Author Archives: John S. Walters

About John S. Walters

Writer, editor, sometime radio personality, author of "Roads Less Traveled: Visionary New England Lives."

Politico Pooh-Poohs Politics

Vermont Public Radio and Vermont Public Television have announced a series of broadcast debates in advance of our August primary. The big news: Gov. Phil Scott is not listed as a participant in the Republican gubernatorial debate on July 22. Only his little-known challengers — John Klar, Emily Peyton and Douglas Cavett will take part.

Blockbuster ratings, I’m sure.

Scott’s absence is no surprise; he has said that he will abstain from politics as long as we’re battling the coronavirus. He simply can’t spare the time for a debate. I’m sure many people will see that as a proper and noble stance.

Well, yes and no.

Here’s the thing. Phil Scott is a politician. Has been since his first run for state Senate in 2000. He holds an elective office. Part of the deal is re-applying for the position — going back to the voters and making a case for why he should continue in office. And as long as he sticks to his full-time Covid-fighting claim, he won’t be doing that part of his job.

Is that really okay? I don’t think so.

To begin with, I’m skeptical that he can’t spare any time at all. Is he working 60, 80, 100 hours a week? Sleeping in his office? Perpetually on call? Or is he one step removed — making major decisions but allowing his officials to do the daily grindwork of putting his policies into practice?

Second, is he still as deeply involved as he was at the crisis’ peak, when everything was shutting down and we faced a frightening array of unknowns? He and his officials constantly assure us that, although continued vigilance is needed, things are fairly well under control. Just this week, he cut back his press briefing schedule from three days a week to two. Doesn’t he have a bit more time on his hands by now?

And third, see above. He holds an elective office, he’s answerable to the voters every two years. If he continues to abstain, he is doing us a disservice.

“Politics” has a bad name. But it’s also essential to our system of government.

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For a minute, I thought this was a thing (and other senatorial thoughts)

This is a mailer sent to voters in the Chittenden County Senate district. It features three of the four incumbents who are seeking re-election, running as a ticket.

The fourth? Sen. Phil Baruth.

Hmm. Was he excised, like Trump from that Jeffrey Epstein photo on Fox News? Is he persona non grata?

Nope. No conspiracy, no coup, nothing juicy. In this pandemic season, he explained, “I made a pledge not to raise or spend any money. I couldn’t bring myself to ask for money when everybody’s finances have taken a massive hit.” And since taking part in the joint mailer would have cost a couple thousand dollars or so, he withdrew from the enterprise. In fact, just today he posted a message on Facebook about his decision.

It’s not entirely a selfless decision; two of the six seats are open, which increases the odds that the four incumbents will sail through a crowded Democratic field. Baruth feels confident he will survive the August vote. “If, after five cycles, I haven’t accrued enough goodwill [to win], maybe that’s for the best.”

He’s almost certainly right. I expect the four incumbents to be the top four finishers in the primary. As for the rest of the Chittenden County Senate field, handicapping the primary is a fool’s game. Normal campaigning is off the table, so how do people get their names out there? Judging by the mid-July finance reports, only one candidate has enough money to make a major media push.

Besides, this primary is a mystery. These affairs are usually low-key and low-turnout, but a massive number of Vermonters have requested absentee ballots. We could easily see a record turnout, which makes for an unpredictable election.

Even the campaign finance filings are harder than usual to interpret. Some candidates, like Baruth and Rep. Dylan Giambatista, who’s running for Senate, have eschewed fundraising. Many others have shifted to passive mode, accepting donations that come in but doing little or nothing to solicit funds.

But hey, the reports are there, so let’s give ’em a look.

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Phil Scott Really, Really, REALLY Wanted Nothing To Do With the Mail-In Ballot Bill (UPDATED)

Speak No Evil

In the grand tradition of burying inconvenient news by way of a Friday Afternoon Newsdump, Gov. Phil Scott’s office announced on Friday — leading into the Fourth of July weekend, no less — that he would allow S.348 to become law without his signature.

For those keeping score at home, S.348 is the bill allowing the Secretary of State to create a vote-by-mail system for this year’s November elections, due to public health concerns around the Covid-19 pandemic.

Scott’s letter to the General Assembly, attached below, refers to “a technical flaw” in the bill that caused him to withhold his signature. It would be interesting to know if he ever communicated his concern to anyone in the Legislature in a timely manner, or if he waited to spring this until it was too late to fix the bill.

Well, the Friday newsdump worked like a charm. As far as Google can tell, there’s been no actual news coverage of his inaction — besides the Vermont Business Journal’s dutiful posting of Scott’s press release.

Thus endeth the curious case of Phil Scott And The Red-Hot Potato.

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Scott Endorses Conservative Trolling Operation

“Artist’s” rendering of the proposed addition to Montpelier’s State Street.

It’s pretty obvious that John Klar meant to stir up trouble when he proposed the above addition to the “Black Lives Matter” mural on the pavement of State Street in Montpelier.

Klar, who’s challenging Gov. Phil Scott for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, requested last week that the city close the street on Friday, July 3 so the American flag and the legend “”Liberty and Justice for All” could be painted. The city initially denied the request, although City Council will take it up this week.

