Tag Archives: Ginny Lyons

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.

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Ethical issues in Dean Corren’s TV campaign

Questions have been raised about a couple of Dean Corren’s TV ads. One of them claims that incumbent Lt. Gov. Phil Scott has been endorsed by Right to Life; another shows a series of high-profile politicos who’ve endorsed Corren, but includes a picture of two state senators who have not.

The former is explored by the Freeploid’s Nancy Remsen today. The ad in question features several women talking about reproductive rights. (Their names are not mentioned; one of them is state Democratic Party chair Dottie Deans.) They extol Corren’s support of reproductive rights, and then one of them says “Dean Corren is endorsed by Planned Parenthood; his opponent, by Right to Life.”

Kerfuffle ensues.

Phil Scott insists he is pro-choice, although he does support parental notification for minors seeking abortions, which is one of Right to Life’s pet causes. (It sounds fine in theory, but in practice, a lot of girls seeking abortions come from troubled homes. In some cases, they were impregnated by a family member. Parental notification opens a big fat can of worms.)

In fact, Right to Life has not endorsed Scott, but it has “recommended” him. Corren says this is a distinction without a difference: Scott has Right to Life’s support, if not technically the endorsement. The ad doesn’t mischaracterize Scott’s positions; it just points out that he’s backed by an anti-abortion group.

The Corren people could change the narration to say “Dean Corren is endorsed by Planned Parenthood; his opponent is supported by Right to Life.” The impact of the ad would be unchanged. I don’t think it’s that big a deal either way.

As for the other ad… it starts with Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsing Corren. (Well, technically, he says “I’m voting for Dean Corren,” so maybe Phil Scott would argue that that’s not an “endorsement.”)

And then, for a solid five seconds, there’s a still photo of several Dem and/or Prog officeholders posing together.

I hadn't realized our Auditor was so butch.

I hadn’t realized our Auditor was so butch.

From left to right, we have Sen. Ginny Lyons, Sen. Tim Ashe, Cong. Peter Welch, Auditor Doug Hoffer, Dean Corren, Sen. Phil Baruth, and Sen. David Zuckerman.

After that, the ad cycles through other images and names, and ends with Bernie.

But that one picture is the problem. Lyons and Ashe have not endorsed Corren. Lyons has pointedly not made an endorsement; Ashe has been silent.

The ad is factually accurate. It doesn’t claim endorsements from Lyons or Ashe. But the implication is obvious, and it’s misleading. That picture is on screen for five seconds, which is an eternity in TV ad time. And the big colorful campaign signs clearly identify the two senators, tying them visibly to the endorsement list.

Otherwise, the ad is excellent. It’s well-produced and effective. It drives home the point that Corren is supported by a broad range of liberal and progressive individuals and groups. But that one image is deceptive. It’s within the letter of the law, but violates the spirit. I’d expect better from Corren.

Fear and Loathing in the State Senate

Really well-reported piece by VTDigger’s Laura Krantz on the fact that more Democratic state senators have endorsed Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott than his Prog/Dem challenger Dean Corren. (Current tally is 7 Scott, 5 Corren, and 9 hiding under their desks. Including fellow Prog/Dem Tim Ashe, who should be ashamed of himself.)

The thesis, as provided by Prog/Dem Dave Zuckerman, is that Senators are afraid to cross the entrenched Senate leadership, particularly the three-man Committee on Committees. (And I do mean “man.”) The Committee has one pivotal function: making committee assignments, including chairmanships. The Committee, by law, consists of (1) the Lieutenant Governor, (2) the Senate President Pro Tem, and (3) one other Senator, chosen by the entire Senate.

The Three Wise Guys, plus Peter Galbraith's good side. Photo borrowed from the collection of Paul "Shutterbug" Heintz.

The Three Wise Guys, plus Peter Galbraith’s good side. Photo borrowed from the collection of Paul “Shutterbug” Heintz.

