Tag Archives: Ann Cummings

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.

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Toward a more Progressive Senate

I welcome Chris Pearson’s entry into the race for State Senate from Chittenden County. The Progressive state rep is the Progs’ sharpest policy voice in the House, and he should be a formidable candidate for Senate.

For those just joining us, the Chittenden County district elects six Senators, and it’s usually a free ride for incumbents. This time, two of the six seats will be voluntarily vacated; David Zuckerman is running for Lite-Gov, and Helen Riehle (appointed to fill out Diane Snelling’s term) is not running for a full term.

The openings are sure to attract a strong Democratic field, while Republicans are desperately searching for someone who might retain Snelling’s position. Searching in vain, methinks.

But the race on the left will be lively. It’ll be interesting to see how Pearson will fare in fundraising — I suspect he’ll do quite well. He’ll certainly have better name recognition than the Democratic non-incumbents.

And should he win, there is the potential for a real shift in Senatorial power.

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Bad day to be a pro-science liberal

As reported earlier, the State Senate has passed a bill that would strike the philosophical exemption for childhood vaccines. And unfortunately for my faith in Senate liberals, opposition to the measure was led — on the flimsiest of grounds — by some of the chamber’s leading lefties. To wit, David Zuckerman, Anthony Pollina, and Ann Cummings.

The bill itself faces an uncertain future. The House briefly considered ending the philosophical exemption earlier in the session and did nothing; supposedly, House leadership is disinclined to stop doing nothing, so this whole thing might have been an elaborate shadow play produced, God knows why, by Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell.

(It was he who raised this idea from the dead and allowed it to be attached to H.98, a “housekeeping” bill enacting a bunch of minor changes to various parts of state government including the vaccine registry. Thus the justification for grafting the philosophical exemption ban, Frankenstein-style, to a wisp of a bill. Kind of a crappy way to change the law, but not exactly unusual in the annals of lawmaking. Why Campbell went out of his way to do this in a very busy session, I have no idea.)

The bill passed on a very one-sided voice vote. Before that, there was a standing vote on adding the amendment to the bill; the tally was 18 yes, 11 no.

The “noes” brought together some strange bedfellows: some of the most liberal solons joined some of the most conservative in opposing the amendment.

Preceding the vote was about a half hour of rather weird debate in which some folks I usually admire came up with flimsy pretexts for their opposition. Leading this parade was Zuckerman, who offered a science-free amendment to the amendment.

On the grounds that some children may be genetically predisposed to allergic reactions to some vaccine ingredients, he proposed requiring “quick genetic tests” to screen out the allergic.

My scientist readers may be laughing their asses off right now. A “quick genetic test” to screen for allergies to the, what, hundreds of ingredients in various vaccines? As I understand it, such testing is in the very early stages of development. But even if it were well-established, I doubt it would be “quick.”

Thankfully, the Zuckerman Amendment was shot down on a voice vote.

Cummings then raised the specter of uncounted Vermont schoolchildren being forced into “truancy” because their parents refused to let them be vaccinated. She argued that in a time when student counts are in decline, we shouldn’t do something that might mean more kids are “forced out of school.”

Uh-huh. I can just imagine the legions of parents who would actually take their kids out of school rather than allow them to be vaccinated.

Zuckerman followed the same line, predicting lower student enrollments, higher taxes, and even widespread school closures because so many refusenik parents would keep their kids home.

Pollina doubled down, arguing that we shouldn’t require vaccinations because “people might move out of state” rather than see their kids vaccinated.

Okay, let’s see now. First, all our neighboring states — Massachusetts, New York, and “Live Free Or Die” New Hampshire don’t allow philosophical exemptions. So the claptrap Pollina is peddling is that legions of vaccine refuseniks will uproot their lives and move to a distant state that offers a philosophical exemption. (There are only 18 others that do.)

One of the primary arguments made by exemption supporters is that it doesn’t hurt anybody because so few people actually seek an exemption; less than four percent of Vermont parents have done so. How many of them would take the extreme step of dislocating their lives or home-schooling their kids rather than let them be vaccinated?

