Category Archives: 2020 election

“Welcome back to The Gutter, Mr. Milne. Your usual table?”

Scott Milne started the general election season with a vow to run an issues-oriented campaign. He backed it up with his big glossy 60-point ProgressVT action plan.

And ever since, he’s used ProgressVT as a fig leaf for an overwhelmingly negative campaign. Which is par for the course. This is, after all, the guy who ran an entirely negative campaign against Sen. Partick Leahy that included an amateurish TV ad that accused Leahy of having contracted “the DiCa Virus,” short for District of Columbia and a dumb play on the Zika virus. The spot looks even worse in retrospect, now that we’re actually in a battle with a deadly pandemic.

We got another taste of The Gutter’s menu on Monday, aided and abetted by WPTZ anchor/reporter/apparent Milne honk Stewart Ledbetter. (Who, in a mere two days, will be moderating a debate between the two candidates. Yeesh.)

On a day when Gray held a press conference announcing endorsements by 15 state senators, Ledbetter obtained a list of tweets sent from Democrat Molly Gray’s campaign account during business hours — when she was supposed to be working as an assistant attorney general. His report, which is partially available on Channel 5’s website (the video cuts off before the end), begins by recounting the endorsement event. He notes, as did I, that Gray’s list doesn’t include eight members of the majority caucus.

He then pivots to footage of Milne pointing out the senatorial absences with that familiar smirk on his face.

And then Ledbetter rolls out the Twitter bit. Or, as he put it, “A new list of Twitter posts emerged Monday with timestamps suggesting Gray conducted some campaign activities during the workday.”

Yeah, ha ha ha, “emerged.” As if out of the clear blue sky.

We know from one of the earlier debates that someone with the Milne campaign, or someone backing him, submitted a wide-ranging public records request for all Gray’s communications between the launch of her campaign and her taking a leave of absence from the AGO, hunting for signs of electioneering by Gray during business hours.

Well, they labored mightily and produced a mouse: The list of 101 allegedly offending tweets.

Gray’s response? “Every campaign has staff with access to its campaign Twitter account.”

Shocker, that. And yes, it’s standard operating procedure for campaign staff to tweet approved messages. Milne’s got nothing. I’m not surprised; in my experience, Gray was very careful to confine her campaigning to non-work hours until she took her leave.

What Milne or his backers were hoping to find was clear evidence of campaigning on the taxpayer’s dime. And all they got was a few dozen tweets from a campaign account that’s accessible by others in Gray’s campaign team.

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Two Out Of Three Ain’t Great

Democratic Lt. Gov. candidate Molly Gray kicked off the new week with an Endorse-O-Rama on the Statehouse lawn. She’s won the backing of 15 Democratic/Progressive Senators, including Senate Majority Leader (and President Pro Tem-in-waiting) Becca Balint.

Which is great. But it means she didn’t get endorsed by eight members of the majority caucus. Not so good.

The abstainers include fully half of Chittenden County’s delegation: unsuccessful Lite-Gov candidates slash grudge-nurturers Tim Ashe and Debbie Ingram plus Michael Sirotkin. The rest include some of the most senior and most centrist of Senators: Bobby Starr, John Rodgers, Alice Nitka and Jeanette White.

The final absentee is the most surprising: Prog/Dem Anthony Pollina. I’ve tried to reach him, and will update this post if/when he returns my call.

The roster of Senate abstainers is not a good look. But it has more to do with the foibles of Vermont’s Worst Deliberative Body than it has to do with the merits or demerits of Young Ms. Gray.

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10/1 Gov Campaign Finance Reports: Spare change

I was going to call this post “Pedal to the Metal,” and on a relative scale that’s true. Both Gov. Phil Scott and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman dramatically picked up the fundraising pace in September. But by historical standards, both campaigns remain at bargain-basement level.

Zuckerman raised $107K in September, by far his best month to date, bringing his campaign total to $567K. He spent even bigger, a total of $141K in the month. By my calculation, he entered October with about $60K on hand (I’ve seen other figures in other reports, and I don’t know how they arrived at their numbers. I subtracted intake versus outflow.) Zuckerman also has $27K in the bank from past campaigns.

Scott raised $200K in September, bringing his campaign total to a measly $335K. He spent much of this year in a self-imposed campaign quarantine, as he devoted his efforts to the Covid-19 pandemic. September was the first month he took fundraising seriously, and he got decent if not spectacular returns. He didn’t spend all that much in September, so his cash on hand (again, other reports differ) is about $75K. He also has a $106K surplus from past campaigns.

