Sue Minter: A Determined Figure in the Rink
Editor's note: The following profile of Sue Minter, the Democratic candidate in Vermont's gubernatorial race, was originally published at VTDigger.com.
As a teenager growing up outside Philadelphia, Sue Minter woke up every morning around 5:30. A 30-minute drive later, white figure skates laced, she’d hit the ice and practice her patches, carving figure eights, over and over, until it was time for school. After class and school sports, she went back to the rink for hours of more practice. She’d get home around 8, sometimes 9, eat dinner, then start on her homework. The next morning, she would be back at the rink again. On Saturdays and Sundays, she practiced “only” until noon.
Minter’s interest in figure skating was innate. Her mother, Evelyn, traveled with the Ice Follies for two and a half years. The professional troupe crisscrossed the country by train, presenting spectacular shows with a signature kick line and pinwheel. During a stop in Philadelphia, Evelyn met Bob Minter at a dinner. They exchanged letters and married. They had four children, three boys and Sue, the youngest. Sue started on skates around the age of 4. A tomboy growing up, according to her mother, Sue was “dedicated and serious” about the sport, and it was Sue’s idea, not her mother’s, to pursue it through her sophomore year in high school.
“One of the things that I think is really great about a child interested in a sport is that it really zeros in their attention and they get organized,” said Evelyn Minter, who lives in Waterbury Center, a few miles from Sue and her family. Bob, who ran Minter’s Candy, died in 2010. He served on various boards in Waterbury and carried a punch list when he helped on volunteer projects.
Susan M. Minter rolled the dice last September when she quit her $128,689-a-year post as secretary of the Agency of Transportation to take a shot at becoming the next governor of Vermont.
The traits friends, family and colleagues most commonly use to describe Minter include organized, energetic, passionate and collaborative.
The petite 55-year-old former Waterbury state representative is competitive, too. Her mother said Sue wanted to keep up with her big brothers, all hockey players, who would lovingly needle their little sister to spur her on (and, she said, tried out every new wrestling move on her). She was and is closest with Billy, who is two and a half years older, followed him everywhere, her mother said, and wanted to do everything he and the two other brothers were trying.
“I was skating. The boys were skating, and she wanted to do everything the boys did,” her mother said.
Evelyn still judges figure skating competitions and smiles warmly when she recalls her days as a “Follie Dollie.” Her basement, with an entire wall full of family photos, serves as one of two campaign headquarters, the other in Burlington. During an hour-long interview, campaign volunteers buzzed in and out.
Minter recalls her teen ice-skating days, even the early mornings, with great fondness: “It was the thing I loved most” and required dedication, discipline and determination. She relished the long hours on the ice and later encouraged her daughter, Ariel, now 24, the older of her two children, to take up the sport.
Waterbury Rep. Tom Stevens has also seen Minter’s competitive side, at the polls, at local sporting events, and fighting for her community.
“Sue is one of the most competitive people I know and she channeled that as a representative and a state official in a way that was really positive. But she is a scrapper, always working to win,” he said. Low key, Stevens overlapped with Minter in the Legislature representing the same towns before Minter was tapped for state government and said, “I learned to be the yang” to Minter’s high energy yin.
But friends also describe a less intense, softer side, too.
“When she goes somewhere, she hugs everyone,’’ said Lisa Scagliotti, who lives in Waterbury and is helping on the campaign. “She said she’s going to be the governor that hugs. That’s not going to take a lot of practice.”
Many Minter supporters encouraged her to shoot lower in her first statewide bid and run for lieutenant governor instead. But three people in particular, she said, encouraged her to seek the governorship. Former Gov. Madeleine Kunin, the state’s first female chief executive, is among her cheerleaders, and she likes Minter’s mix of legislative and executive branch experience.
Minter’s son, Jasper, 16, who loves to dish sports and politics on WDEV, told her now was the time and that she’d be “too old” after a few terms in the lieutenant governor’s job. The other person that pushed her, Minter said, tapping her right shoulder, was her oldest brother Bobby, who died 15 years ago of cancer at 48 years old. His loss to the family is still palpable today.
Now Minter is in a three-way race for the Democratic Party nomination for governor, which if she wins, would likely pit her against a popular three-term lieutenant governor running on the Republican side.
