Lawmakers eye changes to selection process for Vermont’s top military official

Maj. Gen. Steven Cray has his second star pinned on by his son, Senior Airman Spencer Cray, and his wife Lisa Cray at Camp Johnson in Colchester on March 1, 2013. On this day, Cray became the 23rd adjutant general of the state of Vermont. National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Sarah Mattison

Vermont’s distinction of being the only state whose legislature elects its top military official could be coming to an end.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said Wednesday she will be introducing a bill that overhauls the selection process so that legislators are part of a panel that vets candidates and sends a shortlist to the governor, as opposed to putting it to a popular vote in the House and Senate.

“I don’t think we have any business electing the adjutant general,” White said in an interview Wednesday. “We don’t know the military.”

The senator noted that it is the governor who actually oversees the National Guard, so it makes sense that he or she gets to choose who runs the organization.

Gov. Phil Scott has already expressed his support for the idea. Shortly after announcing that the current adjutant general, Steven Cray, would soon be stepping down, the governor called the current election process “degrading” for military officials.

Scott said he favors a process similar to judicial appointments, in which a panel of legislators and state officials evaluate candidates and make recommendations to the governor.

Jeanette White
​Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, the chair of the Government Operations Committee. Photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury Village, the newly appointed chair of the House General, Housing & Military Affairs Committee, said the House in previous years overwhelmingly passed bills that would change the selection process, but it “always hit a dead end in the Senate.”

Stevens said he would likely be involved in introducing a bill that continues the House efforts to change the process this year.

“I’m encouraged to see the Senate is going to take this up in their way and I’m sure we will work with them to figure out what the best solution is going to be,” he said.

But the change won’t be made without robust debate, both about what the new process should look like and whether the process should change at all.

White called the previous House proposals “convoluted and bizarre.” Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex/Orleans, said he would not support ceding legislative responsibility for the adjutant general’s selection. He said lawmakers had selected many revered military leaders over the years, including Cray.
Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury Village. File photo by Mark Johnson/VTDigger

“That’s a very important position,” Starr said, adding that making the post a gubernatorial appointment would politicize the role further. “I don’t see how giving it to the governor would be an advantage — how it would help.”

Starr said he would support changes that increased the amount of internal vetting candidates receive before the election, as long as the decision-making power remained with the Legislature.

Any changes to the process would not apply to this year’s election to replace Cray.

Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, the Senate president pro tem, said at the very least new measures should be put in place to increase screening of candidates this time around, and decide what experience lawmakers want in the state’s military leader.

Both Stevens and White are also planning to hold hearings about the culture within the Guard following a VTDigger investigation that found a pattern of misogyny, abuse of power and heavy drinking in the Guard.

Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex/Orleans. Courtesy photo

White told a meeting of the Senate Democratic caucus on Wednesday that the current reporting requirements of the Guard did not appear to be forcing the sort of cultural change that legislators have been seeking.

“I think our goal is to have some hearings with the Guard to find out what’s going on,” White said.

Stevens said last month that he planned to make the Guard a priority early in this session. He said Wednesday that he would “start at the beginning,” making sure that lawmakers and Guard leaders understood the history of military oversight and reporting requirements.

Ultimately, he said, he hoped the committee could “figure where we can find oversight or we can help the Guard find a way to institute the kind of oversight that might be necessary.”