Author Archives: John S. Walters

About John S. Walters

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

R.I.P. GMD

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust… Green Mountain Daily, which was for many years Vermont’s most influential political blog, has officially joined the Choir Eternal. Site founder John Odum did the honors on Saturday, in a post that recalled some of the site’s finer moments.

GMD was a group effort involving a small number of activists, political insiders and sharp-eyed observers. During its prime, GMD did yeoman’s work in keeping liberal politicos honest (well, a bit more honest) and reining down mockage on those who deserved it. The site also broke news more often than you might think. It was taken seriously by Our Betters and was widely read in political/journalistic circles.

And it had a significant impact on the arc of my own, such as it is, career.

For better and for worse, I wouldn’t be doing this Political Observer thing if it wasn’t for GMD. Way back in 2011, during a spate of underemployment, I started posting occasionally on the site. My posts were often promoted to the main page, which encouraged me to continue. (Posts by regulars automatically hit the top of the queue; posts by guests would go into a box along the side, but could be promoted to the queue by any of the regulars.)

After a few months of this, Odum contacted me about becoming a regular. At the time, I still had pretensions of resuming a career in journalism, and I thought that joining GMD would probably kill any chance I had. But after a few months, I decided to sign on.

And boy, did I have fun. I didn’t make a dime, but I could write whatever and whenever I wanted. and I was good at it.

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I Realize We Can’t Be First All the Time, But Can We Please Be First a Little More Often?

Ah, Vermont, home of Bernie, cradle of progressivism, always in the vanguard of positive change.

Or so we like to believe.

In reality, more often than not we lag behind other jurisdictions. And I’ve got not one, not two, but three examples to share.

First, we are now officially behind the Biden administration on the right to repair — which allows consumers to act as if they own the stuff they buy. Second and third, the state of Maine has enacted two bills that put Vermont in the shade. Maine has imposed a virtual ban on the use of PFAS chemicals (so-called “forever chemicals”), the compounds that have created a huge mess in the Bennington area. Also, Maine has passed “extended product responsibility” legislation that makes manufacturers responsible for the ultimate fate of their product packaging.

So why are we behind in these areas? Well, all three touch on corporate interests. Our lawmakers tend to wither and fade when exposed to testimony from the business community. Besides, these are exactly the kinds of bills that Gov. Scott frequently vetoes over vague concerns about competitiveness or costs.

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Something Stupid This Way Comes

Yep, it’s time again for another round of The Veepies, our awards for stupidity and/or obtuseness in the public sphere. Got a lovely crop of stupid on offer.

First, we have the It Worked So Splendidly Last Time, Let’s Run It Back Again Award, which goes to the folks responsible for exhuming the cold, rotting carcass of the Sanders Institute. Yep, the Sanders clan’s vanity project think tank is once again open for business, thanks to a big fat chunk o’change from… wait for it… the Bernie Sanders campaign! Gotta do something with all those $27 gifts they couldn’t manage to spend during the actual election season.

For those just joining us, the Sanders Institute was founded in 2016 by Jane Sanders and her son David Driscoll, who — mirabile dictu — emerged from what I’m sure was an exhaustive nationwide search to become SI’s executive director. Well, the Institute posted a bunch of essays (mostly recycled from other media) on its website and had one big conference in 2018, but was shut down in May 2019, sez the AP, “amid criticism that the nonprofit has blurred the lines between family, fundraising and campaigning.” Ya think?

There are a few differences between the original and SI 2.0. Sanders comms guy Mike Cesca told VPR that none of the campaign’s money would go toward pay or bennies for Sanders family members. Which is kind of an admission that they screwed up the first time.

Also, two different spokespeople made reference to “the transition” from winning votes to educating people, which makes you think he’s not running for president again, and makes you wonder whether he’ll run for another Senate term in 2024. The new Institute will also include an archive of Sanders and his family… hmm, sounds like a think tank vanity project.

After the jump: A daycare misfire, a self-inflicted social media disappearance, and incompetent fiber installers.

