Category Archives: Neale Lunderville

The best darn Plan B in state politics (UPDATED)

Update: I don’t know how this escaped my notice (and that of the entire Vermont political media), but WCAX-TV beat me to the punch by about six weeks. See addendum below.

The Democratic race for governor is a three-way (at least) tossup, with no one willing to lay odds on a single contender. The Republican race, on the other hand, appears to pose a stark contrast: if Lt. Gov. Phil Scott runs, he would enter the 2016 gubernatorial race as the favorite. If he doesn’t run, the VTGOP will be left with an unappetizing choice of steam-table leftovers. Or maybe Bruce Lisman, the canned succotash of the Republican buffet.

However… another name is being bandied about the political rumor mill, and it’s one hell of a good one.

Neale Lunderville.

Let me make it clear, he’s not running for governor. He’s not even running for running for governor. If Phil Scott does run, he’ll have Lunderville’s wholehearted support. Or so I hear.

But if Scott chooses not to run? Lunderville could be a formidable candidate. He’s got solid Republican credentials from his service in the Douglas administration. He knows how to run a campaign, dealing the dirt so His Nibs could sail above it all. And, thanks to the generosity of our Democratic leaders, Lunderville has steel-plated credibility as a bipartisan fixer.

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Neale Lunderville, the shiniest bauble on the public policy tree

Oh, those darn Democrats. They just can’t seem to resist the dubious charms of former Douglas Administration functionary (and campaign hatchet-man, lest we forget, and I bet Doug Racine hasn’t) Neale Lunderville.

Mmmm, what should I take over next?

Mmmm, what should I take over next?

Back in 2011-12, Lunderville started his run as the Dems’ unlikely go-to guy when he served as Governor Shumlin’s Irene Recovery Czar. This summer, he added another layer of plausible nonpartisanship as Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger’s choice to be interim head of the Burlington Electric Department, tasked with undertaking a “strategic review” of the organization.

Well, unbeknownst to almost everyone outside of the State House inner circle, Lunderville had already scored a public-policy bingo with his appointment to a not-quite-secret committee tasked with nothing less than crafting an overhaul of Vermont’s public education system. VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld got the goods:

The group isn’t a legislative committee per se – not too many people even know it exists. But members of Smith’s education reform group have been getting together since after the close of the 2014 legislative session. And by year’s end, Smith says he hopes they’ll deliver the policy recommendations that will serve as the basis for an overhaul of the state’s education system.

… He says the advance work being done by the group will give lawmakers the early start they need to get a meaningful bill across the finish line.

The committee is dominated by current and former state lawmakers, most of them Democrats, but also including a couple of Republicans, one former Republican turned independent (Oliver Olsen), one Progressive, and Our Man Neale.

Which makes me again raise the question, Can’t the Democrats find anybody else to take on tough policy challenges? Why do they have to depend on a guy who cut his teeth running the dark side of Jim Douglas’ political operation?

And, especially, why in the Blue Hell do they insist on burnishing the credentials of a guy who might very well be the Republican candidate for Governor in 2016 or 2018?

Ulp. Pardon me for a moment…

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 9.10.59 AM

Whew. That’s better. Now, where was i?

Oh yes. Aside from Lunderville’s presence, the committee’s almost total secrecy has to be a concern.

The group’s meetings aren’t warned or open to the public, and minutes aren’t recorded. Smith says the off-the-books arrangement is needed to help members of the group feel more “free” to brainstorm different approaches.

So I guess the fact that this isn’t an official committee exempts it from open-meetings and public-records laws — kinda like Dick Cheney’s infamous energy policy committee. But if the group manages to complete its task, it might well be the most powerful committee in the legislature (even if it no longer exists when the legislature comes back to work). It’ll effectively set the school-reform agenda for the lawmakers who actually have to do their business, inconveniently enough, under the public eye.

Three other things you should know:

— According to one member, the committee is focusing on student-to-teacher ratio. Which might mean mandatory minimum class sizes, or even forced school consolidation.

— Lunderville seems to favor centralizing budgetary authority, which he advocates under the guise of allowing local officials to “devote attention where it belongs: student learning.” Their ability to do anything about student learning without the power of the purse would be sharply constrained, of course. Lunderville would like to “go to more of a model like the state has, where there’s one agency, one department on a regional or state level handling those.” Which would be kind of a radical move.

