Category Archives: Green Mountain Daily

Something you should know about that Bernie allegation

The Burlington College closure has a chance of causing trouble for the Bernie Sanders campaign, since his wife Jane played a key role in sinking the college under a mountain of debt. There are whispers of a federal probe, and now Seven Days’ Terri Hallenbeck reports that VTGOP Vice Chair Brady Toensing claims to have “new information” linking Senator Sanders to the case.

“I was recently approached and informed that Senator Bernie Sanders’ office improperly pressured People’s United Bank to approve the loan application,” Toensing said in letters to U.S. Attorney Eric Miller and to Fred Gibson Jr., the acting inspector general of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

There is cause for skepticism aplenty; Toensing is a Republican official, and he refuses to say anything more about his sources or his new information.

But there’s one more thing you should know, and Hallenbeck didn’t catch it.

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The “moderate” VTGOP is a mythical beast

A few interesting things came out of the Vermont Republican Convention on Saturday — besides revealing that Phil Scott can’t take a rhetorical punch.

I thought it shone a harsh and unforgiving light on the idea that Vermont Republicans are a breed apart — the last surviving redoubt of moderate Republicanism. That’s largely a fiction created in a desperate effort to appeal to the liberal Vermont electorate. It takes on the veneer of reality thanks to the thoroughly moderate image of Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. But the party ranks are full of garden-variety 21st Century Republicanism. Vermont Republicans may have thrown in the towel on social issues like marriage equality and abortion rights*, but they are a stoutly conservative bunch when it comes to brass-tacks issues like government spending, regulation, and taxation.

*Well, let’s say they are withholding the towel. I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts they’d change their tune if they ever achieved political power.

After all, this is a party that eagerly embraced John Kasich, a man whose tax plan would make Ronald Reagan blush with embarrassment. George W. Bush, too, for that matter.

But there were signs aplenty at the Convention that this is a party with a strongly conservative core.

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St. Brian of the Turbines

I’ve been pondering the liberal bloggers’ tradition of posting spoof pieces on April 1, carried forward today by Green Mountain Daily. Even started developing a few ideas. But then I decided (a) there’s too much real stuff to write about, and (b) I have non-blogging stuff on my plate, and I need to carve out time for those obligations.

One of my ideas was “unlikely candidates for public office,” based on the parade of “Who asked for this?” candidacies and proto-candidacies. Garrett Graff, Brandon Riker, Louis Meyers, John Rodgers, Peter Galbraith, Bruce Lisman… I think I’m forgetting one or two… but the list is long and undistinguished, especially in a year when there are so many good candidates on offer.

The April Fools’ Day post would have listed other unlikely entries. Lenore Broughton, Eric Davis, Howard Frank Mosher, Anne Galloway, Tom Bodett… the possibilities are endless.

And then reality intruded in the form of Brian Dubie, former lightweight Lite-Guv, now mooting a return to the wars as Saint Brian of the Turbines, a cheap Don Quixote knockoff with a soupcon of Jeanne d’Arc.

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The Mormons are coming! The Mormons are coming!

To all those up in arms over Scott Milne’s planned development near Exit 1, or Jesse Sammis’ soon-to-be-downsized proposal at Exit 4, how about this one?

A wealthy Mormon developer is buying land in four towns near the Joseph Smith Memorial in hopes of building a planned community there inspired in part by the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

This doesn't look at all cultish to you, does it?

This doesn’t look at all… cultish, does it?

That’s from the Valley News, which would be Vermont’s best daily newspaper if only it was headquartered in Vermont. After it published a story a few days ago, it was picked up by ol’ buddy BP at Green Mountain Daily. Since then, it’s begun to ripple outwards — as it should. This is a Big Biden Deal.

David Hall has already bought some 900 acores in Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge. His goal is to build a massive development housing “as many as 20,000 people within a few square miles.”

Geesh, talk about changing the Vermont landscape. If fully populated, his hypothetical Mormontown would be the third-largest community in Vermont. Not that we have to panic just yet; he’s looking 30-50 years down the road.

But still. His NewVista Foundation has already invested more than three and a half million dollars in land purchases, and “has about $100 million at its disposal.” That’s enough to carry out the plan, for sure.

If this were to come to pass, it would completely change the character of what is now a largely rural area nestled in the crook of I-89. It would probably lead to continuous development from this area to the Upper Valley. Scott Milne’s plan is dwarfed by comparison.

