Monthly Archives: October 2014

Bring me the head of Anthony Pollina

We received a pair of campaign mailers the other day. (One for each Household Voter.)

Which isn’t at all unusual; it’s rush season for political postage, which gives the USPS a nice little bump in bulk mail. But there was an unusual twist to this one. See if you can spot it:


If you didn’t know the players, you’d think this was a standard piece of party-line bumpf. But it’s not.

This mailer, for the three-seat Washington County State Senate district, endorses two Republicans and one Democrat. Ann Cummings is a Democratic incumbent; Bill Doyle, Our Eternal Senator, is a Republican incumbent; Pat McDonald is a Republican challenger.

Who’s missing? Why, none other than Prog/Dem incumbent Anthony Pollina.

The mailer wasn’t sent by any political party, but by four separate business groups working together: the Campaign Research Center (a.k.a. VT Chamber PAC), the Vermont Ski Areas Association, the Association of General Contractors PAC, and Vermont Realtors PAC. Four groups not known for prioritizing Environmental Protection.

You’d expect these guys to promote Republicans, wouldn’t you? Why no love for Republican Dexter Lefavour? Aside from, y’know, the fact that he’s nothing more than slot-filler.

And why Ann Cummings?

A couple ideas present themselves.

— Tony Pollina is the most liberal of the incumbents, and the most vulnerable — having finished in third place in each of the last two elections. Mind you, there was plenty of room between Pollina and the next Republican finisher each time. But McDonald has a high profile and plenty of connections, and the VTGOP has high hopes for her.

I think they’re wrong, but that’s how they see it.

— Ann Cummings is a liberal Democrat, but (a) she’s a longtime incumbent and a strong vote-getter, and (b) well, she’s a Realtor.

I don’t think her profession was the deciding factor in this cunning plan. More likely, it’s a tactical maneuver to try to isolate Pollina as the weakest link. And by listing a popular, established Democratic incumbent plus the immovable Bill Doyle, they might just trick a few liberals into thinking that McDonald is on their “team.”

It’s clever. Kinda squicky, but clever.

One more thing. Do you suppose the Realtors checked with Realtor Cummings before sending this mailer? If not, it seems discourteous to me. If so, and Cummings approved it, then she ought to explain herself to her fellow Dems.


Randy Brock labors mightily and brings forth a gnat

We have another missive from the desk of Randy Brock, former State Auditor and very unsuccessful candidate for Governor in 2012. This time, he has turned his gimlet eye to the subject of voter fraud, one of the right wing’s favorite chimeras.

(President Bush’s Justice Department spent ungodly amounts of time on this, and came up with a laughably small number of actual cases. That was enough proof for me that voter fraud is not a serious issue.)

Randy Brock's Fraud-O-Tron. Not exactly as illustrated.

Randy Brock’s Fraud-O-Tron. Not exactly as illustrated.

Thankfully, he eschewed the partisan rant. Instead, he went Full Auditor on it, harnessing “big data and inexpensive computer power” to do a vast comparison of voter records. He took “a sample of over 100,000 Vermont voters” from the 2012 election and compared them all to voter records in 48 other states. (Didn’t say which one he omitted. Alaska?) And he found…

… wait for it…

… a whopping 22 cases in which a Vermont voter also cast a vote in another state.

Please check my math, but I believe that’s a rate of 0.02 percent.

Color me unimpressed.

Brock, of course, feels otherwise:

Do we accept a small amount of voter fraud as the “cost of doing business” in a democracy? Or do we say that we must address the rare breaches of voter integrity that strike at the heart of our form of government?

That’s a bit overwrought, don’t you think? Two one-hundredths of a percentage point “strikes at the heart of our form of government”?

Look, I’d love to have a fraud and error rate of zero across the board. But voter fraud is way, way, waaaaaaay down the list of problems with our system of managing elections. Or should I say, our underfunded patchwork clusterfuck NON-system, with different rules and structures in every state, political hacks often in charge, blatant maldistribution of polling places, and vote-counting processes that seem incapable of anything close to precision.

You want “strikes at the heart”? How about Bush v. Gore?

And I’m not even talking about the mischief done by Katherine Harris or the Republican goons who intimidated election officials or the rank partisanship of the U.S. Supreme Court. I’m talking about the simple fact that, given an extremely close election, Florida was incapable of delivering an accurate count. Because of problems with collection and tabulation and incompetence and those God damn hanging chads, there was simply no way to be absolutely certain who won Florida.

That’s what strikes at the heart of our form of government: the fact that we have a system that can’t be relied upon to tell us who actually won the race for President.

