As someone who’s covered #vtpoli for more than a decade, I am well aware that the usual stomping grounds of the political reporter (the Statehouse and the campaign trail) are the tip of the iceberg: The vast majority of the political world is underwater. If you interpret our politics in terms of that surface 10 percent, you’ll probably know what’s going on — but you won’t know how or why.
This isn’t a matter of shadowy figures in vape-filled rooms, or envelopes of cash handed out in the middle of the night. It’s simply a matter of who’s got the pull, how they get it, and which way they’re pulling.
There’s one looming figure on our political landscape with the clout and connections to pretty much always get what it wants. It’s got a wider and deeper web of influence than any other individual, party, or entity.
Maybe you’ve already guessed that I’m talking about Green Mountain Power. Now, Vermont’s biggest utility would be a force in state politics no matter what, but GMP has raised its political work to the level of fine art. It carefully curates a plausibly benevolent public image, which allows politicians of all stripes to take its side. It maintains a small army of influencers, including lobbyists, media figures, and former politicians and government officials. It’s no stretch to say that GMP is a force to be reckoned with on any issue that touches its interests; but when you lay it all out at once, it’s damn impressive.
One dimension of the GMP operation is a truly impressive list of lobbyists, as reported to the Secretary of State’s office. There are 13 names on that list, including former lawmakers and officeholders, TV anchors, and veteran presences of the Statehouse hallways and hearing rooms. That’s a lot of muscle.
Seven of the 13 are from MMR, Montpelier’s leading black-hat lobbying shop. Let’s start with the firm’s top dog Andrew MacLean, MMR co-founder Chris Rice, and MMR partner Warren Coleman, a Jim Douglas appointee in the Agency of Natural Resources.
Also on the GMP/MMR roster are Justin Johnson, secretary of administration under Peter Shumlin, and Heidi Tringe, deputy chief of staff under Jim Douglas. Let’s not forget Laura Pelosi, environmental conservation commissioner under Douglas. And Lucie Garand, longtime health care lobbyist and employee of the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems. And Matt McMahon, former lobbyist for the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce. (Andy MacLean likes to hire people who already know their way around the building.)
As if a goodly chunk of MMR wasn’t enough, GMP also lists longtime lobbyist Jeanne Kennedy, a constant, friendly presence in the Statehouse cafeteria.
The other six names on the list are full-time GMP employees with lobbying as part of their brief, and boy, are they an experienced bunch. How about Liz Miller, former Shumlin chief of staff and (crucially for GMP’s interests) commissioner of the Department of Public Service, which regulates Vermont utilities? And hey look, there’s Robert Dostis, former Democratic state representative and former head of the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger, now a GMP vice president. And of course, Mari McClure, who succeeded Mary Powell as GMP chief executive.
Finally, two Kristins who used to grace our TV screens: Carlson, now a GMP vice president; and Kelly, GMP communications chief.
That’s not to mention former GMP execs who remain prominent in state politics. Powell spent 12 years as GMP chief through some turbulent times and somehow survived with a sterling reputation; she may well be your next member of Congress. She’d have the inside track on any major-party nomination she wanted, and would be hard to beat as a fundraising force.
The corporate annals of GMP are festooned with political luminaries, including former Jim Douglas attack dog turned universal fixer Neale Lunderville, former House Majority Leader Lucy Leriche (who served in Shumlin’s cabinet after her stint at GMP), and former Douglas spokesperson David Coriell. Those with longer memories than mine could add many more, I’m sure.
I can’t quantify the effect of all these layers upon layers of networking, but I can say this: GMP maintains a positive public image despite some major hiccups in the recent past, including the controversial merger with Central Vermont Power and GMP’s sale to Canada-based Gaz Metro, a.k.a. Energir. Somehow GMP is widely seen as a leader in fighting climate change, even as its corporate parent is a fossil fuel company that touts natural gas as a “clean” carbon polluter. You’d think some of that stink would rub off, but no.
Not that everybody loves GMP. Opponents of large-scale wind and solar certainly don’t. But it’s remarkable how many see GMP as a positive force. Big utilities’ reputations usually max out at “necessary evil” even when they avoid being tagged as incompetent or corrupt or planet killers. Or all three.
Meanwhile, GMP is about as close to a certified Friend of the Earth as a big power producer can get. This is partly because GMP isn’t nearly as evil as most utilities. Whenever it can do so without undue sacrifice, it uses green energy sources and advocates for fighting climate change. Of course, it will tend to advocate for renewables that benefit its bottom line and fight proposals that don’t, but how pure can you expect a big corporation to be?
Aside from whatever good it happens to do, GMP spends much time and effort assiduously tending to its public image and political influence. That effort pays off in its broad influence and its status as a Corporate Good Guy. You get what you pay for.