One week ago today, Vermont Republican Party Chair David Sunderland publicly embarrassed himself in an attempt at some cheap publicity. He sent a letter to Secretary of State Jim Condos complaining that an Elections Office staffer had posted a comment on a “hyper-partisan, far left blog” (I blush) revealing “a concerning political bias.”
He simultaneously released the letter to the media and posted it on the VTGOP website without giving Condos the opportunity to respond. By doing so, Sunderland made it clear that he was looking to stir up trouble rather than seek resolution.
Condos almost immediately replied, and it was a complete smackdown of Sunderland’s complaint. Condos had been aware of the posting before Sunderland, and had already spoken to the employee, asking him to respect the office and its need to be even-handed in conducting electoral business. There is, of course, no legal way to constrain state employees from exercising their free speech rights, so Condos merely asked for some discretion. And, as Sunderland himself admitted, he has frequently dealt with the administrator and has never seen a hint of partisan bias in the man’s work.
Well, Sunderland isn’t the kind to give up on a controversy just because he’s wrong. And indeed, he sent Condos a follow-up letter earlier this week and simultaneously released it to the media. This time, the media wisely ignored the thing.
Condos replied to Sunderland the following day; I received Condos’ letter through a public records request.
Sunderland’s second missive makes it clear that his real target is not the administrator in question; indeed, he drops any demand for action against the administrator. What he really wants is to fabricate an issue to use against Condos, a Democrat who has been the closest thing to unbeatable since he first won the office in 2010.
Sunderland opens the letter by referring to “the brazen display of political bias by an election administrator,” which could be rephrased as “the brazen display of First Amendment protections” if you were of a Constitutional mindset.
He expresses appreciation for Condos addressing the situation, but he demands “an enforceable policy that ensures neutrality,” which (1) would violate employees’ Constitutional rights, and (2) would never pass muster with the VSEA. Not that Sunderland gives a tinker’s damn about the VSEA.
He then turns his fire directly on Condos:
Your decision to hire a partisan for a neutral elections division job is curious. It raises some questions, beyond whether or not it is appropriate for this employee to be expressing partisan opinions, that surely you would want to address. For example:
● Was this employee’s experience as a partisan an influencing factor in his hiring?
● Was there any discussion about employing this individual between you, your political party and/or the candidate(s) for whom he worked?
● Was your concern about the perception of hiring a partisan campaign operative the subject of any discussions? Did it cross your mind at any point?
All of which presumes that the Secretary of State’s office is first and foremost a political entity. To be fair to Sunderland, he’s a member of a party whose Secretaries of State routinely politicize their offices. To cite two notorious examples, Florida’s Katherine Harris helped steal the 2000 election for George W. Bush, and Ohio’s Ken Blackwell did the same in 2004. Earlier this month, we had Alabama closing DMV offices in majority-black counties a year after passing a voter ID law.
But Jim Condos doesn’t play that way. His written response shoots down Sunderland’s overheated inferences:
In the Secretary of State’s Office, people are hired based on their ability and qualifications, not on their political views. We have a rigorous screening process, followed by interviews in front of a hiring panel. I typically weigh in and make the final decision only after the panel has recommended the one or two top candidates to me.
And he reminds Sunderland of the quickest way to resolve issues:
Again, had you picked up the phone and called, you would know this already.
Of course, if Sunderland had done so, he would have missed the chance to grab a few headlines and try to paint Condos as a partisan hack.
Sunderland closes by saying he will “ask Republican legislators to introduce a neutrality and accountability policy,” which is an awfully vague and potentially unconstitutional concept. But it does give the VTGOP and its lawmakers what they really want: the opportunity to hammer away on Condos in the upcoming campaign.
The Republicans would be better served if they concentrated on finding good candidates instead of fabricating controversy. Heck, they couldn’t even field a candidate against Condos in either of the last two elections. If they fail again next year, it won’t matter how many phony “points” they score against the incumbent. He’ll breeze to a fourth term.
Note: the full text of Sunderland’s letter can be found online here. Condos’ full reply is below.