Well, the lively Democratic primary contests for attorney general and secretary of state continue to be lively, according to the latest campaign finance reports.
…with one sad exception. To judge by his campaign finance filing, Montpelier City Clerk John Odum has pretty much folded his bid for secretary of state. He’d been trailing in the money race with his two competitors, Deputy Secretary Chris Winters and Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, but in July he fell off a cliff. Odum raised $375 (from four donors) and spent $653. His only donation of more than $100 came from Montpelier property owner Fred Bashara, who kicked in $250.
As for the front-runners, Winters has modest edges on Copeland Hanzas with one exception: He has more than $25,000 in cash on hand to SCH’s $4,545. What he’s going to accomplish with that money between now and next Tuesday, I don’t know. If he loses, he may regret opportunities missed. The winner, after all, won’t need much of a bankroll to defeat whoever the Republicans dig up. And unspent cash won’t do the loser any good at all.
From the top: Winters raised $13,100 in July for a campaign total of $73,763. Copeland Hanzas netted $12,004 to reach $51,116 for the campaign. Not bad considering that she got a late start in the race.
I haven’t spent a lot of time covering this year’s debates, mainly because there are so damn many of ’em that I could spend all my time doing nothing but that, and there’s too much other stuff to write about.
Debates are considered key moments in a campaign. Candidates spend a lot of time preparing for them. Staffers dissect performances and adjust tactics for future encounters. But how many people pay attention?
Well, we’ve got a pretty good test case before us, and the answer is “hardly anybody.”
Last night, VTDigger hosted a debate for the two Democrats running for attorney general. By Digger’s own account, the affair highlighted some key disagreements between Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault and Charity Clark, who was ex-attorney general TJ Donovan’s chief of staff.
After it was live-streamed, the debate was posted on YouTube. As of this writing, it has been viewed 645 times.
Six hundred forty-five. For comparison, the last time the Democrats had a competitive AG primary was in 2012 when Donovan challenged Sorrell and nearly won. 41,600 people voted in the primary.
Third in a series. Part 1 covered the race for lieutenant governor; part 2 was about the race for governor.
The big money in the campaign for attorney general belongs to the guy who’s not in office anymore. TJ Donovan, recently departed for a sweet corporate gig that somehow advances his commitment to consumer protection, still has nearly $300,000 in his campaign treasury, most of it surplus from 2020. Unlike Treasurer Beth Pearce, Donovan has yet to disperse his money to other candidates or the Vermont Democratic Party or anyone else. I’m sure he’ll get around to it sometime. Or maybe he’s saving it for……
Regarding the people who want the job — former Donovan chief of staff Charity Clark and Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault — they’re in a competitive money race that leaves neither in a dominant position, although Clark has some advantages.
This race got off to a late start thanks to Donovan’s sudden decision to go corporate. The July 1 campaign finance reports include all of Clark and Thibault’s campaigns. Clark reported raising almost $80,000, while Thibault took in $74,000. But… Thibault donated $12,000 to his own campaign while Clark gave herself $4,000.
On the other hand, Clark raised $12K from people named Clark while Thibault only netted $4K from others sharing his last name, so those two factors are a collective wash.
It’s only fitting that on the day when Gov. Phil Scott basically gave in on emergency housing for the homeless, ending a pointless months-long policy debate, we’ve got a fresh crop of stupidity and/or obtuseness in the public sphere to honor. Today’s honorees include a publisher of anti=vax nonsense suing a U.S. Senator… a restaurant telling employees to show up for work if they’re sick… another failure of the law enforcement system to take action against hate speech… and a real-life lesson in How To Do It Right, sent to the attention of the Vermont Principals’ Association.
First up, the Desperate Times Call for Ludicrous Lawsuits Award, which goes to Chelsea Green Publishing and its cofounder Margo Baldwin. The Vermont publisher, once best known for top-quality environmental and DIY books, is now deep into the Covid conspiracy shit. Now, CG has filed suit against Sen. Elizabeth Warren for allegedly trying to suppress its free speech rights.
Warren’s offense? She wrote to Amazon.com urging them to review its search algorithms so that conspiratorialist nonsense wouldn’t get so many hits. This, per Baldwin, amounts to “the government… trying to censor speech and ban books.”
Well. First, a Senator is influential, but Warren cannot act on behalf of the government and she has no authority over Amazon’s internal policies. The suit itself is its own evidence for a Veepie; it admits that plaintiffs have no proof that Warren had any effect on Amazon’s search algorithms. Quite the contrary, one of CG’s books is the No. 1 bestseller in one Amazon category. If Amazon has rejiggered its algorithms, there’s no sign it’s had any effect on Chelsea Green’s sales.
