Shumlin’s promise problem

On Thursday, Governor Shumlin held one of those feel-good “press conferences” so beloved by politicians everywhere: the activation of a new cell tower that fills a notorious gap in coverage on I-89 in Richmond.

However, the media wasn’t quite as universally fulsome as the Governor hoped. The Burlington Free Press’s headline was just what Scott Coriell wanted:

Cellphone dead spot in Richmond area eliminated

But VPR and WCAX sounded variations on the same mixed message. VPR:

Shumlin Marks Slow Progress On Cell Service Expansion

WCAX: 

Cell service slowly expands across Vermont

Both accounts inconveniently resurrected a decree from Shumlin’s first day as Governor:

“Today I am proud to launch Connect Vermont, an initiative to deliver by 2013 my promise of high speed Internet access and cell service to every corner of our state.”

Which is something he should never have said, but can’t resist saying. Shumlin loves the bold pronouncement, the courageous initiative. And when it works, as with Tropical Storm Irene coverage, it’s tremendous.

And when it doesn’t, it erodes his reputation for honesty and effectiveness.

Getting cell service and high-speed Internet to a place with a tiny population and unfriendly topography is a terribly difficult job. You need lots and lots of expensive infrastructure, and Vermont is short on potential profits to glean from all those lines and towers.

Plus, in every small town there’s tenacious opposition to any technological intrusion, no matter how temporary or thoughtfully sited.

Given all of that, there’s no way in hell that any governor could have made cell service and high-speed Internet universally available in three years’ time. The administration has actually done a decent job; Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia says wireless coverage now reaches 92% of Vermont homes, up from 85% when Shumlin took office. The low-hanging fruit had long ago been plucked; every bit of that 7% improvement was a challenge.

With all our isolated houses down all our long winding dirt roads, we may never reach 100%. And that’s okay; nobody who lives way out in the boonies should expect all the comforts of civilization.

The only problem, really, was Shumlin’s audacious promise.

Similar story with Vermont Health Connect. It was behind the eight-ball from day one for reasons that had nothing to do with Shumlin’s competence; the complexity of the job and the long delay caused by the court challenge to the Affordable Care Act meant that the national exchange and Vermont’s faced incredibly short timelines and monstrous programming challenges. Delays and bumps in the road were inevitable.

But Shumlin’s promises made him appear untrustworthy, and his administration incompetent.

It’s doubtful that Shumlin can fundamentally change his style at this point. Nor should he; his ambition and decisiveness have often served him well.

They are his strengths. They are also his weaknesses.

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