I don’t normally tune into a legislative committee hearing to get a history lesson. But that’s what I got Wednesday afternoon. It was a tough one to take.
Vermont’s women’s prison, d/b/a Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, is in really bad shape. It’s old, and was never designed to be a full-scale prison. It’s unsanitary and inadequate for inmates’ needs.
I knew that. What I didn’t know until today is that the CRCF has been that way since it first opened as a women’s prison back in 2011. The Shumlin administration moved female inmates into the already-aging facility knowing full well that it wasn’t up to par.
Congratulations to the Scott administration for finally making a long-overdue commitment to the state’s mental health system. Its FY22 capital budget includes $11.6 million to build a replacement to the rattletrap pictured above. That, in all its prefab glory, is the Middlesex Therapeutic Community Residence, which houses people who are transitioning from psychiatric hospitalization to independent living.
The MTCR was built in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, which flooded the old state psychiatric hospital in Waterbury. It was thrown up quickly using a pair of modular units, and opened in 2013 as a stopgap. Its time has come and gone.
It’s also too small for demand. Its seven beds are almost always full. The new digs would have 16 beds. The idea is that a larger step-down facility would allow more patients to be discharged from hospitals sooner, freeing up those beds and (hopefully) eliminating the constant issue of severely ill patients being parked in emergency rooms for lack of psychiatric beds.
This all sends me down Memory Lane. I’ve been following the state’s woeful efforts to rebuild the system since 2011. In the wake of Irene, the Shumlin administration announced plans to craft a new, much more community-oriented system. Such a system would theoretically require fewer inpatient beds because more people would get treatment sooner, before they got really sick.
Shumlin’s original plan for a new psychiatric hospital called for 16 beds. At the same time, embarrassingly, the then-medical director for the mental health department Dr. Jay Batra was saying the new hospital should be at least as large as Waterbury’s 50-plus beds.
At the time, administration officials pooh-poohed Batra.
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.
The latest twist in the story of Brandon del Pozo’s Twitter trolling has got to be one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen in politics. Not the most impactful, not the most scandalous, not the most significant — just the stupidest.
For those just joining us, del Pozo resignedas Burlington’s police chief last December after it was revealed that he used a burner Twitter account to criticize pesky police critic Charles WInkleman. At the time, Mayor Miro Weinberger denied all knowledge of del Pozo’s astoundingly petty tweets.
Sheesh. And if you read the entire article, you’ll realize that this isn’t the first time Weinberger has kicked this particular ball into his own goal. Quite the contrary; he’s had, to put it charitably, a tangential relationship with the truth.
It’s just sooooooo stupid. And it might just end Weinberger’s political career.
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.
In Thursday’s lieutenant governor debate, Republican Scott Milne launched an all-out attack on Democrat Molly Gray for her supposedly spendthrift agenda and, naturally, her spotty voting record. He scored some points in the process.
He also opened the door to an attack-oriented campaign at odds with his self-positioning as a moderate Nice Guy. And to considerations of each candidate’s personal history. He may live to regret that, since there are a few known skeletons in his otherwise unexplored closet. Let’s start by comparing the two candidates in their formative years.
While graduating from law school, becoming an attorney and establishing herself as a globetrotting professional deeply engaged in justice issues, Gray frequently failed to vote.
Welp, the air is out of the bouncy house. Sad to say, here we are on September 2, and there’s pretty much nothing in this woebegone Vermont campaign season to speculate about or prognosticate or even stir up the slightest semblance of interest.
That’s my big takeaway from the September 1 campaign finance reports. It’s all over but the whimpering.
Unless something huge happens, none of the statewide races look competitive. There will be, at best, only minor shifts in the makeup of the Legislature. We’ll head into a new biennium full of financial hardships and across-the-board policy challenges — with the same crew that’s given us a whole lot of status quo for the last four years.
Can you feel the excitement?
The two financial disclosures that tell the story weren’t even filed by candidates, or Vermonters. They came from the Vermont-specific political action committees funded by the Republican and Democratic Governors Associations.
The DGA’s “Our Vermont” has yet to lift a finger or spend a dime this year.
The RGA’s “A Stronger Vermont” has spent some $94,000 on a pair of polls, one in February and another in August. Otherwise, they spent a few thousand bucks on a bit of online advertising. Which tells you all you need to know about the results of those surveys: The RGA is so confident that Gov. Phil Scott will win a third term that they aren’t bothering to spend money.
Point of comparison: In the six weeks between Primary Day 2016 and October 1, 2016, the RGA spent $929,000 in support of Scott’s campaign. There was a poll in there, but the vast majority — $664,000 — bought a TV ad blitz that put Dem Sue Minter on the ropes. She never got back into the race. If the RGA saw Zuckerman as a threat, they’d be doing the same thing right now.