#1 is Phil Scott. #2 is John Campbell, a self-described Democrat who loudly supports Scott. #3 is the apparently untouchable Dick Mazza, a nominal Democrat who openly supports Scott, hosted a Scott fundraiser, and made a hefty donation to Scott’s campaign. (And who, earlier this week, delivered a gratuitous slap to Governor Shumlin at a ceremonial event. The balls on that guy.)

As Zuckerman put it:

“The maneuvering for committee assignments is a big deal … and all three members have publicly supported Scott,” Zuckerman said. One senator told him he or she was not endorsing anyone because of committee assignments, Zuckerman said.

Loyal readers (Hi, Mom) know that I’m no fan of the State Senate’s entrenched power structure and its impenetrable air of clubbiness. I am particularly not a fan of John Campbell, who brings a unique combination of arrogance and passivity to the role.

But boy-o-boy, he’s full of fire when it comes to Dean Corren, who maybe spat in Campbell’s oatmeal in the State House cafeteria.

Campbell called Corren a “one-issue candidate” and disingenuous for seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor even though he had hard feelings for Democrats when he served in the House from 1993 to 2000.

Yeah, well, Corren has campaigned strongly and consistently on at least FOUR issues — health care, climate change, renewable energy, and encouraging entrepreneurialism — so Campbell is wrong there. As for things Corren said more than 15 years ago, Jeezum, can’t a guy learn from his mistakes?  Nobody batted an eye over Vince Illuzzi’s campaign for Attorney General, in spite of an extremely spotty ethics record in the 80s and 90s.

Back to the main point, which is fear of being banished to the Committee on Mumblety-Peg and Other Childhood Pastimes. No one is admitting to a fear-based endorsement (or non-endorsement), but several Senators offered Krantz some truly unconvincing reasons for their stands on the Lite-Gov race.

Ginny Lyons is not endorsing. She says it’s because she “believes in a two-party system.”

“As much as we support the Progressive concepts and ideas, when you’ve got three people running it splits parties up,” she said.

Yeah, except in this race, you don’t HAVE three people running. In fact, you have a candidate who won the Democratic primary fair and square, and won the endorsement of the state party committee, which you’d think would be as interested as Ginny Lyons in maintaining Democratic primacy.

Of course, Lyons has first-hand experience with the Committee on Committees: she chaired the Natural Resources Committee for an entire decade, but was removed without explanation in 2012 in favor of Good Old Boy Bob Hartwell. Now she’d like to win back her former post, but she’ll have to earn the favor of Campbell, Mazzas and Scott to do so.

Michael Sirotkin, the Senate’s junior member, begged off because he is “too fixated on his own race to endorse.” As if it would occupy more than five minutes to make an endorsement.

The same excuse sounds even more transparent coming from Jeanette “I’m focusing on my race” White, whose re-election is a virtual certainty because there are no Republicans or Progressives on the ballot in her district. 

Profiles in courage.

Oh, and Peter “The Slummin’ Solon” Galbraith, still firing shots on his way out the door, slammed Corren for not being a Democrat (as though Galbraith was any kind of example of party loyalty):

“If you’re not going to run as a Democrat, you’re not going to get the Democratic endorsement,” he said.

Well, actually, Pete, he IS running as a Democrat, and he DID get the Democratic endorsement. He just didn’t get yours. And besides, didn’t you just endorse Republican Roger Allbee for a Democratic nomination in your district? That didn’t seem to bother you.

As a liberal who wants to see small-P progressive policies,and wants the Democrats to use their well-earned political muscle to move the state to the left (just as George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan used their muscle to move the nation to the right), the State Senate’s combination of stasis, timidity, and self-satisfaction makes me ill.

There are plenty of good people in that chamber, I know for a fact. But the institution as a whole needs to be turned upside down and shaken until all the junk falls out. We should begin by dumping Dick Mazza from the Committee on Committees, and while we’re at it, finding a new President Pro Tem.

 

 

VHC and the NFL

The National Football League, the unstoppable beast of modern sports, is having a bad time of it. Commissioner Roger Goodell, team owners, and players are under scrutiny for what appears to be an epidemic of bad behavior toward women and children, and a casual attitude toward violent offenders.

