Tag Archives: Doug Racine

So what happened with the polls?

Ah, the opinion polls, with their oft-trumpeted 4% margins of error.

Well, they missed the Governor’s race by a lot more than that, didn’t they?

The consensus, such as it was, gave Governor Shumlin a 12-point edge. Right now, the Associated Press has him at 46.4% and Scott Milne at 45.4%. Feel free to check my math, but I think that’s a margin of one percent. 

The polls were off by almost 11 percentage points.

The difference? Virtually every undecided voter went for Scott Milne. Which is unheard-of; usually, the undecideds don’t all go stampeding in one direction.

Plus, the Associated Press is reporting that Vermont had a record low turnout. The Democratic GOTV machine just couldn’t overcome the broad disaffection with the current administration, and the widespread belief that this election wasn’t close, which made it easier to stay home.

So, Milne got a larger chunk of a smaller electorate.

Let’s take the most recent Castleton Polling Inistute survey, reported on Oct.12.

gubernatorial-race

From Oct. 12 to last night, what happened? Governor Shumlin lost a sliver of his support while convincing no undecideds. Scott Milne gained a whopping ten percent by nabbing all the undecideds and poaching nearly two-thirds of Dan Feliciano’s supporters.

What does that say? It says that Governor Shumlin lost the middle, in spite of all his triangulating. And he lost ALL of the middle. And, I suspect, a fair bit of support on the left, who either sat out the Governor’s race or made a protest vote for Milne or a write-in. (Doug Racine, anyone?)

Or just stayed home, not feeling motivated to re-elect Shumlin and feeling (falsely) secure in the knowledge that their absence wouldn’t make much difference in what was thought to be a Democratic cakewalk.

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Bit by bit, ever so slowly, Scott Milne is turning himself into a candidate

It’s way too late, of course. As I’ve said before, Milne is now doing the kind of stuff he should have done six months to a year ago: traveling the back roads of Vermont, meetin’ folks. Getting his name out there. Learning the ropes of a brand-new trade: running for statewide office. Becoming a halfway competent debater.

Fundraising.

That kind of stuff.

Shumlin/Milne at WCAX debateAnd if you squint a little bit and look closely at last night’s debate performance on WCAX-TV, you can get a glimpse of a real live candidate emerging from the primordial ooze.

It’s way too late, of course. But I’ll give him credit: Milne was a lot less twitchy and erratic than he was a few weeks ago. He was reasonably calm most of the time. When he wasn’t speaking, he held his face practically motionless. Which was a good thing, because WCAX used a split screen much of the time. He scratched his nose a couple times, but he didn’t pick it.

His message remains a mess. He recycles the same handful of tired attacks on Governor Shumlin (how many times did he say “reckless experiment”?). He works in snide little comments at every opportunity. (He responded to a viewer question about his vision for Vermont’s future by saying, ungrammatically, “My vision is a governor that doesn’t make promises that end up broken.” Cute, but not at all visionary.)

He also made a royal botch of his opportunity to ask Shumlin a direct question. His opening was so rambly that co-moderator Kristin Kelly had to interrupt, “Do you have a question for the Governor?” After which he meandered slowly through the firing of Doug Racine as head of Human Services, and Racine’s statement that he hadn’t met with Shumlin in over a year, Shumlin’s out-of-state travel… and at the end, his actual question was a batting-practice fastball down the middle of the plate: “Can you look in the monitor and tell them you’ll be a better Governor in the next two years?” Which gave Shumlin the opening to turn the question immediately back to his agenda.

Stupid.

And most of all, Milne still has nothing like a coherent plan for his hypothetical governorship. He has little or nothing to offer on health care, the state budget, school funding and governance, social services, or the economy. He preaches caution on all fronts; he says he will “listen before I act.” On multiple occasions, he said he would sign specific bills that he disagrees with — apparently signaling that he would frequently defer to the Legislature. As Shumlin pointed out, that’s an odd definition of leadership.

And once in a while, just when you least expect it, he slips out a scrap of a policy idea. Answering a question about improving the economy, he tossed off a passing reference to “tax incentives.” No details, no elaboration. Just a couple of quick words, and then onward.

This is how you roll out a major policy proposal? Really?

I’ll say this. Scott Milne has improved — from an F to maybe a C minus. Give him another 18 months or so, he might turn himself into a credible contender for the governorship.

Wait a minute… checking the calendar here… nope, sorry, he doesn’t have 18 months. He has less than four weeks.