People occasionally ask me how I keep coming up with ideas. My answer is, there are always far more ideas than I can actually cover. This week, there were a few that I just couldn’t get to, but they seem worthy of note in short form. So, the first-ever Veepie Awards. Possibly a continuing series, but no promises. Or threats. The envelope, please…
Most Desperate Pushback Against Negative News Coverage. The winner is the Vermont Department of Corrections, which was on the bad end of a New York Times article outlining the toll of its Covid policies. In order to prevent outbreaks (at least a couple halppened anyway), DOC locked away exposed inmates in solitary confinement, the most extreme form of incarceration.
For weeks at a time… inmates were locked in 8½-by-10-foot cells in near-total isolation. They ate meals a few feet from their toilets, had no visitors, and spent as little as 10 minutes a day outside cells.
The strategy made the Vermont prison system one of the safest for contracting Covid, which is a dispiritingly low bar. But the cost, as the Times put it, has taken “a heavy toll on many inmates’ mental health, and driven some to psychological despair.”
And at least one to suicide. But hey, no Covid deaths!
The town of Northfield has a problem. Its police chief, John Helfant, has been dinged by Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault over questions about the chief’s reliability. Thibault has issued a so-called “scarlet letter” branding Helfant as untrustworthy. This will make it difficult for Helfant to be a witness in court cases, and may limit his ability to investigate crimes. Which is kind of a big deal for a small town with a small police force.
Which he has no statutory authority to do. Thibault has complete discretion in such matters.
It’s ridiculous. And it shows the extent to which local officials will stand behind their police chief, come hell or high water.
We’ve seen this same dynamic at work in Bennington and Vergennes, just to name two. The police chief in a small community occupies a position of great authority and political influence. Elected officials are either victims of Patty Hearst Syndrome, believing in their chief despite all evidence, or they are simply afraid to cross their chief. Either alternative begs the question, Who watches the watchers? Who, if anyone, has the chops to ride herd on a police chief — and boot them out if need be?
The answer, more often than not, seems to be “Nobody.”
The tiny city of Vergennes is in an uproar, largely due to disagreements over its police department, which is led by George Merkel, the guy pictured above. Dude does love him some tactical gear, doesn’t he?
You wouldn’t know from his outlandish getup that he keeps the peace in a city of only 2,601 with vanishingly small rates of violent crime. You wouldn’t know that the vast majority of police calls are for things like noise complaints. I bet all that gear comes in handy when there’s a cat up a tree, eh, Chief?
You probably could guess that Merkel has come under fire for unapologetically regressive policing. I mean, he looks like he’s about one second away from Tasing the cameraman.
It’s bad enough that Addison County Sheriff Peter Newton filed a report accusing Merkel of multiple misdeeds, to wit: (1) signing official documents with “patently false information,” (2) knowingly failing to report demographic data on VPD traffic stops, and (3) falsely reporting work time and collecting double pay as a result.
(Newton’s report originated in a February meeting that included then-Vergennes mayor Jeff Fritz, an unnamed city alderman, and a sheriff’s officer who formerly served under Merkel. The four, according to VTDigger, “described Merkel as being out of control.”)
Never fear! Attorney General TJ Donovan, the persistent protector of law enforcement, has reviewed a Vermont State Police probe of Newton’s report and concluded — you’ll be shocked, I know — that “there is no evidence to suggest that Chief Merkel acted with intent to defraud” in reporting his work time, and that this concludes concludes “all ongoing investigations regarding Chief Merkel.”
Donovan’s press release — a Friday afternoon newsdump — made no mention of the other two allegations against Merkel. The most serious, to me, is the failure to report demographic data on traffic stops. The Vergennes PD, after all, has a record of racial bias in traffic policing that’s among the worst in Vermont. So there’s a real bad odor around Merkel’s failure to report pertinent data on nearly two-thirds of all his force’s traffic stops in a two-year period.
I guess Donovan, or the VSP, ignored that? The press release is silent.
Donovan’s inaction leaves the city of Vergennes a broken place. Some residents fear the police and want Merkel gone; others support their longtime chief to the hilt.
This may seem outlandish, and uncharacteristic of small-town Vermont society with its vaunted community ties and cherished slash fetishized Town Meeting Day traditions. But there are other Merkels out there. The only questions are, how many? And, since nobody in officialdom seems willing to face this issue, what do we do about it?
Keeping in mind that every unjustified, race-inspired traffic stop is a stab in the heart to our BIPOC neighbors, a disincentive for people to relocate to Vermont, and a stain on our state’s reputation.