Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. conceived of the Poor People’s Campaign as a way to bring the voices of the poor to Washington. D.C. It was one of those radical ideas conveniently memory-holed by conservatives in their annual one-day co-opting of Dr. King, but it was central to his efforts to bring a measure of economic justice to America. He never got there in person, thanks to an assassin’s bullet.
The debate over extending Vermont’s motel voucher program has made it clear we need a Poor People’s Campaign right here in Vermont, because it’s obvious that the voices of the poor need to be heard as loudly as any other in the halls of the Statehouse.
Well, to be fully accurate, one part of the debate has made that clear. It’s the part provided by Brenda Siegel, who’s been bringing the stories of voucher clients to our attention and, in so doing, forcing The Comfortable to feel a wee bit less comfy.
So, modest proposal: A lobbying organization which, for placeholder purposes, I’m calling “Dignity.” Anyone who does the actual work gets to take as little or as much of this idea as they want.
There’s a boatload of infuriating details in a story by VTDigger’s Lola Duffort about the ending of the motel voucher program. One of them stood out for me, not because it’s the most telling or most impactful, but because it’s so painfully ironic.
The story opens with Rebecca Duprey, a voucher client who’s struggled to regain her footing after years of evading a violently abusive ex-husband. Her motel stay has given her half a chance, but now she’s facing a return to living in her car with her two sons.
Duprey’s case strikes at the heart of the lobotomy-style disconnect between state policymaking and, well, basic humanity. As it happens, she’s had years-long relationships with two prominent lawmakers — Rep. Anne Donahue and Sen. Anne Cummings. Each has offered assistance to Duprey, and yet each has voted in favor of an FY2024 budget that will force her back on the streets.
That’s all bad enough, but here’s the topper.
When the two lawmakers learned that Duprey was back in Washington County and spending cold nights in her car, they did not reach out to administration officials or state workers, but instead to Brenda Siegel, an advocate and former gubernatorial candidate, who took over Duprey’s casework and found her the room she currently lives in.
That would be the same Brenda Siegel who’s been treated so shabbily by lawmakers personally inconvenienced by her advocacy. She has, in fact, become the face of the housing advocacy community because, due to her lopsided defeat in last November’s gubernatorial election, she’s an easy political figure to dismiss. Which makes the issue easier to dismiss.
And these two prominent lawmakers turned to Siegel to help when they didn’t think anyone else would. Hmm.
When last we saw nominally Democratic Sen. Bobby Starr, he was pontificating about all the supposedly “able-bodied” homeless folk livin’ it up in state-funded motel rooms when they oughta be goin’ out and gettin’ a job. Or, as he put it, “The able-bodied, it’s time to go to work and have a place for them to work and earn and provide for their own, as far as I’m concerned.”
That was his argument for ending the motel voucher program on schedule this summer. He didn’t say we’re coddling the ungrateful lazy poors, but that was the umistakable message he was sending. Shades of the Welfare Queen.
But wait, there’s more!
Starr reportedly expanded on his asshattery in a conversation after the hearing with Brenda Siegel, housing advocate and 2022 Democratic candidate for governor. We’ve only got Siegel’s word for this, although she says there were other witnesses. But there are good reasons to believe her; she’s still lobbying for a voucher extension in the FY24 budget, and has no motivation at all to slander a lawmaker, not even Bobby Starr.
In the above photo, Sen. Bobby Starr is expounding on the moral failings of the “able-bodied” poor lazing around in taxpayer-funded motel rooms while his colleagues try to conceal their discomfort. It was just one of many dispiriting passages in Friday afternoon’s meeting of the Senate Appropriations Committee, in which the panel briefly took up and immediately dismissed one last effort to extend the motel voucher program (the one that currently provides shelter to 80% of Vermont’s homeless) beyond the end of June.
Well. Now that I’ve dropped you directly in the middle of the story, let’s go back and set the stage. After the full Senate on Thursday gave preliminary approval to an FY2024 budget that would end the voucher program on schedule, two first-term solons — Nader Hashim and Tanya Vyhovsky — did something very unusual for a pair of rookies in the seniority-heavy upper chamber: They tested the patience of their superiors by submitting a last-minute amendment that would have dedicated another $20 million to the voucher program. (It would have also defunded the detestable remote worker grant program, but that was just a bonus.)
The figure was based on conversations with housing advocates, who believe it’s the minimum amount required to prevent a large-scale unsheltering of voucher recipients. But multiple members of the committee, including chair Jane Kitchel, dismissed the number as inadequate. Kitchel said the $20 million would run out by year’s end, meaning the program would require a midyear injection of funds. She refused to engage in what she called “deficit” budgeting.
Hashim, who presented the amendment to the committee, didn’t have the information needed to counter Kitchel’s assertion, and no one else was given a chance to testify. Committee members also claimed that spending more on vouchers would mean fewer dollars for permanent housing, as if it was impossible to shift money from elsewhere in the budget or even — horrors! — raise revenue to cover the cost. So you see, they said with a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders, they had no choice but to end the voucher program.