Like I said: it’s way too late, of course.

Dear Shumlin Administration: Please heed the words of Uncle Barack

President Obama got in a brief tick of turmoil a while back when his approach to foreign policy was summarized as “Don’t do stupid shit.” Which, as the political equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath, makes a world of sense to me.

And I wish our leaders in Montpelier would frame it and hang it over their desks, because it sure would come in handy when dealing with Vermont Health Connect. The latest, ICYMI:

Thousands of Vermont Health Connect customers who signed up to pay health care premiums online recently received email notices directing them to pay through a website that is offline.

Vermont took down its health exchange Web portal Sept. 14…  But the state and its contractors apparently forgot during the intervening three weeks to cancel an automated email blast that directed roughly 6,500 people who signed up to make payments online. Those people, about 20 percent of the website’s commercial customers, were directed to visit vermonthealthconnect.gov to view their premium invoice.

(ahem.)

NNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! 

Stop it! Just stop it!

Stop doing stupid shit!

“Apparently forgot,” eh? Maybe some of you should come to work tomorrow and find that your keys no longer work because your bosses “apparently forgot” to let you know about your change in employment status.

This bout of apparent forgetfulness happened under the new contractor, Optum, and under the revamped administrative team of Harry Chen and Lawrence Miller, so we can’t blame this on the dearly departed (CGI, Doug Racine) and the recently rendered invisible (Mark Larson).

I’m a strong supporter of the current iteration of health care reform, and I have high hopes for single-payer. As a result, I’ve too readily accepted Administration assurances that they’ve learned their lessons, they’re working hard, they’ve got a handle on it, and they’ll fix it.

This time, as Bullwinkle T. Moose used to say, for sure.

But I am getting tired of defending the Governor and getting the ground cut out from under me. Maybe that’s why a new poll shows him with a 45% favorable rating against 41% unfavorable. In spite of the fact that he’s running for re-election against the legendary comedy team of Mr. Blandy and Mr. Fringey.

So, Shumlin team, please tell me there won’t be any more screwups, revelations of past blunders, delays, or embarrassing emails to the very constituents who (a) were in line to benefit from Vermont Health Connect and would love to see it work, and (b) now have every reason to be royally pissed off at the authors of this reform.

A protest vote for Doug Racine is startin’ to look awfully tempting.

Two ships that pass in the night

Today, via Neal Goswami of the Mitchell Family Organ:

A report released Wednesday based on an internal review of the Department for Children and Families does not recommend restructuring the agency, but does seek immediate boosts to staffing, additional staff training and better collaboration between the department and its partners.

Yesterday, via them damn commies at the Public Assets Institute:

A month after announcing a 2 percent cut to the current year’s budget, the Shumlin Administration is signaling its intention to make additional cuts of as much as 5 percent and possibly more next year (fiscal 2016).

Well, that looks like a conundrum in the making.

Human Services Secretary Harry Chen, the presumably more loyal and/or pliable replacement for the cashiered Doug Racine, now has a report that says his agency needs more resources. Which probably induces a rueful chuckle from Mr. Racine.

And now this report will duke it out with the Administration’s budget instructions reportedly given to its top managers:

The administration laid out two scenarios for fiscal 2016:

— Level funding—the same amount appropriated for this fiscal year after the cuts adopted in August.

— Five percent cut from fiscal 2015 levels—again after the August cuts.

As PAI notes, the best-case scenario — level funding — would mean cutbacks, since there are built-in cost increases: “cost of living increases for state employees, caseload increases, contractual increases, loss of federal funding, inflation, and other new demands…”

The AHS/DCF review was initiated by then-Secretary Racine. Will Dr. Chen back up the report’s conclusions? Or will he bend to the apparent belt-tightening mandate from above? According to the PAI report, he’s got about two weeks to turn in his budget recommendations.

Dave Yacovone’s astoundingly well-timed job opportunity

In a hastily-scheduled news conference, on the second working day after Governor Shumlin’s return from vacation, Dave Yacovone announced today he is resigning as head of the Department for Children and Families. He’s taking, as Paul “The Huntsman” Heintz puts it, “an undisclosed job outside state government.” He and the Governor both insisted Yacovone’s departure was “unexpected and entirely voluntary.” 

So why is my bullshit detector pinging nonstop? 

Perhaps because the timing is awfully convenient for an Admininstration wishing to put a controversy behind it. 

