Something stinks around here, and it looks like the Powers That Be are scrambling to keep anyone from identifying the source of the stench.
For those just tuning in, tonight’s VTDigger brings us the happy tidings of an agreement between federal prosecutors and Bill Stenger, one of the defendants in the EB-5 fraud case. The two sides have agreed on what evidence will be presented in Stenger’s case… and in exchange, Stenger’s lawyers won’t force a whole bunch of well-connected Vermonters to testify under oath.
See, Stenger’s defense had argued that state officials knew about the fraud long before it was publicly revealed and did nothing to stop it. Given the contents of a recent document dump, it’s clear that Team Shumlin knew a great deal and did their best to keep it under the rug. So their appearances under oath would have been at least embarrassing and perhaps incriminating.
The Vermonters in question include former governor Peter Shumlin and at least five top officials in his administration. They would have taken the stand next week, so this deal is a last-minute reprieve for these worthies. And yet another roadblock in the path of public disclosure. This fraud goes back at least a decade, and we’ve still only seen the faint outlines of official complicity.
Imagine, just for shits and giggles, Shumlin takes the stand and his testimony is at odds with the evidentiary record. Or he ducks the questions and pleads the Fifth. Not a good look, that.
I’ve written about this before, but it took on fresh urgency this week after the Supreme Court’s little knife job on abortion rights. Where is Sen. Patrick Leahy? What is he doing about this?
There are a number of things he could be doing. If he’s limited himself to criticism of the court’s ruling, I’m sorry. That’s no better than “hopes and prayers” right now.
For starters, he needs to spearhead the movement to reform the filibuster. At minimum, we should go back to its traditional form: You have to take the floor and stay there, instead of merely filing an email once a day. The abortion rights bill that Speaker Nancy Pelosi is just empty talk unless there’s serious filibuster reform, because there’s no way the bill would get 10 Republican votes or more.
Leahy is a powerful figure in the Senate, and he has yet to provide a clear statement of his stance on the filibuster. Last time I checked, I got this smidge of boilerplate from pres aide David Carle:
He continues to discuss this with other senators, and there’s a lot of that going on.
Good stuff, that. Especially since the reproductive rights of every woman in a red state are now in the judicial crosshairs. Maybe he could pick up the pace on those discussions?
Leahy is also the senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a past committee chair. He’s in a strong position to push for court reform — adding new justices, reining in the high court’s powers, etc. What’s he doing? Anything?
It’s almost a given in #vtpoli circles that Gov. Phil Scott will run for U.S. Senate. The question is when — in 2022, against Pat Leahy or [insert Democrat here], or 2024 against Bernie Sanders or [insert Democrat here]. Many believe Scott would be unbeatable against anyone but St. Patrick or Bernie. Or even including St. Patrick and Bernie.
It’s the best available speculative topic we’ve got, given the placidity of our political scene. We just had the least contentious legislative session in years, and it’s left Scott and the Democrats practically singing “Kumbaya.” There’s no fun in handicapping the 2022 race for governor, assuming Scott wants a fourth term. The biggest “drama” about the next election cycle is whether Doug Hoffer will retire as auditor and clear the way for his newly-minted deputy Tim Ashe, but that’s not exactly clickbait, no offense.
So, speculation abounds. And all of it is likely to remain just that. Because it says here Scott isn’t running for Senate next year or anytime thereafter.
The usual caveat: I’ve got a spotty record as a prognosticator, to put it kindly. Grain of salt. But I do have reason to believe.
Well, it’s Monday, and once again we’ve got a full crop of stupidity in the public sphere. I didn’t intend for this to be a weekly feature, but hey, if they keep serving up the meatballs, I’ll keep swinging for the fences.
This week, the stupid was strong in positions of prominence. We’ve got a U.S. Senator, a State Senate committee, a state’s attorney, and not one but two agencies in the Scott administration. So let’s not keep these important slash self-important folks waiting.
To begin, we’ve got our first-ever Provisional Veepie and our first-ever Sub-Veepie. The P.V. is the I’ma Throw Everybody Under the Bus Award, which goes to none other than St. Patrick Leahy. It’s provisional because it’s about an anonymous second-hand quote from Politico, so there’s a chance that Leahy didn’t say, or mean, this. But if he did, what a doozy.
The article reports that Leahy is expected to run for re-election next year. It includes this line: “The 81-year-old has also indicated to them that he believes he’s ‘the only Democrat that can win the seat,’ said a person briefed on the conversations.”
Woof. Way to simultaneously diss every Democrat in Vermont, Senator.
West Virginia’s occasionally Democratic Senator Joe Manchin gets a lot of grief in liberal circles because of his fondness for the filibuster. And yes, he’s a roadblock. But it says here that our very own liberal lion, Pat Leahy, isn’t materially different from Manchin.
Leahy is one of a number of Democratic senators who’ve been maddeningly opaque on the filibuster. It takes some doing to find any public statement by Leahy on the subject. The most recent one I could find was from way back in mid-November in the Washington Post:
“I agree with Thomas Jefferson [who] said, you know, it’s the saucer where things cool,” Leahy responded. “What I want to do though is see us come back to voting on things.”