To those who know Minter, seeking the top job wasn’t a surprise: She doesn’t, they say, do things halfway, whether it’s broom hockey at Waterbury Winterfest, or getting her hands dirty after Tropical Storm Irene drowned her hometown. Her allies also say she was an intensely dedicated public servant in state government after she was plucked from the Statehouse by Gov. Peter Shumlin in 2011, halfway through her fourth term in the House.
She highlights her experience in the Legislature and state government. Minter served four years as deputy transportation secretary from 2011 to 2015. After Tropical Storm Irene hit in 2011, Minter was tapped to be the Irene Chief Recovery Officer, using her octopus-like multi-tasking skills to get communities back up and running and deal with federal emergency officials.
In that job, she said, every day was crazy, like “building the car while we trying to drive it, too.” The 13-month assignment is the state job Minter most frequently mentions on the campaign trail as testament to her leadership. She returned to the deputy job at VTrans in February of 2013 and took over as secretary in January 2015. She resigned after nine months to seek the governor’s job.
Friend Scagliotti spoke admiringly of Minter’s all-in approach.
“When her kids played soccer, she had to be the coach. She can’t just be on the sidelines. She has to run things and direct things,” Scagliotti said. One of the jokes around Waterbury is that she and her brother Billy revel in Winterfest so much that it’s sometimes referred to as “Minterfest.”
Over and over, colleagues and community members listed Minter’s greatest strength as “being able to bring people together,’’ to find the right people when she doesn’t have the answers and let them work independently.
Her husband, David Goodman, a journalist, said the way Minter coached soccer teams for 13 years was how she approached her jobs in state government. She is a collaborative leader who brings out everyone’s strengths, he said.
“I would often hear her tell the kids on her team, ‘The best players are the ones who set up others to succeed.’ That’s what she does: she forges partnerships, envisions how things can work differently, then breaks down barriers to get things done,” he said.
‘A DIFFERENT WAY OF THINKING’
Former Transportation Secretary Brian Searles agreed Minter was a skilled collaborative leader. Searles and Minter led the effort to rebuild 500 miles of roads after Irene, often letting the “road heroes” as she called them take the initiative. Searles said Deputy Minter “worked effectively independently of the secretary.”
Translation: Searles left her alone and she got the job done. “She made my life a whole lot easier,” he said, chuckling.
Later, Searles said, Minter championed and helped implement a program that sped up replacement of damaged bridges and put a big dent in the backlog. The program is one Minter highlights on the campaign trail. And just as Minter points to Waterbury’s revival after Irene as an example of what communities statewide can do when they pull together, the bridge program epitomizes the “different way of thinking” Minter wants to bring to all of state government.
In the past, she said, a replacement bridge would be constructed first. Then, repairs would be made to the damaged bridge. Under the new program, the road is closed, alternative routes are used, and no replacement bridge is constructed. While inconvenient, the time and money saved not building a replacement bridge is dramatic. According to Minter, the average time to replace a bridge has gone from eight years down to two. And the ideas for making it happen, she said, came from the workers.
Minter is a champion for state employees. As deputy secretary, she tried many of the jobs throughout the agency. She was “outraged” to learn how little highway workers were making and fought for higher wages for the lowest-paid employees. Troubled by the lack of women in the highway division, she led a study that found significant levels of harassment in district offices and then helped implement a training program. Today, she said, there are twice as many women in the maintenance department.
Searles said Minter understood better than he did the need for community buy-in on transportation projects. Her legislative experience, he said, was critical.
“My experience was all executive branch,” said Searles, a veteran of several top state posts. “She was the one who always brought up the importance of having people involved, municipalities, towns and communities. Her experience in the House gave her that perspective. It was good for me to have that fresh perspective.”
Speaker Shap Smith said he remembered most that Minter was “very passionate about infrastructure’’ in the Legislature, which he admitted was an unusual passion, but insisted: “I wish more people were. The nation’s infrastructure is crumbling.”
When asked, Minter said she feels strongly about roads, sewer lines and planning because they can shape significantly what a community will look like.
And community, she said, is one of the important principles she learned when she went to a Quaker-based high school after her family moved from Philadelphia to Providence, Rhode Island, after her 10th grade year.
