Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Milne Transcripts, part 2: The accusation

Early on in Scott Milne’s epic appearance on WDEV’s Mark Johnson Show last Friday, the Republican gubernatorial candidate unleashed a tough accusation against Governor Shumlin’s team — basically accusing them of bringing political pressure to bear against Republican donors.

Johnson had asked Milne about fundraising, and specifically about his relatively paltry take of $20,000 so far. Milne asserted that things were going according to plan, and said “I’m not all that actively pursuing money yet.” Johnson was surprised by this, and asked “You’re not actively pursuing money?” And Milne responded:

We’ve got a strategy for fundraising. I’ve got a fundraiser on board and she knows what she’s doing. But I’m not going to spend eight hours a day on the phone begging for money, and I’m clearly not going to call people up who donate to my opponent and ask them why, which is a widely known fact about this administration. 

Emphasis mine. Johnson was a bit incredulous, and followed up: “They do that? To people who contribute to you?” Milne’s response:

No, not me. But in the past. Get people on the show and ask them. But that’s clearly part of the Shumlin agenda.

Milne didn’t directly present this as a case of political blackmail, but that was the clear intent. A pretty damning accusation, presented completely without evidence. Yeah, “get people on the show and ask them.” As if victims of political pressure would freely own up to it on the radio.

Well, I ran this by Erika Wolffling, Shumlin campaign staffer this year and in 2012, which would seem to be the year Milne is hinting at. (A pressure play would have been ineffective in 2010, when Shumlin wasn’t even Governor yet.) Her very concise response:

That’s a bizarre statement, and it’s absolutely false.

So there. Ball’s in your court, Mr. Milne. If you have people willing to substantiate your accusation — on or off the record — I would be happy to speak with them. If you’ve read my stuff for very long, you know that I’m a liberal but an honest broker, willing to criticize members of any party if they’re in the wrong. And if there’s evidence that this accusation isn’t “absolutely false,” I’d consider it newsworthy and I would report it in this space. You know where to find me.

The Milne Transcripts series will continue very soon. 

VPR gives Peter Welch a big fat sloppy wet kiss

Well, that’s four and a half minutes of my life I’ll never get back again.

This morning, VPR’s Bob Kinzel delivered himself of a lengthy (by modern public radio standards) piece devoted to a subject that was already in the realm of clear, obvious, unquestioned fact: Congressman Peter Welch likes to work cooperatively with people from both parties.

Everybody knows that. It’s an occasional source of irritation to Vermont liberals, who’d like to see a bit more fire and brimstone from the guy. So why did we need a news story exploring a settled question?

The host’s intro to the piece was all you needed to hear:

Congressman Peter Welch has one of the most liberal voting records in Washington. At the same time, he’s one of the few Democrats to work closely with some of the most conservative Republicans in the House. VPR’s Bob Kinzel has the story.

What followed was four minutes and thirty-eight seconds that added nothing to the above statement. It was one person after another complimenting Welch on his bipartisan spirit and willingness to work with even the most conservative tea-party nutbars in the Republican caucus.

This piece took a great deal of effort on Kinzel’s part. He got quotes from former Governor Jim Douglas, two very conservative Republican members of Congress, and a Congressional correspondent for the beltway publication Roll Call, plus some file tape of Welch at a committee hearing. You don’t often hear that many different people in a single public radio piece.

And for what? To re-establish a universally known fact?

Who came up with this story idea anyway? And how did it get through VPR’s notoriously painstaking editorial process? There was no “news hook” — no current event that shines a spotlight on Welch’s collaborative proclivities.

Plus, it seems inappropriate to send an unvarnished love letter to a person who’s currently running for re-election, for God’s sake. If I were Mark Donka, I’d be complaining vociferously to VPR for broadcasting what amounted to a lengthy advertisement for Peter Welch’s political virtue.

But most of all, it was a complete waste of time for a skilled reporter, VPR editors, and me, the listener.

The Milne Transcripts, part 1: An inauspicious beginning

On Friday July 25, Scott Milne sat down for his first extensive media interview since launching his Republican candidacy for Governor. He was a guest on The Mark Johnson Show on WDEV Radio; Mark has archived the interview as a podcast. 

