Category Archives: Phil Scott

The Cromulent Bureaucrat

The official responsible for the Scott administration’s biggest clusterf*ck to date has been … rewarded with a promotion?

You can tell the Gov had no qualms about removing the “interim” tag from Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington’s business cards because he [checks notes] announced the news at 4:56 p.m. last Friday.

Yeah, the classic weekend newsdump.

Harrington, voted the administration official most likely to be featured in the Lands’ End fall catalogue in an imaginary poll, was named interim DOL chief last September in a Falling of the Cabinet Dominos — old-school hardass Tom Anderson stepped down as public safety chief, Commerce Secretary Michael Schirling replaced him, then-labor commissioner Lindsay Kurrle slid into Schirling’s seat, and then-deputy labor commish Harrington moved up the ladder.

His interimship has featured the failure of a long-overdue upgrade of unemployment insurance software, and the UI system’s collapse under the unprecedented demands of the Covid-19 pandemic. Neither can be fully blamed on Harrington; in many ways he was dealt a really bad hand at the worst possible time.

But still. When a team performs poorly, the coach gets the zig. You might say Harrington is the Hue Jackson of Team Scott. It wasn’t entirely Jackson’s fault that the Cleveland Browns had a 3-36-1 record — the front office was a disaster, and Jimmy Haslam may be the worst owner in the NFL. But the coach bore the brunt.

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Phil Scott draws a line in the sand

Of course, “a line in the sand” is the easiest thing to erase.

Last Friday on VPR’s “Vermont Edition,” Gov. Phil Scott asserted that Vermont faces a $70-80 million budget shortfall.

Err, well, not quite.

What he actually said was, Vermont “maybe” faces what “could” be a gap of $70-80 million between revenue and spending. And those weren’t the only qualifiers. In fact, if you read a transcript of his remarks, you might wonder what he actually meant to say. (Part of Scott’s charm, and his political appeal, is that if you listen to him long enough you’re almost certain to hear something you can agree with.)

As far as I can recall, this is the first time Scott has made this claim, which seems to be a gauntlet thrown at the legislature’s feet. It’s familiar and politically attractive ground for the Republican governor, who has to deal with a restless base (and a conservative challenger) in the 2020 primary. Being tough on the budget is Scott’s best tactic for shoring up the base — and for drawing a distinction between himself and those evil, big-spending Democrats and their endless appetite for raising taxes.

That’s a joke, by the way. The Dems may be fiscally looser than the Repubs, but they are about as far as you can get from Tax-And-Spend Libertines as you can get. Just ask any of the four money committee chairs.

But let’s get back to the governor’s remarks. (NOTE: All transcripts are mine, and are as accurate as I could get. I left out the stammers and false starts, which were quite numerous. The gov wasn’t on his A-Game.) Start with this… um… not-a-sentence.

We’re seeing a lot of pressures, maybe even creating a $70-80 million gap between what we’re taking in and, if all remains the same, that we would feel.

I listened to this passage several times, and that’s what I heard. Let’s leave aside the disconnect between the beginning and the ending, and focus on the “maybe even creating” part. He’s not claiming an actual $70-80M gap; he’s saying that budgetary pressures could, at worst, create such a gap.

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VT Dems go trolling for candidates

So, according to VTDigger, the Vermont Democratic Party is conducting a poll to see how well Attorney General TJ Donovan and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman would do in hypothetical matchups with Gov. Phil Scott.

I have no inside information on this, but here’s how it looks from my view.

It’s a sign of desperation and a waste of money. Also, Donovan and Zuckerman are still Hamletting it up.

Let’s take desperation first. I’m assuming that party leaders initiated this poll, not Donovan or Zuckerman. If so, it says that leadership — whatever their public protestations — fears what will happen if former education secretary Rebecca Holcombe is the party’s nominee, because (a) they think she’d lose badly and (b) might actually hurt their prospects in legislative races.

Well, it’s really (b) they’re most concerned with. The experiences of Peter Clavelle, Scudder Parker, Gaye Symington, Sue Minter and Christine Hallquist show that the party is perfectly content to toss a nominee off the sled when the wolves are closing in.

