Monthly Archives: July 2015

This could take a little air out of the Sue Minter balloon

Of all the state’s cabinet positions, the Agency of Transportation is one of the friendlier posts for an ambitious politico. Everybody’s in favor of roads and highways, including conservative Republicans. A lot of your funding comes from the feds. You make friends with the generous donors in the construction business. You get to do a whole lot of high-profile announcements and ribbon-cuttings. You get to look strong and purposeful in times of trouble.

It’s unlikely that, say, Human Services would be a stepping stone to higher office. (Just ask Doug “Sacrificial Lamb” Racine.) But Transportation Secretary Sue Minter? She’s got high hopes for the governorship, or so it is said.

Which is not to say that trouble can’t erupt, seemingly out of nowhere. Dan D’Ambrosio of the Burlington Free Press:

Three former employees of the Vermont Agency of Transportation say they were verbally abused — and in one case physically abused — and passed over for promotions and pay raises because they are gay and lesbian.

Oopsie. The three, who all quit to get away from the abuse, have filed a discrimination lawsuit. The details are not pretty.

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First Look: Brandon Who?, candidate for Lieutenant Governor

The Candidate, against the obligatory Vermont landscape.

The Candidate, in the obligatory Vermont landscape setting.

Last Saturday, after the Democratic State Committee meeting, I got the chance to sit down with Brandon Riker, who is (I think) the only declared candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Vermont. (See campaign website here.)

The 28-year-old Marlboro resident made waves on July 15, when he reported a campaign warchest of over $100,000. Granted, 90% of that came from himself and his family, but it made a statement of serious intent.

Quick impression: he’s energetic, full of ideas, and wants to make a difference. Whether that and a self-financed campaign will get him anywhere is another question. For him, unlike most candidates, raising the money was the simple part. Now he has to make a name for himself in Democratic circles, build an organization, attract support across the state, and almost certainly fend off some better-known Democrats in what promises to be a lively Lite-Gov primary.

Riker may be young, and may never have run for office before, but he cites more than a decade of political experience:

I’ve campaigned for progressive causes since I was 16 years old. John Kerry, Barack Obama, Jon Tester [in Montana], Mark Begich [in Alaska]. I’ve wanted to work on the hard races — the ones critical for Democratic control. It’s been 14 years since a Democrat was Lieutenant Governor, and we haven’t mounted a serious challenge in years.

Which is true, but probably won’t be true in 2016. With incumbent Phil Scott persistently hinting at a run for governor, top Democrats are sniffing opportunity. We’ve heard names like Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell and Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth, among others, as possible candidates (as well as Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning on the Republican side). That would seem to put Riker at a huge disadvantage in terms of name recognition and established credibility among Democratic voters and donors.

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Correction: Vermont’s doing better than the FCC thinks

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post about Vermont’s awful performance on broadband Internet access. It was based on the Federal Communications Commission’s most recent figures on broadband availability, which showed 80% of Vermonters don’t have FCC-standard high-speed Internet. (25 MB for downloads, 3 MB for uploads.)

Well, turns out the FCC has it wrong. The actual figure is 29%, not 80%. Which is a whole lot different.

It’s not the FCC’s fault; it was given faulty information by an unnamed state functionary.

“The mapping initiative involved several parties,” explained Jim Porter, Director of the Telecommunications and Connectivity Division of the Vermont Public Service Department. “For the FCC, VCGI [Vermont Center for Geographic Information] was the entity that reported to the FCC. The guy who submitted the data failed to include Comcast.”

That guy.

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Internet access: We’re shooting behind a moving target

Note: This post cited incorrect FCC information. Please read the following post for an update.

Ever since he became Governor, Peter Shumlin has put a high priority on providing high-speed Internet access to everyone in Vermont:

In early January 2011, Shumlin created Connect VT, “an ambitious plan to deliver broadband and cell service to every corner of Vermont,” he said soon after in his State of the State address.

His initial promises were overly optimistic; reaching every nook and cranny of a sparsely-populated, rugged state is a tough task. But in late 2013, Shumlin was able to announce that over 99% of Vermont residences had high-speed Internet.

Hooray, right?

Perhaps not. The Federal Communications Commission tells a completely different story. When you look at the FCC’s state-by-state data for broadband Internet access, Vermont ranks 49th in the nation with 80% of our people lacking broadband. Only Montana is worse, at 87%.

