are much better geographically situated than Maine, who have great access to Boston, but we’ve got the New York and New Jersey crowd who are only a few hours away … That’s one of the big differences with Colorado. If you’re going to go to Colorado, that’s a week, that’s a flight, that’s once a year. You might get people that want to come to Vermont five or six weekends a year — or even dozens of weekends if they’re skiers.
I don’t know if you know the statistic, but 100,000 skier visits equals $40 million of economic activity — one person, one night from out of state is about $400, between renting a room, buying some gas, renting a room and some breakfast and a lunch out at the resorts or local restaurants, maybe they buy other goods, but the average adds up to be $400 per person per day spent, so if you add another 100,000 people coming to Vermont, that’s another $40 million dollars in economic activity. That’s house-cleaning jobs, restaurant jobs, retail shop jobs, ski area jobs, that’s taxes we don’t have to raise from Vermonters. I think the potential is well beyond 100,000 skier visits, and that’s just one industry and both the straight-up jobs and the straight-up revenue from the state.
In speaking to the potential economic benefits of cannabis, Zuckerman also echoed the sentiments of some Vermont Republicans —including House Minority Leader Rep. Don Turner (R-Milton) — in noting that the State is facing a huge projected revenue shortfall, despite increasing fees and raising certain taxes. Rather than simply cutting spending or eliminating programs (as Turner and others on the right would like), Zuckerman suggested that Vermont could instead bring the existing $200 million annual illicit cannabis economy above board and not only tax it, but benefit from job creation in a new industry.
Zuckerman suggested that Vermont could instead bring the existing $200 million annual illicit cannabis economy above board and not only tax it, but benefit from job creation in a new industry.
Right now, under both Governor Douglas and Governor Shumlin and Speaker Shap Smith running the House, we have increased fees on car registrations and fishing licenses and permits for businesses and everything under the sun to raise revenue without, quote, broad-based taxes. Well, people are taxed out and this is an existing economy that could come above board, pay its fair share of taxes, and probably expand our economy in ways we can’t even imagine — there are HVAC jobs retrofitting, there are greenhouses to build and solar panels to put up … there’s tremendous opportunity.”
If there’s a clear and hopeful message to be taken from the Bernie Sanders campaign for those cynical about the calcification and bi-partisanship too often present in American politics, it’s that certain politicians can successfully create and walk an outsider/insider identity and create real change. It takes someone idealistic and thick-skinned enough to bring social issues to the discussion, but effective and persuasive enough to actually bring those issues inside the fold and make things happen.
For Zuckerman, a tightly-contested 2016 Democratic primary will challenge his ability to win as both an insider who needs to win over enough of the Democratic establishment, and as an outsider who needs to mobilize his grassroots supporters during an early primary where turnout is expected to be low, despite Vermont’s early voting laws (reminder you can register online today and vote at your town clerk tomorrow). Unlike Bernie, who will settle for the Democratic platform and not the nomination, Zuckerman still has a chance to bring changes to the establishment from the inside, but he needs high interest to turn into high turnout to give him a real chance.
You can register to vote on your smartphone, call your town clerk, and register to vote today, so you can vote tomorrow — it ends on August 9th, and at that time, I’m in or I’m out, and if more people vote, I’m in. If fewer people vote, the establishment is probably going to win and probably not support me; They’ve shown they don’t support me as a party and the political class is not as excited about me because I’m willing to be out front on the issues and really talk about people power and not corporate power, so if you want to see change, I hope that you’ll register and that you’ll vote.