Category Archives: Dean Corren

Do the Democrats want to beat Phil Scott?

Stupid question, right?

Ask any Democrat — well, almost any Democrat — and they’ll say of course they want to beat Phil Scott and put one of their own in the corner office.

But I’m not asking any of them.

Instead, I’m looking at their collective actions. And they tell a different story, one full of abject failure to mount competitive races, of convenient excuses for legislative inaction, of top-tier contenders avoiding a tough challenge.

Conventional wisdom says that Scott is a singularly popular Republican thanks to his plain ol’ working-man demeanor and his plausibly moderate stands on the issues. I mean, look: He’s never lost in his 20-year political career. That includes campaigns for state Senate, lieutenant governor and governor. Impressive.

But who has he beaten? How many difficult races has he had to run? How many times did he amble his way to victory?

Short answer: He’s had it about as easy as a politician could hope for.

Scott first ran for Senate in 2000, the year of the great conservative backlash over civil unions for same-sex couples. He secured one of Washington County’s three seats in a race that nearly produced a Republican sweep of the county. (Incumbent Democrat Ann Cummings barely edged out fourth-place Republican Paul Giuliani.)

After that, Scott’s fortunes were buoyed by the super-strong incumbent’s edge in state Senate races. He finished a strong third in 2002. 2004 was the closest call of his entire political career; he won the third seat by a margin of only 230 votes. 2006 and 2008 were easy wins for all three incumbents — Scott, Cummings, and the redoubtable Bill Doyle.

As a reasonably inoffensive Republican, Scott benefited from the good will of Democratic leadership. He served as vice chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and chair of  Senate Institutions, burnishing his reputation for working across the aisle.

In 2010, Scott ran for lieutenant governor and won, beating then-state representative Steve Howard by 49-42 percent.  That was the closest call he’s had in this entire decade.

As LG, Scott’s reputation for bipartisanship was given a boost by then-governor Peter Shumlin, who included Scott in his cabinet. Not the kind of move you make if you really wanted a fellow Democrat to take Scott’s place.

Unsurprisingly, the potential A-List or B-List candidates for Lite-Gov kept their distance, allowing relative unknowns Cassandra Gekas (2012) and Dean Corren (2014) to mount the altar as sacrificial lambs. Scott beat Gekas by 17 points and Corren by an astounding 26.

And that set the stage for Scott’s elevation to governor in 2016. His Democratic opponent Sue Minter was a former state representative and cabinet official, but she’d never run for statewide office and was little known outside of Montpelier and Waterbury. She lost by nine points. In 2018, the top tier of Democrats was nowhere to be seen; former utility executive Christine Hallquist made history by becoming the first openly transgender person to win a major party’s gubernatorial nomination, but she had no chance in November. Scott sailed to a 15-point victory.

Now, you tell me. Who’s more responsible for the remarkable political career of Phil Scott? The man himself — or the Democratic Party that has consistently failed to seriously challenge him, and the Democratic officeholders who’ve consistently given him a hand up?

That also goes for top Democrats who are more than happy to make public appearances with Scott, even during his 2018 re-election campaign. The governor could fill a thousand campaign brochures with photos of himself making nice with Democratic officeholders, from the legislature to statewide officials to members of our congressional delegation.

I know, we’re all proud of Vermont’s tradition of political comity. But at some point, don’t you have to be just a little bit partisan?

Now, let’s look at the Democrat-dominated legislature, where Scott provides a convenient excuse for not getting stuff done. Over and over again in the past three years, the Dems have failed to advance key bills because of the potential for a gubernatorial veto. Just as often, they’ve ended up negotiating against themselves — weakening legislation in hopes of winning the governor’s approval.

Y’know, if they had a progressive-minded Democratic governor, they’d have to actually try to craft effective legislation. This didn’t work out too well with Shumlin’s health care reform push, did it? Much safer to flail helplessly in the face of a Republican governor.

