Daily Archives: February 12, 2015

Peter Shumlin, Tough Guy

One of my least favorite things about our incumbent Governor* is his tendency to adopt Republican talking points, thus giving them a validation they don’t deserve. It’s sometimes called “kicking the hippies” — talking tough about Them Damn Liberals, in an attempt to self-position as a reasonable centrist.

*Same is true of many Democratic politicians, including Barack Obama and the Clintons, which is why Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren can seem so refreshing.

"If one more person says 'G'day, Mate' to me, I swear, they're gonna get such a punch."

“If one more person says ‘G’day, Mate’ to me, I swear I’m gonna ball ’em up.”

So here he comes, by way of Administration Secretary and Hatchet Man WIth An Adorable Accent Justin Johnson, doing a little light sparring with the public-sector union punching bag.

Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson issued an edict to agency and department heads Tuesday that all new hires within the executive branch must be approved by his office.

The move, according to a memo Johnson sent to agency and department heads, is the result of signals from the Vermont State Employees Association that it is not willing to work with the administration on finding $5 million in personnel savings called for in Gov. Peter Shumlin’s budget proposal.

Yeah, really. How dare the VSEA react exactly how you’d expect them to react?

100 times out of 100, a union is going to balk at reopening a signed contract and acceding to personnel cuts. That’s What They Do. It’s the first round in the dance: management takes hard line, union takes hard line, they get together and work things out.

Johnson knows this. But he very publicly reacted to VSEA’s predictable “Fight Back” petition with a summary judgment: “The petition indicated that the union will not deal with the administration on labor savings.”

The petition indicates no such thing. VSEA is simply staking out a strong opening position for the inevitable deal-making. The administration did the very same thing by incorporating cuts in pay and staffing into its budget.

So why is Johnson going straight from the opening salvo to the dreaded Declaration Of Impasse? Because it makes the administration look serious about cutting spending.

Most of the conversation around the Statehouse these days is about tax and fee increases. Shumlin’s budget called for a mix of new revenue and spending cuts. The last thing he wants is for the public debate to center on the former and ignore the latter. So he sent out his H.M.W.A.A.A.* to stomp on the other end of the seesaw.

*pronounced “HIM-wah.”

He could just as easily, and more productively, said something like “We understand the VSEA’s interest in protecting its members. We do not welcome making cuts, but we believe that Vermont’s budget situation requires it. We look forward to working with the union to find ways to save money while preserving a strong, vibrant state workforce.”

But that wouldn’t have accomplished the mission, which was to make the administration look tough.

This would be nothing more than a harmless bit of political theater, except that it provides tacit support for a Republican talking point: that public sector unions are the enemy of the taxpayer. Shumlin does the same thing when he insists that Vermonters are Taxed Enough Already, or when he tries to cut social service programs, or when he frames health care reform not as a social justice issue, but as an economic growth initiative.

In doing so, he cedes the rhetorical ground to the Republicans. It gets him a bit of short-term shine as a Tough Guy and an Unconventional Democrat, but it hurts the liberal cause in the long run.

Plus, it makes me grind my teeth, and my dentist says I should stop that.

Postscript. Just in case there’s any confusion, I made up the quote under Mr. Johnson’s picture.  

…et puer parvulus minabit eos.

(If you have any issues with the Latin above, take it up with Google Translate.) 

At the risk of losing my street cred, I have to admit being edified and inspired by an event at the Statehouse today.

The occasion: The Senate Government Operations Committee taking up a bill to establish Stella Quarta Decima Fulgeat as an alternate motto for the state of Vermont.

This proposal has famously been the target of unedifying and uninspiring commentary, mistakenly conflating Latin with Latino, criticizing it as a waste of time, and wrongly complaining that the new motto would supplant “Freedom and Unity.”

Angela Kubicke and the motto bill's sponsor Sen. Joe Benning, with the broad shoulders and flowing mane of Seven Days' Paul "Party in the Back" Heintz in the middle.

Angela Kubicke and the motto bill’s sponsor Sen. Joe Benning, with the broad shoulders and flowing mane of Seven Days’ Paul “Party in the Back” Heintz in the middle.

The hearing was attended by roughly five dozen middle- and high-school students of Latin, along with teachers, parents, and three Classicists from the University of Vermont. The hearing’s central figure was 15-year-old Angela Kubicke, who had the original idea for the Latin motto and, with her teacher and others, came up with the exact wording. The first three words, translated as “The Fourteenth Star,” appeared on the first coin minted in the 1780s by the then-independent Vermont. “Fulgeat,” the verb, completes the sentence “May the fourteenth star shine brightly.” Kubicke and her teacher, Ray Starling, gave a thorough account of the historical rationale for their proposal.

One of the other witnesses almost stole the show. If you were casting the part of a tenured professor of classical languages, you might just see Robert Rodgers as a gift of the gods. Slightly tousled gray hair, well-trimmed gray beard, glasses, precise in speech to the point of pedantry, his testimony was perched delicately on the border between entertaining and aggravating. As committee chair Jeanette White admitted afterward, “I forgot that professors are used to talking in 45-minute increments.” Professor Rodgers went nowhere near that long, but with the chair’s forbearance he blithely ignored the two-minute time limit per speaker. It was a rare opportunity for a Classicist to speak to a lay audience on a subject dear to his heart, and he was (in his own reserved way) happy as a pig in slop.

Still, he was an effective if nerdy (and wordy) witness, praising “Fulgeat” as “a felicitous choice for a verb,” parsing its contextual meanings and citing its use by the Roman poet Virgil.

Three students from Lamoille Union High School also spoke to the committee, defending Latin as a foundation of modern science, architecture, music, and Western languages. At the end, committee member Chris Bray commended Kubicke and her fellow speakers for the “depth of thought” behind the motto.

And then came the vote: FIve in favor, zero opposed. The bill goes on to the full Senate on Friday.

For the many who complained about the bill being a “waste of time,” you should have been there. Everyone — Senators, professors, teachers, and students — were fully engaged in the process and the issue. It took less than an hour all told, and it was a great learning experience for all. I’ve got nothing cynical to say about it in the least.