When a politician says “It’s not political,” you can bet your ass it’s political

On Thursday, Democratic Attorney General T.J. Donovan sided with Republican Governor Phil Scott against Democratic Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah Fair George in a high-profile murder case. And he insisted, naturally, that his decision had nothing to do with politics.

OK, before we get to the merits of his argument, let’s make one thing clear. It’s political. Whether Donovan wanted it to be or not — whether politics entered into his thinking or not — his decision indisputably has political ramifications.

In May, George dismissed charges against Aita Gurung for the 2017 murder of his wife because George decided she wouldn’t be able to rebut Gurung’s insanity defense. (A court-hired expert and a prosecution expert had both concluded that Gurung was insane at the time of the fatal attack.) It was one of three high-profile dismissals by George on the same day. Later, Scott asked Donovan to review the three cases.

Donovan was George’s predecessor in Chittenden County. His decision in the Gurung case clearly casts doubt on her judgment because he has just overruled her judgment. His protestations of “utmost respect” for George ring hollow.

In a media scrum after Gurung’s re-arraignment Friday, Donovan presented a bunch of inadequate and contradictory explanations. He sounded like he was grasping at straws.

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Free advice for the last people on Earth who would take it

So, over at journalismjobs.com there’s an intriguing listing from my former employer:

Award-winning, locally owned Seven Days newspaper is on the hunt for a political columnist or a news reporter to join our state government team.

That’s either/or. They’re going to hire one or the other. Which means they haven’t made up their minds whether they’re keeping “Fair Game.” It’ll depend, one must assume, on the inclination of the best applicants.

Before I begin the uninformed speculation and free advice, let me make one thing clear. I have no inside information. At this point, I have less insight into the inner workings of Seven Days than I do for True North Reports, the ha-ha “news” site bankrolled by reclusive moneybags Lenore Broughton.

When I got the ziggy, I didn’t know whether they intended to keep the column going or kill it. In recent years, Seven Days has sought to distance itself from its hippie-dippie alt roots. Maybe the Peter Freyne Memorial Chair no longer fit in with the highfalutin aspirations of Vermont’s largest organ.

On the other hand, it’s tough to imagine a Seven Days without “Fair Game.” Back in the bad old days, Peter Freyne was their only news guy, to use the term very loosely. The column has been a staple of the paper since practically day one.

Also, at this point it occupies a singular place in Vermont’s news ecosystem. There are no other political columnists, besides the part-time ruminations of VTDigger’s Jon Margolis. “Fair Game” remains incredibly popular — a must-read for anyone in Vermont politics or news media. That’s a lot of legacy and pageviews to surrender. Also, Vermont politics needs a good shitkicker. It’s far too comfortable a space right now.

But if they’re going to keep “Fair Game,” they need to make some decisions about what exactly it is and what their expectations are. Otherwise it’s not fair to the new hire. It sure wasn’t fair to me.

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Windham Dems Quickly Dispose of Hot Potato

At a meeting Monday, the Windham County Democratic Committee disposed of a resolution calling for new leadership in the state party. Instead, the panel approved the drafting of a letter expressing concern over an alleged embezzlement of party funds and appreciation for actions taken by party leaders to prevent any recurrence.

The resolution was drafted by county party chair John Hagen after consultation with other officers in the organization. The meeting was attended by 23 party members, including almost every Democratic lawmaker from Windham County. If there had been any momentum in favor of the resolution, the air exited the balloon when Hagen told the meeting that, about an hour before the meeting began, he had received an email from state party chair Terje Anderson providing a full history of the embezzlement case and outlining new steps the party was taking in response. In the email, Hagen said, Anderson “addresses every part of the resolution.”

Nice timing, that. If Anderson sought to influence the proceedings with a last-ditch plea, it’s fair to say he succeeded.

The resolution was in response to alleged embezzlement of more than $18,000 in state party funds by former staffer Brandon Batham. (The Vermont Democratic Party has requested a criminal investigation by the Montpelier Police Department, and is conducting an audit going back three years to be sure that no more irregularities are hiding in the weeds.) It called for a new slate of state party officers to be presented at the party’s reorganization meeting on November 16, citing concerns about management oversight and the scandal’s potential effect on fundraising.

No one spoke in favor of the resolution, although several attendees had been involved in creating it. Most were mollified by Anderson’s late email — even though they had yet to actually see it.

“I wasn’t expecting the resolution to pass,” said Hagen after the meeting. “The intent was to throw a rock in the water and see what came up to the surface.”

