Hey, is Jim Douglas getting crotchety in his old age? Is he sporting a tinfoil hat these days? First he turns his back (in a very limited, unimpactful way) on his alma mater Middlebury College for removing the name of eugenicist Vermont Governor John Mead from a campus chapel. Now he’s gone and given his imprimatur to state Senate candidate and certified extremist John Klar.
You know, the guy who ran against Gov. Phil Scott in the Republican primary two years ago? The guy who wants to recast the VTGOP as an ultraconservative, white supremacist-adjacent organization? That guy. “We need balance in Montpelier,” Douglas wrote of Klar. “We need real-world experience. John Klar has the energy and the background to tackle our problems.”
In my previous post, I expressed a bit of puzzlement about why former governor Jim Douglas chose the New York Sun as the place to express his sudden disdain for Middlebury College. Well, now I know why: Because any Vermont publication would have asked embarrassing questions.
Douglas, for those just tuning in, is upset over the college’s decision to take former governor John Mead’s name off a chapel building because Mead was a fervent and influential proponent of eugenics. In his essay, Douglas said he was staying away from his 50th class reunion because of the anesthetic-free Meadectomy.
I’ll miss seeing my classmates and reminiscing about our college days. My regret would be greater, however, if I were to pretend that I was happy to be there, in the shadow of Mead Chapel, the scene of the College’s expunction of the Governor’s legacy.
Time to call bullshit.
Douglas may have skipped his class reunion, but he gave no indication that he would give up the “Executive in Residence” title he’s enjoyed at Middlebury since 2011, or that he would cease his part-time teaching role. Apparently he’s not too upset about being “in the shadow of Mead Chapel” to completely absent himself from campus.
Ever notice how almost every photograph of former Vermont governor Jim Douglas looks the same? The not-quite-convincing smile, the middle-disance stare, the resolutely dead eyes? It’s almost as if he’s thinking to himself, “I wonder what puppy tastes like.”
Well, something has finally shattered that phlegmatic exterior. What, might you ask, is capable of piercing Douglas’ impregnable fortress of blanditude?
An alleged insult against a dead white guy.
Douglas, who could have had his pick of Vermont media outlets to carry his thoughts, took to the digital-only pages of the New York Sun, a conservative outlet that has nothing to do with the original city paper, to post his screed about why he’d decided to boycott his 50th class reunion at Middlebury College.
He did so because the college had the temerity to rename the Mead Memorial Chapel. It had borne the name of former Vermont governor John Mead, but the college took down his name because, uhh, Mead had been a proponent of eugenics.
Pish tush, says Douglas. A lot of people were pro-eugenics in the early 20th Century. And aside from that little flaw, Douglas says, Mead was “a decent man, as well as a generous benefactor” and a veteran of the Civil War to boot.
Problem is, John Mead wasn’t just some random dude who thought the gene pool needed a little purification. He used his platform as governor to call for an official policy of eugenics in Vermont, which led to one of the darkest periods in our history.
[In 1912,] Mead gave a farewell address to the Vermont Legislature in which he advocated for the use of eugenic theory in creating legislation and policy. His comments in that speech about marriage restrictions, segregation and sterilization inspired the research behind the Eugenics Survey of Vermont and led to the legalization of voluntary eugenical sterilization two decades later.
What will it take to make us stop calling Phil Scott a Nice GuyTM?
Even as the House failed, by one vote each*, to override two of Scott’s vetoes, he came out and promised yet another. This time, the victim is S.234, a bill making changes in Act 250 designed to encourage housing construction.
*Special place in political hell for Rep. Thomas Bock, a Democrat who voted for the clean heat standard bill and switched his vote on the override at the last minute without informing leadership.
For those keeping track, and I sure as hell am, that will be his 31st veto. He’s threatening another on the budget bill, and he’s vetoed plenty of budgets in the past.
Scott continues to put more and more distance between himself and the rest of the Vermont gubernatorial field like Chase Elliott in a Soap Box Derby. The past record-holder, Howard Dean, racked up a “mere” 21 vetoes. Of course, he was governor for almost twelve full years and Scott is only partway through his sixth.
Jim Douglas vetoed 19 bills, but he served four full terms to Scott’s three and a half.
There is no competition. Phil Scott is the Veto King.
First, what exactly makes him a Nice Guy? The disarming smile? It sure isn’t policy.
Second, how can any Democrat vote for Scott and claim to support their party’s agenda? Scott has prevented the Legislature from taking stronger action not only with those 31-and-counting vetoes, but with the ever-present threat of even more. He’ll do it. You know he will.
First, he isn’t a nice guy, but he plays one on TV.
