Category Archives: Vermont Democratic Party

EVERYTHING IS AWESOME

VT Dems assemble for reorg meeting. [Not exactly as illustrated]

The Vermont Democratic Party state committee met Saturday in Stowe, and did their level best to put the Unfortunate Incidents of this year behind them. The elections for party officer positions were uncontested, and every vote but one was unanimous. There was not a single mention of the Brandon Batham embezzlement case until the elections were safely over. At that point, one committee member asked if the party was making efforts to recoup the stolen funds. The answer: Not right away, but maybe after the criminal investigation of Batham concludes.

Otherwise, the two-and-a-half hour meeting was practically a Lego Movie singalong.

There had been some efforts before the meeting to identify other candidates, but nothing eventuated. If state committee members harbored any doubts about the handling of the Batham case, the overly lax management structure that opened the door to his theft, other leadership issues laid bare by the Batham case (including the complete lack of a vetting process for hiring party employees) or the party’s embarrassing fundraising performance over the last three-ish years, they kept those doubts behind zipped lips.

Because… Everything Is Awesome When You’re Part Of A Team!

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U Mad, Bro?

So I hear that some Vermont Democrats are upset with me for… um… telling the truth?

The party’s executive committee met this week, and from what I hear, there was some grumbling about my recent posts concerning the Brandon Batham embezzlement case and the management issues revealed thereby.

If true, my response: Quit whining and get your house in order.

Or, if you’re going to complain, summon up your courage and tell me how I’m wrong. Because until proven otherwise, I stand by what I’ve written.

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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.

Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

When last I left you, I signed off with

Vermont already has an oversupply of cautious Democrats.

Let’s pick it up from there. Now, I could be talking about legislative leadership, which has developed a habit of scoring own goals in its “battles” with Gov. Phil Scott. But in this case, I’m talking about campaigns for governor, in which the Democrats have not exactly covered themselves in glory.

Over the past 20 years, the Vermont Democratic Party has nominated a top-shelf candidate for governor a mere five times — incumbent Howard Dean in 2000, Doug Racine in 2002 and Peter Shumlin in 2010, ’12 and ’14.

(I’m calling the 2014 Shumlin “top shelf” only because he was the incumbent. Otherwise he was a deeply flawed candidate who came within an eyelash of losing to Scott Milne, objectively the worst major-party gubernatorial candidate in living memory.)

Otherwise it’s been a parade of worthies with good intentions but few resources and no real hope. Whenever a popular Republican occupies the corner office, the Democrats’ A-Team scurries away like cockroaches when the light goes on.

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VT Dems tiptoe around embezzlement case

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. On Saturday, the Vermont Democratic Party’s state committee held its first meeting since the full extent of the Brandon Batham embezzlement came to light. But there seemed little taste for confrontation or tough questions. The majority seemed content with party leadership’s promises to tighten up financial and management controls and generally lock the barn door after they’d lost a horse.

Recapping the basics: In July, party officials discovered that Batham had paid himself nearly $3,000 for apparently nonexistent expenses and mileage. Batham resigned on the spot. A couple weeks later, party leaders discovered another $15,500 in extra paychecks Batham apparently cut to himself. The matter was referred to the Montpelier Police Department for investigation. The incident also raised questions about financial and managerial oversight, or the lack thereof.

At Saturday’s meeting, party chair Terje Anderson gave a thorough, convincing case that Things Would Be Different From Now On. An outside firm, Political CFOs, has been hired to do all the VDP’s accounting and financial reporting. (The firm has submitted the VDP’s overdue August financial report to the Federal Elections Commission and filed the September report on time.) At least two people must approve every check issued from party funds. Anderson has been communicating with donors and party officials, and offered to meet with any activist, county committee or donor in an effort to “regain trust.”

(Keeping the books had been an internal staff function, and the quality of the work depended on the person responsible. Former staffer and financial whiz Selene Hofer-Shall “ran a very tight ship,” said Anderson. “After she left, there were a lot of internal struggles to keep it on track.”)

One more big thing: Anderson said he’d pored over every expense for the past two and a half years, and found about $850 in transactions with insufficient documentation. Whether that’s a matter of theft or mere sloppiness, Anderson’s review seems to rule out additional large-scale embezzlements. (He did admit, however, that there was no way to retroactively vet requests for mileage reimbursements.)

Anderson also took full responsibility for the matter. “I wish it hadn’t happened. I wish I’d caught it sooner,” he told the state committee.

In the process of being as transparent as possible, Anderson revealed a couple of disturbing facts about party administration.

First, Anderson said, Batham was able to cut himself checks without oversight or review because, somehow, Batham had become “the only person with access to our bank information.”

Yeah, that’s kind of a setup for embezzlement.

Second, Anderson acknowledged that the VDP’s staff hiring process was… well… not a process at all. “We have a history in this party of hiring people with no process,” he said. “No interview, no checking of references.”

Yeah, that’s kind of a setup for hiring embezzlers. Anderson promised that things had changed.

This level of mismanagement should be embarrassing at least — and perhaps disqualifying — for those who exercised authority during this time. But most state committee members were in a forgiving mood. Many praised the hard work of party officials and applauded the new reforms. A couple of members blamed the media for publicizing the case — which, c’mon, folks. If embezzlement strikes a prominent Vermont organization, then reporters are gonna report.

Honestly, if the party was this badly managed and organized, Democrats ought to be thanking the media for shining some light in the dark corners instead of thanking leadership for having the decency to clean up its own messes.