They’d much rather go to battle in 2020 with Donovan or Zuckerman leading the charge. Which is understandable, given that Holcombe is untested in the political arena and virtually unknown outside policy circles. But when party leaders are willing to spend scarce party resources — at a time when they’re not exactly swimming in money — they reveal a certain unseemly desperation. This is a Hail Mary pass: If the poll shows unexpected weakness for Scott, or significant strength for one of the two Hamlets, then one or both might be enticed to make a run.

Of course, the poll is unlikely to provide that kind of evidence. Scott has done nothing to diminish his popularity — nor have legislative Dems done anything to push him in that direction — and his two potential rivals are much less well-known statewide. (Those of us inside the #vtpoli bubble vastly overestimate the public’s engagement in state politics.) Donovan lacks a policy profile outside of law enforcement, and both men lack any significant record outside of their jobs.

Both are better positioned than Holcombe to overcome Scott’s lead because they are statewide officeholders, and that’s by far the best launch pad for a gubernatorial bid. (The last six Vermont governors were either statewide officeholders or top legislative leaders before assuming the top job.) Both also have better fundraising potential: Donovan because of his political lineage and national connections, and Zuckerman as the state’s leading Bernie Bro.

Right now, I doubt their poll numbers would be much different from Generic Democrat. What they do have is a chance at being competitive, after running a vigorous statewide campaign for a solid year. So I don’t expect the poll will provide any real insight. Hence, waste of money.

And if Donovan and Zuckerman, in the middle of very successful political careers, lack the self-confidence to make that decision without a marginally meaningful poll, then they’re really not cut out to carry the banner.

Hey look, a Republican candidate!

The candidate and his base. From the John Klar for Governor Facebook page.

John Klar, a man of many talents including authorship of far-right commentaries on True North Reports, and the possessor of a notable chin, has become the first Republican candidate for governor in 2020.

Gov. Phil Scott, the Republican incumbent, has said he won’t announce his intentions until next spring. But he’s gonna run, let there be no doubt.

And he has nothing to fear from Mr. Klar, whose ideology is such a mixed bag that even the Never Scotters may have a hard time flocking to his banner. Klar’s message is roughly equal parts Ethan Allen, Arthur Laffer, and the prosperity gospel on a societal level. That is, he believes if government gets out of the way, everyone will rise out of poverty and into prosperity.

Klar calls himself and his followers “Agripublicans,” adherents to the notion that Vermont has suffered an Edenic fall from its original state of grace due to the excesses of big government and the depredations of flatlanders. In short, he’s the one true advocate for Making Vermont Great Again.

Of course, this golden age of liberty, prosperity and rugged individualism — centered on the life-giving profession of farming — is less a historic reality and more a picture postcard. But hey, a man can dream.

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The kids aren’t going anywhere

The legislature has been warned. At the end of the 2019 session, a small band of climate protesters occupied the balcony in the House chamber and unfurled a banner promising to return in 2020. They were largely met with disdain by legislative leaders, for their offenses against regular order.

Well, those leaders had better get ready for more. Climate activists were distinctly underwhelmed by the legislature’s meager accomplishments. Their attitude can’t have improved since then, what with top lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott all acknowledging that Vermont is going to miss its near-term climate targets by a mile. And Scott pinning his hopes on the magic bullet of technological advances to drag Vermont forward.

The problem with that approach is (a) it’s iffy and (b) it lets us keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere until The Golden Age Of New Technology appears. In the meantime we’ll be doing our part to deepen the climate crisis.

Meanwhile, climate activists have launched a series of Statehouse actions. They recently held a rally calling on MMR, the capital’s most successful black-hat lobbying firm, to drop so-called “reprehensible” corporate clients, including fossil fuel producers and other corporate giants. Last week, a few dozen climate activists camped out on the Statehouse lawn, braving lousy weather to emphasize their point: They’re not going anywhere, and they’re not at all satisfied with the “progress” made by our political leaders, who mostly address the crisis by way of lip service.