Similar events unfolded in Ohio in 2004: A very close election that produced a messy, uncertain result.

(Leaving aside, for the sake of this argument, how many minority voters got discouraged by hours-long lines at their polling places, and how many votes the Democrat lost as a result. I’m just talking about accurately counting the votes that were actually cast.)

Brock actually suggests a reasonable solution for his little tiny problem. Not mandatory voter ID, but “something called the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a multistate partnership that uses sophisticated software to prevent cross-border voter fraud.”

It’s reasonable, but my response is that there are far worse problems with our system of registering voters, facilitating their right to vote, and accurately counting the votes. A lot of them have to do with fragmented authority. More have to do with a lack of resources.

If you want to get serious about a robust, reliable electoral system, there are much better places to start than with Randy Brock’s 22 votes, or with ERIC, or with mandatory voter ID. We’d be a hell of a lot better off if we created a coherent, consistent, capable, fair, unimpeachable election system.  Then we can address the virtually nonexistent “problem” of voter fraud.

Corren redux

Got a phone call today. From Ben and Jerry.

Well, they weren’t live on the line; it was a robo-call on behalf of Dean Corren for Lieutenant Governor. And no, they didn’t offer free ice cream for my vote.

It’s part of Corren’s last-minute, multi-media blitz. Since last I reported, the Corren campaign has filed four more mass-mediz expenditure reports with the Secretary of State’s office, one of which was a $3,000 bill for robo-calls.

The new filings add up to $11,411, bringing the grand total of Corren spending since Oct. 20 to a whopping $72,372. That includes TV, radio, newspaper, and online advertising, robo-calls, graphic design services, and campaign consultancy.

Pretty impressive. It’ll have to be equally effective, for him to have a chance at taking down Phil Scott next Tuesday.

Scott Milne borrowed a bucket, and he’s going to clean up Lake Champlain

The ever-constipated Campaign of Ideas has pooped out another rock-hard nugget… this time, by way of emailed press release without any live contact with reporters.

And no wonder. Even Mahatma has to realize this one’s a clunker.

It’s a two-part plan to clean up Lake Champlain.

I repeat: “two-part.”

And part one is:

Catalyze the cleanup of Lake Champlain without raising new revenue.

Yes, part one is nothing more than a restatement of the overall idea.

Step two is even worse: he wants to raid an existing fund to pay for a tiny fraction of cleanup costs:

Amend the “Vermont Housing and Conservation Trust Fund Act” to allocate the part of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board’s funds used for conservation to cleaning up Lake Champlain.

(Bold type is Milne’s.)

I've got just the idea for you! Low mileage, runs good, new battery & tires. Don't mind the rust.

I’ve got just the plan for you! Low mileage, runs good, new battery & tires. Don’t mind the rust.

The appendix to part two is renaming VHCB as the “Vermont Housing and Lake Champlain Cleanup Trust.”

And that’s it. That’s his entire Lake Champlain cleanup “plan.”

Okay, a couple of small problems right off the bat.

This would strip VHCB of its ability to do any other conservation work: conserving farmland through the purchase of development rights; helping preserve natural areas, historic properties, wildlife habitat; purchasing land for new parks and wildlife areas; and helping provide public access to conserved land.

— It would provide, by Milne’s own estimate, a measly $7.4 million per year for a cleanup that’s estimated to cost $150 million. In the absence of a comprehensive plan, that money won’t have much impact.

Milne isn’t bothered by robbing VHCB to pay for the lake; indeed, he says there’s no need for VHCB to do any conservation:

Milne said more than half of Vermont’s land is either owned by the state or federal government, or under some sort of easement that prohibits development today.

“I say half of our state being set aside is good enough for the next five years,” according to Milne. “Let’s have this board and these dollars go towards affordable housing and cleaning up the Lake.

Hmm. He thinks there’s more than enough conserved land in Vermont. And this is the same guy who wants to suburbanize a chunk of land off I-89 in Hartford. And who has said he’d like Vermont to take a more New Hampshire-style approach to conservation and development.

Which makes me suspect that Milne wouldn’t like to see any new regulations on farmland or developed areas or wastewater treatment.

Oh, I forgot another small problem with the plan: There’s no way in Hell the feds would buy it. And we’re under pressure from the EPA to do some real substantive stuff. This ain’t it.

I think I see why he slipped this one over the transom and avoided interacting with the media. Even by Milne’s standards, this idea is a real clunker.

(Note: As of this writing, Milne hadn’t posted the plan on his website. I’m sure he’ll think of it sometime.)