That rock produced a tidal wave of retreat from the resolution. The most vociferous opponent was Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), who characterized party leaders as “a bunch of volunteers doing the best they can,” she said. “In my mind, they have revised and updated their procedures. This resolution just fuels the flames.” She advocated putting the affair behind them and turning the party’s attention on the 2020 election campaign.

Committee member Andy Burrows of Guilford noted that before Batham was hired on party staff, he had been chair of the Windham Democrats — and had not performed well. “We worked with him for a long time,” Burrows said. “He was a shifty sort of guy. We should ;have said Batham was not appropriate for the party job.”

Afterward, Burrows elaborated on his statement, noting that he questioned Batham’s work ethic, not his probity. “He volunteered for many tasks, but he did very little,” Burrows said of Batham. “We wouldn’t have recommended him. And [the party] didn’t ask.”

Which ought to raise questions about the thoroughness of the Vermont Democratic Party’s hiring process in addition to its financial oversight. But I digress.

2016 gubernatorial candidate Brenda Siegel spoke against the resolution. “When embezzlement happens, it’s not always the fault of leadership,” she said. Rather than suggesting a new slate, she advised allowing the reorganization process to play out.

Several committee members expressed a desire to meet with Anderson directly before considering the resolution. Rep. Mike Mrowicki (D-Putney) moved to table the resolution. “We’re nowhere near consensus,” he said.

White even objected to tabling; she wanted the county committee to immediately drop the matter. “We should send a nice letter saying we appreciate the work being done on new procedures,” White said. She added that “We shouldn’t judge Brandon. I don’t know what’s going on with him. I don’t think he’s a bad guy.”

Of course, the resolution didn’t judge Batham at all; it focused on the potential failings of responsible leaders. But whatever.

“We should send a thoughtful letter stating that we’re glad to hear they’re working on new procedures, and asking them to come down and talk to us about it,” said Burrows.

White objected to that as well, saying she didn’t want to take the time for more talk. “We should thank [leadership] for taking this seriously, and let the reorganization process go ahead,” White said.

At that point, committee members deferred to White. Her resolution, calling for a thankful letter and nothing more, was approved on a unanimous voice vote.

Members of the Windham County committee clearly felt uncomfortable expressing any real questions about party leadership, especially on the eve of the 2020 election season. But this is probably not the end of Anderson’s troubles. Many committee members expect robust debate at the VDP’s state committee meeting on September 21. Hagen noted that he had talked with other county chairs, and found that many were still actively concerned about the Batham case and its effect on fundraising.

And even in the absence of an actual call for change in leadership, the incumbent officeholders are likely to face sharp questions — at the very least — at the reorganization meeting on November 16.

 

State ethics panel whitewashes its own past

This week, the Vermont State Ethics Commission withdrew its October 2018 advisory opinion about Gov. Phil Scott’s relationship with DuBois Construction, the firm he co-owned before becoming governor. It was a thorough exercise in retconning: The panel retroactively changed the rules of its own game.

Ironic, isn’t it, that a government body that’s all about ethics would try to whitewash its own past. It has even removed the original opinion from its website, replacing it with the following brief statement:

The Vermont State Ethics Commission at its September 4, 2019 meeting approved Executor Director Larry Novins’ recommendation to withdraw Advisory Opinion 18-01 issued on October 1, 2018. The opinion discussed the governor’s financial relationship with his former company which contracts with the State of Vermont. The Commission concluded that the process used at the time was incorrect.

Yeah, great, whatever. I don’t know why the commission chose to make this move almost a year after the fact. I suspect (but cannot prove) that there was pressure from the Scott administration to remove this blemish from the gov’s record. After all, Scott and his minions seem far more concerned about the opinion than anyone else in state government or politics. The voters certainly didn’t care when they overwhelmingly re-elected the guy last November.

To recap the DuBois saga… When Scott became governor, he had to divest himself of his half-ownership in DuBois, which frequently bids on state contracts. His $2.5 million stake represented the lion’s share of his own net worth.

The simplest remedy was to sell his share. Problem is, DuBois’ net worth is tied up in land, buildings and equipment. And a $2.5 million bank loan would have been a millstone around DuBois’ neck. Scott’s solution: He financed the loan himself.

That removed him from ownership and management. However, it tied up most of his net worth in a long-term loan to DuBois, and it provided a nice $75,000 per month year income stream from the company’s monthly payments. In short, Scott had no ownership interest, but he still had a huge financial interest in DuBois’ prosperity.

And that’s clearly a violation of the state ethics code as it’s currently written.