In actual fact, there are no more or fewer incidents than there have ever been. The problem is the league’s hypocrisy, backtracking, dishonesty, and double-dealing. Or, as we learned from the Watergate scandal — well, we should have learned it — it’s not the crime that gets you, it’s the cover-up. If the NFL had gotten out in front and taken plausibly strong action, its current PR crisis would never have happened.

Which brings me to Vermont Health Connect, our long-troubled and (temporarily?) sidelined health care exchange. And particularly the need for a heavy dose of the best disinfectant: sunshine.

To begin with the takeaway: Please, let there be no more surprises. If there are unrevealed problems, call a news conference ASAP and get all the bad stuff out in the open at once. No more dribs and drabs, no more Friday afternoon newsdumps; just a public accounting for everything. Take heed of the NFL’s tribulations, made worse every time new information comes out or a prominent figure sticks his foot in his mouth.

Maybe there’s no bad news left. Maybe we know it all. That would be great, if true. But the Administration’s recent track record doesn’t fill me with confidence.

Go back, first of all, to the Friday afternoon newsdump to end all Friday afternoon newsdumps: the release of the Optum report detailing serious problems with the state’s oversight of the VHC website’s construction. Not problems with the technology or software; but serious management shortcomings by Shumlin Administration officials. The report was released the Friday before Labor Day, so maybe you missed it.

At the time, the words of responsible officials were not reassuring. Health care reform chief Lawurence Miller said the Optum report would help chart “the best way forward,” which seemed to preclude any accounting for past maladministration. And Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson, who has since been sidelined from VHC oversight, allowed as to how his takeaway from the report was that “we have worked hard with our vendor partners.”

Well, yeah, hard. But not effectively.

On September 15 came the temporary VHC shutdown. It was first announced as a way to streamline repairs and upgrades in advance of the next open enrollment period. It made sense, and I praised it at the time: stop futzing around, get it fixed, and set the stage for the single-payer debate.

Since then, a couple things have happened that cast doubt on my sunny interpretation. A few days later, VTDigger’s Morgan True reported that the VHC shutdown had as much to do with a site-security crisis as with a sudden onset of managerial diligence.

Over the summer the federal government provided a timeline for reducing security risks, which expired 10 days ago…

Miller and Harry Chen, the secretary of the Agency of Human Services, decided to take down the website last weekend because the state was unable to meet a Sept. 8 federal deadline for security controls; the determination was not the result of a security breach or a specific threat.

“Rather than asking for more time, we decided to disconnect from the federal hub,” Miller said.

Miller could not rule out the possibility that the feds might have ordered a VHC shutdown if the state had failed to act.

Which puts quite a different complexion on the shutdown. And Miller didn’t reassure much when, speaking about security issues, he had trouble with verb tenses:

… it needs to be a high priority; it needed to be a higher priority than it was.

A curiously passive tone, methinks.

The very next day, we learned that top state lawmakers were displeased that they learned of the VHC shutdown through the media. Sen. Ginny Lyons, chair of the Senate Health Care Oversight Committee, said “We’re legislators, so we need to know.” Miller’s response? Officials kept it quiet for security reasons.

“The nature of the announcement was also an abundance of caution. Security advisers say when you’re going to do something for security reasons you do not telegraph that ahead of time.”

Uh, sorry, but no.

The federal government has crafted ways to share top-secret information about things like war, terrorism, and intelligence with appropriate members of Congress. I think Shumlin’s people could have passed a quiet word to, say, legislative leadership and the chairs of the health care committees. I think those people could have been trusted to keep a secret, for a couple of days, for good reason.

Miller’s explanation, of course, implies that lawmakers cannot be trusted. I think if I were Ginny Lyons or Mike Fisher, I’d be insulted by that.

And next winter, when Shumlin starts the push for single-payer, he’s going to need the support, good will, and trust of those leaders. Well, Miller as much as said he didn’t trust them.

I sincerely hope we’ve emptied out the Pandora’s Box of VHC. If there are still some dark, unexamined corners and crevices, then I implore the Administration to throw open the lid and let the sun shine in.