It made for an amusing read. VTDigger’s piece about Jim Barnett’s role in the Scott Milne campaign featured several Republicans doing verbal acrobatics as they tried to explain why the self-described moderate required the services of a political operator described as “a nasty guy,” a “hitman,” and “Mad Dog.” (The latter was bestowed on Barnett by the late Peter Freyne, grand master of the unflattering nickname.) And a guy who claims political assassins Lee Atwater and Karl Rove as professional inspirations.
So, how does he fit into a campaign that claimed, from the getgo, to be all about the issues?
“He knows how to win a campaign and there’s not a lot of people in the Republican world in Vermont that know how to win,” state Sen. Richard Westman told VTDigger.
OK, so it’s transactional. Fine. Them’s politics. But — and I know I’ve written this before — you can’t go negative and simultaneously claim to be Above It All. And you have absolutely no grounds to complain if your opponent follows you into the gutter.
In that vein, I hereby offer a script for a campaign ad that’s not negative, as Barnett and his colleagues put it, but is based on carefully selected facts designed to make Scott Milne look like a bum, and Molly Gray look like a saint.
Vermont Public Radio has begun a noble effort in upstream swimming that makes a salmon run look like a splash in the kiddie pool. The overwhelmingly-white-even-by-Vermont-standards service has launched the Diverse Voices Initiative, “a comprehensive approach to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.”
I wish them luck. They are not only battling a history of whiteness that goes back beyond the founding of NPR to the early concept of “educational radio”; they are also trying to foster diversity in a famously non-diverse state, and they are battling the rules of radio programming itself. Kind of a tall order.
Let me pause for a moment and state, for the record, that I’m an old white guy and I’ll probably get some stuff wrong here. What I do bring is experience in public radio that goes back to the late 1970s, which is not nothing.
Public radio has always been a preserve of whiteness. Specifically, of college-educated upper-middle-class whiteness, the kind of people who read The New Yorker and drink wine and do brunch. And listen to classical music, which used to be a mainstay of public radio before news/talk took over.
Many public radio licenses were held by universities. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, I worked for one such organization in another state; its programming largely consisted of classical music plus lectures and commentaries by university professors. That’s tape-recorded, full-hour classroom lectures. The station’s news department made a point of not covering its own community. It ignored campus protest movements that sometimes took place in the plaza below its fifth-floor perch. That would be demeaningly tawdry, and not of interest to their refined audience. (It also might upset university administration, which at the time provided much of the organization’s funding.)
Practically from the beginning, NPR stations were beset by criticism of their pearly whiteness. In 1977 — two years before the creation of “Morning Edition” — the Corporation for Public Broadcasting commissioned a task force on how public television and radio were addressing communities of color. Its conclusion: when it came to serving people of color, “the public broadcast system is asleep at the transmitter.”
And despite NPR’s stated commitment to minority outreach, the task force found that only thee percent of its budget was spent on programming focusing on the nonwhite U.S. population.
Here in Vermont, we don’t have to worry so much about the kind of over-the-top police violence we’ve seen at social-justice protests around the country. But that doesn’t mean we are free of culture issues in law enforcement agencies beyond the persistent racial disparities in traffic stops, searches, arrests and imprisonment.
In fact, we’ve had a series of recent incidents that point out the potential danger of toxic cop culture. The most egregious case was in Barre Town, where a part-time Berlin police officer killed his ex-girlfriend and then himself — while on duty.
(This is the story badly booted by VTDigger, which reported that Officer Jeffrey Strock “had been trying to ‘rekindle’ his relationship.” Yeah, rekindle with gunpowder. Digger’s original story was even worse; it didn’t have the air quotes around “rekindle.” The quotes were added in an attempt to, ahem, *fix* the problem after the story got a bunch of complaints on social media for framing a domestic-violence fatality so cavalierly.)
Similar case without the fatal conclusion involved a Burlington officer who entered his ex-girlfriend’s home in Swanton without permission. The break-in by Officer William Drinkwine allegedly occurred in July; he was taken off duty immediately and top city officials were informed, but nothing was said publicly until charges were brought last week.
But the grand prize goes to the Rutland Police Department, which appears to have a major quality control issue on its hands.
If you had a time machine and chose, not to kill Young Adolf Hitler or have lunch with Jesus or ride horsies with Alexander the Great, but to go back to 2016 and listen to a speech by gubernatorial candidate Phil Scott, you would hear some familiar phrases. “Cradle to Career,” “Affordability,” “Protect the most vulnerable,” stuff he still says all the time.
You would also hear something you couldn’t hear without a time machine because Scott doesn’t say it anymore: “Lean management.” Here’s his campaign pitch, with a specific target number attached:
I believe we can reduce the operational cost of every agency and department by one cent for every dollar currently spent, in my first year in office. Saving one penny on the dollar generates about $55 million in savings.
Yeah, well, then he got elected and things became much harder. This is what usually happens when a businessperson enters public office convinced that big savings are ripe for the picking, if only a little common-sense efficiency is applied.
