In the news today, the state of Vermont settled a discrimination lawsuit brought by a former clerk at the Washington County Courthouse in Barre. Shanda WIlliams was fired in 2018, and filed suit the following year alleging racial discrimination by her supervisor, Tammy Tyda. The state will pay her $60,000 to settle the case.
Fair enough. Sounds like the state got off lightly, given Seven Days’ account of her work experience. But there was a passage in the article that really bugs me. I think you can figure it out.
Last May, the Vermont Attorney General’s Office asked a federal judge to dismiss the case on the grounds that Williams’ initial filing was scant on evidence of discrimination. Williams had noted that she was the only Black worker in the Barre office. But the state argued that, because only 1.4 percent of Vermont’s population is Black, Williams’ “office was more diverse than Vermont generally.”
That’s some Kafkaesque reasoning right there. The only Black person in a workplace can’t possibly have suffered discrimination because… Vermont is an overwhelmingly white state?
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.
I’ve written previously about Vermont’s inability to protect targets of hate crimes, especially those in public office. People of color, including former state rep Kiah Morris, have been hounded out of elective office — and have gotten no support or protection from law enforcement or prosecutors. Women in public life, who are frequently targets of harassment, also have to carry on with no recourse in the law. Which means, hey, the harassers win!
Turns out, somebody’s trying to do something about that. The House Judiciary Committee is working on a revision to Vermont’s hate crime law aimed at allowing more prosecutions while preserving Constitutional rights. More on this after a brief digression.
This is what they call a “committee bill,” meaning it’s drafted by a committee rather than an individual legislator. Coincidentally enough, VTDigger’s Kit Norton covered the phenomenon in last night’s episode of “Final Reading,” Digger’s free-subscription daily summary of legislative activity.
Unlike an ordinary piece of legislation, which is formally introduced by a member of the House or Senate, given a bill number and referred to a legislative panel for discussion, a committee bill is assembled, piece by piece, within a — you guessed it — committee.
It lacks a bill number and isn’t easily found on the Legislature’s website. It can evolve quickly and quietly, under the radar, until it springs from committee, fully formed, onto the House or Senate floor.
Norton writes that, for whatever reason, there are lots of these bills in the Legislature this year. He’s right; committee bills don’t show up in the Legislature’s searchable list of introduced bills. You have to go to the committee’s website and search around.
Back to the matter at hand. Apparently House Judiciary has been low-key working on this, in consultation with the Attorney General’s office. I’m glad to hear that, because I’ve specifically attacked T.J. Donovan for failing to prosecute hate crimes. This means Donovan recognizes the need for a change in the law. On Wednesday morning, the committee began hearing testimony on the bill. Testimony that showed how difficult a balancing act this legislation will be.
Huzzah, hooray, the Vermont Supreme Court has upheld the state’s ban on high-capacity firearm magazines. It’s a nice little victory for a law that will mainly be used to add another charge to an offender’s charging document.
Because hey, nobody’s going to be out there doing primary enforcement of this thing. It’ll be enforced after the fact, when someone has been arrested for some other offense.
More importantly for Vermont’s top legal eagle, the court has allowed Attorney General T.J. Donovan to press his case against notorious asshole white supremacist Max Misch.
For those with short memories, Donovan filed the firearms charge against Misch after declining to prosecute Misch for hate crimes — particularly his open harassment of former state representative Kiah Morris, who left the Legislature because she was targeted by haters.
His decision not to pursue hate crime charges triggered a backlash from those who thought Misch deserved some kind of punishment, and that Morris deserved some kind of recourse in the law. After all, the police barely lifted a finger* to investigate her complaints of harassment. Ditto the Bennington County State’s Attorney. Donovan’s decision not to prosecute Misch meant that Morris got absolutely zero protection from the criminal justice system.
*In fact, Police Chief Paul Doucette’s biggest issue with the case was that “it is damaging the reputation of the Town of Bennington, the Bennington Police Department and myself personally.” He has also accused Morris of profiting financially off her claims. Nice guy.
Last Thursday was New Year’s Eve, the beginning of a long holiday weekend. What better time for a politician to dump potentially damaging news?
And yep, there was Attorney General T.J. Donovan issuing not one, but two press releases on Thursday afternoon the first at 2:31 and the second at 3:14. Each showcased the less progressive, and reflexively law ‘n order, side of him.
First came news that Donovan was dropping of multiple serious felony charges against former St. Albans police officer Zachary Pigeon and his father Allen, for allegedly removing a woman from her home and assaulting her. The woman had come forward with accusations that Zachary had sexually assaulted her some years ago when she was a child. Donovan made the decision because he could not “meet the elements of the charged crimes beyond a reasonable doubt at this time.”
This case had been filed by the Franklin County State’s Attorney, who apparently saw grounds for prosecution. But the SA punted the case up to Donovan due to conflicts of interest. And now Donovan is tossing it out the window.
The exact opposite tack was taken in the second press release, which touted a state Supreme Court ruling in the case of State v. Alta Gurung, which means that a new competency hearing will be conducted for Gurung.
In part 1, I brought your attention to some appalling facts about Vermont’s lack of oversight for rental housing. Today we turn to three separate articles concerning nursing homes and the coronavirus that reveal further inadequacy in governance. The first is about an apparently toothless settlement with a for-profit senior facility. The second and third detail the toll Covid-19 is taking on some of our most vulnerable Vermonters.