Of course, part of the commission’s retconning exercise is a rewrite of the ethics code. Something tells me it will be carefully crafted to put DuBois-style arrangements in the clear. The other part is a rewrite of its internal processes, which will prevent future cases like l’affaire Scott.

The commission’s current processes were established by legislation in 2018. Those processes occur entirely behind closed doors, exempt from open-meetings and public-records law — with one exception: The issuance of advisory opinions at the request of state officials, employees, or anyone else. Those opinions were the only commission function subject to public release.

It was the “anyone else” that triggered all this mess. The Vermont Public Interest Research Group requested an advisory opinion instead of filing a complaint, because VPIRG wanted the end product to be made public. And it got exactly what it wanted. The state ethics commission ruled that the DuBois deal was in violation of the ethics code — and released that opinion, as it was bound to do.

The opinion was not enforceable. It was purely advisory. But Scott didn’t like it, not one little bit.

Ironically enough, neither did Democratic lawmakers, who might have been expected to exploit the opinion for political gain. Instead, legislative leaders sided with the governor, and raked the commission over the coals during the 2019 session. Their intent, they asserted, had never been to allow outsiders to seek advisory opinions. Well, they had only themselves to blame; they wrote the law that allowed such a move. The commission made submissive noises and promised to make changes, so the legislature dropped any effort to rewrite the law.

And now the commission is following through on the submission routine.

Let me make one thing clear. I don’t suspect the governor of any actual wrongdoing. He’s an honest guy, and it would take a determined (and criminal) effort to subvert the state’s contracting process.

But the ethics code is designed to prevent the appearance of conflict as well as actual conflict itself. I know Scott was between a rock and a hard place on how to divest from DuBois. But ethical standards exist for a reason.

Retconning the standards to benefit a single individual who’s in a tough spot is fundamentally antithetical to the purpose of having an ethics code in the first place. It’s just one more sign that no one in state government is actually serious about ethics — they just want to make it look like they’re serious, so folks like me and VPIRG will shut our yaps and go away.

 

Windham Dems consider a call for change in state party leadership

At its scheduled meeting Monday September 9, the Windham County Democratic Committee will consider a resolution calling for “a new slate of [party] officers” for the Vermont Democratic Party.

The resolution is signed by county chair John Hagen. It centers on the embezzlement case involving former party staffer Brandon Batham, who allegedly took more than $18,000 in state party funds through payroll fraud and excessive expense-account claims.

The resolution notes that the party’s Executive Committee “has the oversight and fiduciary responsibility to ensure accountability of all party funds,” and that the Batham case “may undermine future party fundraising efforts.” A change in leadership, it says, is necessary “in order to demonstrate a meaningful change for improved oversight and fiscal accountability.”

The VDP is undergoing its biennial reorganization this fall, including election of state officers on November 16. Current officers include chair Terje Anderson, vice chair Tess Taylor and treasurer Billi Gosh. They have yet to say if they plan to run for re-election, but have given no indication that they need to take any action besides promising to do better. “We will be doing everything possible to move beyond this very discouraging set of circumstances and to regain or retain your trust,” party leaders wrote in a memo to members following the revelation of the embezzlement.

The existence of the Windham resolution shows that some party members are unwilling to be satisfied with mere words. If the resolution is approved Monday, it could set the stage for a truly rocky reorganization process.

Or, perhaps, for the quiet departure of current leadership.

Text of proposed Windham resolution:

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Do the Democrats want to beat Phil Scott?

Stupid question, right?

Ask any Democrat — well, almost any Democrat — and they’ll say of course they want to beat Phil Scott and put one of their own in the corner office.

But I’m not asking any of them.

Instead, I’m looking at their collective actions. And they tell a different story, one full of abject failure to mount competitive races, of convenient excuses for legislative inaction, of top-tier contenders avoiding a tough challenge.

Conventional wisdom says that Scott is a singularly popular Republican thanks to his plain ol’ working-man demeanor and his plausibly moderate stands on the issues. I mean, look: He’s never lost in his 20-year political career. That includes campaigns for state Senate, lieutenant governor and governor. Impressive.

But who has he beaten? How many difficult races has he had to run? How many times did he amble his way to victory?

Short answer: He’s had it about as easy as a politician could hope for.

Scott first ran for Senate in 2000, the year of the great conservative backlash over civil unions for same-sex couples. He secured one of Washington County’s three seats in a race that nearly produced a Republican sweep of the county. (Incumbent Democrat Ann Cummings barely edged out fourth-place Republican Paul Giuliani.)