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UVM Prof Boards the Klar Klan Kruiser

Oh boy, oh boy, tonight brings us another stop in the Klar Klan Kruiser’s “Waah Waah Critical Race Theory” tour. This time it’s in St. Albans, and the speakers include one Aaron Kindsvatter, professor of counseling in the UVM College of Education and Social Services, and, to be perfectly frank, one whiny little bitch.

Kindsvatter became a source of controversy on campus earlier this year when he posted a video on YouTube entitled “Racism and the Secular Religion at the University of Vermont.” In it, he complains about being stigmatized because of his race and being labeled a racist because he didn’t accept the “secular religion” of, well, critical race theory. He didn’t use that term, but his presence on the KKK’s roster shows you where his head is at.

Kindsvatter’s video triggered a petition drive aimed at getting him to resign. It’s gathered 3,445 signatures out of a goal of 5,000. This isn’t his first go-round with race-based campus controversy; back in 2016 he objected to the actions of the UVM Bias Response Team, which looks into reports of bias on campus. He said the team “opens the doors for censorship of anyone of any ideological perspective who says something in class that could potentially offend somebody else.”

Now, I can understand how a white man could feel a little uncomfortable with all the anti-racist efforts in his workplace. But that, in itself, is a great measure of white privilege. White people are used to being the norm. Their views, feelings and concerns are the ones that matter. That’s not true anymore, but it’s not as though white people are being ostracized or genocided or enslaved or lynched or engenicized or targeted by excessive police force.

A few decades ago, a study was done of male/female participation in group conversations. What they found was that women tend to speak about 25% of the time. If they start talking more often than that — say, 30-35% — then everyone in the group thinks the women are talking too much. Even the women. In reality, all they’ve done is try to make a small step toward equity.

What’s amazing to me is that a professor of counseling could possess such a complete lack of empathy. He sees everything through the lens of his own experience. That’s something that white people used to be able to get away with and can’t always do so now, which makes them feel oppressed.

In his video and in a subsequent interview with a right-wing media outlet, Kindsvatter makes some statements that reveal a total obliviousness about the experiences of others.

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Hallquist Hire is Phil Scott At His Best

Ooh, this is embarrassing. From when Republicans saw Hallquist as the enemy.

There is nothing bad to say about Gov. Phil Scott hiring Christine Hallquist as executive director of the newly-minted Vermont Community Broadband Board. It’s the kind of move that makes Scott so likeable to so many people.

How many elected officeholders would hire a former political rival to a high-profile position? Not many. But Scott saw Hallquist as the best person for the job, so he hired her without hesitation. In this day and age, it’s so good to see a politician acting in a completely non-political way, putting policy above politics.

The hire is also noteworthy because it shows that Scott is fully on board with the communications union district model, in which community-based nonprofit CUDs would build fiber connections where no commercial operator had been willing to go.

And, especially if the state is adopting this model, Hallquist is clearly the most capable and experienced person for the post.

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A Republican Lawmaker Hops On Board the Klar Klan Kruiser

The wonderful folks who brought you the CovidCruiser bus to the January 6 insurrection are back in business, baby! Now it’s the KKK Traveling Road Show, featuring a select group of speakers who are convinced that Critical Race Theory is the worst thing since, I dunno, Sputnik?

No, Burisma. Let’s go with Burisma.

The Klar Klan Kruiser is the brainchild of Gregory Thayer, a Rutland accountant and QAnon-adjacent conspiratorialist. It’s making stops tonight (Wednesday 7/14) in Barre and Friday in St. Albans. In each venue, a series of speakers will rant and rave about CRT for what’s likely to be a small audience of like-minded folks.

So who’s on the guest list for tonight? Well, Thayer himself, former gubernatorial candidate John Klar, Our Lady of the CovidCruiser Ellie Martin, “Former Educators” Martha Hafner and Alice Flanders, and first-term Rep. Samantha Lefebvre (R-Orange).

The latter is the subject of this post.

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VTDigger’s Union-Busting Efforts Continue Apace (UPDATED)

Got an email today from VTDigger founder/chief executive/editor/reporter/Maximum Leader Anne Galloway. It was a request for donations that included the line “Help us…foster the next generation of journalists.”