No other state has more than 60% unconnected, and only three others are in the 50s — Arkansas, West Virginia, and Idaho.

So how can the Governor claim 99% high-speed Internet access, while the federal government puts us at a measly 20%?

The secret is how you define “high-speed Internet access.”

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VT Dems to pioneer trans-inclusive bylaws

Funny thing about gender-inclusive language in various settings — like, for instance, political party bylaws. It’s necessary to ensure equitable treatment of women, but it can have the unintended consequence of limiting transgender participation.

How so? Well, take the Vermont Democratic Party bylaw mandating that its chair and vice-chair be of “opposite” gender. Which is fine if you’re only considering males and females. But what about those who are “crossing the river,” or even choosing to live on an island in the river? They aren’t the “opposite” of anybody.

They’d seem to be SOL, right? After all, if a person is in transition, or considers themselves to be something other than absolutely male or female, they’d be left out of the “opposite gender” mandate.

At the very least, when the party’s own rules define gender as a male/female construct, there’s a tacit exclusion of transgender people.

Well, at its meeting on Saturday, the Democratic State Committee asked its Bylaws Subcommittee to propose trans-inclusive language in three specific places in the bylaws. And apparently it’s the first Democratic state party to initiate this process. “We’ve queried other state committees across the country,” said State Committee member Matt Levin, “and no one has figured this out.”

So the Vermont Democrats will be the pioneers, it seems.

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Phil Scott wants your money

Now that the July 15 campaign finance reporting deadline is past, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott has begun to actively fundraise. He’s sent out a missive to “Friends and Supporters” asking for money. (And since the next reporting deadline isn’t until March 2016, for God’s sake, it’ll be the better part of a year before we find out how he’s doing. Way to fly under the radar, Phil.)

Not clear exactly what he wants money FOR, because he’s not yet ready to decide. Or so he says.

He does, however, inch noticeably closer to the gubernatorial starting line: “… we have more work to do, and I am preparing to step up and lead.” (bold print is his.) And later on, he writes:

“Strong teams get the best results. With the challenges we face right now in Vermont, teamwork is more important than ever and I believe I can lead a team that can make these things happen.”

Oooooohhh!

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The best darn Plan B in state politics (UPDATED)

Update: I don’t know how this escaped my notice (and that of the entire Vermont political media), but WCAX-TV beat me to the punch by about six weeks. See addendum below.

The Democratic race for governor is a three-way (at least) tossup, with no one willing to lay odds on a single contender. The Republican race, on the other hand, appears to pose a stark contrast: if Lt. Gov. Phil Scott runs, he would enter the 2016 gubernatorial race as the favorite. If he doesn’t run, the VTGOP will be left with an unappetizing choice of steam-table leftovers. Or maybe Bruce Lisman, the canned succotash of the Republican buffet.

However… another name is being bandied about the political rumor mill, and it’s one hell of a good one.

Neale Lunderville.

Let me make it clear, he’s not running for governor. He’s not even running for running for governor. If Phil Scott does run, he’ll have Lunderville’s wholehearted support. Or so I hear.

But if Scott chooses not to run? Lunderville could be a formidable candidate. He’s got solid Republican credentials from his service in the Douglas administration. He knows how to run a campaign, dealing the dirt so His Nibs could sail above it all. And, thanks to the generosity of our Democratic leaders, Lunderville has steel-plated credibility as a bipartisan fixer.

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Old hippie, new hippie, red yippie, blue yippie

Bernie Sanders is discovering that it’s a big old world out there, now that he’s ventured far beyond the friendly borders of Vermont. The more he’s taken seriously as a candidate, the more scrutiny he’s starting to receive. Much of it, to this point, from the left; the right and the mainstream media don’t yet see him as a serious contender worthy of scrutiny.

The leftist critique includes a very close examination of his feminist credentials in a four-part blogpost on Shakesville, a progressive feminist blog.

Then there was his appearance at the Netroots Nation conference last Saturday, when he was confronted by activists protesting police violence against black people. And honestly, he handled it with all the grace you’d expect from an old guy who’s been talking from the same script for years.

