There is so much to say about the pair of dueling events that took place in Essex last Friday. The first was a cauldron of conservative outrage concerning Their Latest Bugaboo, critical race theory, about which they know nothing. The second was a counter-event across the road, featuring supporters of the school district’s anti-racism efforts.
There’s what it says about the Vermont Republican Party that its chair attended Hate Night. There’s the ideological connection to recent events in the Mill River school district, where conservative outrage has also reared its unsightly head. There’s how the event was covered: Badly by VTDigger, and with manufactured both-sidesism by Seven Days. There’s the complete unmasking of a prominent conservative “journalist,” and the rise of a new contender for Worst Lawmaker in Montpelier.
But let’s start with Hebrews 11:1. In the King James Version favored by many evangelicals, it says “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” This verse has multiple applications here.
It was probably inevitable that Kolby LaMarche would resign as chair of the Burlington Republicans. A bit less so that he left the GOP altogether. But here we are.
Whenever she’s asked about extreme elements in the party, VTGOP chair Deb Billado resorts to the “big tent’ analogy. The party, she says, is big enough to include all comers.
Nice theory, but it’s not working in practice. The kind of die-hard Trump supporters who still believe he was cheated out of the election are more than welcome in the party ranks and, what the heck, leadership. But people like LaMarche, who believe the GOP must abandon the Trump delusion, are made to feel so unwelcome that they eventually leave. And the party’s rightward tilt gets that much more pronounced.
If the VTGOP really believes in the “big tent,” then Billado and her colleagues would be pounding the phones, begging LaMarche to give them another chance. Somehow I doubt that’s the case. Because to the chair and her allies, including vice chair Deb Bucknam and national committee members Jay Shepard and Suzanne Butterfield, fealty to Trump is a litmus test for good Republicans. Not to mention local party officials like Ron Lawrence of Essex, co-instigator of the CovidCruiser that went to Washington for Trump’s attempted insurrection on January 6. That’d be the same Lawrence who launched a petition drive to get Gov. Phil Scott to abandon his party affiliation.
Yes, the Phil Scott who is the one and only Republican success story in statewide elections. According to Lawrence and the 2200-odd signers, he’s the real problem in the VTGOP.
Did Billado rush to Scott’s defense? Uhh, no. She “declined comment” on the petition, claiming she hadn’t read the thing and wasn’t involved. No “big tent” references this time.
I don’t think Deb Billado is planning to resign anytime soon.
The Vermont Republican Party chair made that clear when she devoted her most recent weekly newsletter to a very fringey speech made by the very fringey South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem. It was a shot across the bow of Republican lawmakers who recently called for her resignation — and a slap in the face to Gov. Phil Scott.
You see, Scott and Noem are polar opposites on Covid-19 policy. Scott has proceeded with great caution, erring (mainly) on the side of public safety. Noem has kept her state wide open — including the granddaddy of all superspreaders, the Sturgis motorcycle rally.
The result: Vermont has a death rate of 27 per 100,000 residents, the second lowest among the states. South Dakota has lost 189 out of every 100,000, the seventh worst death rate in the nation. In total Covid-19 cases, Vermont is the best in the nation at 1,654 per 100K, while South Dakota is second-worst at 11,958 per 100K. How about testing? Vermont has conducted 133,174 tests per 100K — more than one test per resident. South Dakota? Way near the bottom, at 44,827 tests per 100K.
So, Vermont is doing far better at tracking the virus, keeping people healthy, and keeping them alive. I can’t say that Billado endorses South Dakota’s Covid “strategy,” but she went out of her way to highlight Noem’s views in a message to all Vermont Republicans. Now, maybe Billado didn’t intend it as direct criticism of Vermont’s govenror, but I bet you dollars to donuts that Team Scott sees it that way.
Beyond that, there’s the issue of Billado calling a collection of QAnon-adjacent nutbaggery a “thoughtful speech.” We’ll run it down after the jump.
You have to feel a little bit sorry for Deb Billado, chair of the Vermont Republican Party. She’s been working hard for three years now, trying to build a functioning machine out of spare parts and duct tape. But her Trumpian worldview makes her an ineffective advocate for the kind of fiscally conservative, socially moderate organization the VTGOP needs to be.
Now it’s all coming apart, thanks to the January 6 insurrection triggered by President Trump. While Republican Gov. Phil Scott came right out with a call for Trump’s removal from office, Billado issued a statement condemning the violence without mentioning the President at all.
On Tuesday, Billado issued another statement, this one urging people not to take part in a January 17 Statehouse rally in support of Trump. She began, oddly, with this:
It has come to my attention through various vague media reports that there is a rumor of some kind of protest planned at the capitol building in Montpelier this weekend.
The Vermont Republican Party is a dysfunctional mess. For pretty much as long as I’ve been writing about #vtpoli — 10th anniversary coming up this year — the party has struggled in fundraising, organizing, candidate recruitment, and choosing an ideological lane. There’s been tension between its elected officials, who recognize that they have to appeal to the center in order to win, and the party faithful, who are profoundly conservative.