I could go on, and I will, but let’s get back to Bobby Starr. You won’t want to miss this.
Seems like I’ve been waiting forever for the Vermont Senate to undergo a demographic shift. Every two years there’s been talk of a retirement wave, but it never materializes. Senators consider stepping aside, then realize they’re indispensable. (They’re not.) And the voters rarely eject an incumbent except in cases of overt criminality (Norm McAllister) or advanced senescence (Bill Doyle).
The shift has been painfully incremental until this year, when almost one-third of all senators decided to bow out. The nine incomers are younger, five of them are women, and one is a person of color: Nader Hashim joins Kesha Ram Hinsdale and Randy Brock as the three non-white members of the upper chamber.
(The tiny Republican caucus managed to get older and no less male. Its two youngest members, Corey Parent and Joshua Terenzini, will be replaced by a couple of old white men.)
Got more numbers to plow through, but here’s the bottom line. The Senate is on the verge of a historic shift, but it’s happening in slow motion. We might reach the tipping point in two years’ time. We’re not quite there yet.
There are still plenty of tenured members in positions of power. They account for most of the committee chairs. But only — “only” — eight of the 30 senators will be 70 or older. At least 13 will be under 65, which doesn’t sound like a lot but in the Senate it definitely is.
The incoming Senate President Pro Tem, Phil Baruth, straddles the age divide. He’s only — “only” — 60. But he’s entering his sixth two-year term, so he’s familiar with the Senate and the elders are comfortable enough with him to make him their leader. As a senator he’s been a strong policy advocate unafraid to ruffle feathers, but as Pro Tem he’ll know he can’t push his caucus too far too fast.
Whether you want to or not, meet Samuel A. Douglass, Republican candidate for state Senate in the Orleans district. He’s challenging longtime incumbent Democrat Bobby Starr, which would seem to be a hopeless enterprise. But the district’s boundaries changed quite a bit in reapportionment. There are hopes in Republican circles and a wee bit of fear among Democrats that this guy might actually win.
So it behooves us to get to know Mr. Douglass, because he is one of the most stealthy of this year’s crop of stealth conservatives. He portrays himself as half crunchy-granola country boy and half “commonsense” Republican. The reality, however, is much different. “Fox News is only sort of right-leaning” is a thing he said. He thinks 80% of American journalism is “left-leaning,” and has a favorable impression of Newsmax.
Oh, and he thinks the acquittal of triple murderer Kyle Rittenhouse constituted “justice.” So no, he’s not your grandfather’s Republican.
Douglass’ campaign website is heavy on pictures and light on text. The words he does employ are ambiguous at best, with the faintest of dog whistles penetrating the fog. The closest thing to an agenda is a page entitled “My Focus & Goals,” which runs a bit under 800 words and contains no specifics whatsoever. Still, the nutbaggery can’t be completely concealed.
If there was ever any doubt that the state Senate is a club unto itself, well, a close look at the chamber’s likely reapportionment map will make things perfectly clear.
First, the circumstances: After weeks and weeks of vaguely-defined “discussion,” the committee burped out its map in a 26-minute-long hearing on Thursday. Seriously, before Thursday, the agenda for each of its previous 13 meetings merely said “Committee Discussion.” At least they were open hearings, I guess.
According to VTDigger, the hearing was not warned in advance as required by law, and the map wasn’t made public until after the hearing. A procedural fail to be sure, and a worrying one by a committee chaired by Sen. Jeanette White, who chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee. You know — the one that deals with open meetings and public records laws?
Aside from process flaws, the map itself is problematic in many ways. At virtually every turn, it bows the knee to incumbency — even when doing so is a setback for the Democratic Party. You know, the party that allegedly controls the process?
If this map is enacted, it will be harder for the Democrats to keep their Senate supermajority. It will help Republicans pick up some ground, but maybe not right away; and the new Chittenden County map is the best thing to happen to the Progressive Party since David Zuckerman became lieutenant governor. (It also gives the Republicans a real shot at a Chittenden seat for the first time since Diane Snelling left the chamber.)
The newly created, three-seat Chittenden Central district includes Winooski and part of Burlington. It seems custom-made to give the Progs a real shot at winning all three seats.
Looking at the committee lineup, this may have been a case of Prog/Dem Sen. Chris Pearson pulling one over on sleepy Democrats’ eyes. He was the only member from Chittenden County, which is weird in itself. There were four Dems on the committee: the barely-there Jeanette White, the almost-a-Republican Bobby Starr, everybody’s friend Alison Clarkson, and quiet second-termer Andrew Perchlik. The two Republicans were part-time Vermonter Brian Collamore and the politically savvy Randy Brock. In sheer political terms, Pearson and Brock could run rings around the other five.
The Vermont Senate, as has been noted in this space, is a temple of tenure. It’s almost impossible to defeat a sitting senator; the only time we get a new one is when someone voluntarily retires. That rarely happens and, as a result, the Senate just keeps getting older and older.