“Talk about what I’m excited about, it’s building communities,” she said, “and honestly, that’s where it starts and ends for me. That’s really my vision for this state. We have so many assets to capitalize on, but if all we do is complain about things are so bad,” opportunities will be wasted.
Take Waterbury: “Things were really bad after Irene and we looked for opportunity. And look what’s happened to this town. It was a ghost town and you know it. It was shuttered. And it was a place in despair, shock and despair, and it was because the community came together through a process of rebuilding that we actually moved from a place of despair to a place of hope” to a community that is thriving today.
Across the state, she said, communities that were devastated came back stronger and serve as a model for problem-solving in the future.
“When you can come together as a group and achieve a goal, it’s a beautiful thing and it makes people want to be a part of it,” Minter said.
‘FIXING EVERY PROBLEM’
Former Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears worked closely with Minter after Irene as roads were rebuilt and rivers restored. The trait that stood out, Mears said, was Minter’s cool under pressure, juggling multiple projects at the same time. (One supporter said Minter can multi-task “like an octopus.”)
“It was such a chaotic and crazy time. In times like that you get a sense of a person’s mettle, who they really are, how they respond in a crisis, whether they are a person that gets stuff done and takes action, whether they work well with you,” Mears said. “There are people that in a time of crisis, they crater or blame other people or they run around in circles. Sue was none of those things. She was a person who was calm, thoughtful and brought people together.”
Mears was so impressed he called Minter shortly after Gov. Peter Shumlin announced he would not run again and encouraged Minter to step forward.
“I’ve never done anything like that before in my life,” said Mears, who is now teaching at the Vermont Law School and helping on the campaign.
Two-time Democratic candidate for governor Doug Racine is also a big champion for Minter. He called her a “kindred spirit” because of their shared support for human services programs and issues like the deep poverty in parts of Vermont. Repeatedly, Minter said in an interview that her goal was to “make things better” for Vermonters who are struggling. On the opioid issue, she said she’d put someone on it full-time who “would be thinking about it 24 hours a day.”
Goodman said what is important to Minter is “helping people. Making their lives better. Fixing what’s broken.”
When asked about flaws, the best/worst friends and colleagues can muster is she sometimes wants to do too much and doesn’t tolerate disorganization.
“If she had any flaw at the time (of Irene) my sense was it was her compassion. She had this sense of wanting to fix everybody,” Mears said.
Goodman said “it will drive her crazy that she can’t fix every single problem that crosses her desk.” Searles said Minter was clearly initially frustrated when she first joined VTrans at how long projects took to complete. He said he stressed as a mentor to Minter the importance of patience. Speaker Smith said like many freshman lawmaker, Minter came in with big ideas that needed to be tempered by the realities of the sausage-making legislative process.
Scagliotti said Minter struggles with “people who move too slowly, take too long to do things. She wants it done yesterday.” Goodman said “she can’t understand how people (like me) who are not highly organized get anything done.” Plus, he said, she hates it when he and Jasper leave the kitchen a mess.
To some, Minter’s enthusiasm can come across as over the top — one House colleague said her high spirited nature “sometimes seemed manufactured,” like a skater’s overexpressive smile at the end of a performance — but Scagliotti said Minter’s upbeat, positive way was genuine. And, she added, her enthusiam is infectious, with a phone call from Minter for help quickly leading to a to-do list.
“She has always impressed me as very smart, but also that she’s genuine and not one of these phony personalities,” Scagliotti said.
Bridgeside Bookstore owner Hiata Defeo said Minter was concerned how her Stowe Street business was faring after Irene and, she said with a smile, “not just because she’s a great customer.”
“Sue is very positive, very encouraging of others, very supportive and I’ve always really liked that,” Defeo said.
‘LEARNING AS SHE GOES ALONG’
As a candidate, Minter’s answers are substantative but sometimes long-winded. She can easily and happily get into the weeds. At forums or public events, she uses her hands a lot to make her point, sometimes excessively. At times, she seems to be shouting to be heard. Supporters say she is working on being a more effective public speaker, but they also say part of her appeal is that she doesn’t sound like a canned politician.