I have absolutely no inside information on this, but here’s what it looks like to me. DCF’s well-publicized troubles led to the forced ouster of Human Services Secretary Doug Racine on August 11. Three weeks later, Yacovone suddenly finds a new job. Which he won’t disclose. And which requires his immediate resignation. 

That last item is a big one. Usually, top administrative jobs are filled in the course of months, not days or weeks. Yacovone had to have been looking around for a while now. And transitions are built in to the timing, so an executive has time to ease out of the old job. Not Yacovone; he’s out the door right now. 

Doug Racine was fired, not for job performance, but for “style,” for failing to be a cheerleader for the Administration’s policies. Yacovone was a vocal defender of the agency’s work, so when it came time for him to go, he was allowed to pull the ripcord himself. 

Perhaps a nice job opening was even arranged on his behalf. 

The unspecified job is in Lamoille County, and involves human services in some form. Professionally, this has to be a significant step downward. There may be other factors in Yacovone’s case; he lives in Morrisville and he might want a job closer to home. He’s old enough that he might be looking to wind down rather than climb the ladder. 

This is all speculation. What isn’t is the timing: three weeks after Racine’s departure, and a few days before Shumlin formally begins his re-election bid. Time to shove a skeleton back in the closet. 

Personally, I don’t believe that DCF’s troubles warranted anyone’s departure, voluntary or otherwise. The Department has been chronically underfunded and understaffed, and the most capable administrator in the world can’t fully compensate for that. But political considerations are apparently more pressing at DCF than at Vermont Health Connect, whose problems, IMHO, are more serious and politically damaging. I’ll be interested to see if there are any conveniently-timed, face-saving departures at VHC in the near future. 

If you can’t improve your product, get a better salesman

Let’s start with the thesis (for once): I still don’t understand why Doug Racine was fired. I have some guesses, but the official story doesn’t wash. 

From Governor Shumlin, we’ve heard the usual “time for a change” bullcrap. From Racine, we’ve heard that the Administration wanted more of an “ambassador,” while he’d been keeping his nose to the grindstone at the Agency of Human Services. Racine offered the following comments in a Wednesday interview on VPR’s Vermont Edition: 

They mostly focused on style. [They said it wasn’t about the troubles at the Department of Children and Familes, and never mentioned Vermont Health Connect.] I had been focused on the Agency… What they said they wanted was somebody who was going to be out there a little bit more, in front of the media, and in front of local groups and constituent groups, and just to be talking more publicly about the good work of the agency. They said I wasn’t the right person to do that.

Well gee, Doug Racine spent a lot of years in politics. I’d think he could be an effective “ambassador” if needed. And if he believed in the product. Besides, a problem with “style” doesn’t seem urgent enough to warrant the sudden and immediate dismissal of an original cabinet member. Hell, Racine cleared out his desk right after his firing: they wanted him gone, and gone NOW. They didn’t want him wiping his hard drive or stealing office supplies. 

I don’t have any inside information, but here’s what I think. The Shumlin Administration knew it would be cutting the budget, and that most of the cuts would happen at AHS. They knew the agency was already overstretched, and that Racine had long believed it was badly under-resourced. 

I look at the ratios, I look at the work they do, I talk with a lot of the workers. They’re very stressed. They’re dealing with families in exceedingly difficult situations.They need more people, there’s no question about it.

And then Racine said something I found telling: 

 I met with some of the [DCF staffers] who testified [at Tuesday’s legislative hearing], I met with them last week, and I urged them to go and tell their story to the Legislature. …I’m glad that they were there, I’m glad they testified, and I hope the Legislature was listening.

That hearing gave voice to the frustration and despair among DCF staffers. In the context of this week’s budget cuts — which Racine had to know about last week — their testimony was a big fat warning shot across the Administration’s bow. And he encouraged them to speak out. Not very ambassadorial, that. 

When Doug Racine ran for Governor in 2010, concern about Human Services was one of his top priorities. As AHS Secretary under Shumlin, he has tried to stretch the available resources as far as he could. He was a loyal soldier, trying to preserve human services programs in very tough times and not complaining in public. 

And then came another round of cuts, and the primary targets, per VTDigger, were (1) the already overextended DCF, and (2) Shumlin’s pet project for 2014: substance abuse treatment. 

Do you think that might have forced a confrontation with Racine? It looks to me like the Administration not only wanted him to swallow more bad news, but wanted him to get out in public and actively promote the budget. He could have done the former, but he couldn’t bring himself to do the latter. 

Again, no inside information, just educated inference. 