Neither candidate entered October with significant wiggle room. Both will need to step up their fundraising pace if they want to boost their advertising and ground games down the home stretch.

And don’t forget that the Republican Governors Association is still lurking about. They could still pump in a flood of cash to back Scott, as they did in 2016 and 2018.

After the jump: Sources, spends, and recent history.

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When Fact-Checking Fails the Truth

PolitiFact came into existence 13 years ago, with a simple mission: Try to discern the factual basis, or lack thereof, underlying statements and claims from political candidates. Dig through the bullshit, uncover the facts, and determine the truth.

It’s a great idea, but it’s very tricky in practice. It assumes that there is an absolute truth buried under the mountain of political bullshit. But what if there is no such truth? In the political arena, “facts” and “Ideology” are tightly interwoven. For instance, Vermont tends to rank near the bottom of the 50 states, or near the top, depending on what’s being measured. If you tried to determine where Vermont “really” ranks, you’d be dancing into a minefield.

In recent years, VTDigger has been part of the PolitiFact network, generating its own fact-checking pieces in an effort to help voters sort through political statements. Its latest effort, unfortunately, illustrates how PolitiFact-style analysis can lose sight of the truth in its search for “facts.”

In last week’s Digger debate, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman floated his proposal for a temporary wealth tax aimed at the top five percent of earners — those who reaped the most benefit from the 2017 Trump tax cuts. The revenue would fund one-time investments that, Zuckerman says, would more than pay for themselves in economic growth.

Scott counter-claimed that Zuckerman’s “wealth tax” would reach all the way down to households earning $159,000 or more, which he characterized as “middle class.”

Well, as I pointed out in my debate blog, Vermont’s median income is $60,000, a long way from $!59K. Also, if your definition of the “middle class” reaches all the way up to the 95th percentile, there’s something wrong. Unless you’re saying the “middle class” includes everyone between the fifth percentile and the 95th.

“Think about two teachers, married teachers,” Scott said. But according to a 2019 Digger article, the average teacher salary in Vermont is a touch over $60,000. It’s possible for a teacher to earn $80,000, but it’s very uncommon.

Scott indulged in some misleading rhetoric, in other words. And yet, somehow, Digger concluded that Scott’s argument was “True,” the highest possible rating.

And the headline on the story was the real whopper: “Would Zuckerman’s wealth tax on the top 5% impact the middle class?”

The answer to that question is clearly, unequivocally “No.” And Scott’s claim, as restated in the headline, would properly be evaluated as “False.”

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10/1 LG Campaign Finance: The Disembodied Head of Scott Milne

Bad lighting, too far from camera, hastily arranged wrinkled-flag backdrop, 0/10.

The latest financial filings from Republican Scott Milne and Democrat Molly Gray reveal two vastly different campaigns in scale, source of funding, organization and tactics.

(I’ll be writing a separate post about the gubernatorial filings.)

Milne’s campaign has adopted what I call the Disembodied Head model, inspired by one of the great bits of political satire from my home state of Michigan. In 2006, Dick DeVos, scion of the Amway pyramid scheme multi-level marketing firm and husband of The Worst Education Secretary In History, decided to run for governor of Michigan. He dumped $36 million of his own wealth into the race… and (schadenfreude alert) got absolutely killed by Jennifer Granholm.

During the campaign, a delightfully snarky liberal created a website called “The Disembodied Head of Dick DeVos,” which is dormant but still extant. And more than a bit relevant, in our post-Citizens United era of fiscal oligarchy.

Extra bonus digression! DeVos’ father Richard was the co-founder of Amway. Dick ran the company after Dad’s retirement. Dick’s major accomplishment was to take Amway international. At that point Amway had pretty much tapped out the domestic market for Raising False Hopes Through Scammery, Dickie found rich fields of suckers in developing countries like Russia and China, where hardworking but financially naive people were desperate to climb the ladder of success. (The DeVos clan also owns the Orlando Magic, one of the worst franchises in the NBA.)

Scott MIlne is a multimillionaire, but a pauper by DeVos standards. Milne’s campaign is pocket fluff compared to DeVos’, but it’s the same basic structure: Largely self-funded, spending the bulk of its money on paid media with little to no grassroots organization.

Gray, on the other hand, has spent much less on TV and much more on staff, travel and events. She’s actually built an organization, how about that.

She also continues to fundraise far more impressively than Milne.

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The Role of the Fiery Spouse

Here’s something on which all political writers can agree: Reporting a red-hot personal beef beats covering policy any day.

And nothing beats a good catfight.