They’ve also reached a comfy non-confrontational position on taxes and spending. There was little dispute over the 2020 budget. There is no real effort to challenge Scott on taxes. VTGOP press releases will tell a different story, chronicling every tax or fee increase proposed by every single Dem or Progressive lawmaker — even though the vast majority were dead on arrival.

During the 2019 session, the Dems undermined much of their own agenda. They spent week after week trying to come up with weaker and weaker versions of key bills. In some cases, that effort prevented bills from gaining legislative approval at all. Scott didn’t have to veto a minimum wage increase, a paid family leave program or a commercial marketplace for cannabis — three high priority issues for the Dems. They also failed to confront the governor on other contentious issues, including legalization of personal possession of buprenorphine. They disappointed their liberal base by failing to seriously address climate change.

Point being, the fear of a veto was powerful juju, turning the Dem/Prog supermajority into so many zombies. And leaving potential 2020 gubernatorial candidates with precious little material to run on. For the sake of anyone willing to challenge Scott, the legislature had better come prepared next January to hold the governor’s feet to the fire. Force him to make difficult choices. Show that there’s a real difference between the Democrats and the Republican governor.

Or, well, just sit back, relax, let some schmo lose to Scott by double digits, and get back to the established routine of shadowboxing the big bad governor.

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I’d say these two guys deserve each other

In this corner, wearing the red trunks, a compulsively litigious Vermont attorney who’s a partner in a D.C.-based law firm with a lengthy rap sheet as a conservative attack dog.

In the far corner, in the blue Spandex, Vermont’e Eternal General, who would have passed his sell-by date years ago if not for the voters’ generous attitude toward incumbency AND a last-ditch bailout from out-of-state donors in 2014.

And whoops, there’s the bell, and the guy with the legal authority wins by TKO.

Such was the result of VTGOP Vice Chair Brady Toensing’s most recent complaint against a liberal politician. Attorney General Bill Sorrell brusquely dismissed his argument that Bernie Sanders’ email blast was a material contribution to the State Senate candidacy of Rep. Chris Pearson, and thus subject to campaign finance limits.

But frankly, neither party covered himself in glory here. Toensing is exhibiting a pattern of politically-motivated legal filings, and Sorrell’s dismissal revealed the weakness of his relentless persecution of Dean Corren.

So, a pox on both their houses. May they spend the afterlife in whatever circle of Hell is reserved for lawyers, shackled together in a vat of fire.

Okay, maybe that’s too harsh. How about this: a featureless Limbo where they debate fine legal points for all eternity?

Yeah, that’ll do.

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Progressive Party: sovereign entity or barnacle?

Here’s an interesting factoid. Voters in the August 9 primary will have their choice of three ballots — Democratic, Republican, and Progressive.

The latter will be available statewide in printed form. And in most of our precincts, the entire Progressive ballot will contain precisely one name: Boots Wardinski, Capital City Farmers Market stalwart and Progressive candidate for lieutenant governor. He’s run for Lite-Guv twice before, both times on the Liberty Union ticket, with minimal result.

We are all paying (by one account, $80,000*) to put Boots Wardinski’s name on ballots that will be largely ignored by voters. Most Progressives won’t take a Progressive ballot because so many Progs are running in Democratic primaries. Like, for instance, real live actual Progressive David Zuckerman, running as a Dem for lieutenant governor — in a tough race against Democrats Shap Smith and Kesha Ram. How many Progs are going to pass up a chance to influence that race just to cast a vote for Boots Wardinski?

*According to the Secretary of State’s office, the total cost of this year’s primary ballots is roughly $160,000. One-third of that would be $53,333.33. So there’s your Boots Tax.)

Beyond the unfortunate use of public funds for all those straight-to-the-shredder Wardinski ballots, this raises an existential issue about the Progressive Party.

Is it gradually ceding its sovereignty, and turning into nothing more than a barnacle on the Democrats’ underside?

