A man*, successful in one field of endeavor,should approach a different field with caution and humility, not mistaking his singular skill for a universal mastery, easily applicable wherever he might turn.
* I say “man” deliberately because this is pretty much a male phenomenon.
Case in point for my boomer compatriots: William Shockley, Nobel Prize winner in physics, whose reputation came to grief on the unfriendly shoals of eugenics. If that’s too dated a reference for you, I suggest the musical career of Shaquille O’Neal.
And now, turning to the subject of our story, we consider Bruce Lisman, the celebrity rapper of Vermont politics. Let me be clear: I’m not considering Lisman’s policies or opinions, merely his political acumen — or, should I say, his conspicuous lack thereof. The culmination of Lisman’s three-plus-year record of missteps and missed opportunities came in early May when, out of the blue, the former Wall Street Wise Man acknowledged to VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld that he was seriously considering a run for Governor. This clueless and pointless salvo, quickly but only partially recanted, came at just the right moment to sink the gubernatorial ambitions of Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, who’d been his number-one ally in the Legislature. Beyond that, it capped a Year Of Lost Opportunity for the development of a centrist political movement (supposedly his goal in politics), and dealt significant blows to Lisman’s own Campaign for Vermont and the nascent moderate wing of the VTGOP. All for seemingly no real purpose, since Lisman formally pulled out of the race for Governor only a short time later.
This latest, and multifaceted, political boner cements Lisman’s place alongside two other Titans of Business who believed they could saunter into the political realm and ascend immediately to the top: Rich Tarrant and Jack McMullen. Unlike those two famous flameouts, Lisman’s political shortcomings were camouflaged (for a time) by his decision to bankroll an advocacy group instead of a candidacy for office. But now it must be said: Bruce Lisman is fully as ignorant of politics as Richie Rich or Six Teats.
It’s true, Lisman has managed to establish a prominent place in our public life through the sheer force of his fortune. His willingness to spend over a million bucks has bought him a public policy organization and some notable alliances among the Good People of Vermont. But without his money, Campaign for Vermont would not exist. It’s an open question whether it will ever exist, in any meaningful sense, once it is weaned from Lisman’s inexhaustible teat. And I apologize for creating that mental image.
So Bruce Lisman has paid dearly for his perch as a generally accepted mover and shaker — to the point where Vermont’s political media paid a huge amount of attention to his every twitch during the run-up to his non-candidacy. But as a political force, he and CFV are largely barren of accomplishment.
Do I overstate my case? Well, let’s look at Bruce Lisman’s record, in purely political terms. Please note: I have no inside source in the Shelburne Councils of War; all this is based solely on my observation of Lisman’s public activity.
He launched Campaign for Vermont with a never-ending, costly array of advertisements directly attacking Vermont’s Democratic leadership. Mind you, he never said “Democratic,” and thus preserved a fig leaf of nonpartisanship. But the meaning was unmistakable. His political career began by needlessly offending the established powers that be.
Didn’t do any good, either. The CFV wave of advertisements spanned the winter and early spring of 2011-12, before the beginning of serious campaigning, and had no apparent effect on the public policy debate that year.
And not only was Lisman the (then-unacknowledged) sugar daddy of CFV, he was its one and only public face from inception until March of this year. His prominence raised valid, and still unsettled, questions about CFV’s true purpose: was it, as he insisted, a grassroots movement whose positions rose up from the ranks? Or was it, as appearances suggested, a rich man’s toy, a vehicle for his personal aspirations?
There’s also CFV’s distressing tendency to claim credit for every development or discussion on one of its pet issues, even when CFV was a Brucie-come-lately to a long-running debate.
Let us not forget CFV’s membership rolls, where bipartisanship is redefined as a dash of liberals in a stewpot of conservatives. Lisman and CFV clung to its fictional bipartisanship without ever altering course or even making cosmetic changes. I would have suggested finding an established liberal to serve as a high-profile representative of the cause. (Which would have required Lisman to share the spotlight. By all appearances, he was unwilling to do so. Which, again, feeds into the very reasonable suspicions of his true motives.)
The fact of this rightward tilt was not at all helped by CFV’s employment of spokespeople with solid business and/or Republican connections, such as former Douglas Administration functionary Jason Gibbs and noted black-hat lobbyist Shawn Shouldice. (Who is no longer employed by CFV, but seems to be putting out press releases on Lisman’s behalf.)
A canny political mind would have avoided CFV’s early missteps, adjusted course when necessary, avoided making enemies without cause, and made strategic alliances within liberal circles to lend credence to its nonpartisan claims. Instead, CFV kept on doing the same counterproductive stuff. And Lisman kept on spending his own money, belying his characterization of CFV as a grassroots effort.