During the Trump years, that split has gotten wider. Gov. Phil Scott has essentially divorced himself from the party since November 2017, when he backed Mike “Not The Reporter” Donohue for party chair, only to see incumbent Deb Billado narrowly re-elected by the state committee. (Donohue is pretty conservative but he’s a realist, not a fanatic.) The party hierarchy is now full of Trump true believers, including Billado, vice chair Deb Bucknam (last seen filing a nutty lawsuit over Gov. Scott’s Covid-19 policies), and the two national committee members, Jay Shepard and Suzanne Butterfield.
Well, now the VTGOP’s split is going public. Rep. Scott Beck of St. Johnsbury is calling for the resignation of party officials who refuse to advocate for Trump’s removal from office, and he’s gathering support among Republican electeds.
“I have had some pointed comments at VTGOP leadership, and I have said to them, ‘If you cannot cross these bridges, I think it’s time for you to move on,’” Beck told Seven Days on Tuesday.
Sen. Corey Parent and Rep. Anne Donahue have joined the call for Billado to resign, after she issued a mealy-mouthed condemnation of the January 6 Capitol riot that didn’t mention Trump at all.
Beck et al. are clearly right about this; the current VTGOP is doomed to permanent minority status. But if they’re serious, it’s going to be a long, hard struggle. Things would get a lot worse before they start getting better, and “getting better” is not a sure bet. Because if they succeed in dislodging the hard-core Trumpers, there will hardly be anything left.
Well, the incoming leaders of the House and Senate are pouring buckets of cold water on any hopes of a progressive agenda in the next two years.
In some ways, this makes perfect sense. In others, it’s a continuation of the squishy-soft stylings of the outgoing leadership. And that’s disappointing for anyone who was looking forward to the possibility of change.
My former colleagues Xander Landen and Kit Norton have posted a legislative preview, and it’s chock full of Business As Usual — the kind of Democratic strategerizing that’s helped Phil Scott remain governor. Or, shall we say, done little to nothing to draw a clear contrast between Scott and the Dems.
Now, these are extraordinary times. And I have no quarrel with the idea that coronavirus will be first and foremost on the agenda until we’ve vaccinated our way back to normality. The budget alone could occupy the available time between now and adjournment.
So yeah, when Speaker-In-Waiting Jill Krowinski says her top priority is “to bring people together and create a plan of action to beat the virus and it needs to be a recovery plan that leaves no one behind,” I completely agree. Save for the grammatical tic.
But 2022 ought to be a completely different story.
Vermont Republican Party chair Deb Billado is known for penning ultraconservative, pro-Trump screeds in her official role as the party’s leader. But now, at Christmastime, she’s outdone herself with what I can only hope is a feeble attempt at “humor,” which would serve as further proof that there’s no such thing as conservative humor. (Lookin’ at you, @NewsDoneRight.) Because if she was serious, man oh man, she’s gone round the twist.
Billado’s latest epistle takes the form of a letter from Santa who, as he passed over Vermont, observed “a warm light” from below — a light that “conveyed a good feeling to the people, one of security and goodness.”
That light? The Vermont Republican Party.
Santa tops that off by observing that Billado had been “chosen to be its head to steer the course, right and true.”
Ah. The Chosen One. Where have I heard that before?
Two weeks ago, the troubled relationship between the Vermont Republican Party and its most successful politician — Gov. Phil Scott — was, for all intents and purposes, formally terminated. At its biannual reorganization, party delegates re-elected chair Deb Billado to a second two-year term. Billado is an earnest soul, but a staunch conservative and devout Donald Trump fan. And she has had zero success with the admittedly tough task of pulling the party out of the doldrums.
She ran without opposition, which is the real point. Two years ago, Scott came up with a nominee of his own: Michael Donohue (not that guy), a very conservative fellow but a realist with a respectable track record of political organizing in other states. Donohue lost narrowly to Billado, in a result that reflected the party’s Trumpward orientation.
This time, Scott didn’t bother. He didn’t even attend the meeting. (He had a good excuse; Vermont was reeling from a weather disaster, and he was visiting affected areas. But I have a feeling he would have found an excuse to stay away. “Had to walk the dog” or somesuch.)
Delegates elected a slate of far-right Trumpers to top posts. Former attorney general candidate Deb Bucknam is the new vice chair; she replaces Brady Toensing, who resigned last spring to take a position in the Trump Justice Department. (He’s the son of Victoria Toensing, frequent promoter of right-wing conspiracy theories on Fox News along with her husband Joe DiGenova. Brady was a longtime member of the family law firm.)
Other officers include Deb Bucknam’s hubby Charlie as party treasurer and Deb Ricker, re-elected as secretary. Two at-large spots on the executive committee went to onetime state representative Paul Dame, who periodically shows up in my mailbox touting “retirement seminars” with a free dinner at the Steakhouse in Berlin*, and Zachary Hampl (not that guy), a Castleton University student and founder of the local chapter of the Young Americans for Liberty. (Young Zach also endorsed Bruce Lisman over Scott in the 2016 primary battle.)
*If that doesn’t work out for him, maybe he can try hawking timeshares.
None of those worthies is on the same ideological continent as Our Governor. Who, again, didn’t even try to offer alternative candidates more suited to his politics and style.