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Randy Brock puts on the red light

Note: This post would not exist but for the work of “BP,” one of the regular contributors to Green Mountain Daily. Several weeks ago, he wrote an insightful piece looking at the dark side of the captive insurance business, which has found a receptive home in Vermont. Now, with Randy Brock citing captive insurance as a model for state policy, it’s important that we have a clear picture of the pluses and minuses of such relationships. 

Randy Brock, Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, recently threw out a tantalizing hint of a forthcoming policy initiative. He claims this great idea will create $100 million a year in new state revenue.

Brock said Thursday that he was looking to promote ideas that are similar to the push the state made to corner the captive insurance market. The state created a regulatory environment to make Vermont a leader in that industry.

… In addition to captive insurance in Vermont, he pointed to examples in other states, such as Delaware, which has laws that are friendly to corporations so many register there. South Dakota, he said, has created a niche for the credit card businesses.

Brock’s call had previously been made in even broader terms, but to little notice, by gubernatorial candidate Phil Scott:

The state has enjoyed significant benefits from the renewable energy industry and captive insurance, he said. “Imagine if we had a governor’s office that treated every sector in the same way,” Scott said.

That is, frankly, a radical idea that didn’t make it through our media’s Phil Scott Filter.

I’m not sure we want to emulate South Dakota and the credit card industry, especially not in an across-the-board fashion. A “welcoming” state regulatory climate has been responsible for some outrageous, predatory practices by credit card issuers. One could also cite Liberia as a flag of convenience (and cover for outrageous practices) in international shipping, but discretion was the better part of embarrassment there.

And that’s the problem with this kind of regulatory carve-out for a certain  niche business: it’s an open invitation to a “race to the bottom,” because the most relevant enticement a state can offer is a business-friendly approach to regulation and enforcement.

The captive insurance industry looks like a great thing for Vermont. And it is portrayed as an unvarnished good by politicians of all stripes. But there is, in fact, a dark side to the industry that is rarely mentioned in polite circles.

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Some backstory on the militarization of our police

Last week, while I was out of town for a family Thanksgiving, Mark Davis wrote a nice little story in Seven Days about Vermont police agencies picking up a whole lot of military-grade weaponry, thanks to a federal program designed to shore up military contractors’ bottom lines provide local police with “military equipment left over from America’s foreign wars and stockpiles.”

Which brought to mind some of my own past coverage of specific events tied to this story: a small New Hampshire community talked into buying an assault vehicle by a Rush Limbaugh-listenin’, Tea Party-believin’ salesman, and the small-scale invasion of a small Vermont town.

Instrument of peace?

Instrument of peace?

First stop in the Wayback Machine is February 2012, when Keene, NH had received a $300,000 Homeland Security grant to buy an eight-ton armored vehicle called the Lenco Bearcat. This, for a city with a population of 23,000 and virtually no history of violent crime.

But there was all that federal money dangling in front of the city fathers…

During a City Council meeting, the Mayor was heard whispering to a City Councilor “We’re going to have our own tank.”

Better than Viagra. Of course, the grant won’t pay for operating costs like maintenance, training and insurance.

The most fascinating part of the story, to me, was Jim Massery, salesman for vehicle manufacturer Lenco. His pitch was laden with fearmongering about the need for high security everywhere. In fact, one of his quotes was the following:

I don’t think there’s any place in the country where you can say, “That isn’t a likely terrorist target.” How would you know?

There was a whole lot of that, and you can read more in my 2012 post on Green Mountain Daily. Massery, as I discovered, was a true-blue conservative who believed that President Obama was trying to steal our freedoms, and that the government was spending us into oblivion. And yet he had no problem helping the government militarize local police and wastefully spend $300,000 on a Lenco Bearcat that nobody needed. (The notorious Free Staters of Keene probably thought he was an enemy agent tasked with bringing the power of the police state to their own little community.)

One of Massery’s other pitches went like this:

When a Lenco Bearcat shows up at a crime scene where a suicidal killer is holding hostages, it doesn’t show up with a cannon. It shows up with a negotiator.

And, he might have added, that negotiator shows up in grand style, hunkered down in eight tons of steel. Which brings me to story #2. In June of 2012, a man named Alfred Perreault unknowingly touched off a minor invasion of his town of Washington, VT…

A summer scene befitting a Norman Rockwell portrait was spoiled Monday morning when more than a dozen police cruisers, an armored vehicle and the big box truck that houses Vermont’s equivalent of a S.W.A.T. team set up shop in Washington to take what proved to be one unarmed man into custody.

