Tag Archives: Dr. Harry Chen

The VDP’s New Chair Seems the Ideal Choice for the Job

Vermont’s Democratic and Republican parties selected new state chairs this fall. We have previously dealt with the Republican, Paul Dame, former state lawmaker and the “brains” behind that lamentable “Let’s Go Brandon” rally (btw, the VTGOP is offering leftover LGB merch at big discounts, heh) and Chief Cook and Bottle Washer of his one-man YouTube commentaries.

Now, let’s meet the other new chair. Anne Lezak stepped quietly into her leadership role at the VDP. While Dame’s election drew some coverage and he has since made news a couple of times for dubious reasons, I don’t recall a single story about Lezak. Indeed, she is so not in the news that it’s hard to find a photograph of her. The image at the top of this column is from the VDP’s website.

The lack of coverage is a shame because Lezak is far more likely than Dame to have a significant impact on Vermont’s political scene. She’s the best qualified Democratic chair in years. By her resumé, she possesses all the skills and experience you’d want in a party chair. She has every chance to end the game of musical chairs at the top of the organization and put the party in a much stronger position.

Let’s start with this. The job of a party chair is not to make headlines or develop policy. It’s the dirty, thankless, unglamorous work of building a strong organization, raising the necessary funds, fostering a sense of unity in a party that’s famously fractious, and making sure that everyone is doing their jobs. If you don’t see Lezak in the news, well, that’s because it’s not her job to be in the news and she knows it.

Lezak is an organizational consultant who has worked mainly with mission-driven organizations. She’s created strategic plans, raised money, and advised on the nuts and bolts of running an organization. She’s also a former chair of the Rutland County Democrats and a three-time campaign manager who won all three races.

Ticks all the boxes, right?

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Scott to Critics: Please Shut Up

For Gov. Phil Scott, that “freedom of the press” stuff has become awfully inconvenient. On multiple occasions during this week’s Covid briefing, he basically told critics and reporters they should keep quiet for the good of the state.

“Having the continued debate about whether [masks] should be mandated… is just making the problem worse from my standpoint,” Scott said. “It’s dividing people even further, it’s hardening people further.”

So by Scott’s reckoning, anyone who publicly disagrees with him is doing harm to the state. And if you think I’m being unfair, let’s scroll down to where VTDigger’s Erin Petenko asked Scott about an essay by former Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen advocating for an indoor mask mandate.

We judt have a difference of opinion on that. What we do share in a common goal, I think Dr. Chen would probably agree, is that we want people to wear masks when they’re indoors. So let’s focus on the area where we agree, and not keep focusing on the controversial mask mandate.

Which is a gross misrepresentation of Dr. Chen’s position. But we’ll leave that aside and get to the governor’s kicker.

Erin, you could be very helpful in this regard.

Oh, so now it’s the press’s duty to support administration policy? Is that what you’re saying? Really?

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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.