Freeploid clickbait FAIL

The Burlington Free Press is allegedly entering the Brave New World of Journalism’s Future: an age with resource-starved newsrooms, reporters scrambling to fill multiple “content streams,” Orwellian job titles like “Content Coach” and “Engagement Editor,” little or no copy editing, and a fixation on “audience analytics,” i.e. clickbait. Stories will be pursued, written, and even rewritten in response to the perceived interests of the audience. And note: we’re not readers anymore. We’re “news consumers” or something.

But if this is indeed the future of the Freeploid, it’s off to a rocky start. Yesterday, we learned the identity of Ebola Guy, the Vermonter who spent most of October in West Africa on a solo mission to fight Ebola.

It’s a big damn sexy story that pushes all the right buttons. It’s got important public policy implications: How did this guy get to Africa and back? How was his return handled by local, state, and federal authorities? What does it say about our Ebola containment efforts?

At the same time, it’s an eyeball grabber. Peter Italia is a full-on nutball who has claimed to use time travel and other “special powers” to cure disease and bring back people from the dead. His Facebook page is chock full of juicy stuff, chronicling his trip to Africa and detailing many of his cherished beliefs.

Also, I’ve heard that there are more dimensions to the story yet to come out — some on the serious policy questions, some in the “WTF” hot zone of audience curiosity.

The Freeploid’s Mike Donoghue managed to get quite a bit of detail yesterday and posted a story online last night.

But did they feature it on the website?

No. The primary slot on the homepage was about a high school soccer game.

Today’s print edition banishes Donoghue’s story to page 3; the front page has a run-of-the-mill piece on Vermont officials preparing to deal with Ebola cases.

And this morning, even after a solid 12 hours of “audience analytics,” the homepage STILL doesn’t feature Italia:

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 11.30.31 AM

All I can say is, c’mon, Freeploid. If you’re going to burn your journalistic soul on the altar of “audience analytics,” you could at least do a good job of it.

Postscript. The Freeploid pulls an old favorite trick in Donoghue’s piece: doggedly refusing to give credit to other media outlets. You wouldn’t know it by reading Donoghue, but it was WCAX-TV who first identified Italia and scored a phone interview with him. I’ve said it before, but this is the kind of thing that makes the Free Press disliked by many others in the media world. It’s arrogant, it’s wrong, and in the long run it does nothing to elevate the Freeploid or diminish its rivals.

Meet Dan Feliciano’s uvula

Well, I think we can stop taking submissions for Worst TV Ad of 2014 (Vermont Regional). Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner!

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 11.32.42 AM

That’s a screengrab from the new TV ad for Dan Feliciano, Libertarian candidate for Governor.

At least I think it’s an ad for Feliciano, not a bit of inspired trollery by the Scott Milne campaign. Because the ad does nothing to advance Feliciano’s cause; indeed, it highlights his status as an underfunded, politically inexperienced, minor-party candidate.

How bad is it? Let me count the ways.

The entire 30-second ad consists of one continuous shot of Feliciano reciting his favorite talking points. His voice is too fast, he’s too brightly lit and uncomfortably close*, his face does a bunch of weird things, his closing smile is off-putting. It was clearly done on the cheap.

*It’s never a good thing if a viewer’s first instinct is to recoil from the screen. 

The script is poorly written; his first line is “Like you, I believe our best days are ahead.” And then, without the slightest pause, he ticks off all the ways our state is going to hell:

3,000 fewer jobs. Out of control spending. Increasing poverty, low wages, high taxes, and government-controlled health care are alarming.

Wait, you just said something about “our best days”. WTF?

The parade of imagined horrors out of the way, he instantly pivots to his pitch:

I’m Dan Feliciano. I have the experience to reverse these trends by taking a fresh look at government.

When you vote, think new. Think better. It’s time to vote for experience and not party. Vote Feliciano for Governor. Our best days can be ahead, and I’ll be there with you.

Queasy smile, fade to black.

Wait, “experience”? Not once but twice?

Most viewers have never heard of this guy or seen his face before. How are they supposed to buy him as “experienced”?

I understand that there’s no time for a resume in a 30-second spot, but you can’t just come in and throw “experience” around as a credential for a virtual unknown. Also, how can you pitch “new” and “experience” in the same breath?

It’s a political truism that TV exposure is a necessity. In this case, the more people see this spot, the fewer votes Feliciano will get.

And now, in case you thought I was exaggerating about his face doing weird things, here are a few screengrabs taken more or less randomly in one viewing.