It’s a rich vein of material, and I’ll be rolling it out in sections over the next couple of days. I’ve transcribed the first 15 minutes so far, working my way through dense overgrowths of verbiage and sudden shifts of topic, delivered in a quick, stumbly, nervous monotone.

Let me pause here and say that I have a lot of respect for Scott Milne the businessman, and I appreciate his courage in taking on the thankless task of challenging Governor Shumlin. And just as he doesn’t mean to “vilify” Shumlin by referring to him as brazen, bullying, headstrong, radical, and ultra-progressive, I don’t mean to vilify Milne when I say that his performance was so inept as to be almost unlistenable, or that his campaign is off to a terrible, horrible, really bad start, or that any chance he had of mounting a serious challenge to the Governor has already evaporated like the mist of a midsummer morning. Nor when I call him the political equivalent to the 1962 Mets.

Nope, no vilification here.

He came across as a — well, here’s a choice quote:

I’m more interested in the campaign, making sure I’m out meeting Vermonters and reconfirming the reason I got into the race, which is a real fear of the direction the Shumlin Administration is taking the state, and the need for a, hopefully what the people will judge me as an articulate voice of opposition to that. 

Emphasis mine. “Articulate voice of opposition,” my Aunt Fanny.

Milne is a novice to the big political stage, and it may seem unfair to criticize his first sally. But good grief, he put himself in this position by jumping into the race at the last minute. He has no time for missteps, and he surely has no time for on-the-job training. He needed to hit the ground running with a coherent, convincing narrative. Instead, he’s hit the ground face first.

Want more? Oh Lord, there’s more.

There are some real problems with the economy in Vermont, there’s some real lack of leadership from the Shumlin Administration over the last four, or I would argue six years, ’cause he spent his last two years as President Pro Tem of the Senate really running for Governor. So he’s got six years into this, he still can’t even tell us too much about how he’s going to pay for VHC, to say nothing about taking accountability for the total mismanagement of it.

“Six years.”

Peter Shumlin’s been Governor since January 2011. Three and a half years. I don’t know what Milne is hoping to pull off with this six-year bit — which he also hammered home in a media scrum after his campaign launch. It’s transparently phony and unconvincing.

Milne then pivoted to another talking point, delivered with the same skill and grace.

Secondly, we’ve got this big problem with the school system, and we’ve got a Governor who, between vacations in Bimini or wherever his Caribbean vacation home is, and flyin’ all over the country to raise money from special interest groups, he found all kinds of time to do that during the Legislative session, but didn’t find the time or the need to roll up his shirtsleeves, walk across from the Pavilion fifth floor to the Capitol, sit down with House and Senate leaders and get something on the table that’s going to restructure property taxes so that, you know, you’re talking about my announcement in Barre, I stopped at Central Market, which has been there for at least two generations, I stopped in there for a coffee on my way over to my announcement on Wednesday at the Aldrich Public Library, ran into three people all of whom supported me emotionally, all of whom live in Florida and don’t live in Vermont anymore.

You can practically smell the smoke when he shifts mental gears from one talking point to another. He sounds like he’s been stuffed full of briefing notes and hasn’t had time to digest them. They just come spewing out in raggedy chunks whenever he opens his mouth.

Again, I am not vilifying Scott Milne, whom I respect as a person and businessman.

That’s enough for part 1. Coming up in the second installment: Milne makes a striking accusation against Governor Shumlin, the man he is not at all vilifying. And he provides not a speck of evidence.

Stay tuned, and getcha popcorn ready.

Sweet deals, or no deals?

The 2015 legislative session looks to be big and contentious, including the likely rollout of Governor Shumlin’s single-payer health care plan and a serious debate over public-school organization and financing. We can also expect a new battle over campaign finance reform, VPIRG’s #1 issue for the year.

And there will be a new fight over taxing sugar-sweetened beverages, a measure that has failed twice in recent years. But a new year, a new push, and a new guy taking leadership: Anthony Iarrapino is leaving the Conservation Law Foundation to head the Alliance for a Healthier Vermont, the coalition that spearheaded the sugar-tax fight in 2013. Iarrapino told VTDigger, in the words of Bullwinkle T. Moose, This time for sure.

“We’re going to have the resources this time around to really mobilize and educate the public and policy makers on the wisdom of Vermont once again leading the nation in an important policy area,” he said.