It wouldn’t be a mass exodus, let’s put it that way.

Zuckerman produced a map, showing that some small districts have high rates of philosophical exemptions. He said that those schools would be especially vulnerable if exemptions were limited. He contradicted himself, of course, when he argued against the idea that those districts are also especially vulnerable to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.

Which is it, Senator? No harm (from contagious illness), or catastrophic consequences (in enrollment)?

The three Senators were desperately grabbing at any pretext, no matter how absurd, to preserve the philosophical exemption — without coming right out and saying that they are anti-vaxxers themselves. Or worse, that they support vaccination and are merely placating the anti-vaxxers in their constituencies.

If they’d come irght out and argued against vaccination, at least they would have been intellectually consistent. The closest any of them came to such an argument was when Zuckerman asserted that “there is disputed evidence” on both sides of the issue. Which is the kind of thing we usually hear from the anti-climate change crowd: “There are arguments on both sides, and who am I to judge?”

These are people I usually admire and agree with. Today, I saw a completely different side to them — a desperate, evasive, rhetorically bankrupt side. It wasn’t pretty.

Plus c’est la même chose, plus c’est la même chose

If you’d been harboring any faint hopes for change in the State Senate leadership, you were quite reliably disappointed by Saturday’s Democratic caucus.

With only the tiniest hint of dissent, the status quo was maintained in Our Most Stagnant Deliberative Body. John Campbell? Yep, President Pro Tem again, along with Phil Baruth as majority leader, Claire Ayer as whip, and… the earth would tremble and the skies would be rent asunder if they failed to re-elect Dick Mazza as “third member” on the organizationally influential Committee on Committees, where he will rejoin the Phil Scott Fan Club with Campbell and Scott himself.

Maybe someday there’ll be a real Democrat on that panel.

Seven Days’ Paul Heintz, ever the pot-stirrer, introduced me to Mazza before the caucus convened. And the Eternal Member gave me a hearty greeting, making it clear that he knew what I’ve written about him and that it didn’t make a damn bit of difference. Baseball players used to refer to beat reporters as “flies,” and that’s how Mazza sees me: a fly buzzing around his shit. Didn’t even bother to flick me away.

So the fix was in. There were no competing nominees for any of the four posts, and there was only the slightest bit of dissent: Anthony Pollina voted “no” for Campbell and Mazza without explanation. Afterward, he spoke to Heintz:

“I would like to see the ability for more people to be involved in leadership, quite frankly, and I think that it would be more healthy for the caucus to have some conversation about who’s going to be the leader, and we don’t seem to have that conversation.”

Yeah, we certainly don’t. The organizational meeting was a hearty session of hands-around-the-campfire, we’re-all-friends-here. Any ill feelings were kept resolutely in check. In fact, there was one moment of unintentional gallows humor, when a senator who I didn’t recognize* nominated Mazza for “third member” by praising the past work of the Committee on Committees; he said that everyone had been happy with the committee assignments made by the CoC.

*Subsequently ID’d as Tim Ashe, putative Prog/Dem and studious ass-kisser to the Senate power structure. Gah. 

Somehow, Ginny Lyons and Ann Cummings didn’t scoff loudly. Both veteran lawmakers were screwed out of committee chairmanships by the CoC last time around. Lyons was replaced on Natural Resources by climate change skeptic Bob Hartwell, and Cummings was removed from Finance, presumably because she had the temerity to stage a brief challenge to Campbell’s leadership in 2012.

The CoC’s smackdown had its intended effect, as no one rose to challenge the same-old, same-old. The Three Kings will soon return to their secret undisclosed location to dole out the committee goodies. We’ll see if they behave themselves this time — but only after the fact, since Campbell has declared that the CoC is not subject to open meetings law. Paul Heintz, last February:

When Seven Days happened upon its three members — Lt. Gov Phil Scott, Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor) and Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) — convening to discuss the matter last Thursday in Scott’s Statehouse office, Campbell declared, “It’s not a public meeting.”

“My understanding,” he elaborated, “is it’s a private, deliberative meeting of one of the committees of the Senate and therefore, you know, not open to the public.”