After that, Scott’s fortunes were buoyed by the super-strong incumbent’s edge in state Senate races. He finished a strong third in 2002. 2004 was the closest call of his entire political career; he won the third seat by a margin of only 230 votes. 2006 and 2008 were easy wins for all three incumbents — Scott, Cummings, and the redoubtable Bill Doyle.

As a reasonably inoffensive Republican, Scott benefited from the good will of Democratic leadership. He served as vice chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and chair of  Senate Institutions, burnishing his reputation for working across the aisle.

In 2010, Scott ran for lieutenant governor and won, beating then-state representative Steve Howard by 49-42 percent.  That was the closest call he’s had in this entire decade.

As LG, Scott’s reputation for bipartisanship was given a boost by then-governor Peter Shumlin, who included Scott in his cabinet. Not the kind of move you make if you really wanted a fellow Democrat to take Scott’s place.

Unsurprisingly, the potential A-List or B-List candidates for Lite-Gov kept their distance, allowing relative unknowns Cassandra Gekas (2012) and Dean Corren (2014) to mount the altar as sacrificial lambs. Scott beat Gekas by 17 points and Corren by an astounding 26.

And that set the stage for Scott’s elevation to governor in 2016. His Democratic opponent Sue Minter was a former state representative and cabinet official, but she’d never run for statewide office and was little known outside of Montpelier and Waterbury. She lost by nine points. In 2018, the top tier of Democrats was nowhere to be seen; former utility executive Christine Hallquist made history by becoming the first openly transgender person to win a major party’s gubernatorial nomination, but she had no chance in November. Scott sailed to a 15-point victory.

Now, you tell me. Who’s more responsible for the remarkable political career of Phil Scott? The man himself — or the Democratic Party that has consistently failed to seriously challenge him, and the Democratic officeholders who’ve consistently given him a hand up?

That also goes for top Democrats who are more than happy to make public appearances with Scott, even during his 2018 re-election campaign. The governor could fill a thousand campaign brochures with photos of himself making nice with Democratic officeholders, from the legislature to statewide officials to members of our congressional delegation.

I know, we’re all proud of Vermont’s tradition of political comity. But at some point, don’t you have to be just a little bit partisan?

Now, let’s look at the Democrat-dominated legislature, where Scott provides a convenient excuse for not getting stuff done. Over and over again in the past three years, the Dems have failed to advance key bills because of the potential for a gubernatorial veto. Just as often, they’ve ended up negotiating against themselves — weakening legislation in hopes of winning the governor’s approval.

Y’know, if they had a progressive-minded Democratic governor, they’d have to actually try to craft effective legislation. This didn’t work out too well with Shumlin’s health care reform push, did it? Much safer to flail helplessly in the face of a Republican governor.

They’ve also reached a comfy non-confrontational position on taxes and spending. There was little dispute over the 2020 budget. There is no real effort to challenge Scott on taxes. VTGOP press releases will tell a different story, chronicling every tax or fee increase proposed by every single Dem or Progressive lawmaker — even though the vast majority were dead on arrival.

During the 2019 session, the Dems undermined much of their own agenda. They spent week after week trying to come up with weaker and weaker versions of key bills. In some cases, that effort prevented bills from gaining legislative approval at all. Scott didn’t have to veto a minimum wage increase, a paid family leave program or a commercial marketplace for cannabis — three high priority issues for the Dems. They also failed to confront the governor on other contentious issues, including legalization of personal possession of buprenorphine. They disappointed their liberal base by failing to seriously address climate change.

Point being, the fear of a veto was powerful juju, turning the Dem/Prog supermajority into so many zombies. And leaving potential 2020 gubernatorial candidates with precious little material to run on. For the sake of anyone willing to challenge Scott, the legislature had better come prepared next January to hold the governor’s feet to the fire. Force him to make difficult choices. Show that there’s a real difference between the Democrats and the Republican governor.

Or, well, just sit back, relax, let some schmo lose to Scott by double digits, and get back to the established routine of shadowboxing the big bad governor.

The Narrow Parameters of Acceptable Debate

So how many political parties do we have in Vermont? Two? Three? Umpteen, if you count Liberty Union and whatever Cris Ericson and Emily Peyton have going on and the Mad Hatter of #vtpoli, H. Brooke Paige?

(I know, he’s a Republican. But any day I can mention Mr. Paige is a good day.)

Well, looking at recent policy debates in the Statehouse, you might just conclude that we have a grand total of one: The Moosh Party. Because on a whole range of issues, there’s little disagreement on the fundamentals; the discussion is confined to the details. At a time when Vermont faces some huge challenges, there’s a complete lack of bold thinking in the executive and legislative branches. We’re All In The Box.