Before he took the stage, fellow Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley’s own appearance had been disrupted by the protesters. (O’M handled it worse than Bernie did, but he’s gotten less attention because he’s doing so badly in the polls.) And then:

When Sanders approached the stage a moment later, the demonstrators continued. The candidate, a favorite of Netroots Nation, threatened to leave if they continued to interrupt him.

“Black lives, of course, matter. I spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and for dignity,” he said. “But if you don’t want me to be here, that’s OK. I don’t want to outscream people.”

Sanders proceeded to deliver his usual presidential stump speech over sporadic shouting from below.

“Hey, you kids! Get off my lawn!”

Good old Bernie has run into a couple of hard realities:

— What was progressive in 1969 does not necessarily qualify in 2015.

— If there’s one thing the left is good at, it’s circular firing squads.

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A high-profile gig for Julia Barnes

The departing Executive Director of the Vermont Democratic Party, Julia Barnes, has landed a new job. She’ll be the New Hampshire state director for the Bernie Sanders campaign.

It’s arguably one of the most important positions in the Sanders effort; the polls show him a strong second behind Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire*, and a strong showing in New Hampshire will be crucial for Bernie’s campaign going forward into the meat of the primary season.

*Three recent NH polls show Clinton with roughly a 10-point lead. The fourth gives her a 31-point edge; that’d seem to be an outlier.

The problem is, Bernie has already attracted his base; he’ll be hard pressed to build on it. Or to avoid the early-achiever trap that’s derailed so many candidates. Barnes has a heck of a job to do; if Bernie runs strong in New Hampshire, she will have accomplished something quite significant.

She e-mailed me some thoughts on taking the job:

Sen. Sanders is talking about the things that I think are most important to the presidential discussion, namely having an honest conversation about the dissolution of the middle class and the income inequality that makes it hard for many Americans to get ahead. Not even get ahead, but stay afloat. There is an organic desire to see that happen and that is why Sen. Sanders is resonating with so many voters. I am excited to help see that message reach voters in New Hampshire and build the organization needed to help him win the primary there. Given the circus that is happening on the Republican side, it is going to be really rewarding to engage in a substantial conversation with voters through good grassroots organizing techniques.

I also asked her about the fact that most of the top Vermont Democrats — the people she’s worked with and for at the VDP — have gone with Hillary Clinton.

At the end of the day, elected officials are also individual voters and they, like the voters across the country, are entitled to make their decision. Sen. Sanders has been a longtime friend of Vermont Democrats and I know many of them will be supporting his bid.

Good luck, Julia. I think Bernie made a good hire.

Vermont Dems bring back a familiar face

Didn’t take long for the Vermont Democratic Party to line up a replacement for departing Executive Director Julia Barnes. The VDP is announcing today that Conor Casey will be her successor.

“I’ve been a Democrat my whole life,” he says. “It’s an honor to be in this position.”

If the name sounds familiar, well, Casey spent eight years working for the Vermont State Employees Association, most recently as “widely respected legislative coordinator,” as he was dubbed by Seven Days’ Paul Heintz.

Casey’s tenure ended in 2012 when then-new VSEA Director Mark Mitchell was pulling a Samson act, causing six staffers to leave due to his “untrustworthy and reckless manner,” as one of the ex-staffers put it. Mitchell also burned more than a few bridges in the Statehouse. His year-and-a-half on the job included one firing and one reinstatement before he left in May 2014.

Meanwhile, Casey’s been working for the National Educational Association in Connecticut, from whence he now returns. His decade-plus in the labor movement is, I think, worthy of note:

“My background is as a labor organizer. I’ve spent my career representing working people. We want to put forward a message of economic justice; I think that resonates with all Vermonters.”

Could be, could be. On the other hand, the party’s top politicos (*cough*PeterShumlin*cough*) have often slammed public-sector unions when trying to prove their managerial toughness. Maybe there’s a realization that the Party and the labor movement work best when they work together?

Casey cites the late Teddy Kennedy as a key influence; he was a press aide to the Senator in 2003-04. “His passion really made me want to pursue politics as a career.”

Casey grew up in Ireland, and there’s a touch of the Ould Sod in his voice. But he’s spent much of his life in Vermont, and is happy to be moving back. Politics in Vermont is quite a bit less rough-and-tumble than in Connecticut.