— Finally, as Hirschfeld reports at the top of his story, “public education – not single-payer health care – will be top of mind for House lawmakers.” Not good news for Governor Shumlin, who continues to insist that single-payer is Job One in the new biennium.

The limits of messaging

Just finished listening to a Reporter’s Roundtable on VPR*, with three of the better reporters around — VTDigger’s Anne Galloway, VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld, and the Freeploid’s Terri Hallenbeck– examining the entrails of last week’s primary election and the prospects for November. 

*Audio not yet available online, but it should appear here later today. 

Thin gruel, to be sure; the key races are essentially over, with the possible exception of Phil Scott vs. Dean Corren for Lieutenant Governor. But when the race for a mainly ceremonial position is your biggest source of intrigue, well, that tells you all you need to know. 

There was a lot of dancing around the fact that November is in the bag for the Democrats, with the noble exception of Galloway coming right out and saying that Governor Shumlin was going to win. The dancing is understandable, considering that (1) journalists want to appear objective, and (2) as political journalists, they’ve gotta cover this puppy for two more months, and what fun is it when there’s no intrigue? 

Much of the dancing centered on the idea that good “messaging” could carry a Republican candidate into a competitive position. The Dems aren’t invulnerable, the reasoning goes, it’s just that neither Scott Milne nor Dan Feliciano seems capable of delivering a solid, appealing message. 

That’s true, insofar as it goes. But there are three much more powerful factors operating against the Republicans: most voters pay little or no attention to messaging, the electorate is solidly center-left, and today’s Republican Party has little to offer on the key issues in Vermont. 

First, reporters and insiders overestimate the impact of tactics and strategy and messaging. The vast majority of voters have their minds made up before the campaigning starts. The only thing that could change their minds is some sort of shocking revelation or catastrophic event. Some voters do actually watch debates and bring an open mind to campaign coverage, but they only matter when an election is otherwise close. 

Second, it’s obvious from the results of the last decade or so that most voters prefer Democrats. The Legislature has been solidly Democratic for years. Among statewide Republicans, only Jim Douglas and Phil Scott have been able to buck the trend. Both have done so because of their unique personal appeal and by projecting an image of moderation and willingness to compromise. 

And third, Shumlin and the Dems are potentially vulnerable on issues like health care reform, the Department of Children and Families, the economy, taxation (especially school taxes), and the environment (Lake Champlain, the natural gas pipeline). 

On all those issues, the most appealing solutions involve more government, not less. Shumlin is more vulnerable to his left than to his right. 

In spite of Vermont Health Connect’s troubles, health care reform remains popular. Republicans have no answer aside from letting the market do its magic. Fixing DCF would require more resources, or at the very least more effective management. Have the Republicans given anyone reason to believe they care more than the Dems about poor people? Hell, no. Do the Republicans have a track record of good management? Only in the minds of Jim Douglas and Tom Pelham. 

Would the Republicans be better stewards of the environment than Dems? Ha ha. Can they plausibly portray themselves as defenders of public education, which remains extremely popular in Vermont? No; their only solutions are competition and union-busting. Can they convince voters that they’d preserve local control? Not if you could saw money by centralizing. 

On the economy, the Republicans have little to offer aside from the tired, discredited supply-side nonsense. Which took another bullet yesterday with the news (from the Federal Reserve Bank) that our post-Great Recession “recovery” has benefited the wealthy while middle- and working-class wealth has actually declined. One-percenters and corporations have a larger share of our wealth than ever, and all the Republicans can offer is policies that will further enrich the rich. 

And as for taxation, Vermonters may be dissatisfied with rising school taxes and worried about the cost of single-payer health care, but they also favor a robust government that can tackle problems effectively. Most voters don’t want a mindless “cut, cut, cut” approach, and that’s the standard Republican line. 

Here’s what a Republican would have to do, to be competitive on a statewide level: Bring an established reputation for effective governance, or at least an open-minded attitude toward the notion that government can actually solve problems. Express skepticism about political dogma, especially the cherished beliefs of the right. And do that without, somehow, losing too much support among the Republican base. And, finally, regain the support of the business community, which has largely abandoned the VTGOP in favor of a cooperative relationship with the Democrats. 