“She’s a real person with not a lot of political airs,” said Racine, noting few politicians, including himself are as natural at public speaking as Shumlin and former Gov. Jim Douglas. Racine said he found she had an impressive delivery.
“You get better at this stuff and she’s learning as she goes along,” Racine said. Style, he said, suggests “political campaigns are more about performance, it seems, than it is about policy and substance, which to me is really sad, but that’s the way it is.”
Mears said Minter is not a gifted politician on the trail, but said she has a more important quality — on a more important trail.
“She’s not a traditional candidate in the sense of someone with a long political resume. Nor is she someone that jumps off the pages as having commanding rhetorical ability,” said Mears. “But she has a great ability to bring people together.”
Mears uses a mountain climbing analogy to describe Minter’s leadership style. “When I think about someone that I would trust to lead me up the right mountain and not off a cliff, it would be someone like Sue,” he said. “If you’re going to be roped together with someone, you want to make sure if you slip and fall, they are not going to cut the rope.”
“It’s rare in our lives you get to have a relationship with someone who has that ability to be a strong leader and someone you trust and that brings people together,” Mears said.
“And,” he said, “she doesn’t always have to win the argument.”
The campaign has focused on events of 20 to 30 people, a group size where supporters say Minter excels.
Some have questioned Minter’s political savvy. One example they point to is her endorsement of Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid, which she did the day he returned for a big rally in Burlington on Town Meeting Day. Prior to that she had been non-committal. Minter had won the support of EMILY’s list, and supporters said she did not want to alienate the influential women’s group, which supports Hillary Clinton. Even ardent supporters say she looked like a Johnny-come-lately jumping on the Sanders’ bandwagon so late.
Kunin called it an easy decision for Minter to back Sanders because of his strong support in Vermont. He won the primary with 85 percent and polls had predicted a huge victory. Kunin said she didn’t believe the Sanders endorsement would hurt Minter with women who support Clinton, including her. “I don’t expect her (Minter) to be in lockstep with me on every issue.”
Democratic opponent Matt Dunne, who frequently mentions his “early support” of Sanders, was asked if anyone cared that Minter waited.
“People noticed,” he said before a recent forum, “and some of them were not happy.”
FIRST PLUNGE INTO POLITICS
Minter gave up skating at 16 after achieving a gold medal in the sport. She had a few bad falls, lost confidence, she said, and while at an elite status, she knew she would never make the Olympics.
“I didn’t have the confidence in competition. I fell all over my face a couple of times and I realized I didn’t have what it really took,” she said. “And I didn’t want to give up the rest of my life, so I quit cold turkey after I got my gold medal.” Minter switched to activites she hadn’t been able to do before, like school plays.
Her father took a new job in Providence, Rhode Island, after her sophomore year. She attended a historically all-boys Quaker prep school that was just taking in its first coeds. One of only 12 girls, Sue was selected student council president, her first taste of electoral success. She and another girl started a lacrosse team.
Minter’s next major political plunge happened at Harvard, where she met Goodman. The two were involved in efforts to push the university to divest holdings in apartheid South Africa. At her graduation, Minter wore a homemade sash promoting divestment. The gesture angered her father. Another parent at the graduation confronted her, pointed his finger, and said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
During her senior year at Harvard, Minter had applied for a fellowship to work on an agricultural cooperative in Zimbabwe and a women’s organization in South Africa, the Black Sash. Heartbroken when her application was denied, but motivated by the finger-pointing man at graduation, she saved up and went anyway, volunteering for the two groups.
For Minter and Goodman, Africa was a life-changing experience. They met leaders of the resistance fighting for change. Goodman freelanced for newspapers back home. A decade later, they returned to live in post-apartheid South Africa, where Minter helped cities with planning, while David wrote about President Nelson Mandela. Goodman said Mandela continues to inspire them both to this day.
Minter’s first taste of political organizing came, she said, starting a recycling program in Jamaica Plain, a section of Boston. The effort, she said, was so successful residents in adjoining communities lined up to drop off newspapers and cardboard. The model she helped develop was expanded citywide and earned Minter a mention in Boston Magazine in 1990 as a “Face to Watch.”