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High stakes for a low-heeled job

It may be Vermont’s “bucket of warm piss,” in the unexpurgated words of John Nance Garner, but the campaign for Lieutenant Governor is going to absolutely shatter all previous records. In fact, the record will almost certainly fall before the party primaries in August.

Two years ago, Phil Scott and Dean Corren combined to spend about $433,000 on their respective campaigns. That set a new high water mark for the post. So far this year, about $400,000 has been contributed to Lite-Guv hopefuls. And for goodness’ sake, it’s only March!

Democrat Brandon Riker managed to raise $188,000 before dropping out, which tells you something right there. A newbie candidate raises almost as much by March 15 as Phil Scott did for all of 2014 — and feels compelled to withdraw in spite of his bankroll.

The remaining Democratic candidates, Kesha Ram and David Zuckerman, are closing in on the $200,000 mark combined, with no end in sight.

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Phil Scott asks some dumb questions

Apparently our humble & lovable Lieutenant Governor still has a bug up his butt about public financing of election campaigns. You may recall that Phil Scott had never uttered a word about public financing* until Dean Corren qualified for public funds last year, forcing Scott to actually put some effort into his campaign. The experience was traumatic enough that it birthed a “philosophical objection” to public financing in Scott’s mind.

*Correction: I’ve been informed that Scott has voiced objections on previous occasions. Sen. Joe Benning: ” I first heard him expressing his disagreement with public financing of campaigns when I met him back in 2010.” I thank the Senator for taking the time to write. I’d still like to know if Scott had ever expressed his disagreement on the public record, but clearly his concerns precede his 2014 campaign.

On Tuesday, Scott grabbed an opportunity to again state his “philosophical objection” to public financing, and raise a series of far-fetched questions about the law’s workings.

His testimony before the Senate Government Operations Committee drew no attention in the media because it was immediately followed by Attorney General Bill Sorrell’s appearance, in which he belatedly acquiesced to calls for an independent probe of his campaign finances. Yeah, that kinda overshadowed everything else.

Also, Scott’s remarks were immediately dismissed by the committee, which had convened to consider a single technical change in the law; there was no time for broader questions.

But before it vanishes into the mists of history, let’s recount some of Phil Scott’s testimony.

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The Eternal General Strikes Back (Warning: SATIRE)

Y'know, this picture works with almost any song lyric.

Y’know, this picture works with almost any song lyric.

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell, having come under intense criticism for his handling of campaign finance prosecutions and his own questionable compliance with the law, came out in true Two-Fisted Attorney General fashion late Friday.

(Warning: SATIRE.)

In a hastily-called news conference, Sorrell announced the filing of several new accusations against Dean Corren, last year’s Democratic and Progressive candidate for Lieutenant Governor.

Sorrell had previously charged Corren with violating the state’s public financing law by accepting tangible assistance from the Democratic Party, namely an email blast with an estimated value of $255. Sorrell’s proposed punishment for this crime: a total of $72,000 in fines and reimbursements.

“I have been accused of excessive zeal in this prosecution,” said Sorrell, a brace of assistant and deputy Attorneys General forming a semi-circle behind him. “To the contrary, I have uncovered even more violations by Mr. Corren. Taken together, they paint a clear and unmistakable picture of a rogue campaign.”

Among the new charges against Corren:

— At a Democratic State Committee meeting, Corren sneezed and a party official loaned him a handkerchief. “A tissue would have been within the bounds of the law,” noted Sorrell, “but a piece of haberdashery is clearly a significant gift that Mr. Corren could have potentially used throughout the remainder of his campaign.”

(Warning: more SATIRE… after the jump.)
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Money can’t buy me love

"I'm not dead yet!" said a soft, muffled voice.

“I’m not dead yet!” said a soft, muffled voice.

The race for Governor of Vermont had all the makings of “Bambi Vs. Godzilla II: The Re-Flattening.” Scott MIlne was a badly underfunded candidate who ran a goofy, error-filled campaign, while Peter Shumlin was the consummate political pro with a huge bankroll and a far stronger party apparatus.