The Intercept, where Glenn Greenwald used to hang his hat before he went batshit, has shone a fresh light on last spring’s worst outbreak in Vermont — at Burlington Health and Rehab, owned and operated by the troubled Genesis HealthCare chain.
Turns out that only weeks before the pandemic struck, Attorney General TJ Donovan had reached a settlement with Genesis over “allegations of neglect” that led to three injuries and one death. That settlement did little or nothing to improve the situation, and within months, 12 BH&R residents had died of Covid-19.
Under terms of the settlement, proudly announced in the customary AGO press release, three Vermont-located Genesis facilities were to pay a fine and hire a Patient Care Coordinator for the three locations plus an independent monitor to oversee quality of care. Was it enough?
“It’s really baffling that the settlement did not include some type of staffing requirements,” said Brian Lee, the executive director of Families for Better Care, a nonprofit advocating for tighter regulation of nursing homes. “Has [Donovan] arrested anybody? Has he prosecuted anybody? Has anybody gone to jail? No. The settlement should have included a requirement for RN staffing. They were short-staffed prior to the incidents and short-staffed after. It’s pretty negligent on the AG’s office to not include that,” said Lee. “The quality of nursing homes is dependent on staffing.”
You can probably guess the next bit. According to federal regulatory records, Genesis failed to increase staffing to recommended levels. Donovan agreed to let Genesis do the hiring, and there was apparently no follow-through by the state to ensure full compliance. This is a problem with Donovan’s negotiating tactics, and also an issue for state regulators. When a facility is enough of a bad actor to trigger enforcement action, shouldn’t the Human Services Agency perhaps provide some extra scrutiny?
I guess not. Well, I can’t say for sure. But what I can say is that whatever Donovan and AHS did, it wasn’t enough. Let’s remember that, the next time Donovan puts out a self-congratulatory press release.
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.
The official response to the Slate Ridge “training facility” in West Pawlet has been… well, take your pick. Pitiful? Sure. Laughably inadequate? Yep. Chickenshit? Call it like you see it.
State officials have been “monitoring” the situation for over a year, but didn’t actually say anything in public until VTDigger published its report last week. And now they’re stumbling all over themselves, offering justifications for a year-plus of inaction.
Meanwhile, the people of West Pawlet live in fear. As I wrote on Twitter, now they know how Kiah Morris feels.
Here’s the gist of it, as far as I’m concerned. The system has failed the people of West Pawlet just as it failed Morris. In saying so, I’m assuming that the purpose of having laws and enforcement agencies is to keep people safe, allowing them to live their lives in peace and security.
On the other side of the coin, constitutional rights do not extend to instilling fear in your neighbors. A community is a collection of free individuals — but there must be a sense of polity, of common purpose, of some level of respect for the well-being of your neighbors as well as yourself. The denizens of Slate Ridge are violating the social contract that binds us all together.
And if there’s no law that can be applied to this case, then maybe we need some new laws.
The avalanche of general election debates has begun. Yesterday’s Democratic LG forum (watchable at the link) was the first, I think, and the predominant theme was message discipline. Meaning, if you’d set up a drinking game for each candidate, you would have been dead before closing time. Take a drink when
Molly Gray says “Born on a farm in Vermont”
Ralph Corbo says “Military-Industrial Complex”
Scott Milne says “Phil Scott”
All three participants stuck to their scripts. Candidates were not pushed out of their comfort zones. There was only a brief hint of an attack line. Actually, the harshest attack was Corbo’s slam on Vermont’s establishment media for barring minor-party candidates from their debates. More on that later.
For the two main contenders, a boilerplate performance warrants a different grade. Milne has never been disciplined in his political life, but he stuck closely to his self-positioning as an experienced businessman and moderate Republican who can effectively partner with Gov. Phil Scott. A solid if uninspiring performance. Kudos, I assume, to his campaign manager, Sen. Corey Parent, for taming the beast.
Gray turned in a similar outing. But for her, that’s kind of a disappointment. She has yet to advance her presentation from the very beginning of her campaign, when she leaned heavily on personal biography. Those who view her as an empty vessel could point to this debate as evidence. It wasn’t inspiring, merely competent. In terms of compelling presentation, she didn’t establish separation from Milne. As she will have to do, if the VPR/VPBS poll is anywhere near accurate.
By the standards of minor-party fixtures like Cris Ericson and Emily Peyton, Corbo was surprisingly coherent. He had his talking points and expressed them clearly. Of course, they were the talking points of an unreconstructed hippie, but there was no hint of unrestrained ranting. Except for the media part.
After the Legislature passed H.688, the Global Warming Solutions Act, there were bits of rose-colored speculation that Gov. Phil Scott might see his way clear to signing the thing. After all, he’s apparently sailing to re-election; he has no reason to fear a revolt from the Republican Party’s sad, atrophied right wing. This might have been an occasion to cement his reputation as a caring moderate, perhaps in anticipation of a future run for Congress.
But no, in the words of a thousand uncreative ledes, he “wielded his veto pen.” And the reasons were utterly predictable, and absolutely in line with his consistent position on climate change: He acknowledges the scope of the challenge, but refuses to support any real interventions. And just for added spice, he threw in one of his spurious constitutional arguments against the bill.
Scott’s approach to climate change is to oppose any measure that would impose enforceable goals before the safely-distant year 2050, cost a single Vermonter a single dime, or inconvenience any Vermonter with mandatory changes in energy usage. His vision of achieving our 2050 goal depends heavily on market forces, future technological advances, and a whole lot of water power from the green-but-otherwise-problematic flooding of First Nations land by Hydro Quebec.