Category Archives: Phil Scott

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.”

Change of address

 

 

On a hill under a raven sky
I have no idea exactly what I’ve drawn
Some kind of change, some kind of spinning away
With every single line moving further out in time

— Brian Eno, “Spinning Away”

It’s been a hell of a ride.

I started blogging almost exactly five years ago, out of a kind of professional desperation. There’d been some dead ends, a seeming lack of opportunity in the ever-shrinking media landscape. So, on the invitation of John Odum, I joined the gang at Green Mountain Daily and started blogging about Vermont politics.

And I loved it. I loved using my brain and my experience to reflect on the political scene. I loved playing with language and form. So I just kinda kept on doing it, slowly building a reputation and an audience.

In the summer of 2014 I went solo, launching this blog out of a feeling that I was too dominant a voice at GMD. Too much of me, not enough of the variety of viewpoints that the blog was designed to provide.

And I wanted to captain my own ship.

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The case for wind

Most of Vermont’s media coverage of wind energy tells a David-and-Goliath story: the plucky locals and underdog activists going up against a corporate developer and the state regulatory system.

The pro-wind case usually gets short shrift. But even when it gets equal time, it’s almost always in response to anti-wind arguments. Rarely, if ever, is the positive case for wind given a fair hearing. As a result, there’s quite a bit of stuff about large-scale wind that most Vermonters don’t know. Here’s a list, with details to follow.

— For all our bluster about fossil fuels and gas pipelines, Vermont remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels, including fracked gas.

— Wind is a necessary component of a renewable system. There is no way we can reach our “90 percent by 2050” goal without large-scale wind.

— Wind has huge economic benefits, including tax payments to local and state governments and a healthier trade balance.

— Large-scale wind cannot be replaced by residential  turbines. It just doesn’t work. And replacing large-scale wind with more solar would dramatically increase solar’s footprint on our landscape.

— Thanks to recent advances, large-scale wind no longer has to be sited on the highest mountaintops. Lower ridges and hills are now suitable sites.

— Siting on developed land and rooftops is good, but it’s only a fraction of what we need. There aren’t nearly enough developed sites and roofs in Vermont.

And now for the details.

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A little target practice for Mitzi Johnson

A moment of silence for the advancement hopes of Linda Myers, veteran Republican lawmaker now offered up as her caucus’ sacrificial lamb. House Minority Leader Don Turner promised a challenger to Speaker-in-Waiting Mitzi Johnson; it just isn’t possible that the 76-year-old Myers was the first name on his list.

Nothing against Ms. Myers, a pillar of her community and, by all accounts, a good person. But when I consulted The Google for traces of legislative accomplishment or leadership, I found astonishingly little.

As far as I can tell, she’s never held a position in the Republican caucus leadership, which tells you a lot about how she’s perceived by her colleagues. She’s been “parked for years” (in the words of one Statehouse observer) as vice chair of the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions, her service not terribly memorable but not malign enough to prompt her removal.

Well, I hope she enjoyed her vice chairship; after she loses the race for Speaker, she might very well lose the position. (A desirable post, since the committee oversees capital expenditures.) More often than not, there are consequences for such a challenge.

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Checking in on the new guy

So, how’s it goin’ down Phil Scott way?

For starters, he still hasn’t decided what he means by his core budgeting principle, that he would oppose any state budget that grows faster than wages or the state economy. April B. McCullum of the Burlington Free Press:

Scott has yet to settle on the formula he will use to measure the economy and limit state spending: Tax revenue? Gross state product? Median household income? Some combination?

Just a reminder, we’re almosttot the halfway mark between his election and his inauguration. And there’s some holidays between now and then.

Which also applies to naming a cabinet and staffing an entire administration, where he continues to fall further and further behind the pace set by Peter Shumlin in 2010, and which he’s apparently in no hurry to do. Neal Goswami of the Vermont Press Bureau:

Since winning the governor’s office on Nov. 8, Scott, a Republican, has appointed four people to serve on his staff. But top-level cabinet positions remain unfilled. Six years ago, outgoing Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin named several such appointees within a couple of weeks of his election.

… “When you have hundreds, literally hundreds of applications, it takes a little time and I don’t want to leave anything on the table. I want to make sure that we fully, fully take a look at their backgrounds, what they could bring to the table … and talent is very, very important,” Scott said.

Good to know talent is important. I was hoping the next cabinet wouldn’t feature Larry, Darryl and Darryl.

And the idea of open auditions for cabinet posts is certainly small-D democratic at its core, but wouldn’t it make sense for an incoming governor to have a few ideas going in? Maybe have a small team do some pre-election planning, even?

If they’re truly starting from scratch with piles and piles of applications, well, sheesh. I’ve never been elected governor of anything (although I am the captain of my kitchen), but I’d have a pretty good notion of the people I’d want at the top levels of my hypothetical administration.

Oh, and here’s a little tidbit that somebody might have thought to mention before Election Day, courtesy April B.

Outgoing Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, claimed this week that his administration already “righted the ship,” and that during his tenure the state budget grew less than the growth in Vermont’s gross state product.

An analysis by the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office showed state spending exceeded gains in Vermont’s gross domestic product in fiscal years 2012-14, but in recent years state spending has grown more slowly than the economy.