“So committees can just close the doors when they’re deliberating?” Seven Days asked.

“I believe this one, yeah,” Campbell said. “My opinion is that.”

Following that dismal exchange, the CoC held a closed-door confab with Senate Secretary John Bloomer and chief legislative counsel Luke Martland, who then produced a convenient bit of legal mumbo-jumbo to cover Campbell’s backside. When asked why Senate rules, which strictly limit closed committee meetings, don’t apply to the CoC, this laughable exchange took place:

Said Bloomer, “This, in my opinion, doesn’t apply because these are standing committees. The Committee on Committees has no function to take evidence.”

Added Campbell, “The Committee on Committees is totally different. It’s kind of a misnomer using that name, ‘committee.’”

The Committee on Committees isn’t a committee, eh?

Pardon me if I feel completely justified in my cynicism about the CoC.

Let me somewhat belatedly make clear that I have no beef with Ayer or Baruth, aside from their willingness to be part of a leadership team with an inconsistent record for upholding the principles (and candidates) of the Democratic Party. Baruth offered a tepid explanation for the lack of change, telling me that it was going to be a difficult session, so continuity of leadership would be a positive.

“We can’t change captains now,” said the First Mate. “The Exxon Valdez is in trouble.”

Campbell introduced his new aide, former Shumlin Administration functionary Erica Wolffing, fresh off her gig at the Democratic Governors Association.  And he made brief reference to his poor performance as Pro Tem in 2011, which led to Cummings’ challenge and the hiring of Rebecca Ramos as his top aide/nanny. Wolffing will now fill that role, helping him lift that big heavy gavel, and she’ll probably be very good. She’s likely to keep communication lines open between Campbell and the administration, and help keep things running smoothly in the Senate chamber.

After his re-election, Campbell gave a short speech laying out the top four priorities for the coming session, which he said would be “one of the most difficult bienniums in decades.” Which, he added, means “there’s a chance the work we do will be historic.”

Mm. The Hindenburg was historic.

Three of Campbell’s Big Four priorities were predictable:

— Health care. Trying to overcome his past public skepticism about single payer, he promised a full and open consideration of Shumlin’s plan. “We have an obligation to the administration to hear what they have to say, and to the public to deal with the rising cost of health care.”

There’s also that social-justice part of it, but Campbell didn’t mention that.

— The budget. He said the likely $100 million deficit was “not pie in the sky,” and lawmakers will have to look closely at revenues and state functions, prioritize services, and look for efficiencies and duplications. By funding too many “good ideas,” he said, “we’ve spread ourselves very thin.” He called for a tight focus on “what is our obligation to business and to citizens,” as opposed to what we’d like to do. (Yes, he said “business” first.)

In short, No New Taxes. And don’t expect any new money for anything.

— Education funding and governance. “We will have to look at what we need to educate our kids, and what we don’t.”

The fourth priority was a bit surprising:

— Lake Champlain, which he first called an “economic driver” and then called it “iconic.” Priorities.  “It’s not just because the EPA has said we must act; we have an obligation.” What that means remains to be seen, with all the talk of cutting government and focusing on the essentials and no new spending. It was nice to hear Campbell put Champlain at the top of the list, but I suspect we’re not going to get much more than lip service or possibly tokenism.

It’s looking like a dispiriting biennium for liberals. The Senate remains safely in the death grip of The Usual Suspects, now armed with what they see as an electoral mandate to cut and cut and cut. Shumlin himself, in remarks to the House and Senate caucuses, made it clear that his response to his near-defeat will be a predictable tack to the center. (More on that in an upcoming post.)

And so we beat on, boats against the current and all that.

Shumlin may have lost the center, but the worst damage was on his left

Much of the post-election analysis has concluded that Governor Shumlin’s extremely narrow apparent victory is a repudiation of his more progressive policies (esp. health care) and that, in response, he’ll have to move toward the center.

There’s some truth in that. On health care, for instance, I really believe he’s got to get Vermont Health Connect up and running before he can expect anybody to support any kind of single-payer plan.