Yeah, so Rachel Nevitt, Lit. Gov. David Zuckerman’s wife, posted the above on a private friends-and-family Facebook page. The “lying, manipulative, self-serving power-hungry individual” in question is Zuckerman’s ticketmate, Molly Gray.

The political media lives for moments like this. And yes, it may well deepen the divide between Zuckerman and mainstream Democrats, which is one of the two fundamental challenges he faces in his campaign against Gov. Phil Scott. The other is Scott’s popularity.

Relations between Prog-turned-Prog/Dem Zuckerman and the Vermont Democratic Party were iffy to start with. There are too many Dems who’d rather lose — especially to Mr. Nice Guy Phil Scott — than help install a Progressive in the governorship. (After all, we gotta keep it open for when Scott retires and TJ gets his shot.)

But it says here that, even though she’s a political spouse, Nevitt is a self-actualized individual with the right to express herself without any input from Hubby Dearest.

“I shared it with family and friends,” Nevitt told me. “I thought I could share it without a bunch of men fomenting gossip. It’s sad that the media chooses to focus on trashy gossip about two people who aren’t even running against each other.”

Yes. Sad. But it’s the world we live in, not the one we desperately want to beam up to. Also, who can resist a good CATFIGHT!!?!?!!!???

Yeah, that’s the stuff.

One of the political heroes of my youth was Phil Hart, U.S. Senator from the great state of Michigan. He was a fairly garden-variety Democrat until he got a bad case of conscience over the Vietnam War, becoming an early critic of the war and his party’s own president, Lyndon Johnson.

And his wife was the real star of the family.

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Digger Gov Debate: Cromulent Son

At least they flipped the room and got decent lighting.

It seemed remarkably civilized after Donald Trump’s attempt to run roughshod over debate protocol (and the foundations of our Republic), but the second major media faceoff between Gov. Phil Scott and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman was a lively affair that managed to provide some light in addition to heat.

As in the first debate, Zuckerman put on a clinic on how to confront Scott, while the governor often seemed overly defensive, even a bit surly. And as in round 1, it’s unlikely to make any difference in the election outcome.

I’ve noticed an increasing tendency in Scott to bristle in the face of close questioning. He frequently interrupted Zuckerman and misrepresented the Lite-Gov’s record. Has he gotten soft after months of nearly universal praise? Or is he starting to harbor a sense of entitlement after three years in office?

Whatever, it was a rare slip of the mask for Mr. Nice Guy.

Y’know, if Vermont was half as progressive as its Bernie-fueled image, Zuckerman would have a decent chance at becoming the next governor. Unfortunately for him, the electorate leans more center-left than left. Sanders’ coattails are much shorter than you’d think. And Vermont voters like to think of themselves as balanced, and our political system as exceptionally civil. That’s why we quickly embrace people like Scott and Jim Douglas who put a pleasant face on traditional Republicanism. (And it’s why Scott Milne is eagerly grasping for the same electable image.)

If Vermont’s “progressive” electorate was serious about progressive policies, they’d reject a guy who is nearing the all-time record for vetoes. In three years, Scott has racked up 19 — and counting; during the debate he hinted at a veto on the cannabis tax-and-regulate bill.

The record holder is Howard Dean with 20. And it took Dean eight years to rack up 20 vetoes; it’s taken Scott less than three years to equal Dean’s total. Also, most of Dean’s vetoes were on relatively small-bore legislation — a bill to legalize the sale of sparklers, a change in members of the Fire Service Training Council, a measure aimed at quicker removal of abandoned motor vehicles.

Scott, on the other hand, aims his fire at the biggest targets. He has vetoed three separate budget bills, which is unprecedented in Vermont history. He has vetoed many of the Legislature’s top priorities; this year’s vetoes included minimum wage, paid family leave and the Global Warming Solutions Act. And might yet include cannabis. His veto record is quantum orders beyond Dean’s or Douglas’. Or any other governor in state history.

In short, Phil Scott is a huge obstacle to the Democratic/Progressive agenda. Yet the voters seem intent on giving him a third term, even as they return lopsided Dem/Prog majorities to the House and Senate. If you think voters decide based on the issues, think again.

But enough about that. On to the debate.

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The VPR/VPBS LG Debate: Backwards in High Heels

Molly Gray was under some pressure today, to come back from last week’s meh debate performance and stand up against the attacks of Scott Milne. And she had to do so within the strictures placed on women and people of color who run for office: They have far less latitude than white men in displaying emotion of any kind or going on the attack. Obama consciously kept himself in check to forestall any “Angry Black Man” reactions. Hillary Clinton had to walk a tightrope — backwards, in high heels — while Donald Trump threw rotten tomatoes at her.