Now. If a Republican can identify and execute a strategy that accomplishes those things, s/he can win. Otherwise, no amount of good messaging will carry the day. It’s not impossible; there’s at least one potential Republican candidate who could manage it. But he ain’t running this year. 

A new nominee for the Most Dangerous Republican award

Last December, around the time of the fabled Chris Christie fundraiser for the Vermont Republican Party (projected take, a quarter mill or so; actual take, less than 50K as far as I can tell from the party’s financial filings), I posited that there was one figure in the downtrodden VTGOP who could pose a threat to the Democrats as a statewide candidate. It wasn’t Phil Scott; it was the closest thing we have to a Chris Christie — a short-tempered, get-things-done, “willing to work with both sides” kind of guy named Thom Lauzon, Republican Mayor of Barre. 

I still think he’s a solid potential statewide candidate, should he ever choose to climb the ladder. But another name has been suggested to me, and it’s an excellent choice. In fact, offhand I’d have to say he’s an even better Most Dangerous Republican than Lauzon.

I’ll give you the name, but first it’s Story Time, kids!

Starting in 2002, Craig Benson spent two disastrous years as Republican Governor of New Hampshire. While he was Governor, he appointed a little-known lawyer named Kelly Ayotte to the post of Attorney General. (In NH, the AG is an appointed position with a five-year term.) By the time her first term had come to an end,  John Lynch was Governor. He was a Democrat but he liked to play the bipartisan game, so he nominated her for a second term.

Before she served out that term, she resigned to run for U.S. Senate. And she won. And she’s now the only Republican member of NH’s four-member Congressional delegation.

The key moment in her ascendancy was her renomination by John Lynch. If he’d appointed a Democrat and sent her packing as a one-term Benson functionary, she would’ve had a much harder time continuing her political career. I firmly believe that there would never have been a Senator Kelly Ayotte if not for John Lynch being too clever for his own good.

Thus endeth the lesson. Back to Vermont, and the new nominee for Most Dangerous Republican.

Neale Lunderville.

At one time, he was the chief hothead on Jim Douglas’ team. He and Jim Barnett, who’s gone on to a very unsuccessful career as a balls-to-the-wall campaign manager, were dubbed “the Nasty Boys” by the late great Peter Freyne for their skilled knifework in Douglas’ campaigns.

Since then, little Neale has grown up — and gotten two great big helping hands from Democratic officeholders. Governor Shumlin chose him to be recovery czar after Tropical Storm Irene, and now Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger has engineered his hiring as interim head of the Burlington Electric Department.

In the process, the Nasty Boy has acquired a solid nonpartisan reputation as the go-to guy when trouble strikes. He’s been chosen by not one, but two, top Democrats to take on big administrative challenges.

Okay, here’s a hypothetical for you. In the next biennium, the Shumlin administration will unveil its plan for single-payer health care. It’ll be big, expensive, controversial, and a tough sell, even in a lopsided Democratic legislature. Win or lose, Shumlin will expend a lot of his political capital in the fight.

He also faces the whole issue of school funding and organization. Whatever he and the legislature do, more enemies will be made and more people will be alienated.

At best, Shumlin would enter 2016 having fought two extremely tough battles. Even if he wins on single-payer, he’ll be in that very dangerous period between passage and implementation, where everybody will be aware of the cost and the controversy but won’t have experienced any benefit from the new system. And if the implementation process for single payer OR school reform is difficult, contentious, or includes any stumbles, the Governor’s managerial reputation will take more hits.

And now comes, on a shiny white horse, Neale Lunderville.

Well, Lunderville 2.0, New and Improved with a track record for working under Democratic executives and managing the biggest challenges. In short, he’s Vermont’s Mr. Fix-It. The Governor won’t be able to depict Lunderville as a partisan ideologue because, after all, he chose the guy to manage the aftermath of Irene. At the same time, Lunderville will have solid Republican credentials from his tenure in the Douglas Administration. He’ll be more appealing to the conservative base than a Phil Scott will ever be.

The VTGOP won’t be in any shape to challenge the Democrats’ overall  dominance in 2016. But Lunderville could do what Scott Milne can’t do and Randy Brock couldn’t: topple Governor Shumlin.

Farfetched or believable? Just remember, if it happens, you can thank Peter Shumlin and Miro Weinberger for making Governor Lunderville a possibility.