Minter and Goodman moved to Vermont in 1991 when Minter took a job with the Conservation Law Foundation. Over the next decade, she held a variety of planning-related jobs while raising their daughter.
A key pivotal political turning point came in 2001. Minter joined the Waterbury Planning Commission as the town was writing a master plan. Then, a Shaw’s supermarket was proposed that Minter and two other women on the commission saw as a traffic disaster, but they were outvoted by the four men on the commission. Stevens, the state representative, said Minter went up against the old guard. The selectmen refused to reappoint her and another member to a second term, a move that was unheard of considering the difficulty of finding people to serve on the commission.
“That was a little bit of a kick in the tail,” Minter said, “and it made me mad.”
Within weeks, Waterbury Rep. Val Vincent announced she would not run again and Minter heard this voice that “started screaming inside my head.” At that moment, Minter was holding her infant son Jasper in the bathtub, and her “champion husband” told her take the political plunge. She came in second, winning a seat, finishing just behind the other Waterbury representative, Robert Dostis.
Early on in her legislative career, some, including Burlington Rep. Mary Sullivan, saw Minter as a Democrat to watch and someone who could run for governor.
“She just has what it takes,” Sullivan said.
Minter served on the Transportation Committee and then Speaker Smith put her on Appropriations for her final four years. He called her “extremely smart, energetic and personable.” Smith dropped out of the governor’s race early on — after only a handful of debates — to care for his wife. Her condition has improved and Smith has now decided to run for lieutenant governor.
‘CHANGING THE CONVERSATION’
Minter faces a number of challenges. Despite her resume, she is not as well known as her two opponents for the Democratic Party nomination — Dunne, a former Google executive who is more polished and has run two statewide campaigns, and former Sen. Peter Galbraith, who is more outspoken and controversial and will likely generate more headlines. Minter, by comparison, is more measured and analytical.
Despite forums seemingly every night, the candidates have only a short time until the Aug. 9 primary to get their messages out and introduce themselves to Vermonters. They are also competing for attention in a political environment dominated by Donald Trump and the fight between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. The two national party conventions are at the end of July, just weeks before the primary.
So far, Minter has raised more than a half a million dollars in the first reporting period and kept up with Dunne. Galbraith had not yet entered the race when the first report came in.
Minter is not as well-known and popular as the Republican front-runner Phil Scott, who has served 16 years in Montpelier, run three statewide campaigns for lieutenant governor and has a huge fan base from decades of motor racing at Barre’s Thunder Road.
But Minter is smart and has the ability to analyze policy questions quickly. She graduated from Harvard magna cum laude and has a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She believes that decisions should be driven by data and that outcomes should be measured. She abhors the idea of annual inflationary increases for department budgets.
When asked about high property taxes, Minter flipped the question to whether taxpayers were getting their money’s worth.
“We need to change the conversation,” she said, from a discussion about pennies on the tax rate to whether the schools are producing well-educated children. Minter said the state needs to measure the other social indicators, and then proceeded to list the kinds of questions she believes need to be asked: What can Vermont do to encourage more students to go to college? Is the homeless rate going down? Are fewer people using opioids? If so, she said, Vermonters will support paying the school property taxes.
There are only two female Democrats running for governor nationwide, three Republicans as well.
When she won 30 years ago, Kunin said she and chief of staff Liz Bankowski thought the dam had broken and a flood of female candidates and governors would follow.
At a recent forum, Minter addressed the gender issue head on.
“I am not running for governor because I am a woman. I am running for governor because I’m the most qualified for this job,” Minter said. “I think women in leadership matters and I think it matters more now than ever. I do think women have a different style of leadership. They are collaborative, they are strong leaders and they get things done.”
It’s also important, she said, for women and young girls to have the role model of a successful female political leader.
At the 2014 Waterbury Winterfest, Minter’s brother Billy, the event organizer, started a new tradition: opening the 10-day event with a “ribbon cutting” featuring a “ribbon” made of ice and the usual scissors replaced by a chainsaw-wielding celebrity.
Two years ago, Phil Scott donned the safety glasses and did the honors.
Wearing a pair of work boots.
This year, Minter took center stage, doing a few spins on the community ice rink, and put on the safety glasses before slicing the ice ribbon.
Wearing her figure skates.