Yeah, up to a point. Past that point, successive “next generations of journalists” are running for the hills. Latest example: Statehouse reporter Kit Norton has left Digger with no firm plans for what’s next, according to his Twitter feed. About a month ago, Katie Jickling quit, tweeting out plans to leave journalism and pursue a master’s degree.

Update 7/14/21. According to Mark Johnson’s column in this week’s Seven Days, Statehouse reporter Xander Landen has also left Digger. This adds to the numbers I cite below. And losing both Norton and Landen at the same time is a tremendous blow to Digger’s Statehouse and political coverage. They were smart, effective reporters who’d learned the ropes. Now, other reporters will have to start from scratch.

Which made me wonder how many reporters have whizzed through that revolving door since May 2020, when they formed a union and entered into contract talks. Talks which have seen management stonewalling the union.

So I fired up the Internet Archive and found the VTDigger homepage as of May 27, 2020. That’s right around the time that Digger recognized the union in the face of a near-unanimous organizing vote.

The answer is, yep, there’s been a lot of turnover. By my count of the staff listing on the Digger website, the organization had 12 full-time reporters on 5/27/20. Five are no longer there. (Jickling, Norton, Anne Wallace Allen, Elizabeth Gribkoff, Aidan Quigley), That’s a fair bit of turnover. And every one of those departing reporters was a member of the union.

I don’t believe that Digger is deliberately driving people away in order to break the union, but I do believe that weakening the union is a fortunate consequence of its high turnover. Galloway’s fundraising pitch notwithstanding, many writers flee because they find Digger to be a toxic workplace.

Fostering the next generation of journalists, my Aunt Fanny.

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Today I Learned Something on True North Reports

I don’t make a habit of reading “True North Reports,” the right-wing “news” site bankrolled by the famously reclusive Lenore Broughton. But I do dip my toe in its clouded waters from time to time, just because you gotta keep an eye on those Fockers.

I just did so, and mirabile dictu, I found a nugget of news!

NEWS!

On True North Reports!

What is this nugget? Well, at a VTGOP meeting over the weekend, party chair Deb Billado announced that the party would file lawsuits against the cities of Montpelier and Winooski over their Legislature-approved charter changes allowing resident noncitizens to vote. “We’re not sitting still on that particular issue,” she told the assembled. “We believe that it goes directly against the Vermont State Constitution section 42 and we are moving forward with legal action.”

Yeah, that qualifies as news. Congrats to Mike Bielawski for being the first, and so far only, person to report that fact.

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The Big Power in Vermont Politics

Not Exactly As Illustrated.

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.

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And Now We Return You To Our Regularly Scheduled Veepies

This week, we’ve already “honored” Gov. Phil Scott with one of our not-at-all-coveted Veepie Awards (given to those guilty of stupidity and/or obtuseness in the public sphere). But our Selection Committee hasn’t been sitting on its hands. No, it’s been out there scouring the highways and byways — ahh, who am I kidding? Potential Veepies are abundant. They practically come a-knockin’ on our door.

So, our first regularly scheduled Veepie is the What? A politician is fundraising? Oh, my heart! Award. It goes, not to an individual or group, but to a concept. This week, VTDigger published one of those “Oh well, we gotta do this” stories about the July 1 campaign finance reports. The only nugget of news was Lt. Gov. Molly Gray raising $50,000 so far this year. And there was a distinct undercurrent of disapproval.

This is partly because Gray stood out among her fellow statewide officeholders. But it also feeds into the widely-held view of Gray as a political opportunist who hasn’t paid her dues. Well, folks, I have to tell you I have no problem with Gray raising money in an off year. Those other officeholders are established in their positions. Gov. Phil Scott does as little fundraising as he can. The Democratic statewides are politically bulletproof.

Gray isn’t firmly established, and she had a surplus of only $20,000 from her 2020 campaign. She can use a bigger war chest. And sure, it feeds into the perception that Gray is a climber with her eyes set on higher office. I see nothing wrong with that, either. A politician being ambitious? Get the smelling salts!

After the jump: An extremely belated make-good, an outbreak of NIMBYism, and a media misstep.

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