Paul Dame, freshly squeezed Vermont Republican Party chair (pictured above in his natural state), has put out an end-of-year best-of list designed to buoy VTGOP spirits. But when you read it, well, it’s kinda sad.
In his latest weekly email blast, which I get in my inbox So You Don’t Have To, he offers the party’s “Top 5 Moments of 2021.” (It was also posted on Vermont Daily Carbuncle because they need all the free content they can get, and you can find it there if you care to.) And I tell ya, the strain really shows. He had to dig pretty darn deep to get all the way to five.
And one of those five had nothing to do with Vermont. At all.
Meanwhile, Gov. Phil Scott’s management of Covid-19 doesn’t make the list. This, despite the fact that Scott managed things quite well for the first seven months of the year and since then, has hewed to Republican principles in refusing to impose new mandates despite the worsening of the pandemic. You’d think that would count for something, but not in VTGOPland. Scott famously has as little to do with his party as possible; apparently the feeling is mutual.
The House Democrats’ ill-considered pension reform plan was the icing on the cake, the topper in a series of events that expose the fundamentally centrist nature of the party and its officeholders.
And this I trace to the all-encompassing influence of one Harlan Sylvester.
For those just tuning in, Sylvester is a longtime money manager who shuns the limelight — but for decades, he has been the kingmaker of Vermont politics. You don’t get to the top of the heap without his blessing. And it sure seems like the modern Democratic Party has been fashioned according to his fiscally conservative taste.
There have been occasional press profiles about him, and they all describe him the same way. Peter Freyne, 2000: “Mr. Sylvester has had the cocked ear of Vermont governors going all the way back to Tom Salmon in the 1970s.” Freyne quoted then-UVM political science professor Garrison Nelson thusly: “Harlan loves conservative Democrats. He wants to erase the gap between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.”
Rutland Herald, 2002: “it was Harlan Sylvester’s considerable influence and strategic skills that helped put [Republican Jim Douglas,] the apparent underdog candidate, in office.”
In 2010, Freyne’s successor Shay Totten described Sylvester as “The most powerful man in Vermont politics.” Totten also quoted Prof. Nelson: “He’s got access to people with real money, and those people with real money will invest in politicians who will protect their interests.”
So that’s Mr. Sylvester, who is in his late 80s but his power has not been visibly diminished. From what I’ve heard, he remains the power behind the throne.
And now let’s look at what the Democratic Party has become.
At the end of last week, we got a sizeable Friday newsdump from an unusual source: State Treasurer Beth Pearce. In a report on the state’s public pension funds, she called for new limits on pensions for state employees and teachers. It was duly reported, first by VPR and then by VTDigger, but neither story captured the significance of Pearce’s pivot.
This is, in my view, the single biggest position shift by a top Democratic officeholder since Peter Shumlin abandoned single-payer health care in 2014. That move brought Shumlin’s political career to an ignoble conclusion, since he’d staked his governorship on delivering single-payer. I doubt that Pearce will have to slink off into the darkness, but she might not get the rapturous receptions at party functions that she’s gotten used to.
The pension plans don’t have enough funds to pay promised benefits because, through most of Howard Dean’s governorship and about half of Jim Douglas’, the state consistently shorted its annual contribution. Many have called for a shift from defined-benefit to a 401K-style defined-contribution plan. The former promises definite retirement benefits; the latter only promises to contribute money to the plan. Actual benefits depend on the health of the pension fund.
Pearce had been a champion of retaining defined-benefit. She’s an expert at public finance, so her view has carried a lot of weight. Now, she has abandoned that position. She still supports defined-benefit plans… but she has effectively changed her definition of the term. That’s a big, hairy deal. It puts legislative Democrats under pressure to go along with pension cuts — and that threatens to drive a wedge between the Vermont Democratic Party and two of its biggest supporters: the Vermont State Employees Association and the Vermont National Education Association.
I can’t say I blame her, given her recitation of the facts. But this could touch off a political shitstorm.
Just as he and Gov. Phil Scott did in 2016, Scott Milne has taken his ballot and run and hid in the Jim Douglas Panic Room. “I’m voting for Jim Douglas,” Milne said in a Monday appearance on WDEV’s Dave Gram Show. “As of today, my plan is to vote for Jim Douglas, but I’m going to vote on Election Day.”
Nice. He resorts to the write-in, but leaves himself an escape hatch in the Panic Room.
Both Mine and the governor have repeatedly indicated their distaste for President Trump. And in 2016, both opted to write in The Beau Ideal of the VTGOP. (The Gov has yet to declare how he will vote this year.)