How old? Average age of the 30 senators is 63.4 years. There are only five senators under age 50; there are 14 over 70, and 11 who are 75 and older. There are two others in their late 60s, which means we have a Senate majority past retirement age.
And the oldest wield the most power. The average age of the 11 policy committee chairs is 72.1. Brian Campion is the only policy chair under 64. Yep, that chamber loves it some seniority.
This has some unfortunate effects. First, there’s often an airless quality to the Senate’s work. It is an entity apart from the real world — or even those rambunctious young’uns in the House. (Senators often treat the House with open contempt.) Second, senators are often out of touch when discussing issues of concern to young people like digital technology, child care, substance use, rental housing, and workforce development. Third, well, it’s really hard to get the Senate to take a fresh look at anything or contemplate a change in How We’ve Always Done It.
Sure, tenure has its benefits. They know their way around the building, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. Some, including Dick Sears, Bobby Starr, and Jane Kitchel, bring decades of experience and deep knowledge of their policy beats.
But in any organization, you want a mix of young and old, new and tenured. The Senate is terribly skewed toward age and seniority. It’s long past time for some serious turnover. Will 2022 be the year we get it? I sure hope so.
There’s only one month to go until the August primary, and who knows how many absentee ballots already coming in, so maybe it’s no surprise that some collars are showing signs of tightening.
The above is a mailer sent by Senate President Pro Tem and candidate for lieutenant governor Tim Ashe, which seems expressly designed to draw a contrast between him and Assistant Attorney General Molly Gray.
Gray, for those just joining us, appeared seemingly out of nowhere and immediately started racking up big donations and big-name endorsements. Before her emergence, the safe money was on Ashe to ride his name recognition to a primary victory — and then a comfortable ride to election in November. But now? Not so much.
Ashe’s mailer screams about the need for EXPERIENCE in these troubled times. The kind of EXPERIENCE that makes a person fit to, uhhh, bang a gavel. It highlights three things about Ashe that can’t be said about Gray: experience as Pro Tem, experience passing legislation, and “my real-world economic development career.”
That notorious slacker Gray, by contrast, has frittered away her time working for U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Attorney General T.J. Donovan, among others. She probably does scrapbooking or needlepoint in her spare time. Maybe jigsaw puzzles.
Ashe’s mailer doesn’t draw as neat a contrast with the other two Democrats in the race. His fellow Senator Debbie Ingram has plenty of experience on legislation. Activist and arts administrator Brenda Siegel has spent lots of time in the Statehouse working on legislation as an advocate.
A more direct attack on Gray came last week courtesy of VTDigger, which posted a story questioning her residency status — and pretty much settling the issue in her favor.
Here’s some rank speculation on my part: Somebody gave Digger a tip to pursue this angle. If this had been entirely Digger’s initiative, the story would have been done when Gray launched her campaign — after all, she went out of her way to highlight her international experience including her time away from Vermont.
I have not a shred of evidence pointing to Ashe or his minions as the source of the story. But the timing speaks for itself. And I really don’t see Ingram or Siegel resorting to trickery of any sort.
Note: In the original version of this post, I failed to include Ron Horton in the Essex-Orleans district. This post is now updated to include him.
The Vermont state Senate, our most self-absorbed deliberative body, is a study in stasis. Turnover is rare. Incumbents are virtually assured of re-election, usually without much effort. (The last sitting senators to lose were Bill Doyle and Norm McAllister in 2016 — but Doyle was 90 years old, quite frail and had a reputation for nodding off during meetings, and McAllister faced a daunting array of criminal charges at the time. That’s about what it takes for an incumbent to lose.
This year promises to be same song, new verse. A rough and semi-educated review of the field of candidates shows that 27 of the 30 senators are strong or prohibitive favorites to win re-election — and that includes one incumbent who didn’t bother filing his candidacy papers, and will have to run a write-in campaign. The forgetful fellow is NEK Democrat and snippy little bitch John Rodgers, who represents the two-seat Essex-Orleans district along with perpetual incumbent Bobby Starr, who did manage to file — along with “Democrat” Ron Horton, who ran this race under the banner of the American Party in 2018.
The American Party, FYI, is a fringe conservative organization that traces its roots back to the American Independent Party founded by hardcore segregationist George Wallace. Horton finished a distant third in 2018 behind Starr and Rodgers. He stands a puncher’s chance in this year’s primary because his name is on the ballot and Rodgers’ is not. But Rodgers’ cavailer attitude toward the simple act of filing papers (and this year he didn’t even need to gather signatures) precisely illustrates the problem: Senate incumbents are virtually bulletproof.
I said 27 of the 30 are favorites. The other three — Tim Ashe and Debbie Ingram of Chittenden County and James McNeil of Rutland — are voluntarily giving up their seats. Indeed, voluntary retirement is just about the only way there’s ever any turnover in the Vermont Senate.