The most basic area of consensus is on state finances. There’s no serious talk of raising taxes, cutting taxes or even significantly reforming our tax system. There’s no serious talk of raising or cutting spending. Streamlining or reforming government seems as unattainable as ever.

(When Phil Scott was running for governor in 2016, he talked a lot about “Lean management” as a way to make government more efficient and free up money to pay for new programs without raising taxes. He rarely, if ever, brings up that idea anymore. His state website touts his PIVOT program (Program to Improve Vermont Outcomes Together, and someone was paid taxpayer dollars to come up with that pukey acronym) but — deep into the third year of the Scott Era — doesn’t cite any cost savings. It does boast of 44 PIVOT projects underway and the training of hundreds of state managers and employees in Lean practices. Which makes me suspect that spending on PIVOT has outweighed any actual savings.)

When times are good and the state is enjoying unexpected revenue, the broad consensus is that we shouldn’t spend it — or at least not very much of it. The Republican governor and the four Democratic money committee chairs are in agreement on that. Except perhaps at the margins.

There’s also broad agreement that the state shouldn’t be borrowing any more money. Remember Sen. Michael Sirotkin’s ill-fated proposal to launch another $35 million housing bond this year? He’s a powerful committee chair, and his idea went nowhere. One of the loudest voices in opposition: Democratic Treasurer Beth Pearce, who’s fiercely protective of the state’s bond rating.

All this broad consensus leaves room only for piecemeal action. Take, for example, the legislature finding $6 million in this year’s budget to boost child-care subsidies. Nothing to sneeze at, but advocates will tell you that it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the actual need — for parents trying to keep their jobs and for child-care workers trying to make a living.

And it’s one-time money. That’s what passes for significant accomplishment in 2019.

Here’s another. Universal broadband is widely seen as a necessity for rural Vermont to become economically competitive. This year, the state enacted Act 79, which produces $1.2-1.4 million per year for broadband grants and creates a revolving loan fund for existing and startup internet service providers. A nice step, but nothing like a game-changer.

Meanwhile, the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature whiffed on three signature issues: paid family leave, minimum wage and a tax-and-regulate system for cannabis. What’s notable about those three, besides the whiffing, is that none of them would have cost the state much money. Paid leave? A new tax. Minimum wage? Employers would foot the bill. Cannabis? Would have brought new revenue to state coffers.

Not even on the table: Climate change, housing, education, the tattered mental health system, economic development, seriously addressing income inequality and health care reform, among others. No effort, through increased state aid or some sort of student debt forgiveness, to confront our affordability crisis in higher education. Nothing to address Vermont’s demographic crisis — except for the Scott administration’s dink-and-doink grant programs that only benefit a handful of employers and workers. On climate change, leaders of both parties acknowledge the crisis and our lack of progress toward established climate goals. But propose or approve a truly game-changing agenda? Not on your life.

Literally.

For years, politicians on all sides have talked about ending our reliance on out-of-state prisons. But actually doing something about it? Spending money on facilities or enacting new programs to reduce the inmate population? Nah.

Any effort to close the ridiculously large and still growing wealth gap, either through boosting benefits or job training or education affordability — or through increasing taxes on top earners? All talk, no action.

Health care reform would seem to be a critical need, considering that the Green Mountain Care Board just approved whopping insurance-rate premiums. But do you hear anything besides the gentle shuff-shuff of hand-wringing? Nope. I think elected officials of all stripes are still scarred by then-governor Peter Shumlin’s disastrous reform efforts. Nobody wants to call that monster out from under the bed.

The biggest exception to this depressing parade of cromulence was Act 76, which establishes a revenue source and administrative structure for waterways cleanup. Nice. But it only came after years of ducking the issue as long as humanly possible — even as toxic algae blooms make an annual joke of our alleged commitment to environmental purity, not to mention killing dogs and maybe causing Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

And action only came under threat of federal intervention. Yep, we can thank the Trump EPA for forcing Vermont to clean up its water.

This around-the-middle consensus isn’t only frustrating for those on the left. It’s got to be just as galling for conservatives, who believe the answer to Vermont’s problems lies in cutting taxes, spending and regulation. You’re not getting any of that from Team Scott, much less the legislature.

It’s funny. Vermont is widely seen as bluer-than-blue Bernie Country. But our current crop of elected leaders is comfortably at home in a narrow band of non-threatening incrementalism.