The only explanation I can think of for the timing is (1) the pending budget cuts, and (2) the election campaign. Shumlin wanted a cheerleader, and Racine wouldn’t pick up the pom-poms. 

Meanwhile, the interim AHS chief, Dr. Harry Chen, is by all accounts a good guy and an able administrator. But when I read Terri Hallenbeck’s story in the Freeploid, I saw some obvious holes in Chen’s game. First of all, he describes himself as very much a hands-on manager coming to a job where that might not be possible: 

Chen… said the management style he brings to the job includes lots of interaction with staff. 

“I wander the halls,” Chen said, acknowledging that as secretary of an agency that oversees such a vast array of services, there may be too many halls to wander in too many far-flung buildings.

And Senator Kevin Mullin pointed out that “two key areas where Chen may lack expertise the agency sorely needs is in information technology and child protection issues.” Which happen to be the two biggest challenges facing AHS. 

Dr. Chen’s interim appointment expires at the end of the year. He’s got four months to “wander the halls” and, he says, make recommendations about changes in the agency. In his first day on the job, reports Hallenbeck, he met with central office staff to give them reassurance. But he’ll have to make some tough decisions in a hurry. Sort of like his former job as an emergency room doctor: get as much information as you can as quickly as you can, and then do what you have to do. 

Might be more blood on the floor in the not too distant future. And I suspect that when Dr. Chen isn’t wandering the halls, he’ll be facing the cameras and telling the people of Vermont something that sounds a lot like this: “These are challenging times but the Agency is up to the task, and the Shumlin Administration is giving us all the resources we need.”

Rah, rah, sis boom bah. 

So it was a push, not a jump

Media reports posted after my initial VPO piece on Doug Racine’s departure make it clear that Racine was fired as Human Services Secretary; he did not resign. And he was fired in a sudden and coldblooded way. The best reporting comes from Paul “The Huntsman” Heintz, who got the skinny from the firee himself.

In a phone interview, he said he was summoned to the 5th floor of the Pavilion State Office building at 4 p.m. Monday for a meeting with Shumlin chief of staff Liz Miller and Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding.

“I went in and sat down. They said, ‘The governor wants to make a change at your agency.’ I said, ‘Who would that be?’ Jeb looked at me and said, ‘You,’” Racine recalled. “We talked about it for a few minutes and then I went to the office and cleaned out my desk.”

So now we know who wields the hatchet in the corner office. Shumlin did give Racine a call about an hour after the meeting, and it was relatively cordial; but hell, couldn’t he do the actual deed himself? Especially since Racine had handled the hardest and most thankless job in state government for three and a half years?

There was also a Profiles In Courage moment Tuesday afternoon, when Shumlin went kinda wishy-washy on the nature of Racine’s departure, i.e. voluntary or not:

Asked what, specifically, prompted Racine’s exit, Shumlin said, “Specifically answering your question is exactly what I’m not going to do.”

Well, at least it was a head-on refusal to answer instead of the usual “bury ’em in bullshit” routine.

When I call AHS Secretary the “hardest and most thankless job,” here’s what I mean. It handles a whole lot of disparate programs aimed at helping our most unfortunate. It’s a huge agency by Vermont standards. As I noted earlier, it was hit hard by the Douglas Administration’s ill-fated Challenges for Change initiative, not to mention its misadventures with technology contracts (which were at least as bad as Shumlin’s). And it was ground zero for the health care reform effort and all the attendant troubles.

In addition, AHS’ challenges were compounded by Tropical Storm Irene, which left a whole lot of people in need of help — and which scattered the agency’s personnel to rented spaces in multiple communities because of the flooding in Waterbury. And they are still scattered today. Not to mention the flooding and forced closure of the Vermont State Hospital and the ensuing years of chaos in the mental health care system. 

Doug Racine handled all of that with grace and dignity. He kept his nose to the grindstone and almost never uttered a discouraging word in public. I’d think that was a good thing, but apparently he was too quiet for Shumlin’s taste:

According to Racine, the governor wanted a secretary more willing to engage with the news media and interest groups.

“If anything, it was perhaps not being out there enough,” Racine said.

I always thought Racine’s quiet style was perhaps exactly what Shumlin wanted from his longtime political rival. Either that, or Racine himself opted for the low-profile approach because he didn’t want to come across as bitter or as a potential political threat.

As I said in my previous post, I understand the need for a sacrificial lamb. And between the problems with health care and DCYF, I can see why Racine got the axe. But the way it was done? I think Racine deserved better.