The Alliance claims to have $200,000 to bankroll its campaign and counter the efforts of Big Food and the ever-vigilant Vermont Retail and Grocers’ Association. It also seeks to piggy-back on health care reform, by offering a short-term revenue boost from the tax and the longer-term cost reductions from lower rates of sugar-induced illnesses.

It’ll be interesting to see how Governor Shumlin plays this. (Yes, I’m assuming his re-election. Aren’t you?) He can surely use every bit of money he can find for single-payer; but he’s opposed this tax in the past, and his campaign is getting heavy support from the likes of Coca-Cola.

But I would be Shocked, Shocked, if there were any quid pro quo involved.

Jim Harrison of the Retail Association is dusting off his talking points, including the hardy perennial “a tax would hurt retailers near New Hampshire.” Yeah, well, it might hurt big supermarkets within shouting distance of the border, since a 2-cent-per-ounce tax adds up if you’re buying a 30-pack of Mr. Pibb. I doubt it’ll impact our cherished Mom and Pop enterprises; hard to see too many folks driving across the border if they’re just stopping in for a quick Gatorade fix.

But Harrison’s biggest laugh line was this:

Nothing has changed since previous efforts to pass the tax, adding that it’s still regressive and “goes down the path of government trying to decide what’s best for consumers through tax policy,” Harrison said.

Bwahahahaha. Stop it, Jim, you’re making me shoot coffee out my nose.

You kiddin’ me? Government uses tax policy ALL THE TIME to “decide what’s best for consumers.” Take the mortgage interest rate deduction or the charitable contributions deduction. Take any stinkin’ tax deduction, break, subsidy, or exception. Take the capital gains tax rate, which decides it’s better to be a rich investor than a working stiff.

And if you just want to talk about sweeteners, well, that’s the mother lode of government using tax policy to “decide what’s best for consumers.” Agribusinesses that produce sugar and corn benefit from extremely generous subsidies, price supports, and free “insurance.” The result is lost tax revenue for the public till, a farm system that’s heavily skewed toward the biggest producers and commodity crops that go into junk food of all kinds, and — pay attention, Jim — higher cost for consumers because of artificially high sugar, corn, and soy prices.

So please don’t insult our intelligence with that “government shouldn’t decide what’s best for consumers” nonsense. That ship sailed a very long time ago.

Anyway, it should be an interesting battle. I expect legislative leaders to trot out the old reliable “too many other issues on our plate” line, in an effort to put off consideration of the sugar tax. It’ll be up to the likes of Iarrapino to make it a fight they can’t postpone. As we saw with the GMO labeling bill this year, it’s possible to build momentum behind an issue that lawmakers might prefer to duck, but it takes a concerted effort.

And it’ll require a softening of Shumlin’s hard-line stance. Not an easy thing to accomplish.

Hey look, it’s New Media hucksterism!

If you happen to Follow the Freeploid’s Twitter feed @bfp_news, you would have seen this timely message hogging most of your desktop today.

Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 12.37.48 PM

Gosh, now there’s an offer I can’t possibly refuse. Look at that 21st Century meeting space! It just practically screams “innovation,” doesn’t it? Formica-topped Tables! Aligned in straight rows facing frontward! Uncomfortable chairs! A wall-mounted monitor! Fluorescent light fixtures in a drop ceiling! Cabinets! Door! Illuminated exit sign! All yours for “as low as $150”!!! (Rate applies from 2-4 a.m. weekdays only. Ten-meeting minimum. No refreshments offered or allowed.)

The Freeploid may call it, with deep aspirational longing, an “Innovation Incubator.” I call it a “meeting room,” same as it ever was.

If this is an example of the Freeploid’s vision of innovation, I weep for the future of Vermont’s Largest Newspaper.



School consolidation: It’s coming

Interesting sidelight from Saturday’s meeting of the Democratic State Committee. Various candidates for statewide office spoke to the Committee, seeking its endorsement… including Governor Shumlin. He delivered an energetic stem-winder of a speech, citing accomplishments and goals and thanking the party faithful for making it all possible.

There was one glaring omission from his list of issues: Public school funding and organization. Not a word.

Then he took a few questions, and longtime committee member Bill Sander asked directly about school consolidation. He’s not a fan.

