Category Archives: Politics

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.

Continue reading

“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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

 

 

Finding a positive response to the election

Like many other liberals, I’ve been dealing with the pending Caligula Administration with studious avoidance. Not watching the news (not even Rachel), ignoring all the stuff coming out of Washington these days.

Not a healthy long-term solution, but I just can’t spend much time staring into the void without it staring back. Fortunately for me, I write about Vermont politics, so I can remain engaged without focusing on the potential horrors of the next two years.

Also helps that I’m a cis white male, so my immediate freedom, security, and personal safety are not at risk.

But still, not a long-term solution. A correspondent writes:

I still feel physically ill from last week, and am only now dipping back into the news. And trying to figure out what to do that might be useful. And not coming up with a lot yet.

I have some ideas that don’t involve moving to Canada or taking part in ineffectual protests on our safe Vermont streets or the left’s favorite pastime, the circular firing squad. They don’t immediately involve political action of any sort, because it kinda feels toxic right now and there’s plenty of time to plan for 2018’s Return Of The Jedi.

Continue reading

Do campaigns matter anymore?

On the national level and in Vermont, the Democratic Party had the vastly superior organization. They were solidly networked from grassroots to leadership. They had more paid staff, more field offices, bigger phone banks, more robust GOTV efforts.

Now that it’s all over, those seemingly bulletproof advantages didn’t make a damn bit of difference.

Here in Vermont, as I wrote (and VTDigger’s Jon Margolis sees it the same way), you might as well have had no campaign whatsoever. If we’d had the election a year ago, Phil Scott would have beaten Democrat X by five to ten percentage points on the basis of (a) his popularity and name recognition, and (b) the unpopularity of Governor Shumlin.

And after a campaign of unprecedented length and expense, Phil Scott won by eight percent. Big whoop.

Elsewhere, the 2016 election shuffled some names, but the political landscape remains virtually unchanged. The Dems continue to hold the non-Phil Scott statewide offices and the Legislature’s partisan balance barely moved. For all of Scott’s assertions to the contrary, this was no mandate for his agenda — it was a mandate for him personally. The Republican platform got precisely nowhere except for his candidacy.

Continue reading

Julie, we hardly knew ye (UPDATED below) (UPDATED again)

Minor sidelight, but entertaining. The Phil Scott campaign has a small but vociferous band of supporters on Twitter. Among the most frequent tweeters are John Quinn, Thomas Joseph, Hayden Dublois, whoever ghostwrites the @PhilScott4VT account, and someone named Julie Kennedy.

jk-bioKennedy presents herself as a dedicated ticket-splitter, a presumed liberal who’s voting for a lot of Democrats — but not Sue Minter. According to her Twitter bio, she lives in Brattleboro and just opened her Twitter account in August of this year.

Remember the “Brattleboro” part, because Julie just screwed up. She posted a photo of her ballot, showing votes for Phil Scott and Randy Brock (more on that below).

But the ballot was not from Brattleboro, it was from Washington County District 1, which includes Northfield and Berlin. More than a hundred miles from Brattleboro.

Continue reading

Hey, Bernie: the door IS open

The purpose of this post is not to relitigate the events of the Nevada convention or figure out who insulted whom first or whose outrage is the most righteous. It’s not even to parse the subtle nuances of speeches given extemporaneously before large crowds.

No, the purpose is to point out something Bernie Sanders said Tuesday night that’s just plan nonsense. Here it is.

“The Democratic Party is going to have to make a very, very, profound and important decision. It can do the right thing and open its doors and welcome into the party people who are prepared to fight for real economic and social change. That is the Democratic Party I want to see.” Sanders said.

“I say to the leadership of the Democratic Party: Open the doors, let the people in! Or the other option for the Democratic Party, which I see as a very sad and tragic option is to choose and maintain its status quo structure, remain dependent on big money campaign contributions and be a party with limited participation and limited energy,” he said.

Now, I am not a party person. I have never been a member of any political party. Sitting through party meetings, which I sometimes do for the sake of this gig, makes me itchy. Also, I’m not a mingler and I’m uncomfortable in rooms full of people. So there’s that.

But I have witnessed party proceedings, and here’s one thing you can take to the bank: The doors of every political party are wide open, all the time, to all comers.

Continue reading