And yet, here we are in the early morning hours of Nov. 5, and the race is technically too close to call. Shumlin’s almost certain to finish first, but with an embarrassingly small margin. This election is a crippling blow to his dream of single-payer health care, and to whatever his hopes were for the rest of his political career. No longer is he the guy who outsmarted a tough Democratic field and Brian Dubie in 2010, romped to re-election two years later, and built a fundraising operation the likes of which had never been seen in Vermont; he is now, and forever will be, the guy who spent nine hundred thousand bucks and almost lost to Scott Freakin’ Milne, who now looks like 2014’s answer to Fred Tuttle. Which would put Shumlin in the role of Jack McMullen, ugh.

The lessons of that Beatles lyric will also have to be learned at Democratic Party headquarters, where much money was spent and a lot of smart people were paid to run a campaign machine capable of overcoming all the obstacles in their path. Myself, I put a lot of stock in that operation, and I was wrong. The Dems have some serious soul-searching to do. How could they have such a strong grassroots organization, and yet be so out of touch with the grass roots?

In terms of issues, my diagnosis is that the Democrats (and the Progressives) misread the electorate, failing to address the issue of the year — property taxes. There was a fatal degree of hubris in the Shumlin Administration’s continually trotting out fresh issues, all of which were worthy of attention — but which diverted the government away from the lunchpail concerns of real folks.

You know, all those people who get to vote.

Property taxes were #1 on that list. And the Democratic majority was seen as unwilling or unable to tackle the issue.

Aside from property taxes, the second biggest problem (in my humble and sometimes dead wrong opinion) is the feeble economic recovery, featuring endless stagnation for the working and middle classes. This is not Governor Shumlin’s fault; it’s the way America’s economy is going. But he gets credit when times are good, and takes the blame when they’re not. Times are still tough for a lot of Vermont voters. I’m not sold that Vermonters favor the Republican prescription of cutting taxes and regulation, but they do have to see some tangible benefits from a Democratic administration.

Finally, if 2012 showcased Peter Shumlin’s good side — the solid helmsman who kept things running after Tropical Storm Irene and steered Vermont on his chosen course — then 2014 showed him at his worst: the all-too-polished politico who says whatever he thinks people want to hear, who can’t be trusted, who’s not nearly as good at day-to-day operation as he is at crisis management, and who is, frankly, seen as arrogant and unwilling to listen to those who disagree with him.

Scott Milne was, literally and figuratively, the anti-Shumlin. He got a lot of votes merely because he was Not Peter Shumlin. But beyond that, his extreme lack of polish — which seemed to be a fatal flaw — actually made him seem authentic, especially in contrast to Shumlin, the political animal. That’s why I compare him to Fred Tuttle.

But the avatar of out-of-touch liberalism was Dean Corren, the spectacularly failed Prog/Dem candidate for Lieutenant Governor. He qualified for public financing, which gave him enough money to run a competitive race. And he failed to come anywhere close to Cass Gekas’ late-starting, underfunded campaign in 2012. Corren had good ideas, but again, they were untethered to the everyday concerns of voters. It was the worst possible year for a rather prickly Progressive policy wonk with blue-sky ideas on energy and health care. And Phil Scott was his worst possible opponent.

I’m sure somebody will accuse me of lipsticking the pig here, but this could turn out to be a very good thing for the Democrats. It ought to kick the complacency out of them, and the hubris out of the governor’s office. They’ll have to take a serious look at how it all went wrong and try to fix it. If they do, they can reform and refocus themselves without the usual necessary step of actually losing power.

On the other hand, we could be in for a period of infighting, mutual recrimination, and descent into actual defeat in two years’ time. One thing’s for sure: a lot of potentially good Republican candidates sat this one out because they thought there was no chance.

They won’t make that mistake again.