Gray did a fine job. She stood her ground. She attacked Milne’s record without sounding, in that wonderful world of female stereotyping, bitchy. It helped that Milne had shot his wad last Thursday; he had no fresh attack lines to spring on his opponent. All he could do was lob the old stuff at her, and this time she was fully prepared to answer.

Meanwhile, Milne often seemed churlish. He pushed lines of attack past the point of diminishing returns. He was patronizing. He complained about her answers. He was less skilled than she at deflecting to desired talking points. His performance did nothing to advance his campaign’s positioning of MIlne as Phil Scott 2.0, a nice-guy authentically Vermonty moderate Republican.

His handlers had better get him back into the bubble wrap. It’s time for Operation Deep Freeze to go into effect. Keep him out of the public eye as much as possible, to limit the chances that he’ll go off script and default to his snarky, self-pitying ways.

Now… let’s count punches.

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The Democrats’ Union Problem

Four Democratic/Progressive candidates for the House, including two incumbents, have declined endorsements from the Vermont State Employees’ Union, citing “harmful inconsistencies in the organization’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement.” (The four are Reps. Mari Cordes and Selene Colburn, and Democratic candidates Emmy Mulvaney-Stanak and Taylor Small.)

Or, to put it another way, the VSEA’s kneejerk support for its members — even the rotten apples threatening to spoil the bushel.

Protecting its members is a core mission for every union. But there can and should be exceptions to the rule. It’s really in the best interest of the union (and the labor movement) to ensure that the bad apples are removed before they harm the reputation of all its members. Kind of like when the Major League Baseball Players’ Association blocked meaningful action to address baseball’s rampant steroid problem. Was it really in the best interest of non-using MLBPA members to allow the cheaters to go on damaging the game?

No, but the PA acted on first instinct. And when the VSEA staunchly claims that all the problems in Vermont’s corrections system are on management, and asserts that its members are blameless? They’re doing the same thing. And it must be said, DOC members wield a lot of power in VSEA. So much so, that if I were a VSEA member in some other state agency, I’d be upset over the union’s inaction when scandalous behavior is unearthed at state prisons.

This creates a dilemma for Democratic officeholders.

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The Digger LG Debate: Dancing in the Dark

“Welcome to the Moonlight Lounge. Can I start you off with a beverage?”

Welp, somebody staged a late-afternoon debate in front of a wall of windows, leaving viewers literally in the dark. Maybe the same people who didn’t conduct a pre-debate coin toss and couldn’t find a coin once they realized their omission. And the same people who didn’t nail down the debate format. After he was given his final question, Republican Scott MIlne asked if there would be an opportunity for closing statements. Moderator Anne Galloway was rattled. “Oh boy, closing statements? I hadn’t planned on that,” she said.

Milne soldiered on, folding some closing-statement material into his answer.

But enough about production misfires. As for the Main Event itself, it was a crisp affair with plenty of confrontation between Milne and Democrat Molly Gray.

And Milne won the evening.

This was the first time since Gray entered politics that she looked like a first-time candidate. She was sometimes rattled, she often slipped into academic “debate” mode instead of the political version*, she forced some bits that just didn’t work. It was a bit of an ambush on MIlne’s part; his team clearly withheld their toughest stuff from the relatively low-profile Town Meeting TV forum so they could spring it on Gray at the Digger debate.

*It’s like the difference between amateur wrestling and Monday Night Raw.**

** Now you’re imagining Scott Milne in Spandex.

Smart, tough politics. It didn’t help Milne maintain his “Phil Scott 2.0” nice-guy facade, but it did put Gray back on her heels. Between the debate and Friday’s news of a massive spend for Milne by a national conservative group, she and her team are on notice that this isn’t going to be a coronation of 2020’s Shiny New Democrat (patent pending).

And they should be ready to fight back at the next debate and on the campaign trail. MIlne has plenty of vulnerabilities — in fact, he’s kind of one big walking, talking vulnerability. His team has put together a nice “Scott Milne” package, but is it a solid structure or a balloon ready to be popped?

(The latter prospect is doubtlessly why Team Milne has chosen a limited-exposure strategy, keeping him away from Gray’s statewide forums and not maintaining a schedule of appearances or events around the state. I mean, Gray is spending all her free time going everywhere; how often can Milne actually be seen in public?

I can answer that, because I’m on his email list. I get frequent fundraising pitches and press releases, but I can’t recall getting any events announcements. And there’s not even a “Meet Scott” events listing on his campaign website. From which I conclude that they’ve got him securely encased in bubble wrap, lest he slip up on his newfound message discipline.)

Now, let’s count some punches.

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