Category Archives: Politics

In Praise of Shithousery

This, friends and acquaintances, is Jamie Vardy, ace striker for Leicester City FC and world-class shithouse. His specialty is the extravagant goal celebration in front of opposition fans. I do believe he’d rather score on the road than at home, just so he can put on displays like this. A former teammate says that Vardy would ask fellow players how to deliver insults in their language so he’d know how to say “Your sister is a whore” to a Portuguese defender.

Shithousery, broadly defined, is behavior designed to get under your opponent’s skin and hopefully disrupt their play. Kicking, grabbing, taunting, egregious overacting in an attempt to draw a foul, that sort of thing. It’s a quality you hate in opposing players but love when they’re on your side.

Which brings us to Vermont politics, especially Democratic politics, which is woefully short on shithousery. You might think we’re better off that way. To be sure, shithousery can be overdone; there are figures on the national scene who are capable of nothing but. (Ted Cruz, Jim Jordan, Paul Gosar, etc.) Vardy, on the other hand, is a topnotch player who once carried his squad to an improbable Premier League championship.

We need us a Jamie Vardy. By “we,” I mean Vermont’s Democrats and Progressives. The closest thing we’ve got is Bernie Sanders, but he’s not active on the home front. We need someone in state politics happy to throw a sharp elbow in the opposition’s ribs, even if they have to suffer the tut-tuts of the chattering class.

Phil Scott, for all his “nice guy” reputation, is an exceptional shithouse. He knows how to fire a sucker-punch when the ref isn’t looking. Say, when he accuses his critics of playing politics or slams the media for creating controversy. Or when he tiptoes around veto threats while refusing to engage with lawmakers.

It’s how he keeps the Dems off balance. They’re always trying to guess how far they can go without triggering a veto, which makes them water down their own legislation. Which results in Democrats looking like fools when they try to convince their voters that really, if you vote for us this time, we’ll deliver on the stuff we’ve been promising for years. Scott also keeps a stable of shithouses in his executive office, just as fellow “nice guy” Jim Douglas did when he was governor. (Names? Jason Gibbs, Dustin Degree, Tayt Brooks. All three have Two have been at Scott’s right hand since day one; Degree joined them eleven months into Scott’s first term.)

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The Soft Abuse of Redistricting Power

Here’s a little bad news for those who think Vermont’s political processes are above reproach. The nonpartisan group RepresentUs, which opposes political abuses of the redistricting process, has rated Vermont as at “high risk” for such abuse. Along with such bulwarks of clean politics as Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Florida. Not exactly stellar company.

To be clear, RepresentUs isn’t ranking states by the likelihood of gerrymandering or the historical record or the mendacity of a state’s politicians. It simply considers the legal framework of the process. In practice, Vermont’s redistricting process has been fairly clean. But state law leaves the door open to partisan abuse.

Vermont gets low grades on two points: Political officeholders have the final say on redistricting, and the law doesn’t require transparency. You can see how those points could allow politicians to game the system.

By and large, they don’t. Well, they don’t do outrageous things; they don’t create districts that look like abstract art or imaginary amphibians. But partisanship can, and sometimes does, affect the process.

In fact, we might see a more partisan flavor in Vermont’s 2022 redraw, especially in the Senate.

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Will the Vetoes Be Overridden? (to the tune of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”)

The stage is set. The players are in the wings. On Wednesday morning, the Legislature will return — virtually — for a brief veto override session. All three of Gov. Phil Scott’s 2021 vetoes are on the agenda. The action, for those of us who believe a YouTube screen full of tiny politicians’ faces constitutes “action,” gets underway in the House and Senate simultaneously, at 10:00 a.m.

The House will be first to take up Scott’s vetoes of H. 177 and H.227, the charter changes for Montpelier and Winooski respectively to allow noncitizen residents to vote in local elections only. Meanwhile, the Senate will take up S.107, which would raise the minimum age for public release of information about the arrest and charge of an offender.

This all seems perfectly normal. But in reality, it’s not.

While the Republican governor has set a new record for vetoes with 23, the Democratic Legislature has been loath to even attempt overrides. Scott has vetoed 20 bills from 2017 through 2020; only two of them have been overridden. In the vast majority of Scott’s other 18 vetoes, the Legislature didn’t even try.

So, attempting overrides on three vetoes in a single year is unprecedented during the Scott administration, and I’m guessing unprecedented in Vermont history.