It'll take more than  free food to win back the base.

It’ll take more than free food to win back the base.

However, there’s ample evidence in the unofficial election returns for a very different analysis: the Governor would have sailed to an easy re-election if he hadn’t lost the left wing. There were sizable numbers of liberal voters who (1) stayed home or (2) cast protest votes for Scott Milne, Dan Feliciano, or a write-in. (They felt safe doing so because Milne was such a weak candidate, ha ha, that nobody felt the need to cast a defensive vote for Shumlin.)

As for #1, turnout hit an all-time record low. ‘Nuff said. Conservative voters were motivated, liberal voters were uninspired. The rest of this post will explore #2.

Previously, I cited the vast difference between Shumlin’s vote total and Congressman Peter Welch’s. In the final unofficial results (posted Saturday on the Secretary of State’s website), Welch received a total of 123,349 votes.

Shumlin got 89,509.

That’s a difference of nearly 34,000 votes. To put it another way, more than one-quarter of all Welch voters did not vote for Peter Shumlin.

That’s a stunning figure. But wait, there’s more.

I checked Shumlin’s totals in four Democrat-friendly state Senate districts: Bennington, Windham, Orange, and Washington.

In the Bennington district, Gov. Shumlin got 6,522 votes. He badly trailed Dem incumbent Dick Sears, who got 7,965 votes. That’s over 1400 Sears supporters who did not vote for the Governor.

In the solid blue Windham Senate district, the Governor’s home turf, he was outpolled by Sen. Jeanette White, the top vote-getter for two Senate seats, by a margin of 7777 to 6758.

More than a thousand votes lost, in the county he’s lived almost his entire life.

In Orange County’s Senate district, Shumlin trailed incumbent Democrat Mark MacDonald by 561 votes — MacDonald’s 3797 to Shumlin’s 3236. Which was virtually identical to MacDonald’s margin of victory over his Republican opponent, Bob Frenier.

In fact, if Frenier had equalled Scott Milne’s total and MacDonald had equalled Shumlin’s, the Senate seat would have flipped to the Republicans. So a sizeable number of Orange County voters split their tickets, opting for the Milne/MacDonald combo platter.

In the three-seat Washington County district, Shumlin drew 9,173 votes. That’s almost 2,000 behind top Democrat Ann Cummings (11,167) and 1300 behind Prog/Dem Anthony Pollina (10,474).

Reminder: The Prog/Dem Pollina was, by far, the most liberal of the Senatorial candidates in Washington County. He was believed to be vulnerable to a strong challenge from Republican Pat McDonald. In the end, Pollina was re-elected by a substantial margin.

Governor Shumlin trailed Anthony Pollina, ardent supporter of single-payer health care and higher taxes on the wealthy, by 1300 votes. Those numbers undercut the dominant narrative, that this election’s message was to go slow and move to the center. Pollina ain’t moving to nobody’s center.

Add those four districts, and Governor Shumlin lost more than 5,000 votes compared to the top Democratic Senate candidates.

In short, if the Governor had simply held onto his base, nobody would be talking about a Scott Milne squeaker.

In addition to all these numbers, I can tell you that every liberal I’ve heard from since Tuesday has told me stories about diehard Democratic voters who simply could not bring themselves to vote for Shumlin. That’s anecdotal evidence, but there’s a lot of it around.

I’m sure the Governor lost plenty of votes in the center. But he shouldn’t take this election as a mandate to shy away from progressive policies, and Republicans should be cautious about claiming 2014 as a mandate for them. This election was less about ideology than it was about disappointment in and distrust of Governor Shumlin.

The left wing of the Democratic Party has had its doubts about Shumlin from day one. He was seen as more of an opportunist, a triangulator, than other Democratic contenders in 2010. He placated the left by touting his opposition to Vermont Yankee and promising an all-out push for single-payer health care. During his two terms in office, he has done little to earn the respect of the left, and done much to forfeit their trust. His 2013 push to cut the Earned Income Tax Credit was seen as a betrayal on the left, as was his continual opposition to any sort of tax hikes on top earners. The awful performance of Vermont Health Connect is a mortal threat to single-payer.