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 11.34.14 AM

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 11.36.39 AM


Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 11.33.58 AM


Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 11.28.30 AM

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 11.34.43 AM

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 11.35.48 AM

p.s. That last one is Feliciano’s attempt at a smile. Yikes.

The sad thing is, he really is quite a bit more personable than this. Which makes it even more of an insult to the fine art of advertising.

Scandal! Panic!! Naked Hippies!!! Taxpayer Dollars!!! AAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!

About five weeks ago, the Vermont Historical Society announced a bit of good news: it won a $117,521 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to conduct research and create exhibits and programs about Vermont’s countercultural movement of the 1970s. (The total cost of the project is roughly $260,000; VHS is responsible for getting the rest of the money.) VHS curator Jackie Calder explains:

“By collecting objects, papers, and oral histories we will be creating a body of information for this pivotal period in our state history, making it available for generations to come. And our project’s community forums and public programs will engage Vermonters in learning about this important time in our history.”

It’s a worthy project. The countercultural movement had a lasting impact on Vermont — its politics, culture, environmental movement, its very active food scene, even its economy. (Ben and Jerry’s, anyone?)  The idea of collecting oral histories is especially pertinent, since the firebrands of the 70s are now, ahem, getting up there in age and won’t be around forever.

So, all good, yes?

Yes, until the right-wing “news” site Vermont Watchdog got wind of the grant — more than a month after it was announced — and predictably headlined it like this:

Taxpayers stripped of $117,521 for naked hippie commune research

Damn dirty clickbait!

Damn dirty clickbait!

Ahh, nothing like a little moral panic to clear the sinuses, eh?

VW’s one and only staffer, Bruce Parker, hit all the high notes in his predictable screed: a “taxpayer-funded” project to study “the hippie commune movement that invaded Vermont” with its “oft-nude, drug-addled drifter colonies,” “idealistic youth dropping out of society,” “free-love vagabond communards,” and a former member reminiscing about how “We shared food. We shared sex. We shared clothing…”

Damn dirty HIPPIES!

This story combines two favored tropes of the far right: exaggerating government-funded activities to make them look ridiculous, and slamming the excesses of the left. Especially hippies. Damn dirty hippies!

But seriously, that 70s stuff — which itself had its roots in earlier back-to-the-land movements, as embodied in the works of Helen and Scott Nearing and pioneering New Hampshire-based food writer Beatrice Trum Hunter — did play a significant role in creating the Vermont of today.

The old Vermont, remember, was an extremely red state, ruled for over a century by the Republican Party. Montpelier was a famously stiff community where the sidewalks got rolled up at 5 p.m.

The transition is striking. And the role of the counterculture movement is definitely worth studying and discussing. Libraries and museums are the places that collect and preserve our past. That’s kind of important, no? We need to understand our past in order to understand how we got where we are.

I think Santayana put that a little better. But you get the point. Museums and libraries are the repositories of our history, our culture. They are the institutions that preserve what is important. And it’s inarguable that the 70s counterculture played an important role in Vermont’s history.

Even if you can’t stand damn dirty hippies.

Neale Lunderville, the shiniest bauble on the public policy tree

Oh, those darn Democrats. They just can’t seem to resist the dubious charms of former Douglas Administration functionary (and campaign hatchet-man, lest we forget, and I bet Doug Racine hasn’t) Neale Lunderville.

Mmmm, what should I take over next?

Mmmm, what should I take over next?

Back in 2011-12, Lunderville started his run as the Dems’ unlikely go-to guy when he served as Governor Shumlin’s Irene Recovery Czar. This summer, he added another layer of plausible nonpartisanship as Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger’s choice to be interim head of the Burlington Electric Department, tasked with undertaking a “strategic review” of the organization.

Well, unbeknownst to almost everyone outside of the State House inner circle, Lunderville had already scored a public-policy bingo with his appointment to a not-quite-secret committee tasked with nothing less than crafting an overhaul of Vermont’s public education system. VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld got the goods:

The group isn’t a legislative committee per se – not too many people even know it exists. But members of Smith’s education reform group have been getting together since after the close of the 2014 legislative session. And by year’s end, Smith says he hopes they’ll deliver the policy recommendations that will serve as the basis for an overhaul of the state’s education system.

… He says the advance work being done by the group will give lawmakers the early start they need to get a meaningful bill across the finish line.

The committee is dominated by current and former state lawmakers, most of them Democrats, but also including a couple of Republicans, one former Republican turned independent (Oliver Olsen), one Progressive, and Our Man Neale.

