Tag Archives: Liz Miller

The Big Power in Vermont Politics

Not Exactly As Illustrated.

As someone who’s covered #vtpoli for more than a decade, I am well aware that the usual stomping grounds of the political reporter (the Statehouse and the campaign trail) are the tip of the iceberg: The vast majority of the political world is underwater. If you interpret our politics in terms of that surface 10 percent, you’ll probably know what’s going on — but you won’t know how or why.

This isn’t a matter of shadowy figures in vape-filled rooms, or envelopes of cash handed out in the middle of the night. It’s simply a matter of who’s got the pull, how they get it, and which way they’re pulling.

There’s one looming figure on our political landscape with the clout and connections to pretty much always get what it wants. It’s got a wider and deeper web of influence than any other individual, party, or entity.

Maybe you’ve already guessed that I’m talking about Green Mountain Power. Now, Vermont’s biggest utility would be a force in state politics no matter what, but GMP has raised its political work to the level of fine art. It carefully curates a plausibly benevolent public image, which allows politicians of all stripes to take its side. It maintains a small army of influencers, including lobbyists, media figures, and former politicians and government officials. It’s no stretch to say that GMP is a force to be reckoned with on any issue that touches its interests; but when you lay it all out at once, it’s damn impressive.

One dimension of the GMP operation is a truly impressive list of lobbyists, as reported to the Secretary of State’s office. There are 13 names on that list, including former lawmakers and officeholders, TV anchors, and veteran presences of the Statehouse hallways and hearing rooms. That’s a lot of muscle.

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The Shappening

Shap SmithWell over a hundred people gathered in the midday sun today, to hear House Speaker Shap Smith officially launch his candidacy for Governor. The crowd was enthusiastic, and nobody keeled over from heatstroke, so there’s that. Several state lawmakers were on hand. So too, interestingly, was Governor Shumlin’s recently departed chief of staff Liz Miller. She wasn’t wearing a “Shap” sticker that I could see*, so maybe her presence was mere coincidence. Mo Vegas is, after all, the place to be.

*Tattoo, perhaps.

And if Peter Freyne were still alive, Mr. Speaker might have acquired a new nickname: the Prag Prog.

I say my record is one of pragmatic progressivism.

He also unveiled a campaign logo, “Shap” in large white letters next to a green outline of Vermont, all set against a deep blue background. I would have been tempted to go with “Shapleigh,” but that’s probably why I’m not a candidate.

Holding the event in Morrisville was, I thought, a good move. It emphasized his status as a Vermonter rather than a Statehouse insider, and underlined his speech’s emphasis on ensuring opportunity in every part of Vermont, not just Chittenden County.

My big takeaway: the event highlighted his strengths as a candidate and the big challenges he will face. Most of which revolve around the same thing: his position as Speaker and his central role in Democratic policy initiatives of the past several years.

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Lifestyles of the affluent and connected

Both halves of one of Vermont’s top power couples are on the move. Eric Miller is in line to be the next U.S. Attorney for Vermont, while loyal spouse Liz Miller just announced her exit from Governor Shumlin’s office, destination TBA.

Eric M. will presumably take a hefty pay cut in his move from principal at Sheehey, Furling & Behm to Humble Servant of the People. Liz is about to forego her six-figure salary as a H.S.O.P., but could presumably have her pick of lucrative jobs in lawyerin’, lobbyin’, or corporate fixin’.

In announcing her move, Liz M. said something that could be taken one of two ways:

Liz Miller said Thursday that the two moves are coincidental. But she said the timing was good for her to leave a grueling job as he prepares to begin one.

“It would be difficult on the bill-paying and the dog, if nothing else,” she said.

I’m pretty sure she meant “difficult on the bill-paying” as a simple statement of time management: if both of them are burning the midnight oil as H.S.O.P.s, who tends to the duties of home and hearth?

LizMillerOn the other hand, if she meant it’d be hard for a childless couple with Ivy League law degrees and a costly home on Lake Champlain, plus extensive experience and connections in Vermont’s corridors of power, to make ends meet… well, no sympathy here.

At risk of losing my License to Blog, I’m willing to accept the less silver-spoony interpretation. Although I will point out that, whatever job Liz Miller takes next, they could probably afford to hre a part-time secretary/dog walker. Hey, jobs for Vermonters.

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.