The actual results have been embarrassingly puny. When asked about this back in February, after three years of Scott’s governorship, the administration pointed to $13 million in projected savings in his FY2021 (the year starting 7/1/20) budget. More than one-third of that total was due to the proposed closure of the Woodside juvenile facility, which had nothing to do with lean management.
Actual results: Not $55 million in the first year, but something less than $10 million in year four.
And you have to subtract, from whatever the actual savings were, the costs of training hundreds of state workers in lean management processes. (By the administration’s own accounting, 671 workers and managers in all.)
In case you were wondering why all the commotion last night — the rowdy partying, the fireworks, the parades, the desperate closing-time hookups — well, the mid-October campaign finance reports are in.
There’s nothing that changes the complexion of the Vermont political season, but there are a lot of fascinating details. Let’s get started!
The Governor is in cruise control. Phil Scott’s campaign didn’t even break a sweat in the first half of October. He pulled in $41K, bringing his campaign total to a measly $376K. (For those just joining us, conventional wisdom has it that you need at least seven figures to seriously compete, and $2 million is a better starting point.) What’s really telling, though, is that he only spent $14K in the past two weeks. He did a bunch of small newspaper ad buys and no TV. He didn’t pay a dime to his big national campaign outfit, Optimus Consulting. He has over $100,000 in the bank, and shows no sign of making a serious dent in it.
Zuckerman fights the good fight. The Democratic/Progressive nominee is a spider monkey battling a gorilla: Impressively crafty, but likely to get squashed. Zuckerman raised a healthy $62K in the two weeks since October 1, for a campaign total of $629K. And there’s the problem: it’s really not enough money to fuel a statewide campaign against an entrenched incumbent.
If you look at his donor list, you see where his problem lies. He’s getting a ton of small gifts, but the Democratic power players are sitting it out.
Look at these numbers. Scott has 1,141 unique donors, and has taken in 768 “small” donations of $100 or less. Zuckerman has 5,234 donors, and has accepted 6,055 donations of $100 or less. (The latter number is higher because many of his donors have made multiple gifts.)
Even with Scott’s late entry into active campaigning because of the coronavirus, those are some telling numbers. Despite his broad popularity, Scott doesn’t have people lining up to give him money. Zuckerman has a much larger base of enthusiastic donors.
But his problem is, he isn’t getting the big money to augment the small fry. The state’s two largest public sector unions wrote big checks to Beth Pearce, Doug Hoffer, Jim Condos and TJ Donovan — but nothing, as far as I can tell, for Zuckerman.
Meanwhile, Democratic megadonor Jane Stetson donated $500 to Zuckerman’s campaign. That’s a buck in the tip jar for Stetson. If she was committed, she and her husband WIlliam would have each kicked in the maximum $4,160.
That’s only one data point, but it illustrates the disconnect between Zuckerman and the Democratic moneybags. He also, apparently, hasn’t received any money from Vermont’s Congressional delegation. (Bernie has done his bit for Zuckerman on the intangible front, but no direct contributions.)
Zuckerman has received a healthy $13,000 from the Vermont Progressive Party, which makes the absence of Democratic cash all the more glaring. And he’s given $22K to his own campaign. He’s needed every dime.
Still to come: The LG race and the PACs, including a surprise entry for most impactful PAC of the cycle.
Nothing against our incumbent state treasurer, but she’s sailing to re-election and a bunch of liberal PACs have just made big donations to her campaign. Sure, reward a faithful officeholder and all that, but she doesn’t need the money and she’s not spending the money.
Look: Her Republican opponent, Carolyn Branagan, has filed her October 15 campaign finance report — and it shows no activity whatsoever since the previous reporting deadline of October 1. No fundraising, no spending, nothing. Before that, Branagan’s campaign had been a low-budget affair largely funded by herself. She’d raised $26,000 including $20,000 from herself, and spent $18,000. Total. On a statewide campaign.
Pearce, meanwhile, had raised $25,000 and spent a little less than 10 grand as of October 1. Her opponent has essentially given up, she drew 68% of the vote in 2018 and hasn’t been seriously challenged since her first run for the office in 2012. If she has a pulse on November 3, she’s gonna win.
During this 15-day reporting period, the VT-NEA Fund for Children and Public Education gave Pearce the maximum $4,160. The VSEA PAC has donated $1,500. VPIRG Votes chipped in $400. And she got $250 apiece from the Professional Firefighters of Vermont and the Vermont Building Trades PAC.
(She’s also received $2,000 from Emily’s List, but those are pass-through contributions from individuals giving to Pearce through the List. No conscious effort on Emily’s part.)
This shouldn’t really bother me, but it does. I mean, why?
To paraphrase the great Yogi Berra, it’s getting late early out there. Almost three weeks remain until Election Day, but we’re closing in on 100,000 ballots already cast in Vermont. That’s likely to be between one-third and one-quarter of all the votes. Which means that political spending will be less and less impactful as the ballots keep on rolling in.
So, where’s the big money? It’s absent, for the most part. The next round of campaign finance reports isn’t due until Thursday night, but we’re in the Mass Media reporting window: Within 45 days of an election, any mass media buys over $500 must be reported immediately to the Secretary of State’s office. In recent weeks, there’s little sign of big spends.
