Category Archives: Neal Goswami

The Boys’ Club of Vermont Political Media

In what turned out to be my final column for Seven Days, I wrote about the lack of ethnic and racial diversity in Vermont media organizations. Seven Days and Vermont Public Radio have no people of color in their newsrooms; VTDigger has one; the Burlington Free Press has two.

I had originally intended to cover gender equity as well, but available space would not allow. I would have followed up in a future column if I still had a job, but you know. So I’ll use my available platform instead.

Vermont media score better on gender equity, including in management and ownership, than on race or ethnicity. But there’s one glaring exception to that relatively rosy picture: The people who cover Vermont politics and policy are almost exclusively men.

During the 2019 legislative session, the Statehouse press corps included three men from Seven Days, two men from VPR, male reporters for the state’s three leading TV stations* and a male-leaning group from Digger. Its three Statehouse generalists were men (Colin Meyn, Xander Landen and Kit Norton), as was political columnist Jon Margolis. Digger policy specialists Lola Duffort and Elizabeth Gribkoff were often present, but not usually at gubernatorial pressers. McCullum was under the dome only occasionally, as other duties at the Free Press took precedence.

*Me, Taylor Dobbs, Kevin McCallum, Peter Hirschfeld, Bob Kinzel, Neal Goswami, Stewart Ledbetter and Spencer Conlin.

That’s a lotta sausage.

Feminist champion Gov. Phil Scott pointed out this fact at one of his weekly press conferences earlier this year. The subject was boosting STEM (Science, technology, engineering, math*) education in Vermont public schools. One reporter asked if the new initiative included any effort to address the broad and persistent gender gap in those fields. Scott looked around the assembled reporters, who included a bunch of men plus McCullum, and commented, “Well, there are a lot of fields that could use more gender equity.”

His observation was echoed by House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington). “When I think about the press conferences I attended, the majority of the time all the reporters were male,” she said. “It’s important that the press corps looks like the people they’re writing about. There can be implicit bias.”

There is evidence of such bias. Krowinski cites the 2020 budget, which included a one-time $6 million boost in chid care subsidies. It was an important step on a key priority — but it got almost no coverage in the press.  Except for an article written by, well whad’ya know, Lola Duffort.

Advocates say the new money for subsidies will make a real difference on the ground. The state’s current caseload for subsidies is about 8,000 kids a month, and 2,700 of them should see their benefit increase, according to an analysis by Let’s Grow Kids.

Nothing to sneeze at. Or ignore, just because mens’ minds are less occupied with child care.

In the category of Digger Giveth and Digger Taketh Away, Krowinski cites an infamous Margolis essay about paid family leave and the minimum wage. Margolis wrote that paid leave “particularly benefits women,” which is horseshit unless you believe that family responsibilities are naturally the province of women. He then went on to assert that Johnson’s support for paid leave over minimum wage was because “she is entirely female.”

Yeah, those darn women, always thinking with their uteruses.

When I asked VPR news director Sarah Ashworth what we’re missing in our coverage because of the lack of women, she replied: “We know that we don’t know which stories we’re not seeing or hearing. It’s a blindspot. You don’t know what it would look like with a more diverse press corps.”

Within the political press corps is the tiny contingent of columnists, which basically consists of Margolis’ part-time gig plus whoever fills my seat at Seven Days. And that position, just like our Congressional delegation, has never been filled by a woman.

“There is not a lack of women who could fill those roles,” said Krowinski. “Do they not apply? Have they not been invited in?”

Good question. My take: It’s not a conscious effort to make political coverage a Man’s World. But even if an employer creates an open, fair process, it’s often not enough. Women face barriers that men do not in all the stages before they get to the door of a prospective employer. That requires conscious action to encourage women applicants and hire them whenever possible.

And lest you scoff at the idea of implicit bias, let’s take a brief visit to the world of symphony orchestras. The Guardian:

As late as 1970, the top five orchestras in the U.S. had fewer than 5% women. It wasn’t until 1980 that any of these top orchestras had 10% female musicians. But by 1997 they were up to 25% and today some of them are well into the 30s.

What changed? One very simple thing. In the late 70s, those orchestras began holding blind auditions for musicians. Those with hiring authority couldn’t see the gender or race of any applicant. And suddenly, a lot more women were getting hired. Just like that.

Funny thing about Vermont’s gender imbalance is, if you go back a few years the equity picture was a lot better.

“We’ve lost Candace Page, Nancy Remsen, Terri Hallenbeck, Alicia Freese [all from Seven Days], Elizabeth Hewitt, Erin Mansfield [Digger] and now Jess Aloe [Free Press], just in the last couple of years,” Ledbetter said.  “Most have been replaced by men.”

This is a problem for Ledbetter as host of Vermont Public Television’s “Vermont This Week.” He usually ends up with male-heavy panels because of the male-heavy pool he draws from. “It’s not intentional,” he said. “I’d love to have [the panels] be perfectly balanced. It’s up to the people who hire in our news organizations.”