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The Gray Eminence

Lt. Gov. Molly Gray is, as far as I can tell, an unprecedented phenomenon in Vermont politics. (Someone with longer tenure than I may recall a comp.) In a state where “Wait Your Turn” is the norm, she entered the arena at the age of 36, ran for a statewide office, defeated a strong field in the Democratic primary, and defeated Republican Scott Milne by a comfortable margin in the general election. Considering the dominance of Democratic men in higher offices, her gender makes the accomplishment even more impressive.

Somehow, I don’t think we’ve fully appreciated how rare and special this was. In February 2020, as she was preparing to launch her campaign, she was an almost complete unknown. (Well, she was an assistant attorney general, but there are dozens of those.) Nobody in the Statehouse had a clue, nor did they take her seriously at first. The betting favorite, and it wasn’t close, was then-Senate president pro tem Tim Ashe.

Once in the race, Gray ran a nearly flawless campaign despite having no experience in electoral politics. That’s immensely difficult to do.

But Gray has often received more criticism than credit. (Yes, including from me.) There are good reasons for some of that; but much of it has to do with two things about Gray that are rare in our politics: Her age and her gender. And that’s troubling.

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New Jockey, Same Ride

Belated best wishes and condolences to Claire Cummings, the new executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party. I trust she has an idea of what she’s walking into, since she worked on the VDP’s 2020 campaign.

You know how it seems like a certain storefront or commercial building seems to be cursed? One business after another opens up, gives it a shot, and then vanishes? Well, that’s the leadership of the Vermont Democratic Party.

Cummings is the fourth person to hold the job in less than four years — and the fifth, if you count then-party chair Terje Anderson’s unfortunate tenure as interim ED in 2019. (The five, in chronological order: Conor Casey, Josh Massey, Terje Anderson, Scott McNeil, and now Cummings.) The VDP has also seen chronic turnover in staff positions. The “senior” staff member is Spencer Dole, who was hired in February 2019.

Party chair has also been a revolving door of late as well. The VDP is on its fourth chair in five years. (Dottie Deans, Faisal Gill, Anderson and current occupant Bruce Olsson.)

The casual observer might expect the VDP to be a powerhouse, given the party’s dominance in state politics. But no. If anything, it’s fat, lazy and stuck in a rut. You hear a lot of talk about energizing the VDP, winning back the governorship, and opening the door to young Democrats and BIPOC Vermonters. But when it comes time to put words into action, it’s pretty much the same ol’, same ol’.

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The Reign of the Invisible Man

Harlan Sylvester, large and in charge (Not Exactly As Illustrated)

The House Democrats’ ill-considered pension reform plan was the icing on the cake, the topper in a series of events that expose the fundamentally centrist nature of the party and its officeholders.

And this I trace to the all-encompassing influence of one Harlan Sylvester.

For those just tuning in, Sylvester is a longtime money manager who shuns the limelight — but for decades, he has been the kingmaker of Vermont politics. You don’t get to the top of the heap without his blessing. And it sure seems like the modern Democratic Party has been fashioned according to his fiscally conservative taste.

There have been occasional press profiles about him, and they all describe him the same way. Peter Freyne, 2000: “Mr. Sylvester has had the cocked ear of Vermont governors going all the way back to Tom Salmon in the 1970s.” Freyne quoted then-UVM political science professor Garrison Nelson thusly: “Harlan loves conservative Democrats. He wants to erase the gap between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.”

Rutland Herald, 2002: “it was Harlan Sylvester’’s considerable influence and strategic skills that helped put [Republican Jim Douglas,] the apparent underdog candidate, in office.”

In 2010, Freyne’s successor Shay Totten described Sylvester as “The most powerful man in Vermont politics.” Totten also quoted Prof. Nelson: “He’s got access to people with real money, and those people with real money will invest in politicians who will protect their interests.”

So that’s Mr. Sylvester, who is in his late 80s but his power has not been visibly diminished. From what I’ve heard, he remains the power behind the throne.

And now let’s look at what the Democratic Party has become.

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“Both Sides” Benning

The junior senator from Caledonia County has crafted a masterpiece of both-sidesism. Sen. Joe Benning’s essay, “With Work, We Can Heal This Divided America,” blames conservatives and liberals alike for our stark political differences.

Now, these are tough times to be a thoughtful Republican. Joe Benning is one of those. He’s a conservative but not an ideologue, and he brings a defense attorney’s perspective to his work on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But this essay…

Benning acknowledges the intolerance in his own party:

…my party must absolutely divorce itself from those promoting intolerance, conspiracy theories, bigotry and hate. The extremist mentality which led to the unfortunate events of Jan. 6 cannot go unchecked.