Fine, take it up. Then swat it down. This is clearly a political stunt aimed at Them Dang Liberals in Montpelier. I mean, really: Surround the “Black Lives Matter” message with obvious symbols of traditional American patriotism? It would diminish the impact of the original mural and muddy the ideological waters of the pavement in front of the Statehouse.

And the governor is… okay with it, according to VTDigger.

“That sounds very patriotic, fitting for the Fourth of July,” Scott said. “I wouldn’t say it’s inconsistent with the Black Lives Matter message. I think they’re almost one and the same.”

Scott, who is quick to cry “politics” whenever a Democrat dares propose something he disagrees with, or when a reporter asks an inconvenient question at one of his Covid briefings, is either being disingenuous or dumb about Klar’s idea.

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Everything’s Coming Up Phil

Speaking in purely political terms, things could hardly be going any better for Gov. Phil Scott.

His solid record on Covid-19, while flawed in some respects and overstated by him and his officials, continues to receive widespread praise. He dominates the political news with his thrice-weekly marathon briefings. His popularity appears to be as high as ever, and many Democrats have already — quietly — conceded his re-election.

And now, the July 1 campaign finance filings are full of good cheer for Scott and bad news for his would-be opponents.

Scott’s own campaign barely raised any money between March 15 and July 1 — a mere $8,000. (He’s raised only $80,000 for the entire campaign cycle.) Not surprising, since he has said he won’t campaign or fundraise until the pandemic is over… which may be sometime in 2024, by the looks of things.

But while he is refraining from the dirty business of politics, his campaign is humming right along. It is deficit spending, mainly to pay Optimus Consulting, a D.C. firm that has done all his strategerizing and media buys in each of his gubernatorial campaigns, a cool $114,500 for its services this year. That represents the bulk of total Scott spending.

Meanwhile, the Republican Governors Association waits in the background to inject however much money is needed to ensure a Scott victory. So far, the RGA has funneled $126,000 into its “independent PAC,” A Stronger Vermont. It can easily pump in enough money to overwhelm all other bankrolls in the race, as it did in 2016, when Scott first ran for governor. The RGA spent more than $3 million that year, and effectively knocked Democrat Sue Minter out of contention with a late-summer/early-fall ad blitz. That’s chump change by RGA standards.

(The RGA’s expenditures are purely independent of Scott’s campaign, but paid for so much TV time in 2016 and 2018 that Scott barely had to run any ads of his own.)

And now we know where Scott’s Democratic challengers stand money-wise. It’s not a pretty picture.

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The Resolute Gatekeeper

Gee, and I thought I was done using this image.

Before adjourning, the Vermont Legislature put a down payment on justice reform by passing S.219, which would ban chokeholds and similar… uhh… “restraint techniques” (such a bloodless descriptor) and require that state police wear body cameras. The bill awaits action by Gov. Phil Scott.

The chokehold thing illustrates a broader problem with law enforcement practices. We’ve seen time and again that officers are quick to employ chokeholds and pile on top of prone suspects and use whatever the term of art is for “knee on the neck,” as well as Tasers, pepper spray, rubber projectiles, tear gas, flashbangs and other sublethal weapons. Sublethal but still painful and dangerous, and far too often employed on peaceful protesters and suspects who are already under control. Or on bystanders, such as the reporter who lost an eye to a rubber-bullet impact during a Minneapolis protest.

But that’s a sermon for another Sunday. I’m here to point out a big problem with S.219 and other well-meaning proposals for reining in the excesses of the police. That’s the guy who makes the decisions on whether or not to bring charges — Attorney General TJ Donovan.

The same Donovan who, until this month according to VPR, has examined 18 excessive-force cases involving police officers — and brought charges in only one of those cases. The same Donovan who’s been frantically trying to get ahead of the crowd on justice reform so he can show “leadership.”

But beyond his nearly universal backing of questionable police conduct, there’s the newly reopened case of Joel Daugreilh, the former St. Albans police officer who, in 2017, pepper sprayed a suspect who was already handcuffed and secured in a cell.

Daugreilh’s supervisor determined that the action was “clearly over the line.” The city referred the case to Donovan’s office for possible criminal charges. And he chose not to bring any.

Well, not at the time. He reopened his probe in January, just after VPR requested records of the case. Convenient timing, no?

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Dancing With the Devil (Updated)

This Just In: Phil Scott is playing a dangerous game.

The governor has been consistent in believing that, with proper encouragement and modeling, Vermonters will wear masks of their own accord. And he’s kinda-sorta been right, at least in terms of “no big outbreaks so far.”

But if he’s waiting for “lots more cases” before considering a mask mandate, then he will have waited too long. As the examples of Florida, Texas, Arizona, Arkansas, South Carolina and other states show, and as the science about coronavirus shows, “lots more cases” is the inevitable precursor of an out-of-control pandemic.

And by Vermont standards, the past month hasn’t been the best. According to the Health Department’s data, the month of May brought exactly 100 new cases, increasing our total from 885 to 985. Since June 1, we’ve added another 223.