That armored vehicle was, as it happens, a Lenco Bearcat. Purchased by the Vermont State Police with, you guessed it, a Homeland Security grant.

Perreault was known to possess a goodly quantity of firearms, hence the heavy-handed police response. Which must have triggered (sorry) a sizeable panic reaction among townspeople who suddenly saw this caravan o’death roll into town and set up roadblocks.

It all ended peacefully. But as I wrote at the time, there’s an old saying: To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Our police agencies have been outfitted with military-grade, up-armored hammers. So naturally, Alfred Perreault looked like a nail.

It’s a lot easier for the authorities to escalate a response when they have the tools of escalation close at hand — indeed, when they may well feel a need to justify the purchase and upkeep of all those hammers. Alfred Perreault clearly needed to be dealt with. But did he warrant such a robust response?

You can bet we’ll be asking these kinds of questions again in the future.

“The 2016 campaign is already underway!”

I didn’t write those words in a paroxysm of political-blogger wishful thinking. No, that sentence was crafted — exclamation mark and all — by one “Super Dave” Sunderland, chair of the Vermont Republican Party. It’s the closing line in a fundraising pitch that’s posted on the VTGOP website and, I’m sure, spammed to every Vermonter on its contact list.

So much for the Vermont tradition, more honored in the breach than the observance, that campaign season won’t start until the Legislature adjourns in the spring of 2016.

What Super Dave means, of course, is that he needs your money right now to begin the long build toward 2016. But in another, equally real, way, the Republicans have begun the 2016 campaign in earnest — with their words and their newly aggressive attitude.

Donkey walks into a bar, says "I'll have a Heady Topper." Bartender says, "Sorry, you elitist snob. We only serve Bud."

Donkey walks in, says “I’ll have a Heady Topper.” Bartender says, “Hit the road, you elitist snob. We only serve Bud.”

It started with their big post-election news conference on Nov. 7, in which the Party’s top elective officials got together to call for the immediate dismantling of Vermont Health Connect. (Leaving aside, for this narrative, the unfeasibility of the idea and the curious incident of the Milne in the night-time.) It was a deliberately confrontational opening move for a party still on the short end of lopsided legislative majorities. I took it as a signal that the VTGOP was feelin’ its oats.

At the same presser, some GOPers expressed interest in further exploring The Milne Theorem, an unproven assertion postulating that 87,075 is greater than 89,509. Scott Milne had first floated the trial balloon a couple days earlier; that news conference was the first outward sign of broader support for his unlikely proposition. And a sign that the Republicans were (like a pro wrestler looking under the ring for the folding chairs and kendo sticks that are always, curiously, stashed there) eagerly grabbing for whatever weapons they could find to whack the Democrats.

A few days later came the annual meeting of the Vermont Rail Action Network, a chance for politicians to promote and/or give lip service to rail travel. As reported by outgoing State Rep. Mike McCarthy on Green Mountain Daily, Gov. Shumlin was there and did his duty, giving “a rousing speech about rail and cross-border trains.”

And then Mr. Nice Guy, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, took the mic:

The room of about 150 railroad officials, government agencies, and legislators was a little surprised that instead of talking about rail, Lt. Governor Scott focused solely on last week’s election and slammed “Montpelier” for not listening to Vermonters.  I guess this is what the beginning of a 2016 gubernatorial run looks like: No More Mr. Nice Phil.

McCarthy pronounced himself “shocked” that Scott “for the first time in his political life seemed to have gone tone deaf.”

Granted, Mike McCarthy is fresh off an electoral defeat and might be feeling a little bitter, but he’s generally a reliable correspondent.

I’m guessing that Phil Scott’s been giving himself a few dope-slaps since Election Night. It’s very easy to imagine him imagining himself winning the governorship. Has that experience suddenly got him yearning for the corner office, and sharpening his message and his political profile for the first time in his soft-jazz political career? It would seem so.

More coming shortly in this space.

Lower your expectations, good people

It didn’t sink in until after I’d written my previous post about Governor Shumlin’s news conference, but there was a clear theme running through it all.

Don’t expect much.

Especially you liberals out there.

It seems the Governor was determined to extinguish whatever hopes might still have existed for a small-p progressive administration. Some have argued, like Yours Truly and nanuqFC at Green Mountain Daily, that the real message of last week’s election is that Shumlin lost his liberal base. If he’d simply polled as well as Senate Democratic candidates, he would have sailed to re-election.

But nope. His takeaway was that we need more triangulation, more compromise, and no big new initatives.