Yes, it is. Our own recent past is proof that women can write about politics, and write damn well. The hiring decisions for this relatively small pool of jobs is spread over several separate entities, which makes it difficult to single out any one as a special offender. But we do need more women covering state policy and politics. Starting with my replacement as “Fair Game” columnist. The boys have had that perch to themselves for far too long.

*”Math” was originally, and wrongly, written as “medicine.”

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Two ships that pass in the night

Today, via Neal Goswami of the Mitchell Family Organ:

A report released Wednesday based on an internal review of the Department for Children and Families does not recommend restructuring the agency, but does seek immediate boosts to staffing, additional staff training and better collaboration between the department and its partners.

Yesterday, via them damn commies at the Public Assets Institute:

A month after announcing a 2 percent cut to the current year’s budget, the Shumlin Administration is signaling its intention to make additional cuts of as much as 5 percent and possibly more next year (fiscal 2016).

Well, that looks like a conundrum in the making.

Human Services Secretary Harry Chen, the presumably more loyal and/or pliable replacement for the cashiered Doug Racine, now has a report that says his agency needs more resources. Which probably induces a rueful chuckle from Mr. Racine.

And now this report will duke it out with the Administration’s budget instructions reportedly given to its top managers:

The administration laid out two scenarios for fiscal 2016:

— Level funding—the same amount appropriated for this fiscal year after the cuts adopted in August.

— Five percent cut from fiscal 2015 levels—again after the August cuts.

As PAI notes, the best-case scenario — level funding — would mean cutbacks, since there are built-in cost increases: “cost of living increases for state employees, caseload increases, contractual increases, loss of federal funding, inflation, and other new demands…”

The AHS/DCF review was initiated by then-Secretary Racine. Will Dr. Chen back up the report’s conclusions? Or will he bend to the apparent belt-tightening mandate from above? According to the PAI report, he’s got about two weeks to turn in his budget recommendations.

The Friday Afternoon Newsdump of the Year

Gee, what a co-inky-dink. A new report on the rumblin’, stumblin’, fumblin’ rollout of Vermont Health Connect was released on Friday afternoon. 

Before Labor Day weekend. 

When Governor Shumlin was hundreds of miles away, at his vacation home in Nova Scotia. 

Ah, leadership. 

The report is pretty damning, and should have been tackled head-on by the Governor instead of being shuffled quietly out the door on a holiday weekend. It’s not too late; he could come back to work, express dismay at the report’s conclusions, take repsonsibility for administrative failures, promise to learn lessons and do better in the future, and maybe even fire a few people. 

Now, that would be leadership. And it would allow the Governor to launch his re-election campaign next Monday in a strong, purposeful, and accountable manner. Do I think that will happen? Eh, probably not. But it’d be nice. 

The report was written by Optum, the consulting firm that’s trying to fix the mess left behind by former contractor CGI. Topline, per VTDigger: 

A lack of leadership at Vermont Health Connect left the tech firm CGI unaccountable for work it was supposed to complete on the state’s health care exchange, according to a consultant’s report released Friday.

 

The state “ceded” responsibility for the project’s success to CGI, …and as a result, “CGI has not met its commitments.”

This is bad. This is not a technology issue in a super-complicated new system, as the Administration has insisted; it’s a failure of management on the part of Administration officials who should have been riding herd on CGI. Instead, the Vermont Press Bureau’s Neal Goswami says, 

Optum found that accountability for program management is unclear. “Neither (the state) nor CGI believe they are accountable for project outcomes,” the report says.

Am I the only one who’s appalled by that? CGI was fired for poor performance; but state officials failed to make CGI “accountable for project outcomes.” As any business-school professor could tell you, that’s fucked up. And if CGI deserved to be fired, so do the government officials who played a big part in its failure.

And none of those officials are named “Doug Racine.” 

Optum recommended that the state hire a project manager with experience in handling large-scale IT projects. State health care reform chief Lawrence Miller says the state is about to hire such a person. 

Well, huzzah. That’s a little bit late, isn’t it? 

In March, TIME Magazine published a cover story about how the federal health care exchange was on the brink of complete failure last fall. The Obama Administration realized, belatedly, that while they had a lot of policy expertise, they were woefully short in IT. So they basically called the Geek Squad: a team of IT experts from Silicon Valley “dropped what they were doing… and came together in mid-October to save the website. … Washington contractors had spent over $300 million building a site that didn’t work, this ad hoc team rescued it and, arguably, Obama’s chance at a health-reform legacy.”

You’d think, after all of that, the Shumlin Administration would have known it had a huge challenge on its hands, and that it required both IT expertise and intensive management oversight to fix the health care exchange. 

Instead, only now are we hiring an IT expert. 

On Friday, in the Governor’s absence, Lawrence Miller and Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson released the Optum report. And their statements were not at all encouraging; they downplayed the significance of the report and the need for further action. Miller called the report “something of a snapshot,” although as Goswami says, “the findings… are similar to previous assessments by independent parties.” In other words, this report may have been a snapshot, but the picture has stayed pretty much the same over time. 

Miller also said the Administration would use the report “to make decisions about the best way forward with the project.” Well, that’s half right. But you should also use the report to assess the failings of the past — so that you stop repeating them. 