Last week, Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine claimed that Vermont was flattening the curve. That was arguably true a month ago, but not now. And every time Scott gives the ol’ spicket another quarter-turn, we hope it’s not coronavirus that comes out.

In truth, he doesn’t have any good options. The initial shutdown was supposed to give America time to get its shit together on testing and contact tracing. Then, when we reopened the economy, we’d be able to keep a lid on the virus — just as most of Europe has done. But here, the Trump administration completely bungled things. As a result, the shutdown accomplished nothing except to cause tremendous disruption and untold financial pain.

At last Wednesday’s press briefing, Scott was asked if he expected Congress to extend the temporary $600 bump in unemployment benefits. He said he didn’t, and that was why he continued to gradually reopen the economy. If he can’t do that, then the pain will spread and intensify.

But every gradual bit of reopening heightens the risks.

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The Most Annoying Man in Montpelier

It would be unfair to straight-up call John Rodgers an asshole.

However… if you took an anonymous poll of Statehouse regulars, asking them “Which lawmaker most deserves to be called an asshole?”, Rodgers would finish very near the top.

The Kingdom Democrat is obstinate, obstreperous, obstructionist, obnoxious, obsessive, obdurate, and by his obnoxiousness is often worthy of objurgation. He has one of the Senate’s highest ratios of self-regard to actual accomplishment — and that’s some stiff competition. He’s right up there with Rep. Cynthia Browning as someone willing to derail a floor debate over a point of principle discernible by no one else.

Rodgers’ latest offense against the polity came last week, when he reacted to criticism of his committee attendance record with an untargeted slam against a “snippy little bitch” daring to criticize him. The phrase could be interpreted as a direct attack on two fellow members of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, Sens. Chris Bray and Brian Campion. The latter is openly gay, and the former carries an air of professorial tweeness about him.

Rodgers later apologized — but he in turn demanded an apology from Campion and from Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, who had upbraided The Last Remaining Proponent of the Salad Bowl Haircut for name-calling and “impugn[ing] the motives and integrity” of fellow senators.

Which makes Rodgers seem like the snippy little bitch, but I digress.

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Our Sclerotic Senate [UPDATED]

Not Exactly As Illustrated.

Note: In the original version of this post, I failed to include Ron Horton in the Essex-Orleans district. This post is now updated to include him.

The Vermont state Senate, our most self-absorbed deliberative body, is a study in stasis. Turnover is rare. Incumbents are virtually assured of re-election, usually without much effort. (The last sitting senators to lose were Bill Doyle and Norm McAllister in 2016 — but Doyle was 90 years old, quite frail and had a reputation for nodding off during meetings, and McAllister faced a daunting array of criminal charges at the time. That’s about what it takes for an incumbent to lose.

Anyway.)

This year promises to be same song, new verse. A rough and semi-educated review of the field of candidates shows that 27 of the 30 senators are strong or prohibitive favorites to win re-election — and that includes one incumbent who didn’t bother filing his candidacy papers, and will have to run a write-in campaign. The forgetful fellow is NEK Democrat and snippy little bitch John Rodgers, who represents the two-seat Essex-Orleans district along with perpetual incumbent Bobby Starr, who did manage to file — along with “Democrat” Ron Horton, who ran this race under the banner of the American Party in 2018.

The American Party, FYI, is a fringe conservative organization that traces its roots back to the American Independent Party founded by hardcore segregationist George Wallace. Horton finished a distant third in 2018 behind Starr and Rodgers. He stands a puncher’s chance in this year’s primary because his name is on the ballot and Rodgers’ is not. But Rodgers’ cavailer attitude toward the simple act of filing papers (and this year he didn’t even need to gather signatures) precisely illustrates the problem: Senate incumbents are virtually bulletproof.

I said 27 of the 30 are favorites. The other three — Tim Ashe and Debbie Ingram of Chittenden County and James McNeil of Rutland — are voluntarily giving up their seats. Indeed, voluntary retirement is just about the only way there’s ever any turnover in the Vermont Senate.

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The Campaign That Isn’t

The effect of Covid-19 on Vermont politics is way down the list of pandemic-related concerns — somewhere below massive unemployment, food insecurity, a likely housing crisis, crippling blows to agriculture, tourism, small business, independent retail, public and private education and state and local tax revenues. (And a bunch more.)

But this is a #vtpoli blog, so the topic du jour is Our Lost Political Year.

The above chart, published by the New York Times, shows that our country is still in the throes of Covid-19’s first wave. The soul- and economy-crushing “stay home” regimen was supposed to buy us enough time to prepare a thorough defense program of testing and contact tracing. Which our federal government has completely failed to deliver. Hence, we’re stuck on the first-wave plateau while harder-hit but better-governed nations like Italy and Spain have seen vast reductions in new cases.

And no, I never thought I’d write the phrase “better-governed nations like Italy.”

Back when I was semi-gainfully employed, I wrote a pair of speculative columns about how the pandemic was affecting the process of politics — as candidates tried to figure out how to campaign without any person-to-person contact. No door knocking, no public forums or debates, no fundraisers.

And we’re still stuck right there, with less than two months to go until the primary election.

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