And who, truth be told, are probably gearing up for more disappointment on the climate front. Nobody’s talking about the kind of action that would get us back on track to meet our goals. Nobody with any power is seriously talking about, say, a carbon tax — which was originally a Republican idea to address climate change through market forces, but is now considered anathema by even the self-identified moderates of the Vermont GOP. Democratic leaders are likely to prioritize the stuff they fumbled this year: minimum wage, paid family leave, a full tax-and-regulate system for cannabis and a waiting period for gun purchases.

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Let Us Now Praise Doomed Policy Proposals

The fine folks at the Vermont ACLU got together Tuesday to unveil a plan that would cut the state’s inmate population by hundreds — which would, among other things, allow Vermont to bring its out-of-state inmates back home. (It’d also save money in a bloated corrections budget.)

Great idea. And in the words of Rice University Prof. Quincy Maddox, “Ain’t nothin’ gon’ happen.”

Seriously, I have to admire the dedication of these public interest advocates who do all kinds of research and put together plausible policy proposals in professional-quality brochures and pdfs that you just know are destined to get the bone-saw treatment in the legislative abbatoir. (Not on the official public tour.)

The plan calls for an end to cash bail (at any moment, hundreds of Vermonters are behind bars for failure to post bail), expanding alternatives to incarceration, better treatment for mental illness and substance use disorders, sentencing and prosecutorial reform, decriminalization of certain offenses including sex work, and better options for released inmates.

For years now, our political leaders have paid lip service to the notion of bringing all our inmates back home. But even as we’ve seen scandals and problems and questionable policies at out-of-state prisons, our leaders have failed to follow through.

This time, as usual, there’s plenty of lip service to be had.

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Caution in the face of crisis

Gov. Phil Scott has taken something of a ribbing on The Twitter Machine for saying that when it comes to climate change, “I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel, I’m not looking to come out with something dramatic,”

Because heaven forfend we should respond to a crisis with “something dramatic.” I mean, if your house is on fire, do you really want the fire department waking up the neighborhood with their sirens and flashers? Do you want firefighters trampling all over your lawn?

Scott’s comment was in a truly dispiriting article by VTDigger’s Elizabeth Gribkoff about how state leaders have given up on meeting Vermont’s near-term climate goals, including a 2007 law which mandates a 50% reduction (from 1992 levels) in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2028 and a goal of weatherizing 80,000 Vermont homes by, ahem, next year. (Of course, the legislature had the foresight to impose no penalties for breaking the GHG law, so no harm, no foul, right?)

More on Our Cautious Governor in a moment. But first I’d like to point out that legislative leadership doesn’t look any better. Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, The State’s Most Conservative Progressive, talked of “a pretty serious conceptual shift” that kinda-sorta makes those goals… irrelevant?

As Ashe put it, “And so we might think about things differently today than we did when those particular goals were made in terms of timing and strategies.”

Umm, okay. For her part, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson meets the challenge with a profusion of past participles: “In order to have met that goal, we needed to have been keeping closer track of it all along the way,” said Johnson.

I get it. We’re gonna bullshit our way out of the crisis.

In the meantime, I look forward to the passage of legislation officially removing our climate goals from the law. It’d be honest, if nothing else.

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State ethics panel whitewashes its own past

This week, the Vermont State Ethics Commission withdrew its October 2018 advisory opinion about Gov. Phil Scott’s relationship with DuBois Construction, the firm he co-owned before becoming governor. It was a thorough exercise in retconning: The panel retroactively changed the rules of its own game.

Ironic, isn’t it, that a government body that’s all about ethics would try to whitewash its own past. It has even removed the original opinion from its website, replacing it with the following brief statement:

The Vermont State Ethics Commission at its September 4, 2019 meeting approved Executor Director Larry Novins’ recommendation to withdraw Advisory Opinion 18-01 issued on October 1, 2018. The opinion discussed the governor’s financial relationship with his former company which contracts with the State of Vermont. The Commission concluded that the process used at the time was incorrect.

