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.
For the third weekend in a row, Vermont’s top Democrats are touring the state, rallying their voters and presenting a unified front behind Sue Minter. Pat Leahy, Peter Welch, David Zuckerman, TJ Donovan, Doug Hoffer, Beth Pearce, and Jim Condos have done more than their share to help carry Minter across the finish line.
And most crucially, Bernie Sanders, who not only spent two weekends on the stump with Minter*, he gave her a tremendous infusion of campaign cash thanks to his millions of supporters across the country. It really has been a great display of unity — far beyond anything I’d hoped for when I advocated a one-weekend Bus Tour. It’s also an impressive show of the Democrats’ political star power, the depth of their talent and the breadth of their appeal.
*This weekend, he’s campaigning for Hillary Clinton in other states.
Meanwhile, on the other side, we’ve got Phil Scott. And, um…
Bravely soldiering on, pretty much carrying the entire VTGOP on his broad, manly shoulders. Or trying to.
Really, who else is there? What other Vermont Republican might hope to draw a crowd or inspire the voters?
“Leadership” is a touchstone of the Phil Scott campaign, repeated ad nauseam as if the more often you say it, the more true it becomes. And from what I can tell of his plans for the governor’s office, his version of “leadership” involves tipping the balance of power in his favor.
Whether that’s a good thing or not, I can’t say; but I doubt he’s going to openly campaign on the idea that the governor needs more power.
Here’s what I’m talking about.
First, his proposal for a 90-day limit on legislative sessions. Assuming he means 90 calendar days rather than business days, the legislature would adjourn in early April. Unless they continue to recess for Town Meeting Week, in which case either (1) it’s not really 90 days, or (b) recess wouldn’t come until mid-April, which isn’t all that different from the current session length.
But let’s say that his intent is to have legislative sessions largely (or entirely) confined to January through March. In which case, lawmakers have significantly less time to finish their business. That means fewer bills passed and less legislative oversight of the executive branch.
The all-but-certain became reality yesterday. Outgoing House Speaker Shap Smith announced he will run for lieutenant governor. Thus making him a political rarity: a person who launches a campaign for one office, abandons it, and resets a candidacy for a different office. (He had killed his bid for governor last fall due to his wife’s illness.)
I’m not surprised. In fact, I’ve been promoting the idea since I first reported it way back on February 8.
At this point, it would be awfully difficult to re-enter the gubernatorial race. …But lieutenant governor? That wouldn’t be so hard.
… Also — and this is crucial for Smith’s personal situation — the job isn’t all that tough. He bangs the gavel in the Senate, he does some soft appearances around the state. He can pretty much set his own schedule.
He’d have a high-profile role at the center of state government. And it’s a great way to build name recognition for a future run at the top job — something Smith would still like to do.
Hey, I was right! You know what they say about blind squirrels and acorns.
Our former Lieutenant Governor is continuing his all-out campaign against wind farms with his usual mix of overheated rhetoric and outright lies. As is customary with anti-wind activists, it’s a game of Whack-A-Mole: answer one argument, they quickly switch to another, and another, and another. No single argument survives scrutiny; they have to move the target and hope nobody notices. Dubie’s only been playing this game for a few months, but he’s already mastered the basics.
His latest foray was especially duplicitous: a claim that a proposed wind farm would be a hazard to aviation. Originally, he brandished a document from the Federal Aviation Administration that seemed to backstop his argument. Turns out he was misrepresenting a routine FAA notice of interest in the project. The FAA has since ruled that the wind farm poses no risk to aviation.
That hasn’t stopped Dubie from pushing this discredited talking point, brandishing his “expertise” as a longtime airline pilot — which, I guess, makes him more of an expert than the Federal Aviation Administration. Heh.
In a recent opinion piece, Dubie places the origin of his professional concern about wind turbines to an unspecified time during his tenure as Lieutenant Governor. Which looks like an attempt to rewrite history, since Dubie was a prominent advocate of wind energy — a position that put him at odds with Governor Jim Douglas, a wind-power skeptic. Dubie highlighted the need for more wind power as recently as January 2009, when he was being sworn in to his fourth term as Lite-Gov.
So when was his wind-power conversion? Apparently not during his government service. Indeed, he never raised a peep of concern about wind energy until last year, when he realized there was a plan to build a wind farm near his home.