Election Day is still two months away, and the dynamics of the race could change. And a meteor could strike the earth. But there is no sign of a game-changing event.
Early contender for Best Inadvertent Laugh Line, 2020 General Election Edition, comes to us from Sen. Corey Parent, who’s got such a tough re-election fight on his hands that he’s devoting his spare time to managing Scott Milne’s bid for Lite-Guv. Fortunately for him, VTDigger has no laugh track, so the line is presented as if it were… serious:
Parent also said Milne “has always run campaigns based strictly on the issues.”
Corey’s a seasoned pro at this point, so it’s not too surprising that he managed to get through that line without breaking character. But still, congrats on a job well done.
Truth is, Milne is about the most issue-free major party candidate in recent memory. His two previous runs for office have featured a lot of snark, plenty of criticism for the incumbent, and virtually no actual positions or proposals on the issues.
In support of his assertion, Parent references Milne’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign: “Scott famously nearly defeated Peter Shumlin on the issue of health care.”
Well, yeah, I suppose. But Milne didn’t actually take a position on health care. He simply tried to make hay out of the disastrous rollout of Vermont Health Connect and Shumlin’s failure to enact a single-payer system. Just as he tried to make hay out of Shumlin’s other failings.
During the 2014 campaign, Milne kept promising to release a platform for his candidacy — and then delaying any announcements.
Corrections Commissioner James Baker continues to make the right noises. On Friday, after news that more than two-thirds of Vermont inmates at a Mississippi for-profit prison had tested positive for coronavirus, Baker talked of accountability and responsibility and the need for a culture change inside his department.
Now, if only he can make it happen. The DOC is a hidebound place, full of long-tenured employees whose kneejerk reaction is to defend the status quo.
In one of his first actions, Baker sent two DOC administrators to Mississippi to get a first-person look at things. He said he was “reassured” upon hearing their reports.
Not so fast, my friend. One of the two who made the trip was DOC facilities operations manager Bob Arnell. That’s the Bob Arnell who was once the superintendent of the state’s extremely troubled women’s prison.
I’m sure ol’ Bob knows all about problematic institutional culture. After all, he became superintendent after the inglorious departure of his predecessor, David Turner, who requested reassignment in 2012 “days after a report emerged that condemned the conditions” at the prison. (Turner, “a veteran employee” of the DOC, was shuffled elsewhere in the department.)
And we all know that, ever since, the women’s prison has been the very model of excellence. Oh wait.
In recent years, …guards have sexually assaulted inmates, harassed female employees, and pursued sexual relationships with women who have left the prison but remain on furlough, probation or parole — and, therefore, under DOC supervision.
That’s from a December 2019 story by Paul Heintz of Seven Days, reporting on widespread allegations of sexual misconduct and drug use in the prison — and the almost complete lack of DOC response to all of it. Except to threaten retaliation against inmates who had the guts to complain.
I don’t know how long Arnell was in place at the facility, but let’s conclude he didn’t have any perceptible impact on the “culture.” But I’m sure if he says everything is hunky-dory in Mississippi, we can take his word for it.
I dunno, I’ve never found crooked smiles all that beguiling.
Time to saddle up. Apparently I have to revisit the undistinguished electoral career of Scott Milne, now that he’s been dubbed “a viable Republican” by the wise heads at VTDigger in a profile that shows him in the best possible light and ignores all his defects and shortcomings.
Starting with the idea that his performance in the 2014 gubernatorial election proves his statewide viability — so much so that his absolute drubbing by Sen. Patrick Leahy in 2016 somehow provides more evidence of his political magnetism.
It’s certainly true that Milne was given no shot at beating then-incumbent governor Peter Shumlin. His loss by a mere two thousand-odd votes was a shock to the #vtpoli world, this blogger included. But 2014 was no ordinary year. Shumlin had squandered all his political goodwill on his doomed venture into health care reform, and an ill-conceived land deal with a neighbor had reinforced a view of Shumlin as a shifty opportunist.
Compare 2014 with 2012. That year, Randy Brock was thoroughly trounced by Shumlin. Brock received 110,970 votes.
Two years later, Milne pulled his magician act, taking Shumlin to the limit. Milne’s vote total: 87,075 votes.
Shumlin, meanwhile, lost almost half his support. He earned 170,767 votes in 2012 — but only 89,509 in 2014. Shumlin had lost his mojo, and Milne was the lucky beneficiary. If the Republicans had nominated a halfway decent candidate, Shumlin would have been shitcanned.