Yeah, great, whatever. I don’t know why the commission chose to make this move almost a year after the fact. I suspect (but cannot prove) that there was pressure from the Scott administration to remove this blemish from the gov’s record. After all, Scott and his minions seem far more concerned about the opinion than anyone else in state government or politics. The voters certainly didn’t care when they overwhelmingly re-elected the guy last November.

To recap the DuBois saga… When Scott became governor, he had to divest himself of his half-ownership in DuBois, which frequently bids on state contracts. His $2.5 million stake represented the lion’s share of his own net worth.

The simplest remedy was to sell his share. Problem is, DuBois’ net worth is tied up in land, buildings and equipment. And a $2.5 million bank loan would have been a millstone around DuBois’ neck. Scott’s solution: He financed the loan himself.

That removed him from ownership and management. However, it tied up most of his net worth in a long-term loan to DuBois, and it provided a nice $75,000 per month year income stream from the company’s monthly payments. In short, Scott had no ownership interest, but he still had a huge financial interest in DuBois’ prosperity.

And that’s clearly a violation of the state ethics code as it’s currently written.

Of course, part of the commission’s retconning exercise is a rewrite of the ethics code. Something tells me it will be carefully crafted to put DuBois-style arrangements in the clear. The other part is a rewrite of its internal processes, which will prevent future cases like l’affaire Scott.

The commission’s current processes were established by legislation in 2018. Those processes occur entirely behind closed doors, exempt from open-meetings and public-records law — with one exception: The issuance of advisory opinions at the request of state officials, employees, or anyone else. Those opinions were the only commission function subject to public release.

It was the “anyone else” that triggered all this mess. The Vermont Public Interest Research Group requested an advisory opinion instead of filing a complaint, because VPIRG wanted the end product to be made public. And it got exactly what it wanted. The state ethics commission ruled that the DuBois deal was in violation of the ethics code — and released that opinion, as it was bound to do.

The opinion was not enforceable. It was purely advisory. But Scott didn’t like it, not one little bit.

Ironically enough, neither did Democratic lawmakers, who might have been expected to exploit the opinion for political gain. Instead, legislative leaders sided with the governor, and raked the commission over the coals during the 2019 session. Their intent, they asserted, had never been to allow outsiders to seek advisory opinions. Well, they had only themselves to blame; they wrote the law that allowed such a move. The commission made submissive noises and promised to make changes, so the legislature dropped any effort to rewrite the law.

And now the commission is following through on the submission routine.

Let me make one thing clear. I don’t suspect the governor of any actual wrongdoing. He’s an honest guy, and it would take a determined (and criminal) effort to subvert the state’s contracting process.

But the ethics code is designed to prevent the appearance of conflict as well as actual conflict itself. I know Scott was between a rock and a hard place on how to divest from DuBois. But ethical standards exist for a reason.

Retconning the standards to benefit a single individual who’s in a tough spot is fundamentally antithetical to the purpose of having an ethics code in the first place. It’s just one more sign that no one in state government is actually serious about ethics — they just want to make it look like they’re serious, so folks like me and VPIRG will shut our yaps and go away.

 

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.

The Narrow Parameters of Acceptable Debate

So how many political parties do we have in Vermont? Two? Three? Umpteen, if you count Liberty Union and whatever Cris Ericson and Emily Peyton have going on and the Mad Hatter of #vtpoli, H. Brooke Paige?

(I know, he’s a Republican. But any day I can mention Mr. Paige is a good day.)

Well, looking at recent policy debates in the Statehouse, you might just conclude that we have a grand total of one: The Moosh Party. Because on a whole range of issues, there’s little disagreement on the fundamentals; the discussion is confined to the details. At a time when Vermont faces some huge challenges, there’s a complete lack of bold thinking in the executive and legislative branches. We’re All In The Box.

The most basic area of consensus is on state finances. There’s no serious talk of raising taxes, cutting taxes or even significantly reforming our tax system. There’s no serious talk of raising or cutting spending. Streamlining or reforming government seems as unattainable as ever.

