Author Archives: John S. Walters

About John S. Walters

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

Dan French Wants You to Know He’s Smarter Than You

Gov. Phil Scott is the master of leavening otherwise innocuous statements with little passive-aggressive cracks, such as his couching any opposition to his Wise PoliciesTM as “playing politics.” Well, Education Secretary Dan French, the Inspector Clouseau of the Scott cabinet, has listened and learned at the feet of his master.

You see, French buried a lovely nugget of condescension in his second consecutive Friday newsdump of fresh guidance for the public schools. Not only has he shifted state policy away from in-school testing and contact tracing; now he’s actively dissuading school officials from pursuing more stringent measures.

In his Friday email to the schools, French told them “to avoid the temptation to build additional processes.”

Temptation?

Excuse me?

What he’s saying, I guess, is that school officials have to be cautioned away from the shiny bauble of additional work. Yes, the sirens of contact tracing and Test to Stay may be singing prettily from the rocky shore, but local officials need to tie themselves to the mast and sail on by the opportunity to take on a workload that was killing them throughout the fall semester.

Does he know how condescending this sounds? Probably not, given his customary level of obtuseness.

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Vermont’s Most Closely Contested (and Unpredictable) Primary Since 2010

The field is set. Maybe. The third of the expected candidates, state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, launched her bid Thursday morning.

Who knows, there might be other people who want to succeed senator-in-waiting Peter Welch in the U.S. House. There might even be candidates credible enough to face up to the three very talented women already in the race.

But even without any further entries, this is already promising to be the toughest primary campaign in Vermont since 2010, when Republican Jim Douglas’ retirement prompted five Democrats to run for their party’s gubernatorial nomination. Peter Shumlin won that election by a mere 176 votes. This one could be as close. It’ll likely be far more expensive.

Lt. Gov. Molly Gray. Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint. Senator Ram Hinsdale. It seems certain that one of these three will become the first woman to ever represent Vermont in Congress. (The Republicans have no shot.) And right now, I have no earthly idea which one it will be. When it was a two-person contest I gave Gray the edge simply because of statewide campaign experience and name recognition. The three-person faceoff is far less predictable. Maybe Gray is the early fave, but the margin is so small as to be effectively meaningless.

As for That Poll… “it’s far too early” doesn’t even need to be said, does it? The “VPR – Vermont PBS 2022 Poll,” as we are obligated to refer to it at every opportunity, not unlike the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl, shows Gray in the “lead” with 21 percent support, Balint at 7, and Ram not showing because she hadn’t declared her candidacy when the poll was conducted. Actually, the lead spot went to “Not Sure” at 32% followed by “Unlikely to Vote in the Democratic Primary” at 30%.

Gray’s showing reflects her head start in name recognition and nothing more. That doesn’t make her the “unquestioned frontrunner” as one out-of-state political operative claimed. It’s like if the Red Sox scored a run in the top of the first and the announcer called them “the unquestioned favorite to win the game.”

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State Economists: Smooth Sailing for Now, Storm Clouds on the Distant Horizon

All smiles for another 12-18 months

Thursday marked the semiannual Festival of Numbers that is the consensus economic forecast, prepared as always by Vermont state economists Tom Kavet and Jeffrey Carr. The topline: Happy times will continue for another year and a half or so, but after that there’s tremendous uncertainty and huge downside risk.

Or, to put it in purely political terms, Phil Scott will enjoy smooth financial sailing through fiscal year 2024 (assuming he wins another term, and there’s no reason to think he won’t), but whoever is governor in 2025-26 may have a real mess on their hands.

The very short-term forecast is for even more money to flow into Vermont’s coffers. Carr and Kavet upgraded their revenue forecast for the rest of FY2022 (ends June 30) by $44 million.

The reason: Vermont’s economy and state revenues continue to be buoyed by the flood of federal Covid relief dollars — more than $10 billion in all. “We had a [fiscal] hole and we’re filling it five times over with federal stimulus,” said Kavet. Those dollars will continue to flow for 12-18 more months. Then comes a return to Earth, and a landing that might be soft, or… a splat on the landscape.

“There is no playbook from the last time the feds dropped $10 billion on our economy,” said Carr, meaning that it’s never happened before. When the money dries up, Carr said, “the amount of risk, especially on the downside, escalates… The economy will transition into something new and different.”

And while the short-term outlook is rosy in the aggregate, that doesn’t mean everyone is doing well. “One hand’s in boiling water, one’s in ice water,” said Carr. “On average, you’re okay.”

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The Empire Strikes Back on Qualified Immunity

It appears that there will be a push in the state Legislature to end qualified immunity for police officers. Qualified immunity makes it almost impossible to sue officers for use of excessive force; it’s become a target for reformers in the post-George Floyd era of, well, at least talking about police accountability.

