Category Archives: 2020 election

Is Somebody Getting Nervous in the LG Race?

There’s only one month to go until the August primary, and who knows how many absentee ballots already coming in, so maybe it’s no surprise that some collars are showing signs of tightening.

The above is a mailer sent by Senate President Pro Tem and candidate for lieutenant governor Tim Ashe, which seems expressly designed to draw a contrast between him and Assistant Attorney General Molly Gray.

Gray, for those just joining us, appeared seemingly out of nowhere and immediately started racking up big donations and big-name endorsements. Before her emergence, the safe money was on Ashe to ride his name recognition to a primary victory — and then a comfortable ride to election in November. But now? Not so much.

Ashe’s mailer screams about the need for EXPERIENCE in these troubled times. The kind of EXPERIENCE that makes a person fit to, uhhh, bang a gavel. It highlights three things about Ashe that can’t be said about Gray: experience as Pro Tem, experience passing legislation, and “my real-world economic development career.”

That notorious slacker Gray, by contrast, has frittered away her time working for U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Attorney General T.J. Donovan, among others. She probably does scrapbooking or needlepoint in her spare time. Maybe jigsaw puzzles.

Ashe’s mailer doesn’t draw as neat a contrast with the other two Democrats in the race. His fellow Senator Debbie Ingram has plenty of experience on legislation. Activist and arts administrator Brenda Siegel has spent lots of time in the Statehouse working on legislation as an advocate.

A more direct attack on Gray came last week courtesy of VTDigger, which posted a story questioning her residency status — and pretty much settling the issue in her favor.

Here’s some rank speculation on my part: Somebody gave Digger a tip to pursue this angle. If this had been entirely Digger’s initiative, the story would have been done when Gray launched her campaign — after all, she went out of her way to highlight her international experience including her time away from Vermont.

I have not a shred of evidence pointing to Ashe or his minions as the source of the story. But the timing speaks for itself. And I really don’t see Ingram or Siegel resorting to trickery of any sort.

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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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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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Proof: Santa Claus is a conservative a**hole

Vermont Republican Party chair Deb Billado is known for penning ultraconservative, pro-Trump screeds in her official role as the party’s leader. But now, at Christmastime, she’s outdone herself with what I can only hope is a feeble attempt at “humor,” which would serve as further proof that there’s no such thing as conservative humor. (Lookin’ at you, @NewsDoneRight.) Because if she was serious, man oh man, she’s gone round the twist.

Billado’s latest epistle takes the form of a letter from Santa who, as he passed over Vermont, observed “a warm light” from below — a light that “conveyed a good feeling to the people, one of security and goodness.”

That light? The Vermont Republican Party.

Santa tops that off by observing that Billado had been “chosen to be its head to steer the course, right and true.”

Ah. The Chosen One. Where have I heard that before?

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I’m sure David Zuckerman is shaking in his boots

Hey, everybody! Meet Meg Hansen, writer, consultant, low-budget TV show host, and now a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor.

Hansen is a bright young woman with a compelling backstory who you might recall as a communications staffer for the Vermont House Republican caucus in 2016-17. After that, she spent about a year as head of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, the right-wing advocacy group that’s had no discernible influence on the health care debate. Otherwise, Hansen’s public activities are largely confined to the off-hours of community access television.

She is a devout conservative who believes in the power of unfettered capitalism to float everybody’s boat. Her vision would remake Vermont along the lines of America’s reddest states.

“The American Dream is alive and well in states like Texas and North Carolina but not in Vermont,” she writes on her campaign website. At the risk of being churlish, I’d ask if she sees the American Dream doing well in states like Mississippi and Kansas, which have low taxes and little regulation but are economically stagnant.

She’s opposed to Obamacare and other health care reform efforts; her solution is to let the free market do its magic — giving all Vermonters the chance to buy overpriced, crappy, exception-laden insurance policies. She’s not a fan of fighting climate change or climate activists, who “use the specter of climate catastrophe to demonize us as polluters-parasites on earth,” and whose proposed solutions are “immoral.”

She also favors the “freedom to vape,” which, okay then.

You get the idea. It’s precisely the kind of hard-core conservative platform that’s been a consistent, lopsided loser in Vermont.

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