Bruce Lisman may be a financier par excellence, but he is not a competent political mind. He is our Celebrity Rapper, our Wile E. Coyote, spending his time and treasure on repeated orders from the Acme catalogue of failed political maneuvers. The ultimate proof is his course of action — er, more like a random series of meanderings — over the past nine months or so. If he’d pursued a politically sensible course, he could have made a huge difference in Vermont politics. Instead, he may well leave the stage with little or nothing to show for his million-dollar investment.
Let’s return to last fall, when Lt. Gov. Phil Scott tried to move the VTGOP in a more moderate, or at least more inclusive, direction. It was a battle, as you will recall; even though the conservatives’ nominee for party chair was perpetual loser John MacGovern, Scott had a hard time carrying the day for his man, David Sunderland.
Meanwhile, quietly, behind the scenes, Bruce Lisman was starting to give some serious cash to Republican causes. He bought a pricey table for the Chris Christie fundraiser in December, and cut some generous checks to GOP groups. He denied his contributions were a declaration of party affiliation, but did he give a dime to Democrats? Nope.
At the same time, as his protestations of nonpartisanship were vanishing in the wind, Lisman was still clutching the reins of CFV. In late 2013 the group posted two job descriptions, and said the new employees (CFV’s first paid staff) would spearhead its first-ever lobbying push in Montpelier. And then the jobs remained vacant. And the legislative session began. And the jobs remained vacant. Crossover Week came and went. And the jobs remained vacant. Finally, in mid-March, CFV finally filled one of the two positions, while keeping the other empty for now.
Its new Executive Director, Cyrus Patten, is a 31-year-old with no record of political involvement, let alone the smarts and connections needed to be an effective lobbyist. And even as the legislative session waned, Patten’s first task was not to prowl the State House corridors, but to prepare CFV for a transition to a stand-alone organization without Lisman’s deep pockets to keep it afloat.
Perhaps as a result of the delay in hiring staff and Patten’s OJT, the group’s top legislative priority, ethics reform, was foundering on the rocks of lawmakers’ self-interest. Give CFV credit for pushing the issue forward, but after that, there was precious little follow-through. That’s how it appears, in any case.
Finally we come to Lisman’s latest blunder: his spectacularly ill-timed musing about a run for Governor. It came at precisely the worst possible time: when his top ally in the Legislature, Heidi Scheuermann, was mulling a candidacy. I’m speculating here, but it’s logical to assume that Scheuermann would need Lisman’s vocal and financial support to have any hope of running a competitive race. It’s also logical to assume that Lisman’s public dithering convinced Scheuermann to back off. (From what I’ve been told, she was extremely close to running. And her withdrawal came as a surprise — shock, more like it — to many Republicans.)
And only then did the Lisman bull exit the Republican China Shop. The collateral damage included the immediate ambitions of Scheuermann, a founding partner in CFV. If I were her, I’d be rethinking my alliance.
Now let’s go back to an imaginary last nine months, and see how things could have unfolded if Lisman was half as smart politically as he is financially.
Last summer, CFV begins the staffing process and Lisman eases toward the exits. Scott and his crew make their plans to change the VTGOP’s direction. CFV hires an executive director in the early fall, and Lisman starts playing footsie with Scott under the table.
At this same time, Obamacare and Vermont Health Connect are in serious, perhaps mortal, peril. This provides a perfect opportunity for Lisman to declare, reluctantly, that a change is needed in the corner office, and that he’s lining up behind the new Phil Scott VTGOP — not as a candidate, but as a high-profile force for moderation and good government. The aura of CFV rubs off on Scott and friends. Lisman courts the Republican right by cutting checks to GOP causes.
Scheuermann enters the 2014 legislature as a potential candidate for Governor. Lisman openly champions her cause. The collapse of meaningful ethics reform adds fuel to the Lisman/Scott fire. As the session continues, Scheuermann becomes the front-runner. Lisman forms a superPAC to run issue ads and other “educational” activities slamming the Dems and Governor Shumlin, and pours a whole lot of money into it.
With the promise of a Lisman-backed gubernatorial candidacy, Republican hopefuls emerge to run for some or all of the other statewide offices, cementing a solid VTGOP ticket. It’d still face long odds, but it’d be a solid sign of progress toward a rejuvenated party. Lisman becomes a high-profile player in Republican politics — probably even the number-one power broker. CFV, to the extent it remained feasible, would be a demonstrably nonpartisan ally for a centrist Republican movement. Lisman and CFV help cement Scott’s hold on a new, center-right party.
The Democrats would still win this fall, but the Republicans would have every hope of being competitive in 2016 and beyond.
And all it would have required was a little more insight and a little less ego from Bruce Lisman. Instead, Bruce E. Coyote jet-packed into a rock wall, had a giant boulder fall on his head, saw the nitroglycerine explode in his face, and plummeted helplessly over a cliff, landing far below in a little puff of smoke.
And if Bruce E. does ever decide to run for public office, I predict he’ll achieve the same level of success as Rich Tarrant and Jack McMullen.