Welcome to Vermont, Mr. McNeil

Oh boy, there’s more bad news from the Vermont Democratic Party. The latest from Team Turmoil is an official notice from the Federal Election Commission informing the VDP that it has yet to file its required monthly financial report for July, and warning of serious consequences.

The failure to timely file a complete report may result in civil money penalties, an audit or legal enforcement action. The civil money penalty calculation for late reports does not include a grace period and begins on the day following the due date for the report.

The July report was due August 20, so the fines have been piling up, potentially, since August 21. (The fines are assessed, or not, on a case-by-case basis. There’s no set dollar amount.) And the August report is due on September 20. If it doesn’t go in on time, the daily fines could double.

These filings are a royal pain (says anyone who’s had to prepare them), but are a necessary function for a political party. Failure to file is, well, a violation of federal law.

Party spokesperson R. Christopher DiMezzo offers words of assurance. “The FEC knows about the situation,’ he said. “We’re in contact.”

The delay in filing, he explained, is entirely due to alleged embezzlements by former staffer Brandon Batham, which is under investigation by Montpelier police. “The filing is held up because of the law enforcement investigation,” he said. “The report will go in when we figure out how to handle it.”

Well, maybe, but my bullshit detector is pinging. The party could always submit a report and revise it later if necessary. Happens all the time. Plus, does the financial filing really depend on the police investigation? We already know how much money is involved, don’t we?

Don’t we?

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Windham Dems Quickly Dispose of Hot Potato

At a meeting Monday, the Windham County Democratic Committee disposed of a resolution calling for new leadership in the state party. Instead, the panel approved the drafting of a letter expressing concern over an alleged embezzlement of party funds and appreciation for actions taken by party leaders to prevent any recurrence.

The resolution was drafted by county party chair John Hagen after consultation with other officers in the organization. The meeting was attended by 23 party members, including almost every Democratic lawmaker from Windham County. If there had been any momentum in favor of the resolution, the air exited the balloon when Hagen told the meeting that, about an hour before the meeting began, he had received an email from state party chair Terje Anderson providing a full history of the embezzlement case and outlining new steps the party was taking in response. In the email, Hagen said, Anderson “addresses every part of the resolution.”

Nice timing, that. If Anderson sought to influence the proceedings with a last-ditch plea, it’s fair to say he succeeded.

The resolution was in response to alleged embezzlement of more than $18,000 in state party funds by former staffer Brandon Batham. (The Vermont Democratic Party has requested a criminal investigation by the Montpelier Police Department, and is conducting an audit going back three years to be sure that no more irregularities are hiding in the weeds.) It called for a new slate of state party officers to be presented at the party’s reorganization meeting on November 16, citing concerns about management oversight and the scandal’s potential effect on fundraising.

No one spoke in favor of the resolution, although several attendees had been involved in creating it. Most were mollified by Anderson’s late email — even though they had yet to actually see it.

“I wasn’t expecting the resolution to pass,” said Hagen after the meeting. “The intent was to throw a rock in the water and see what came up to the surface.”

That rock produced a tidal wave of retreat from the resolution. The most vociferous opponent was Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), who characterized party leaders as “a bunch of volunteers doing the best they can,” she said. “In my mind, they have revised and updated their procedures. This resolution just fuels the flames.” She advocated putting the affair behind them and turning the party’s attention on the 2020 election campaign.

Committee member Andy Burrows of Guilford noted that before Batham was hired on party staff, he had been chair of the Windham Democrats — and had not performed well. “We worked with him for a long time,” Burrows said. “He was a shifty sort of guy. We should ;have said Batham was not appropriate for the party job.”

Afterward, Burrows elaborated on his statement, noting that he questioned Batham’s work ethic, not his probity. “He volunteered for many tasks, but he did very little,” Burrows said of Batham. “We wouldn’t have recommended him. And [the party] didn’t ask.”

Which ought to raise questions about the thoroughness of the Vermont Democratic Party’s hiring process in addition to its financial oversight. But I digress.

2016 gubernatorial candidate Brenda Siegel spoke against the resolution. “When embezzlement happens, it’s not always the fault of leadership,” she said. Rather than suggesting a new slate, she advised allowing the reorganization process to play out.

Several committee members expressed a desire to meet with Anderson directly before considering the resolution. Rep. Mike Mrowicki (D-Putney) moved to table the resolution. “We’re nowhere near consensus,” he said.

White even objected to tabling; she wanted the county committee to immediately drop the matter. “We should send a nice letter saying we appreciate the work being done on new procedures,” White said. She added that “We shouldn’t judge Brandon. I don’t know what’s going on with him. I don’t think he’s a bad guy.”

Of course, the resolution didn’t judge Batham at all; it focused on the potential failings of responsible leaders. But whatever.

“We should send a thoughtful letter stating that we’re glad to hear they’re working on new procedures, and asking them to come down and talk to us about it,” said Burrows.

White objected to that as well, saying she didn’t want to take the time for more talk. “We should thank [leadership] for taking this seriously, and let the reorganization process go ahead,” White said.

At that point, committee members deferred to White. Her resolution, calling for a thankful letter and nothing more, was approved on a unanimous voice vote.

Members of the Windham County committee clearly felt uncomfortable expressing any real questions about party leadership, especially on the eve of the 2020 election season. But this is probably not the end of Anderson’s troubles. Many committee members expect robust debate at the VDP’s state committee meeting on September 21. Hagen noted that he had talked with other county chairs, and found that many were still actively concerned about the Batham case and its effect on fundraising.

And even in the absence of an actual call for change in leadership, the incumbent officeholders are likely to face sharp questions — at the very least — at the reorganization meeting on November 16.