It has the support of Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Sears, the single most influential gatekeeper on justice-related legislation. Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint is also signed on, another big positive.

Michael Schirling, on the other hand, is here to tell you it’ll happen over his dead body.

At the Tuesday Covid briefing, Gov. Phil Scott fielded a question about ending QI by immediately tossing it to Schirling, his public safety commissioner and former chief of police in Burlington.

Schirling, speaking on behalf of the administration, made his position quite clear.

“We are gravely concerned about the impact of that potential legislation, and we’re working with a variety of partners and stakeholders to craft a cogent and comprehensive assessment for the Legislature of the potential impacts and downsides of proceeding in that fashion.”

You don’t usually get an administration official cranking it all the way up to “gravely concerned” at this point in the session. It’s usually something milder, like “we have concerns, but we’ll see where it goes.” In this case, Darth Schirling has been sent forth by Emperor Philpatine to make sure the bill never sees the light of day.

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Phil Scott Really Hates to Admit He Might Be Wrong

This was the facial expression Gov. Phil Scott pulled when he was asked if his administration got “caught with your pants down” by the Omicron variant. Yeah, he doesn’t like admitting he may have been wrong and he hates it when someone calls him on it. Maybe we can stop with the “nice guy” stuff, please?

Backing up for a sec. In a Friday newsdump at the end of last week, Education Secretary Dan French announced a complete change in Covid-19 policy for the public schools. At the time, I wrote: “There’s only one good thing about this fiasco. It’s the first time anyone in the Scott administration has admitted that their policies weren’t working.”

Well, at his Tuesday Covid briefing, the governor came out swinging against the idea that his now-inoperative school policies didn’t work.

“The process we’ve been using with school nurses acting as contact tracers was effective before Omicron,” he said in his opening statement, “but it no longer is as effective as it once was.”

I’d like to hear him say that to the face of any school nurse in Vermont. They, and other school staff, were overwhelmed by the workload involved in contact tracing and Test to Stay*. It was unsustainable, and the administration did nothing to help. That’s why the Agency of Education struggled throughout the fall semester to get school districts to sign up for Test to Stay. It was more effective than, say, doing nothing at all, but it never came close to being effective.

*Speaking of which, Scott announced that child care facilities will now be able to sign up for Test to Stay. Did anyone else notice the contradiction? “Test to Stay” is now ineffective in the schools, but it’s the latest thing for child care? Huh.

Hell, he couldn’t even bring himself to admit that the policy failed to meet the test of the Omicron variant. All he said was the policy was “no longer as effective as it once was.”

Which brings us to the pants question.

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Molly Gray 2.0

Purposeful stroll? Check.

Pictured above is Patricia Preston, freshly-minted Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor who has a very low public profile. She’s got no track record in politics, but offers some decent credentials from the nonprofit world. She offers an unconventional resumé for a would-be politico. At 36, she’s young for a statewide candidate.

Are you starting to get serious Molly Gray vibes? Well, there’s more.

Preston is a native Vermonter who grew up on a family farm far away from the cosmopolitan (read: Not Real Vermont) precincts of Burlington. She graduated from the University of Vermont. She spent time working in the international nonprofit arena.

Her initial campaign video is practically a carbon copy of Gray’s, not that Gray’s was anything exceptional. It leans heavily on personal biography. Open and close feature Preston speaking directly to the camera; in between are images of a rural road, the family farm, aerial shots of Vermont towns, the Statehouse, a classroom, renewable energy projects, herself walking outside, herself staring into the sun. The only remotely controversial images show a solar farm and a scale model of two wind turbines, onscreen for a half second or so each.

Which brings us to her Gray-like agenda. It’s long on bromides and short on specifics. It’s full of praise for her home state and a hazy vision for how to make it even better. What does she hope to do as LG? “…help Vermont rebuild a resilient, safe, and healthy future for our families and loved ones, our communities, and this incredible state.” Yeah, that’s the stuff.

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Law and Order: Discriminatory Intent

While the bulk of our attention was focused on Dan French’s abject surrender to the Omicron variant, we got hit with a double dose of bad news regarding the equity of our justice system. Or should I say the lack thereof.

The first hit was a study showing that Black people were six times as likely to be jailed in Vermont as white people. The second was the latest installment in a series of studies showing a substantial racial disparity in traffic stops, searches and seizures. Those are, respectively, the endpoint and the beginning of the so-called “justice” system.

Can there be any doubt that we have a big problem in our law-n-order process? Can there be any doubt that Black people are getting the short end of the stick?

Nope.

Well, unless your name is “John Klar,” but more on that later.

Stop me if you’ve seen this movie before. Statistics showing racial disparities are revealed. They are met with furrowed brows and Expressions of Earnest ConcernTM, along with determination to Get To The Bottom Of This. Time passes, another round of statistics is revealed, lather, rinse, repeat. Makes me tired, sad, and mad.