If he wants to make a comeback, establish a legacy for his governorship, and perhaps try to run for a Congressional seat one day, he would be well advised to make peace with Vermont liberals instead of turning himself into Phil Scott Lite.

p.s. Yeah, I know, there are lots of liberals who already see him as Phil Scott Lite. Particularly “lite” on the perceived honesty and integrity of our Lieutenant Governor. 

Bring me the head of Anthony Pollina

We received a pair of campaign mailers the other day. (One for each Household Voter.)

Which isn’t at all unusual; it’s rush season for political postage, which gives the USPS a nice little bump in bulk mail. But there was an unusual twist to this one. See if you can spot it:

EPSON MFP image

If you didn’t know the players, you’d think this was a standard piece of party-line bumpf. But it’s not.

This mailer, for the three-seat Washington County State Senate district, endorses two Republicans and one Democrat. Ann Cummings is a Democratic incumbent; Bill Doyle, Our Eternal Senator, is a Republican incumbent; Pat McDonald is a Republican challenger.

Who’s missing? Why, none other than Prog/Dem incumbent Anthony Pollina.

The mailer wasn’t sent by any political party, but by four separate business groups working together: the Campaign Research Center (a.k.a. VT Chamber PAC), the Vermont Ski Areas Association, the Association of General Contractors PAC, and Vermont Realtors PAC. Four groups not known for prioritizing Environmental Protection.

You’d expect these guys to promote Republicans, wouldn’t you? Why no love for Republican Dexter Lefavour? Aside from, y’know, the fact that he’s nothing more than slot-filler.

And why Ann Cummings?

A couple ideas present themselves.

— Tony Pollina is the most liberal of the incumbents, and the most vulnerable — having finished in third place in each of the last two elections. Mind you, there was plenty of room between Pollina and the next Republican finisher each time. But McDonald has a high profile and plenty of connections, and the VTGOP has high hopes for her.

I think they’re wrong, but that’s how they see it.

— Ann Cummings is a liberal Democrat, but (a) she’s a longtime incumbent and a strong vote-getter, and (b) well, she’s a Realtor.

I don’t think her profession was the deciding factor in this cunning plan. More likely, it’s a tactical maneuver to try to isolate Pollina as the weakest link. And by listing a popular, established Democratic incumbent plus the immovable Bill Doyle, they might just trick a few liberals into thinking that McDonald is on their “team.”

It’s clever. Kinda squicky, but clever.

One more thing. Do you suppose the Realtors checked with Realtor Cummings before sending this mailer? If not, it seems discourteous to me. If so, and Cummings approved it, then she ought to explain herself to her fellow Dems.

The saddest political advertisement I’ve seen in a very long time

No, it didn’t come from Scott Milne’s campaign. Nor Hempily Peyton’s.

No, it came from a Democrat. And a Democrat with a strong track record who happens to represent my county.

Without further ado, here is the saddest political ad I’ve seen in maybe forever.

Ann Cummings print ad

Ecccch.

The quality’s a bit degraded because it appeared in a local free newspaper. But still: this is the best Ann Cummings could do? Cheesy, slipshod graphics? A grim, dark, uninviting photo? Lots of wasted space?

This is bad, very bad.

I hope it’s not an indication of the Cummings effort. She’s one of three incumbent state Senators from Washington County — along with eternal Republican Bill “Survey Says” Doyle and Prog/Dem Anthony Pollina. She’s running for a fifth term, and was the district’s top vote-getter in each of the last three races. fourth term; she’s been a strong candidate in her first three races, finishing first once (2010) and second twice (to then-Sen. Phil Scott in2008 and to Doyle in 2012).

So maybe she thinks she doesn’t have to try. But the Republicans have themselves a solid candidate in Pat McDonald this time. She’s a former state representative and state GOP chair, and she held administrative positions under Governors Snelling, Dean, and Douglas. Republicans have high hopes that she can turn a second Washington County seat to the GOP.

If past results are anything to go by, McDonald is a bigger threat to Pollina than to Cummings. But this ad doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.