On health care, clear signs of a retreat from single-payer. On the budget, admission that a perpetually sluggish economy will force draconian changes. On school finance, crafting a cheaper system will be job one. He gave a preliminary thumbs-down to environmental groups’ expected call for a carbon tax. And, although he personally favors legalizing marijuana, he’s going to defer to legislative leadership on the issue.

Overall, a constant refrain of cooperation, consultation, consensus, listening and learning. (No mention of “leadership.” Or “liberal.”) And do you think the ever-cautious Democratic legislative majority will be in any way emboldened by the loss of ten colleagues? I think that’s a big fat no.

I can’t say this is a surprise. Shumlin’s own instincts and his financial base, if not his electoral one, lead him in a centrist direction. And as a purely practical matter, he emerges from the election in a significantly weakened position vis-a-vis the legislature; he is in a bad position to make demands when he did so much more poorly than they did.

But if anybody was holding out hope that Shumlin would respond to crisis with a new burst of energy and a determination to cement his legacy? There’s no sign of that so far. This could drive a wedge into the already fractious relationship between Shumlin and the liberal base.

2016 might be a good year to be a Progressive candidate.

Scott Milne’s missed opportunities

Yesterday, over at Green Mountain Daily, I wondered whether the Scott Milne campaign was a real thing or an Andy Kaufman-style work of performance art. 

Still wondering. 

In the last week before Governor Shumlin takes center stage, Milne is spending the vast majority of his time not campaigning. At least not visibly. Yesterday, he sat in on ex-Governor Jim Douglas’ book launch thingy in Burlington, which got him no attention whatsoever; and then, a few hours later, he got five minutes of free airtime on WCAX’s “The :30.” And, as I reported earlier, this was one of his more active days in a week when he should have been taking full advantage of Shumlin’s absence from the fray. 

Meanwhile, the other guy who has no chance of winning, Libertarian Dan Feliciano, was occupying the political spotlight with a clever maneuver straight out of Campaigning 101: Holding a news conference and delivering a simple, headline-friendly message. His reward: what must be the most widespread media coverage ever received by a Libertarian candidate for any office anywhere. 

Libertarian candidate for governor Dan Feliciano says Vermont Health Connect should be scrapped and the state should adopt the federal health care exchange.

Government is standing in the way of health care reform, Feliciano said. He also called Wednesday for the repeal of the state’s health care reform plan (Act 48), the elimination of the Green Mountain Care Board and a return to an open marketplace for health insurance.  

Feliciano said Gov. Peter Shumlin’s goal of creating a single payer health care model in Vermont is “fantasy.” 

He’s wrong, of course. Switching to the federal exchange would result in much higher costs for a lot of Vermonters. He’s also kinda self-contradictory: he wants government out of the way of health care reform, but he wants us to go along with Obamacare. To be fair, it’s a fait accompli, but still: it’s a bit rich for him to call government an obstacle to reform while calling on Governor Shumlin to accept the federal system instead of pursuing a uniquely Vermont approach. 

But my point here isn’t who’s right or wrong — it’s who won the day’s battle for attention. And Feliciano clearly kicked Scott Milne’s ass. 

While Feliciano was delivering a clear message, Milne was rambly and waffly on Channel 3. When asked about single-payer health care and his own idea for reform, he made like an octopus and squirted a cloud of ink: 

I think there’s people on the Governor’s extreme end of radical progressive legislative agenda, which believes uh without facts to back it up, without a plan for how we’re going to pay for it, uh without really a plan for how it’s going to work, believe that single payer’s going to solve all of our problems. I believe on the other extreme are people who don’t even want to consider it because it’s a government takeover of one part of the economy.

The primary plank upon which I’ll be running this campaign, and upon which I’ll be governing Vermont, ah is that we really need to be focused on what’s practical, uh not being driven by what’s a political ideology. So I think the, ah, Vermont Health Connect disaster is a great example of taking a political ideology from the top down, shoving it down the throats of Vermonters without really havin’ a plan in place. So, ah, our team is working hard to get a plan in place, ah, we’ll have very specific ideas for voters to talk about, think about, and hopefully use as one of many criteria for deciding to vote for Scott Milne for Governor in November.  

Got that? Shumlin’s plan is extreme and radical, but not out of the question. Also, Milne doesn’t yet have a plan of his own. 

Yeesh. 

According to his own absurd timetable, August was Phase One of the “unconventional” Milne candidacy, in which he would assail Shumlin’s record. Then, in September, he’d unveil his own agenda. 