This quote is taken from Vote Save America’s rundown of each senator’s known position on the filibuster. And it’s pretty damn close to an endorsement of the filibuster.
But hey, that was months ago, and maybe his tune has changed in the face of Republican obstructionism. So I wrote to David Carle, Leahy’s comms guy, and asked him for the Senator’s present position. This is what I got in return.
He continues to discuss this with other senators, and there’s a lot of that going on.
In purely political terms, the Covid pandemic is the best thing that’s ever happened to Gov. Phil Scott. He got to be seen as a decisive leader simply by outperforming the likes of Donald Trump. Throughout the 2020 campaign, he enjoyed a twice-weekly platform on live statewide television and radio. He absolutely dominated every news cycle, and walked to victory in something bigger than a landslide.
And now, state government is swimming in federal relief cash — with more likely on the way. Trump’s CARES Act provided the equivalent of 20 percent of Vermont’s GDP. President Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act is pumping in even more. And if Biden gets his infrastructure bill through, Vermont will get a third massive infusion in less than two years’ time.
The CARES Act alone floated Vermont through 2020 “in aggregate,” as state economist Jeffrey Carr put it. There was pain aplenty, to be sure. But there were winners as well, and the impact was greatly softened by the federal government’s ability (and willingness) to deficit spend. The governor is dead set against raising revenue or increasing the size of state government, but he’s perfectly happy to take whatever the feds will give him.
On Tuesday, Scott unveiled his billion-dollar plan to use a big chunk of the federal ARPA money. It includes just about everything on everybody’s wish list, and provides a huge boost to state initiatives that Scott insisted we couldn’t afford on our own. And the money will be spent over the next four years, which will make it extremely difficult to run against Scott in the next two cycles.
Vermont is about to receive another tsunami of federal Covid relief. Thanks in part to the diligent “bring home the bacon” efforts of our Congressional delegation, Vermont will be among the top recipients of per capita federal aid. The American Rescue Plan, passed by the U.S. Senate on Saturday, would provide $1.25 billion for Vermont, according to Baconator-in-Chief Pat Leahy. That’s equal to the amount we got from last year’s CARES Act.
And until the last dollar is spent, there is no excuse for any Vermonter to be struggling. That is, if the Scott administration and the Legislature follow one simple rule: Prioritize relief for those hit hardest by the pandemic. Only then should you think about anything else.
Since the pandemic began, the Vermont Foodbank has been overwhelmed. In 2020, it set an all-time record for delivering food to those in need. Total food distribution was 113% higher than in 2019. And the demand has remained high. “The need has not gone down,” Foodbank CEO John Sayles told me.”Our 300 partners around the state all continue to see the heightened levels we’ve seen since last March.”
As long as there are unspent federal dollars, this should not happen. The food banks ought to be empty. Crickets, tumbleweeds, dust on the canned goods.
Sayles offered plenty of praise for steps the state has taken to reduce hunger, and said his request for fiscal year 2022 has gotten a “really positive response.” If that’s true, I asked him, why has the demand stayed at record levels? “So many people have had massive economic disruption,” he said, citing a UVM study that found 50% of Vermonters have had some kind of financial disruption since the pandemic hit.
Full credit to our political leaders for accomplishing much, but we could be doing even more. Food-insecure Vermonters should be at the front of the line, along with others hard hit by the pandemic. They include people with substance use or mental health issues, and small businesses in sectors like small retail, hospitality and tourism.
What shouldn’t happen is that the money gets used for wish-list projects or non-Covid-related issues.
As promised, my lukewarm takes on the Vermont election results in the customary slash lazy columnist “Winners and Losers” style.
Winner Winner Chicken Dinner: Gov. Phil Scott. Highest vote total in history for any gubernatorial candidate. Rode his adequate handling of the pandemic to a lopsided victory over a game but under-resourced Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman. More than half of the Joe Biden voters crossed party lines to elect Scott.
Just to pin that down, Scott unofficially has 248,248 votes while Zuckerman failed to crack six figures. Biden finished with 242,680. Or compare Scott to his Republican ticketmates: Donald Trump took 112,507 votes, Miriam Berry (sacrificial lamb to Peter Welch) 95,763. The voters returned lopsided (and only marginally diminished) Dem/Prog majorities to the Legislature.
Scott also saw the Dems’ chances of overriding his frequent vetoes take a hit, with the loss of a few House seats. Every single seat matters when you’re trying to get to 100. Plus, the Dems and Progs will have to identify new House leadership. A new Speaker needs at least a year to learn the ropes.
If there’s a formula for defeating Phil Scott, the Democrats have yet to identify it. Hell, this year they kinda stopped trying. Which will come back to bite them if Scott makes a run for the next U.S. Senate opening. Successor to Bernie Sanders? There’s some bitter irony for you. (He’d have to relinquish the governorship in 2021 to take on Pat Leahy or [insert Democrat here] in 2022. I don’t see him doing that.)