The Governor’s answer was a masterpiece of pointillism, the technique in which, sez Wikipedia, “small, distinct dots of pure color are applied in patterns to form an image.”

The image that emerged: School consolidation is on the way.

He first credited legislative leaders for their “courage” in bringing up the idea earlier this year. Of course, they showed equal amounts of the opposite of courage in ditching the idea when the negative reaction came in waves.

That negative reaction in mind, Shumlin offered a “collaborative” approach which, boiled down to essentials, consists of “We’ll convince you that our plan is right.”

“I’ve asked my Education Secretary to sit down with local schools and show them the math,” he said, “and let the local communities discuss how best to proceed.” He calls this “a partnership, especially with schools that are becoming too small.”

He spoke, not of saving money or centralizing decision-making, but of educational opportunities. He pointed to schools too small to field a football team or cast a theatrical production; of a lack of “a critical mass to provide an educational experience” in classes with only a handful of students.

“Take it from that perspective,” he concluded, “Providing a quality educational experience, plus cost, and we’ll work through it together.”

Yes we will. We’ll work through it to a preformed conclusion.

I’m not necessarily against consolidation, but let’s be honest: as far as the Governor is concerned, the debate on the big question is fundamentally over. Now, it’s a PR blitz and detail work.

The Progs’ problem child

As I’ve often said before, I have no patience for the petty disputes and long-held grudges that are often a feature of Dem/Prog relations in Vermont. And although there have been minor offenses aplenty on both sides, I think the Democrats have some additional responsibility to be the adult in the room. They’ve been around a lot longer, and they already rule the roost; the Progs are hardly a threat. Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau famously compared US/Canada relations to an elephant and a mouse sharing a bed, and the same can be said of the Dems and the Progs: The Prog mouse can disturb the Dem elephant (instant mixed metaphor, sorry) by accidentally tickling it. The elephant can disturb the mouse by rolling over and crushing it.

That said, there’s a member of the Progs’ statewide ticket who is, inadvertently, doing all he can to annoy the elephant. That would be Ben Eastwood, Prog candidate for Secretary of State.

Yes, the same Ben Eastwood who shot down a motion to endorse Democratic incumbent Jim Condos by calling him a “crony capitalist” because of his former employment by Vermont Gas Systems. Which also, it must be said, gave Eastwood a clear shot at the Prog nomination.

Well, Eastwood has spent the first couple months of his “campaign” barely addressing the office he’s running for, and making often-incendiary comments on his current fixation: the Israeli military action in Gaza. He’s agin’ it, very strongly. And he has a right to express his opinions, but when I look at his Facebook page of message after message about the Middle East, I wonder if he’s really serious about becoming Secretary of State. The last time he mentioned the campaign on his Facebook page was June 12, when he’d just finished collecting petition signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Yes, I know he’s not going to win and so does he. But if he accepts a party’s nomination for a high office, he should at least present the appearance of engagement.

Beyond that, he’s been picking a fight with a couple of well-known Democrats over on Green Mountain Daily — Dem state committee alternate member Jack McCullough and Montpelier City Clerk John Odum by name. The details of the argument are many, and if you want to follow it, click on the link. The point is, Ben Eastwood, Progressive Party candidate for Secretary of State, is stirring up trouble with Democrats on an issue that has nothing to do with Vermont politics. He should know better, and he should be more responsible.

After all, this is happening at the very time that Dean Corren, Progressive candidate for Lieutenant Governor, is actively seeking Democratic support — and trying to overcome any bruised feelings that might exist from past Prog-to-Dem insults.

Seeking support from, among others, the colleagues and friends of Jack McCullough.

Here’s a tip, Mr. Eastwood. If you accept the honor of a party’s nomination, you assume responsibility for being a public face of your party and fostering your party’s image and prospects. You have a duty to focus on your own campaign and the office you seek, and temporarily stick a sock in it regarding other issues.

Any member of the Democratic state committee would be well within their bounds if, when called upon by Dean Corren, they asked him about his running mate, Ben Eastwood. It’d be perfectly appropriate for any member of the media to ask Corren if he supports Eastwood.

In addition to the trouble Eastwood is stirring up right now, there’s also the problem of his publicly-available record. He is either a vaccine truther or he’s strongly sympathetic with those who believe that vaccines are poison. He’s vehemently opposed to wind power. And he’s given hints of secessionist leanings.