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There’s Only One Good Thing About This

In the Friday newsdump of all Friday newsdumps, Education Secretary Dan French, seen above realizing he forgot to wear pants to the office, has thrown his school Covid policies into the dumpster and promised something new and better… sometime next week.

Holy fucking hell.

In a memo sent to school officials (and quickly leaked to the media), French advised them to stop trying to do contact tracing and PCR surveillance testing because both strategies are ineffective against the impressively virulent Omicron strain. He wrote of an “imminent policy shift,” so after a disastrous first week of the winter semester, our schools will sail blithely into week 2 with no policies in place whatsoever.

Also, the AOE is now trying to supply schools with enough test kits for all their students. Seven Days, which first broke the story, reports that it’s “unclear how many kits each school will get and whether the state already has them stockpiled.”

Yeah, AOE policy is known for its lack of clarity. And substance.

This isn’t the first time French has failed to foresee the eminently foreseeable. The Delta variant was a known threat by midsummer, but AOE didn’t devise new testing and screening policies until several weeks into the school year. And the crown jewel of the strategy — Test to Stay — has had a slow and trouble-plagued rollout because the schools lacked the resources to carry it out and the state offered zero help.

And now he’s done it again with Omicron.

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Performative Lamentation on Reapportionment

The Vermont Legislature is in the middle of the reapportionment process, the redrawing of legislative districts that occurs every ten years. By the time you read this, the House Government Operations Committee may have given initial approval to a draft redistricting plan. It’s only the first step in a lengthy process, and nothing will be finalized for some time yet. But that hasn’t kept Republicans from whingeing about how majority Democrats are rigging the system to ensure another decade in power.

Sen. Corey Parent is out with an opinion piece calling the process “unnecessarily rushed” and “outrageous.” David Flemming of the Ethan Allen Institute notes that Vermont is at high risk of partisan gerrymandering. GovOps Committee Republicans reportedly favor a redistricting map that’s being sidelined by majority Dems.

And you know what? I don’t want to hear it from any Republican. The GOP is the reigning champion of the gerrymandering game. Vermont Democrats are not going to do anything nearly as perfidious as the legislatures in, say Ohio or Texas or Florida. The only reason Vermont Republicans are complaining is that they’re in the minority. If they were in power, they’d throw principle out the window in service of protecting their advantage.

Besides, the courts have approved all but the most extreme gerrymandering. It’s officially fair game, right? Well, only if you’re the victim, not the perpetrator.

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The Moral Panic Merchant

Has my old frenemy Bradford Broyles become a pillar of purity? Or does he simply see a marketing opportunity in fanning the flames of hate? It’s hard to tell, but my bet’s on the latter. Either way, he’s jumped with both feet onto the book-banning bandwagon, hectoring a Vermont high school for including a transgender person’s memoir on its library shelves.

Oh, you need some background? Broyles is a wannabe Hollywood producer of tediously unfunny right-wing “comedy” in partnership with Len (billed as “Lenny” because comedy?) Britton, former ski resort operator and very unsuccessful candidate for U.S. Senate in 2010. (Pat Leahy spanked him by a better than two-to-one margin.)

Brad and Lenny are best known around these parts for producing “News Done Right,” a series of short videos critical of Vermont’s left, Phil Scott included. The “stars” of NDR were a couple of aspiring actors willing to don flannel shirts and pretend, not convincingly, to be Vermonters.

Last I heard, Broyles and Britton were flogging a sitcom starring Kevin Sorbo, the guy who played Hercules for five years on the teevee and went on to became a QAnon-style conspiratorialist. Sorbo plays a politically incorrect (read: asshole) suburban dad in “The World According to Billy Potwin.” A handful of episodes have been produced; somehow, it has yet to be picked up by any major media outlet. (You can find clips and a whole episode on YouTube if you’re a glutton for punishment.)

Lately, Broyles has been making waves, or should I say ripples, here in Vermont. Last summer he was the campaign manager for Republican Burlington City Council candidate Christopher-Aaron Felker. I don’t know why Brad bothered; Felker was a sure loser in a Prog-heavy ward even before his history of transphobic remarks on social media was uncovered. Afterward? Well, he finished with 14% of the vote. (And he is now, because desperate times call for desperate measures, the chair of the Burlington GOP.)

Broyles’ latest caper involves sending a letter sent to the Essex-Westford School Board (and sharing it for publicity purposes with Vermont Daily Carbuncle), decrying the inclusion of “Gender Queer,” a graphic memoir by Maia Kobabe about Kobabe’s search for gender identity, in the high school library. (The story was picked up by, you guessed it, John Klar on True North Reports.)

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