I suppose Milne would explain his vote as an endorsement of moderate Republicanism and a wish that more Republicans acted like Jim Douglas. By which he means working with all parties, not the other stuff — the employment of attack-dog Jim Barnett in his campaigns and his opposition to marriage equality and his often contentious relationship with the Democratic Legislature.
But even if you ignore the flaws in Douglas’ good-guy image, there’s a less flattering way to look at Milne’s presidential choice.
Seems to me that what he’s saying is he’d rather toss his ballot in the dumpster than ever, ever, ever vote for a Democrat. Even Joe Biden, who has a reputation very much like Douglas’ for getting along with everybody.
So what kind of bipartisanship is that, anyway? If you dislike Trump so much, why not cast your vote in the most effective way possible — for Joe Biden?
Because voting for a Democrat is a bridge too far for these guys, even when their own party’s leader is a racist crypto-fascist kleptocrat.
It seemed remarkably civilized after Donald Trump’s attempt to run roughshod over debate protocol (and the foundations of our Republic), but the second major media faceoff between Gov. Phil Scott and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman was a lively affair that managed to provide some light in addition to heat.
As in the first debate, Zuckerman put on a clinic on how to confront Scott, while the governor often seemed overly defensive, even a bit surly. And as in round 1, it’s unlikely to make any difference in the election outcome.
I’ve noticed an increasing tendency in Scott to bristle in the face of close questioning. He frequently interrupted Zuckerman and misrepresented the Lite-Gov’s record. Has he gotten soft after months of nearly universal praise? Or is he starting to harbor a sense of entitlement after three years in office?
Whatever, it was a rare slip of the mask for Mr. Nice Guy.
Y’know, if Vermont was half as progressive as its Bernie-fueled image, Zuckerman would have a decent chance at becoming the next governor. Unfortunately for him, the electorate leans more center-left than left. Sanders’ coattails are much shorter than you’d think. And Vermont voters like to think of themselves as balanced, and our political system as exceptionally civil. That’s why we quickly embrace people like Scott and Jim Douglas who put a pleasant face on traditional Republicanism. (And it’s why Scott Milne is eagerly grasping for the same electable image.)
If Vermont’s “progressive” electorate was serious about progressive policies, they’d reject a guy who is nearing the all-time record for vetoes. In three years, Scott has racked up 19 — and counting; during the debate he hinted at a veto on the cannabis tax-and-regulate bill.
The record holder is Howard Dean with 20. And it took Dean eight years to rack up 20 vetoes; it’s taken Scott less than three years to equal Dean’s total. Also, most of Dean’s vetoes were on relatively small-bore legislation — a bill to legalize the sale of sparklers, a change in members of the Fire Service Training Council, a measure aimed at quicker removal of abandoned motor vehicles.
Scott, on the other hand, aims his fire at the biggest targets. He has vetoed three separate budget bills, which is unprecedented in Vermont history. He has vetoed many of the Legislature’s top priorities; this year’s vetoes included minimum wage, paid family leave and the Global Warming Solutions Act. And might yet include cannabis. His veto record is quantum orders beyond Dean’s or Douglas’. Or any other governor in state history.
In short, Phil Scott is a huge obstacle to the Democratic/Progressive agenda. Yet the voters seem intent on giving him a third term, even as they return lopsided Dem/Prog majorities to the House and Senate. If you think voters decide based on the issues, think again.
Return with me now to the halcyon days of 2012, when Peter Shumlin was still popular and a fresh-faced young prosecutor from up Burlington way took on the seemingly impossible task of challenging Vermont’s Eternal General Bill Sorrell in the Democratic primary. Sorrell had held the office of attorney general since 1997 and had been repeatedly re-elected, as is our general custom with statewide officeholders other than governor. Many believed that by 2012, ol’ Billy was long past his sell-by date. Others thought he wasn’t particularly qualified in the first place, but those people are obvious malcontents. (Like, for instance, the late Peter Freyne.)
Ultimately, thanks to a last-ditch infusion of cash on Sorrell’s behalf from the Democratic Attorneys General Association, TJ Donovan’s bid to unseat the incumbent came up just a little bit short. Sorrell won the primary by a puny 714 votes out of more than 41,000 cast.
But Donovan was widely hailed for his chutzpah and, more to the point, for very nearly pulling it off.
So let me ask you this. Whatever happened to that brave, headstrong young man with a limitless political future?
I mean, there’s A Guynamed TJ Donovan around. In fact, he became AG in the 2016 election, after Sorrell retired. He looks a lot like the ambitious young pol of 2012, but as time goes by, he’s acting more and more like his predecessor.