To top it all off, remember the Progressive gubernatorial primary two years ago, when the Progs chose not to run a candidate and anti-wind extremist Annette Smith launched a last-minute write-in bid to secure the Prog nomination? Party stalwart Martha Abbott agreed to put her name up as a write-in, to keep the nomination from falling into Smith’s hands. After all, it would have been harmful to the Progs’ aspirations to have a person with an extreme and non-Prog agenda as the party’s standard bearer.

Well, Eastwood apparently wasn’t aware of Smith’s candidacy until after the fact, but he then wrote “I wish I’d known about Annette Smith’s write in campaign, and I would have written her in…” 

He would have written in Annette Smith over Martha Abbott? In spite of the clear and obvious wishes of his own Progressive Party?

And now, two years later, he gets one of the top spots on the Progressive ticket?

He certainly isn’t treating that honor, nor the office of the Secretary of State, nor the Progressive Party, nor the Democrats, with the respect they deserve. In so doing, he is hurting the Progs’ case to be taken seriously as a fully-formed, mature party capable of governing. Having someone like Eastwood on the statewide ticket makes ’em look more like a larger Liberty Union Party than a convincing alternative to the Democrats.

Serious-minded Progs, the likes of Corren and Chris Pearson, must be desperately hoping that Eastwood’s candidacy comes and goes without doing too much damage to the Progressive brand they are working so hard to create.

Another step down the rabbit hole for the VTGOP

Terri Hallenbeck has livened up Your Monday Freeploid with an incendiary piece about Dan Feliciano, Liberatarian candidate for Governor. Well, the incendiary part isn’t about Feliciano; it’s about signs of Republican support for him. Hallenbeck quotes a few Republicans expressing interest in Feliciano because of his steadfast opposition to single-payer health care.

Including, most notably, one of the Vermont Republican Party’s top officials:

“I see people responding favorably to that,” said Mark Snelling, the Republican Party treasurer and son of former Gov. Richard Snelling and Lt. Gov. Barbara Snelling.

Snelling has yet to commit to a candidate. “I’m going to be interested in watching Dan Feliciano,” he said.

Oh, that’s just great. How about a little party loyalty there, Mark? I bet your far more distinguished parents are spinning in their graves.* Remember, this is the guy whose tenure as treasurer has corresponded to the bleakest period in history for the party’s finances. He was also, it must be said, part of “Angry Jack” Lindley’s team, and won re-election as treasurer last fall in spite of Phil Scott’s efforts to reshape the VTGOP hierarchy.

*Mark Snelling has corrected my egregious blunder; Barbara Snelling is, in fact, “alive and well.” I apologize, and thank him for the correction. 

Going even farther into quisling territory is state committee member Patricia Crocker, who outright says she’ll be voting Feliciano. Now, the state committee has a lot of members, so Snelling’s Lib-curious comment is more noteworthy than Crocker’s complete betrayal.

Hallenbeck also reveals that there was a petition movement in June to get Feliciano on the Republican primary ballot, which could have made the primary verrrrrry interesting. A sizable minority of the state committee was willing to back perpetual loser John MacGovern for party chair rather than voting for Phil Scott’s choice, “Super Dave” Sunderland. It would have been fascinating to see how much of the hard-core Republican primary electorate would have opted for Feliciano instead of the putatively moderate Scott Milne.

Especially since Milne’s initial forays into campaigning have been awfully dismal. More on that later.

Feliciano is encouraging supporters to cast write-in votes for him in the August primary. And Snelling openly muses that a Feliciano challenge to Milne would actually be a good thing:

Winning a write-in campaign for governor is a very long shot, Snelling noted. “I would be doubtful it would be possible,” he said. But Feliciano’s presence in the race could play a part in changing the debate, particularly on health care, Snelling said. “I would think the campaign trail is going to move Scott Milne to come out stronger.”

Hallenbeck chose not to quote, or seek comment from, notoriously unsuccessful Republican operative Darcie “Hack” Johnston, who has already voiced support for Feliciano. Johnston’s opinion shouldn’t have much pull in GOP circles, but I bet she’s still influential among the True Believers who’ve been dragging the party into electoral irrelevance.

With friends like those, Phil Scott and Super Dave don’t need enemies.