Which makes me again raise the question, Can’t the Democrats find anybody else to take on tough policy challenges? Why do they have to depend on a guy who cut his teeth running the dark side of Jim Douglas’ political operation?

And, especially, why in the Blue Hell do they insist on burnishing the credentials of a guy who might very well be the Republican candidate for Governor in 2016 or 2018?

Ulp. Pardon me for a moment…

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 9.10.59 AM

Whew. That’s better. Now, where was i?

Oh yes. Aside from Lunderville’s presence, the committee’s almost total secrecy has to be a concern.

The group’s meetings aren’t warned or open to the public, and minutes aren’t recorded. Smith says the off-the-books arrangement is needed to help members of the group feel more “free” to brainstorm different approaches.

So I guess the fact that this isn’t an official committee exempts it from open-meetings and public-records laws — kinda like Dick Cheney’s infamous energy policy committee. But if the group manages to complete its task, it might well be the most powerful committee in the legislature (even if it no longer exists when the legislature comes back to work). It’ll effectively set the school-reform agenda for the lawmakers who actually have to do their business, inconveniently enough, under the public eye.

Three other things you should know:

— According to one member, the committee is focusing on student-to-teacher ratio. Which might mean mandatory minimum class sizes, or even forced school consolidation.

— Lunderville seems to favor centralizing budgetary authority, which he advocates under the guise of allowing local officials to “devote attention where it belongs: student learning.” Their ability to do anything about student learning without the power of the purse would be sharply constrained, of course. Lunderville would like to “go to more of a model like the state has, where there’s one agency, one department on a regional or state level handling those.” Which would be kind of a radical move.

— Finally, as Hirschfeld reports at the top of his story, “public education – not single-payer health care – will be top of mind for House lawmakers.” Not good news for Governor Shumlin, who continues to insist that single-payer is Job One in the new biennium.

Dean Corren puts the pedal to the metal

The Secretary of State’s office has been blizzarded by Mass Media spending reports from the Dean Corren campaign in the past eight days, representing a strong home-stretch advertising blitz for Phil Scott’s challenger.

Since October 20, Corren has reported spending a total of $60,961, with almost two-thirds of the money going to TV advertising. Going into the campaign, Corren had a fixed budget of $200,000 because once he opted for public financing, he couldn’t take any further donations.

The rundown:

  • $38,980 for TV (broadcast and cable)
  • $8,095 for radio
  • $5,387 for newspapers
  • $4,000 for campaign consultancy by State Rep. Chris Pearson’s firm
  • $2,385 for graphic design work
  • $1,542 for online advertising
  • $572 for printing (The campaign had done a lot more printing earlier in the season.)

All in all, it’s a nice healthy push. Earlier, I’d wondered if Corren was hoarding his money too long. Now, I think he was right to keep his powder dry until the campaign’s closing days. Most voters don’t pay much attention until right before the election. Except for those who don’t pay any attention at all.

Also, the recent TV ads have good production values and strong messaging. I don’t know that it’s enough to knock off Phil Scott, but full credit to the Corren team for a sound strategy.

Endorsement or Recommendation? Seems to be no difference.

A few days ago, Phil Scott and Right to Life raised a bit of a stink about a TV ad from Dean Corren’s campaign, which sought to draw a distinction between Corren’s solid pro-choice record and Scott’s, which is mostly but not entirely pro-choice. And it pointed out that Scott had the backing of RTL.

The issue raised by Scott and his kinda-sorta friends at RTL is that the group has not “endorsed” the Lieutenant Governor, but merely “recommended” him.

“Recommended” does sound a bit less formal than “endorsed,” but is there really a difference?

Well, on Sunday, the Burlington Free Press issued its predictable endorsements of Governor Shumlin and Phil Scott. But it didn’t use the verb “endorse” anywhere on its editorial page.

In fact, the first sentence of the gubernatorial editorial says…

“The Burlington Free Press editorial board recommends Peter Shumlin for governor.”

The Scott editorial begins with…

“Vermonters should return Phil Scott to Montpelier as lieutenant governor.”

By Phil Scott’s standards, neither he nor the governor have been endorsed by Vermont’s Largest Newspaper. I hope he doesn’t claim otherwise.

Also, earlier today, my email inbox was graced by a missive from Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger on behalf of State Sen. Phil Baruth. I’ll have more to say on this later, but for now I’d simply like to note the wording:

“I want to put in a strong recommendation for… Phil Baruth.”

Hm. Guess that’s not an “endorsement” either.

Or, alternatively, Phil Scott has no basis for complaint about Dean Corren’s ad.