A bit understated, but fair. He then indicts the Democrats:

Coordinated extremists shouting down speakers they dislike, physically breaking up rally-goers gathered for a cause they disagree with and randomly destroying property are not petty concerns. They are harbingers of the very same “ends-justifies-the-means” intolerant mindset now infecting extremists on the right.

Plenty of truth there. Intolerance does exist on both sides. But it is far from evenly distributed. The vast majority of the intolerance, hate, and conspiracy thinking is on the right.

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Look What I Found in the Ol’ Mailbox

I must infer that the Ethan Allen Institute is hurting for money. How else to explain the fact that an EAI fundraising plea ended up in my mailbox? And yes, it was addressed to me personally, not to “Occupant.”

The hardy-har-har political “cartoon” above was part of the solicitation. It poses the ludicrous proposition that the Black Lives Matter movement, Extinction Rebellion, Antifa and the 1619 Project all spring from the poisoned well of Marxism.

Uh-huh.

BLM and Extinction Rebellion are nonviolent protest movements. “Antifa” is basically a right-wing boogeyman; it’s decidedly not an organization, let alone one capable of overthrowing the global political order. And for God’s sake, the 1619 Project was conducted by the New York Times. Which is, need I remind you, a for-profit corporation.

No Marxists there, except in the fevered imagination of EAI President Rob Roper, who signed this thing.

So let’s take a look at the rest of the thing. The letter begins with a dire warning:

The nation and Vermont are at a tipping point. We have to decide if we are going to maintain the Constitutional freedoms set in place by our founders — the ideas and principles that made us the greatest country in the world — or abandon them for a path toward socialism, speech codes, and McCarthyite blacklisting of citizens who expreess anything other trhan obedience to a single-party agenda.

Referring to the Democratic Party, presumably. Which is hogwash. The party, nationally and in Vermont, is a broad coalition that can barely agree on a common agenda, let alone threaten the overthrow of the American way of life. Nothing the Democrats espouse would pave the way for socialism. Nothing would impose speech codes or a “McCarthyite blacklist.”

Which, need I remind you, was a Republican invention.

I realize you have to grab the reader’s attention with fiery rhetoric, but this is deliberate pandering to the Trump/tea party/Proud Boys wing of the conservative movement.

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Miro’s Opening Salvo

The Mayor, preparing to launch his attack

One has to assume that Miro Weinberger knew exactly what he was doing when he spent a goodly chunk of his Sunday speech attacking the Progressive Party. I mean, he spent most of his time building a case for his party and his re-election, but he had to know that the attack would dominate the news coverage — and would outrage the Progs.

His address was delivered to the city Democratic Party’s online caucus, which unsurprisingly gave him the party nomination in his bid for a fourth term. In the speech, Weinberger custom-crafted a concept of the Democratic Party writ large, a concept I find unconvincing.

Over and over again, he talked of data, science, and expertise as the foundations of his mayoralty. He recalled the ardent baseball fandom of his youth, which was sharpened by the sabermetric revolution launched by Bill James in the 1980s. It convinced him, he said, that “good analysis and the right experts can have a tremendous impact… and generate life-improving results.” Such as four Red Sox championships, presumably.

So, when he became mayor in 2009, he was “determined to make decisions based on evidence, not conventional wisdom.” He outlined a couple examples of evidence-based policymaking, and then tied it to the city’s response to the coronavirus, for which he claimed “one of the best records of any American city.”

Okay, well, he also governs one of America’s smallest cities in a sparsely populated state largely spared in the first wave, but whatever.

And this led directly into Weinberger’s attack on the Progressive Party.

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What if that poll was hot garbage?

For the entirety of our general election season, there will be only one public opinion poll that took the temperature of the race. That would be the September VPR/VPBS poll, conducted by the estimable Rich Clark.

The results of said poll, released about two weeks ago, were very good for Republicans. Gov. Phil Scott had a commanding 21-point lead over Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman. In a hypothetical 2022 matchup with Sen. Patrick Leahy, Scott had a rather stunning four-point lead. In the Lite-Gov race, Scott Milne was a little behind Molly Gray; the latter two results were within the poll’s margin of error. Also, the governor had a higher approval rating than any of Vermont’s three members of Congress — even Bernie.

This poll looms large in the narrative of the campaign because, well, it’s the only one. But what if the poll missed the mark? There’s reason to think that it significantly underestimates support for Democrats. We won’t know for sure until the votes are counted, but here’s the case for That Poll Was Hot Garbage.

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