Last week, I had a cup of coffee with the new guy at Campaign for Vermont: former Howard Center program exec Cyrus Patten, now Executive Director of Bruce Lisman’s Playhouse.
Aw, heck, I shouldn’t be so cynical… just because the Wall Street millionaire founded the organization two and a half years ago, poured over a million bucks into it, and made himself the conspicuous front man for all things CFV. Well, he did until recently, when he stepped back from the microphone even as he started giving generous contributions to Republican causes and floated a trial balloon about a candidacy for Governor.
Ahem, well, I guess that’s a lot to be cynical about. But the 31-year-old Patten insists I’ve got it wrong. He paints Lisman as a native Vermonter who is “deeply concerned about the state. …If you had millions of dollars, would you invest in Vermont in a way that would help? I think a lot of us would.”
Yes, if I had a big pile of money, I hope I’d invest some of it in positive change. I wouldn’t necessarily launch a public-policy organization and put my face and name all over it; I’d maybe think more along the lines of charity or education. But that’s just me.
Oh, there I go being cynical again. Patten struck me as an honest, articulate guy who cares about building the organization. With his close-cropped hair, crisp bowtie and handsome spring jacket with an embroidered CFV logo*, he comes across as a slightly preppier version of the endlessly energetic young folks who cycle through the VPIRG office. And I don’t envy him the task that lies ahead. In some ways, CFV is an established presence; but in many ways it’s a shell of a “grassroots” outfit, since no financial commitment is required for membership. Until now, it’s depended entirely on the image, connections, and bank account of Bruce Lisman. You could argue that CFV is starting from scratch; and Cyrus Patten doesn’t bring the same assets to the table as Lisman.
*Possible thank-you gift for future CFV donors, hmmm?
He describes CFV as a “centrist” organization, despite its largely conservative membership rolls and its consistently heavy criticism of the Democratic majority. “We can only demonstrate that we are nonpartisan, that we don’t subscribe to a particular party or side of the political spectrum. …We have to show that we are nonpartisan through our policies, through our communications and our actions, and I intend to do that.”
Beginning steps: black-hat lobbyist Shaun Shouldice no longer flacks for CFV. And (as you may have noticed) Tom Pelham has cut way back on his endless drumbeating for Challenges for Change, the failed Douglas Administration initiative. And to be fair, CFV’s big push for ethics reform is not at all a partisan issue.
After the jump: Disengaging from Lisman’s wallet.
Patten continued, “A lot of people are disenchanted with politics as usual, and they are coming to the centrist place where they are finding Campaign for Vermont.” The right-heavy membership, he says, is a natural consequence of the Democrats being in power: if the Republicans were in charge, CFV’s membership would tilt the other way.
As for CFV’s financial dependence on Lisman’s fortune, that’s still true — at least for now. “He has made a commitment to ensure that the organization is successful. That means bridging us until others step up and we can find other funding sources.”
Patten will soon launch a paid-membership model, although the option of unpaid membership will remain available. And CFV’s website now features a list of donors. It’s just a list of names, with no dollar figures, so it’s impossible to assess the relative weight of individual contributions. A suggestion: If CFV doesn’t want to list exact amounts, it could provide ranges, as many nonprofits do. Say, $1-100, 100-1000, and 1000+. That’d give us a sense of who’s giving the big bucks.
As of today, the list includes 44 names for 2014 so far, and only 13 for 2013. That’s a long way from its claimed membership of over 1,000. So we haven’t begun to answer the core question: Are those “members” dedicated enough to make a financial commitment to CFV?
Patten’s tough task would become even tougher if Lisman launches a candidacy for Governor, or otherwise injects himself into partisan politics. Say, by kickstarting a Heidi Scheuermann campaign with a big fat check. Patten has had numerous conversations with the man he comfortably refers to as “Bruce,” and he’s gotten no indication that Lisman plans such a move. “I can tell you that if he is inserting himself into partisan politics, he has not told me about it. That’s the honest truth.”
Although, he adds, the idea of a Lisman candidacy might not be such a bad thing. “I have to say, he’s in touch. I actually think he is connected to Vermonters on a number of issues and where they stand on those issues. So that wouldn’t be a horrible thing if he changed the conversation on the political stage in some way.”
But Patten acknowledges that it would make his job more challenging: “We would have to work harder to demonstrate that that’s not what this was about from the very beginning.”
His goal: Creating “a self-sustaining, viable grassroots organization by continuing to connect with mainstream Vermonters, tapping into their opinions on issues that affect them.”
Or as I would put it, turning the rhetoric of Lisman’s Campaign for Vermont into a real, honest, beholden-to-no-one nonpartisan public policy organization. Despite my cynicism, the new guy deserves the benefit of the doubt. I think the odds are against him, but he ain’t Bruce Lisman, and I’ll judge him by his own actions.