Hello? It’s September Fourth. 

All that said, while Feliciano clearly won the battle for September Third, he still ain’t winning in November. However, if Milne keeps up this kind of stuff, Feliciano will be an effective spoiler — earning a double-digit share of the vote, and pushing Milne down into the 20s. The longer Milne goes on looking like a bumbler, or a performance artist, the more Republicans will abandon his cause and vote Feliciano out of disgust or desperation. 

Which would be very damaging to Phil Scott’s party-broadening project. The Milne implosion is emboldening the True Believers to continue resisting Scott’s plan. It could even lead to a blood-on-the-floor battle for control of the party after the election. And, worst case, a permanent split in the already-small VTGOP, with conservatives either joining the Libertarians or deciding to opt out Vermont politics entirely. 

And while the True Believers are a small group that cannot hope to win elections in Vermont, they are the most dedicated and supportive Republicans. Their absence from the VTGOP donor rolls has pushed its already-dire finances into virtual nothingness. 

If the VTGOP had managed to find a credible candidate — say, Heidi Scheuermann, or Phil Scott himself — it would still lose this year, but it might be on the road to self-reinvention as an influential political force. Instead, they’re saddled with Scott Milne. And whatever enthusiasm exists among Republicans is there for Dan Feliciano’s taking. 

Metapost: Old Hundredth

Hello, and thanks for visiting The Vermont Political Observer. This is the 100th post in The VPO’s brief history. And the last two days have been two of the biggest days ever for pageviews and unique visitors. I appreciate that very much; the only inducement I can offer is the quality of my writing and insights, and it means a lot to me that so many people have found The VPO worthy of their time.

I am aware, from some of the comments received, that many readers are discovering my work for the first time, and are a bit puzzled by some aspects of it. So let me reintroduce myself and explain what’s going on around here.

I’ve worked in the media most of my life, primarily radio with some professional writing. I’ve won awards for my work in both fields, and I’ve published a book that’s entirely nonpolitical, Roads Less Traveled: Visionary New England Lives. Should be available at bookstores in VT and NH, and through my own website. (The radio work was almost entirely in other states.)

I started writing political commentary in late 2011 as a member of the Green Mountain Daily team. GMD is a group blog with a liberal/Democratic bent. I’m still on the team; my posts are under the pen name “jvwalt.” But after much consideration, I launched The VPO as an outlet of my own. At times, I was overwhelming GMD with my stuff, which I thought was unfair to the group nature of the enterprise.

My writing in both places is a mix of my journalistic experience and my political viewpoint, which is decidedly liberal but not dogmatically so. I often disappoint fellow liberals by taking a contrary position on an issue or openly criticizing Democrats and Progressives when I think they deserve it. And there’s a deliberately iconoclastic edge; if journalism is described as comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, then my role is to afflict politicos who have an exaggerated sense of self-importance or self-worth.

Put another way, I’ve described my function like this: 60% commentator and analyst, 30% liberal firebrand, and 10% poo-flinging monkey. So if you see some brown stuff flying around here, don’t be surprised. One aspect of that 10% is my occasional habit of giving nicknames to people. One of these days, I should list their origins and meanings. (Example from GMD days: I dubbed conservative activist Tayt Brooks “International Man of Mystery” because when he was busy spending Lenore Broughton’s fortune at Vermonters First, he rebuffed virtually all inquiries from reporters.)

That said, I do welcome contrary views. The VPO’s Comments section is moderated, which means I must approve a comment before it’s posted; but that’s just to keep out the trolls. I have yet to reject a comment because of its content.

Regarding the picture at the top of the page: It is Warren G. Harding, our 29th President (but #1 in your hearts, or at least in the hearts of his numerous lady friends). The photo was taken late in his life, while he was President, and seems to hearken back to his pre-political days as a newspaper editor. It’s clearly staged; there’s no paper in the typewriter, and I bet he had secretaries slash lady friends to do his typing for him. But the image of a hard-bitten old-fashioned ink-stained wretch was appealing to me. (My Twitter avatar (@thevpo1) is a picture of George Reeves as Clark Kent, yet another fake reporter. Hmm.)

My hope is that you will continue to find The VPO worth your time. And if you think this site is worthwhile or a particular post deserves attention, I hope you’ll mention it to friends and colleagues. The only reward I get for this work is the knowledge that people appreciate my writing, and aren’t we all searching for validation of our existences?

Stay tuned. At least, I hope you will.