This would seem to be terrible news for Scott Milne, Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. On September 24, the Republican State Leadership Committee spent $210,000 on TV ads backing Milne. I took it as a sign that national Republicans saw Milne as a credible contender — perhaps even a future successor to Gov. Phil Scott, whenever he rides off into the sunset or Congress, depending.
But the ballots are pouring in, and the RSLC hasn’t spent a dime here in three weeks. Either they have bigger fish to fry, or they’ve decided that Milne is a lost cause.
“Tis the season for complaints about dirty campaign tactics. It’s a game we love to play in Vermont, because we so ardently cherish the belief that Our Politics Are Better. Smaller scale, personal connections, trust, character, etc., etc. None of that nasty big-money negative attack stuff.
But we have our very own twist on “negative campaigning” — the ever-popular double reverse “accuse your opponent of negative campaigning.”
This has become a dominant theme in the race for lieutenant governor. Scott Milne accuses Molly Gray of being backed by a “shady” political action committee and hints at illegal collusion — without offering any proof. The PAC, Alliance for a Better Vermont Action Fund, produces ads that tie Milne to a national conservative PAC (Republican State Leadership Committee Vermont) that’s spending big money on his behalf — but cannot prove that Milne will feel any obligation to toe the RSLC’s line. Gray offers a selectively-phrased invitation to Milne to stop the negative talk and campaign on the issues. MIlne replies that the only negative advertisements are from the ABVAF, while all his advertisements are positive. Which is true, his ads have been positive*; but his own campaign traffics heavily in attacks on Gray. Gray drops hints that the multi-millionaire Milne is trying to buy the lieutenant governorship with his own money. Yes, Milne has spent roughly $100,000 on his campaign, but that’s far from “buying the election” territory.
*So far. On Friday, Milne reported spending $30,000 on TV ads that mention himself and Gray. Presumably they won’t mention Gray in a positive light.
In the race for governor, incumbent Phil Scott is indirectly (the Phil Scott way) accusing opponent David Zuckerman of negative campaigning — by saying that he would never stoop to such tactics himself, cough, ahem, harrumph.
The truth is, all these attacks about attack politics aren’t going to move the needle.
It’s getting to be a pattern with Scott Milne, Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. Launch an attack on his Democratic opponent Molly Gray; it misses the mark; he drops the line and tries something else. Which immediately backfires.
His first attack was the most impactful. Immediately after the primary, his campaign started pointing to Gray’s admittedly poor voting record. (He launched this attack even as his campaign manager was promising a positive, issue-oriented campaign, but whatevs.) She is vulnerable on this point, but you can only repeat one single attack so often.
Since then, Team Milne floated a supposedly stunning revelation that Gray had an active voter registration on file in the District of Columbia. That one was quickly abandoned, perhaps because people who move frequently, as she did for professional reasons, probably don’t keep up with old registrations. (For all I know, I may be on file in multiple locations. Can’t say I officially canceled any of my old voter registrations. ) It wouldn’t be a scandal unless she tried to vote in more than one jurisdiction. There’s no evidence of that.
On Monday, the Milne campaign issued its alleged masterstroke: a list of 101 tweets sent during business hours from Gray’s campaign Twitter account. The campaign or someone affiliated with it had filed a wide-ranging public records request in search of evidence that she engaged in campaigning when she should have been performing her duties as an assistant attorney general.
Gray immediately explained it away, noting that it’s common practice for campaign staffers to have access to a candidate’s Twitter feed. Milne’s team proved her point when “MilneforVT” repeatedly tweeted during Thursday night’s MIlne/Gray debate on WPTZ-TV.
Yeah, disproving your own argument isn’t best practice. The List of 101 hasn’t been mentioned since.
Something I tweeted recently has stuck in my mind, and it relates directly to the choice we face in the presidential election.
I’ve been following politics since 1968, when I was 14 years old and already worried about the prospect of being drafted to serve in Vietnam, and it remains the worst political year of my life. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Democratic nomination falling to Vice President Hubert Humphrey*, the uncontrolled police brutality outside the DNC, the reanimation of Richard Nixon’s corpse and his ultimate election to the presidency — the moment when”The Sixties” ended as a touchstone for social progress and became a lifestyle brand.
*Humphrey was a great liberal politician, but he tied himself firmly to LBJ’s Vietnam policy out of a sense of duty to the administration he served. His legacy was forever tainted by the association.
That was bad enough. But since then, almost every presidential election has been a choice between bad and not-quite-so-bad. There have been only three candidates I felt good about, and two of them had no chance whatsoever of winning. The three: George McGovern in 1972, Fritz Mondale in 1984, and Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Otherwise, it’s been a matter of settling for something less than I wanted. Jimmy Carter, Mike Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry. I voted for all those guys, but didn’t feel great about doing so.
But here’s the thing. Is there any doubt at all that we’d be in a better place if we’d elected Carter instead of Reagan? Dukakis instead of Bush I? Gore or Kerry instead of Bush?