(When Phil Scott was running for governor in 2016, he talked a lot about “Lean management” as a way to make government more efficient and free up money to pay for new programs without raising taxes. He rarely, if ever, brings up that idea anymore. His state website touts his PIVOT program (Program to Improve Vermont Outcomes Together, and someone was paid taxpayer dollars to come up with that pukey acronym) but — deep into the third year of the Scott Era — doesn’t cite any cost savings. It does boast of 44 PIVOT projects underway and the training of hundreds of state managers and employees in Lean practices. Which makes me suspect that spending on PIVOT has outweighed any actual savings.)

When times are good and the state is enjoying unexpected revenue, the broad consensus is that we shouldn’t spend it — or at least not very much of it. The Republican governor and the four Democratic money committee chairs are in agreement on that. Except perhaps at the margins.

There’s also broad agreement that the state shouldn’t be borrowing any more money. Remember Sen. Michael Sirotkin’s ill-fated proposal to launch another $35 million housing bond this year? He’s a powerful committee chair, and his idea went nowhere. One of the loudest voices in opposition: Democratic Treasurer Beth Pearce, who’s fiercely protective of the state’s bond rating.

All this broad consensus leaves room only for piecemeal action. Take, for example, the legislature finding $6 million in this year’s budget to boost child-care subsidies. Nothing to sneeze at, but advocates will tell you that it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the actual need — for parents trying to keep their jobs and for child-care workers trying to make a living.

And it’s one-time money. That’s what passes for significant accomplishment in 2019.

Here’s another. Universal broadband is widely seen as a necessity for rural Vermont to become economically competitive. This year, the state enacted Act 79, which produces $1.2-1.4 million per year for broadband grants and creates a revolving loan fund for existing and startup internet service providers. A nice step, but nothing like a game-changer.

Meanwhile, the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature whiffed on three signature issues: paid family leave, minimum wage and a tax-and-regulate system for cannabis. What’s notable about those three, besides the whiffing, is that none of them would have cost the state much money. Paid leave? A new tax. Minimum wage? Employers would foot the bill. Cannabis? Would have brought new revenue to state coffers.

Not even on the table: Climate change, housing, education, the tattered mental health system, economic development, seriously addressing income inequality and health care reform, among others. No effort, through increased state aid or some sort of student debt forgiveness, to confront our affordability crisis in higher education. Nothing to address Vermont’s demographic crisis — except for the Scott administration’s dink-and-doink grant programs that only benefit a handful of employers and workers. On climate change, leaders of both parties acknowledge the crisis and our lack of progress toward established climate goals. But propose or approve a truly game-changing agenda? Not on your life.

Literally.

For years, politicians on all sides have talked about ending our reliance on out-of-state prisons. But actually doing something about it? Spending money on facilities or enacting new programs to reduce the inmate population? Nah.

Any effort to close the ridiculously large and still growing wealth gap, either through boosting benefits or job training or education affordability — or through increasing taxes on top earners? All talk, no action.

Health care reform would seem to be a critical need, considering that the Green Mountain Care Board just approved whopping insurance-rate premiums. But do you hear anything besides the gentle shuff-shuff of hand-wringing? Nope. I think elected officials of all stripes are still scarred by then-governor Peter Shumlin’s disastrous reform efforts. Nobody wants to call that monster out from under the bed.

The biggest exception to this depressing parade of cromulence was Act 76, which establishes a revenue source and administrative structure for waterways cleanup. Nice. But it only came after years of ducking the issue as long as humanly possible — even as toxic algae blooms make an annual joke of our alleged commitment to environmental purity, not to mention killing dogs and maybe causing Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

And action only came under threat of federal intervention. Yep, we can thank the Trump EPA for forcing Vermont to clean up its water.

This around-the-middle consensus isn’t only frustrating for those on the left. It’s got to be just as galling for conservatives, who believe the answer to Vermont’s problems lies in cutting taxes, spending and regulation. You’re not getting any of that from Team Scott, much less the legislature.

It’s funny. Vermont is widely seen as bluer-than-blue Bernie Country. But our current crop of elected leaders is comfortably at home in a narrow band of non-threatening incrementalism.