For his part, Larson was even more determinedly lipsticking the Optum pig: 

“On a broad level what we have taken, generally, from this report is that we have worked hard with our vendor partners to create a foundation for Vermont Health Connect.” 

I’m sure they’ve all worked hard. But I’m not convinced that they have worked well or effectively. In fact, if the Optun report is accurate, a lot of the hard work has been wasted or misdirected thanks to a lack of accountability and oversight. Working hard is not an excuse for failing to deliver the goods. 

Oh, and the other news from the ultimate Friday afternoon newsdump: on Optum’s advice, Vermont Health Connect has stopped working on fixing the system. Instead, it will try to make the incomplete system more customer-friendly in advance of the November-February open enrollment period. Further work on fixing the system won’t resume until after open enrollment. 

Great. Even as Governor Shumlin is unveiling his single-payer health care system and asking the Legislature to approve it, Vermont Health Connect will still be an unproven work in progress. 

You know, if I were a lawmaker, I’d refuse to take any action on single-payer until Vermont Health Connect is fully functional. The Governor can’t, in fairness, ask lawmakers to vote for a huge new system as long as the health care exchange isn’t working. 

I’m fully aware that single-payer will actually be simpler than Vermont Health Connect. On a policy level it makes perfect sense. But on a political level, you can’t take the next step in the process until you’ve successfully finished the previous one. 

Beyond the immediate situation, bad as it is, I have a more existential concern. Governor Shumlin earned a reputation as a capable manager in his first term, thanks largely to his response to Tropical Storm Irene. The endlessly-troubled health care rollout threatens his reputation for good management. And that’s why I’d advise him to step up strongly and take his medicine. And, yes, fire  the people who failed to hold CGI accountable. 

If he doesn’t, I fear the best days of the Shumlin Administration may be over. When you’ve been in office for a while, and the opposing party is in disarray, there’s a natural tendency to relax a bit, start seeing yourself as invulnerable, and pay more attention to your image than to the quality of your work. That is the beginning of the end for great leaders everywhere throughout history. Is it the beginning of the end for Peter Shumlin? 

And for single-payer health care?

You never know what’s gonna stick

Funny thing about blogging. You put a lot of stuff out there, and you have no idea what will make a lasting impact and what will sink like a stone. I’ve had my share of stories I thought were important, but saw them vanish without a trace. My cogent analyses of current politics? In one collective ear and out the other.

And then there’s a little offhand thing I posted in January 2013 after a gubernatorial news conference. At the time, Governor Shumlin had just proposed a tax on break-open tickets — those small-stakes lotteries you can find at fraternal societies and many bars around Vermont. A little meaningless chat about bars and beer ensued, featuring Shumlin, Seven Days’ Paul Heintz, and Admininstration Secretary Jeb Spaulding…

Heintz: Do you ever play the break-open tickets?

Shumlin: Oh yeah, anyone who drinks beer has played break-open tickets.

Heintz: I drink a lot of beer, and I haven’t played any.

Shumlin: Oh yeah? Well, you’re not drinkin’ in the right place.

Jeb Spaulding: You’re drinking those five-dollar beers.

Heintz: Where do you buy them?

Shumlin: Oh, you can get ’em at any club or bar in Vermont. I’m a Windham County boy, so I’ve played ’em in Windham County. Rockingham, the Elks, the Brattleboro Legion. I can take you there if you want, I’ll even buy you a beer. But you’re not gettin’ that Gucci beer. We’re drinkin’, you know, Budweiser.

Okay, I knew the Governor didn’t really mean it. When he starts droppin’ his G’s, he’s putting on his Good Old Vermonter Boy persona, painting himself as a Man of the People. I, however, seizing the opportunity to stir up a teapot tempest, wrote it up on Green Mountain Daily under the title: BREAKING… URGENT… Shumlin Disses Vermont Beer!!!

Hahaha, very funny. Got a few sideways glances from the Governor after that went viral.

Well, apparently my little jape has legs. Today, the Governor has been putting out a series of Tweets about the honestly impressive Vermont brewing sector, which is not only an artistic success but a growing part of our economy. And Neal Goswami, chief State House scribe for the Mitchell Family Organs, replied thusly…

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I am honored, sir, by my apparent inclusion in the Vermont political lexicon. It was one of the least meaningful things I ever wrote, and it’s had a larger ripple effect than any of my meaty, weighty, serious works of commentary. If I died tomorrow, they might just put “Gucci Beer Guy” on my headstone.

And the Governor might happily toss a shovelful of dirt on the casket.

 

Lipstickin’ that pig

Vermont Republicans are desperate for some good news these days. And when they don’t get it, well, they kinda-sorta make it up. Or at least embellish it as needed.

From the VTGOP’s Twitter feed:

“A new day,” hmm? The link is to an article by the Mitchell Family Organ’s Neal Goswami, which assessed the troubled state of the VTGOP. Here’s the actual title:

 

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Goswami reports that the Republicans are reduced to hoping for minor pickups in the House and Senate. So I suppose you could say it’s the dawn of a new day… but it’s still awfully damn dark.