Losers: Capital-P Progressives and their infrastructure. The good news for the Progs is that they managed to add a seat in the House. Otherwise, 2020 has been a disaster. Tim Ashe bombed out in the LG primary, Zuckerman cratered last night, they lost their two House caucus leaders, Robin Chesnut-Tangerman and Diana Gonzalez*, and Sen. Chris Pearson continues to be the least popular member of the Chittenden delegation.
*Note: After she announced she was stepping away from the Legislature, Gonzalez was replaced by Selene Colburn in the deputy leader role. So it’s incorrect to say that the Progs lost both leaders in the election, although they did lose both during the course of the year.
Until proven otherwise, Bernie Sanders has no coattails. There is no evidence that he can push a Progressive or progressive to victory in Vermont. If he’s building a legacy or a movement that will survive his personal appeal, he ain’t doing it here.
I also have to ask: What exactly does Rights & Democracy accomplish? They spend a lot of money, much of it from Sts. Ben and Jerry, to no visible effect. I see little sign that they’re building a movement that can influence Vermont politics. Or New Hampshire politics, for that matter, since R&D is a twin-state organization. The NH Dems held serve in Congress, but failed to take down Gov. Chris Sununu and are on track for minority status in the NH House and Senate.
I’m sure the progressive Twitterverse will be all over me for this, but look, I’d love to live in a world where we’ve just elected Bernie or (my choice) Elizabeth Warren and we won 55 U.S. Senate seats and we were poised to create the Green Economy and enact universal health care and some serious regulation of the financial sector and court reforms and voting rights protections. But we don’t. And I see no objective evidence to support the notion that there’s an invisible army of progressive voters just waiting for the right “messaging” to get them stampeding to the polls.
After the jump: Room on the Democratic ladder, limited gains for the VTGOP, and more.
For the entirety of our general election season, there will be only one public opinion poll that took the temperature of the race. That would be the September VPR/VPBS poll, conducted by the estimable Rich Clark.
The results of said poll, released about two weeks ago, were very good for Republicans. Gov. Phil Scott had a commanding 21-point lead over Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman. In a hypothetical 2022 matchup with Sen. Patrick Leahy, Scott had a rather stunning four-point lead. In the Lite-Gov race, Scott Milne was a little behind Molly Gray; the latter two results were within the poll’s margin of error. Also, the governor had a higher approval rating than any of Vermont’s three members of Congress — even Bernie.
This poll looms large in the narrative of the campaign because, well, it’s the only one. But what if the poll missed the mark? There’s reason to think that it significantly underestimates support for Democrats. We won’t know for sure until the votes are counted, but here’s the case for That Poll Was Hot Garbage.
Scott Milne started the general election season with a vow to run an issues-oriented campaign. He backed it up with his big glossy 60-point ProgressVT action plan.
And ever since, he’s used ProgressVT as a fig leaf for an overwhelmingly negative campaign. Which is par for the course. This is, after all, the guy who ran an entirely negative campaign against Sen. Partick Leahy that included an amateurish TV ad that accused Leahy of having contracted “the DiCa Virus,” short for District of Columbia and a dumb play on the Zika virus. The spot looks even worse in retrospect, now that we’re actually in a battle with a deadly pandemic.
We got another taste of The Gutter’s menu on Monday, aided and abetted by WPTZ anchor/reporter/apparent Milne honk Stewart Ledbetter. (Who, in a mere two days, will be moderating a debate between the two candidates. Yeesh.)
On a day when Gray held a press conference announcing endorsements by 15 state senators, Ledbetter obtained a list of tweets sent from Democrat Molly Gray’s campaign account during business hours — when she was supposed to be working as an assistant attorney general. His report, which is partially available on Channel 5’s website (the video cuts off before the end), begins by recounting the endorsement event. He notes, as did I, that Gray’s list doesn’t include eight members of the majority caucus.
He then pivots to footage of Milne pointing out the senatorial absences with that familiar smirk on his face.
And then Ledbetter rolls out the Twitter bit. Or, as he put it, “A new list of Twitter posts emerged Monday with timestamps suggesting Gray conducted some campaign activities during the workday.”
Yeah, ha ha ha, “emerged.” As if out of the clear blue sky.
We know from one of the earlier debates that someone with the Milne campaign, or someone backing him, submitted a wide-ranging public records request for all Gray’s communications between the launch of her campaign and her taking a leave of absence from the AGO, hunting for signs of electioneering by Gray during business hours.
Well, they labored mightily and produced a mouse: The list of 101 allegedly offending tweets.
Gray’s response? “Every campaign has staff with access to its campaign Twitter account.”
Shocker, that. And yes, it’s standard operating procedure for campaign staff to tweet approved messages. Milne’s got nothing. I’m not surprised; in my experience, Gray was very careful to confine her campaigning to non-work hours until she took her leave.
What Milne or his backers were hoping to find was clear evidence of campaigning on the taxpayer’s dime. And all they got was a few dozen tweets from a campaign account that’s accessible by others in Gray’s campaign team.