Well, gee whillikers, what do you know. State spending grew in the wake of a killer recession and Tropical Storm Irene, and was then brought under control in Shumlin’s final two years.

Which means what? Phil Scott’s mantra about the reckless spending increases of the past six years was nothing more than a politically motivated piece of accounting fakery?

Er, yeah.

How about that.

If that had ever been mentioned before now, I missed it. (And I’m sure whoever reported it will promptly correct me.)

(And I’ll ask them why they never fact-checked Candidate Scott on his alleged factoid.

In any case, one of these days Phil Scott will have to stop running for governor and start actually, y’know, governing.

Winning the Speakership was the easy part

Congratulations to Mitzi Johnson, the apparent successor to Shap Smith as Speaker of the House. She pipped House Majority Leader Sarah Copeland-Hanzas at the post. And although her selection must be ratified by the Democratic caucus and then the full House, there’s no real doubt that she will win.

Johnson is whip-smart and highly capable. She was skillful at managing the House Appropriations Committee, which is a hell of a trick.

As for being Speaker, well, she’s about to discover how different and how difficult that job is.

Shap Smith made it look effortless, but there was constant furious activity below the waterline. He also enjoyed the support of an informal cadre of loyal House members who helped him keep tabs on the ebb and flow of lawmaking and the interpersonal dynamics that must be managed effectively if the House is to function. In that regard, a capable inner circle is just as important as the actual caucus leadership.

Johnson won’t have that. She may or may not realize the importance of having that. But the House is a somewhat random gathering of 150 willful souls with 150 agendas. And by “agendas,” i don’t mean policy; I mean unique admixtures of principle, practicality, intellect (or lack thereof), knowledge (or lack thereof), curiosity (or lack thereof), debts payable and receivable, and ludicrously overdeveloped senses of self-preservation..

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“But I’m not that kind of Republican”

Every time I talk with a Vermont Republican (which is happening more frequently now, by design), I hear a variation on the same tune: “I’m not that kind of Republican.” Meaning, I’m not like those extreme conservatives on the national level; I’m a moderate, Vermont kind of partisan.

Well, maybe, but what do they mean by that?

It seems to be roughly this: they don’t share national Republicans’ extreme views on social issues, which is a no-brainer; espousing the creeds of the Christian Right is a sure loser in Vermont. They don’t deserve much credit for tolerance on reproductive rights or marriage equality.

Things get fuzzier when it comes to fiscal issues.

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Low-hanging fruit? Check.

Governor-elect Phil Scott’s first round of appointments came on Thanksgiving Eve. And honestly, the announcement was a touch underwhelming.

Nothing against the four appointees. But c’mon, three members of his transition team and the sole staffer in the Lieutenant Governor’s office? Did it really take three weeks to pluck the lowest-hanging fruit?

Would it be churlish of me to point out that in November 2010, Peter Shumlin had his inner circle in place less than ten days after the election, and had begun to fill out his cabinet by this point? Perhaps, but compared to the last Governor-elect, Phil Scott’s off to a slow start.

(Irony Alert: When Shumlin took office, he made it clear that the single focus of his administration wouild be job creation. It’s deja vu all over again, just like last time.)

Also, it’d be reassuring to see at least one appointee who’s not a member of The Usual Suspects.

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A tale of two Phils

Throughout the gubernatorial campaign, there were two very different Phil Scotts to be inferred. One was the good guy compromiser who wants to get everybody in a room and work everything out in a broadly tripartisan way.

The other? The business owner whose first venture ran afoul of Act 250, whose current company and favorite hobby are both heavily invested in fossil fuels, whose campaign kickoff took place at the annual convention of Vermont road contractors, who sometimes dog-whistled on issues like abortion, and who frequently made reference to consulting business leaders when making policy.

The first, a moderate in the classic mode. The second, a creature of the fiscally conervative business community.

The first, a candidate who attracted quite a few moderate and liberal voters. The second, a target for suspicion in many liberal circles, including this little tiny one. A suspicion fueled by his single-minded focus on reining in the budget without any tax or fee increases, at a time when (1) we might be in for significant federal cutbacks and (2) we still have an antiquated tax system with multiple revenue sources that aren’t keeping up.

So anyway, two Phils.

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A timely outbreak of morality that might just pay off

This is a good week to be a Vermonter. While Donald Trump and many of his followers are acting like sore winners and planning the conservative transformation of our national government, expressions of tolerance are springing up all over official Vermont.

They’re doing the right thing at a critical moment. I’m often cynical about Vermont exceptionalism*, but it’s times like this that remind me that it can, indeed, be a special place.

*Having once, ahem, entitled a post “Kill Vermont Exceptionalism.”

Also, hey, bonus: if we become known as a haven against intolerance, our economy and our population may get a needed boost thanks to an influx of people who experience fear or intolerance in other states.

In no particular order:

— Governor Shumiln and Governor-elect Phil Scott issue a joint statement “of concern and defiance in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.” Full credit to Scott for taking a stand against intolerance and in support of “refugee groups, health centers, immigrant rights activists and schools.”

“We/I thought it was important to show, whether it was the current governor or the incoming governor, Democrat or Republican, that we’re unified on the issue of protecting civil rights,” Scott said.

Couldn’t ask for more than that. Plus, it’s one sign that he wants to govern from the center and be a Governor for all Vermonters. It’s only one, but it’s a good one.

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