Did the Dems really need more good fundraising news? Well, they got some.

Side note from Saturday’s meeting of the Vermont Democratic Party State Committee: VDP Executive Director Julia Barnes told the gathering that this year’s Curtis Award dinner featuring Senator Elizabeth Warren was a huge success, grossing $146,000. As Barnes pointed out, that’s enough to cover half the party’s total budget for this year. Correction: one-third of the party’s administrative budget for the year.

And there was the collateral benefit of energizing donors and volunteers, Barnes noted, thanks to the enthusiasm generated by Warren’s strong message.

I can’t directly compare the Curtis Award take with the VTGOP’s vaunted Chris Christie event from last December because, as far as I can tell, the party has never publicly announced its total receipts. Beforehand, it was happy to throw around estimates of $200,000 to $300,000.

Funny thing about that. The VTGOP’s campaign finance report filed on March 15, which covered the period from July 2013 to March 15, 2014, listed total donations of $45,567.32. The vast majority of that was given between mid-November and mid-December.

Unless some of the Christie-related donations went directly into other accounts, the Christie fundraiser appears to have grossed a little under $40,000.

If any Republican apparatchiks want to correct my reckoning or, preferably, provide the actual take, please do so in the comments below or contact me directly. At least some of you know how. And I’d really like to know.

In the meantime, let’s stick with 40K. Compare the two high-profile fundraising events, and see which one was the bigger success.

Not to mention that during the March 2014 reporting period (July to March), the VTGOP spent just under $40,000. So the Christie take was pretty much gone by mid-March, leaving the Party once again starved for funds.

Corren meets the Dems

The Democratic Party State Committee met Saturday in Montpelier, and gave its endorsement to the Party’s expected slate with one exception: Dean Corren, Progressive candidate for Lieutenant Governor. He did not actually seek an official endorsement from the state committee, but he did address the gathering and asked for their support in getting people to write in his name in the August primary.

“I got into this race on one issue,” he said, “Single payer health care.” He described this as a critical time for the issue, and said “We need a Lieutenant Governor working shoulder to shoulder with Governor Shumlin. I would be a good partner in this fight.”

(He didn’t say, but I will, that the Lieutenant Governor casts tie-breaking votes in the Senate. If Corren’s there, passing single-payer becomes easier than if Phil Scott wields the gavel. That, in itself, is a powerful incentive for Democrats, Progressives and liberals to unite behind Corren, no matter how much of a nice guy Scott may be.)

He also emphasized his common ground with the Democrats on two key issues: campaign finance reform and renewable energy. Since he qualified for public financing, you could say he has struck a real blow on the issue of money in politics. On energy, he pointed to his own professional involvement in climate change and green energy.

He also addressed the past (and for some, present) tensions between Democrats and Progressives. “We are more interested in progress than in bashing anyone.”

There was a lot of favorable reaction in the room. Corren took several questions, and all were supportive.Longtime committee member Bill Sander recalled past times when the party actively considered endorsing Republican challengers to then-Congressman Bernie Sanders, on the theory that they could get rid of Bernie and then beat the Republican two years later. Now, Sander said, “Our goal is to further the policies we believe in,” and that includes working alongside Bernie instead of trying to undercut him.

Some committee members obviously wanted to go ahead with an endorsement, but it wasn’t on the agenda. John Wilmerding of Windham County posited an endorsement via the transitive property: the state committee had previously endorsed then-candidate John Bauer; since then, Bauer has endorsed Corren; and if A equals B and B equals C, then maybe the committee has already, kinda-sorta, endorsed Corren. No one argued the point, but it remained in the unofficial realm.

After his presentation, Corren had a brief media scrum in the hallway. He pronounced himself “extremely” encouraged by the committee’s reaction. “It was wonderful. I couldn’t be more pleased.”

He was asked if he’d run into any Dem/Prog tensions in his contacts with party officials. “Actually, I haven’t,” he said. “My calls to state committee members and county chairs and so forth have all been incredibly positive.”

After this week’s anti-Prog comments from a few state senators, it was good to see the Democratic hierarchy taking a more positive view of Corren. Maybe the “Dems for Phil Scott” idea is mostly a creation of the Senate’s clubby, cloistered atmosphere.

I certainly hope so.