Tag Archives: Vermont

Is the ground buckling under Phil Scott’s feet?

Lately, there have been signs aplenty of passengers taking their leave of the Good Ship Moderate Republicanism, helmed since last November by Captain Phil Scott and first mate “Super Dave” Sunderland. Or maybe Scott’s the admiral and Sunderland is captain, whatever works.

Scott and friends came away from last November’s VTGOP meeting with a rather conditional mandate to broaden the party’s base. Make it more attractive to moderate and undecided voters, and the pragmatic business types who’ve made their peace with the Democrats under Governor Shumlin.

It seemed a promising direction. Indeed, the only possible direction, since the Vermont electorate wasn’t suddenly going to turn Texas red. The conservative VTGOP of “Angry Jack” Lindley et al. had hit a glass ceiling at about 35% of the vote.

But it was going to be a tough job for Scott, previously not known for his willingness to tackle tough jobs. He was, by dint of his elective office, the only person who could credibly take it on; but he also, by dint of his personality, seemed unsuited for the task. And even if he rose to the occasion, the odds seemed to be against him. Shumlin and company have done a really good job of co-opting the center, and it’d be a hell of a job for Scott to win back all those voters and supporters without moving so far to the center that he completely alienates the easily alienated conservative base.

It’s only been about nine months, and the Good Ship Moderate Republicanism looks to be taking on water. Recent signs include:

Bruce Lisman’ decision to forego any sort of alignment with the VTGOP, even after he stepped away from leadership of Campaign for Vermont, the self-described nonpartisan policy shop.

Lisman’s brief and pointless flirting with a run for Governor this spring, which lasted just long enough to force State Rep. Heidi Scheuermannf (a Lisman ally) out of the race.

The continued activity of Campaign for Vermont. Its members do include people from across the political spectrum, but the group still tilts substantially toward the right. And many of its key supporters are the kind of people who used to be mainline Republicans.

Roger Allbee’s decision to run for State Senate as a Democrat. The former Douglas Administration cabinet functionary and self-described liberal Republican could have been a powerful ally for Scott. Instead, he’s hoping for a place on the other ticket.

— Former State Rep. Oliver Olsen’s decision to run again for his old seat, but this time as an Independent. In the 2011-12 biennium, Olsen was one of the more vocal and effective members of the House Republican minority; this time, he seems to believe that he’s better off without the “R” next to his name.

— Last week’s VTGOP campaign finance report which, as I reported in this space, was truly horrific. A quarterly fundraising total — during a campaign season, mind you —  of only $7,500. The bulk of that came from a few party insiders. And over the past year, the VTGOP has drawn virtually no small donors, a sign that so far it’s failing to reach the grassroots. In spite of Sunderland’s repeated claims that the people of Vermont are waking up to the failures of the Shumlin Administration. Well, they haven’t awakened enough to write any checks, that’s for sure.

What that dismal report means is that the VTGOP has lost some of its hard-core, ideologically driven donors, but has yet to even begin to attract a new donor base. Nor has it even begun to convince former Republican stalwarts to come back home.

— And finally, this week’s formation of Vision to Action Vermont (V2AVT), a “bipartisan” PAC aimed at supporting candidates who are focused on improving Vermont’s economy. Its co-founder is Scheuermann herself, and her decision to create this independent group is an interesting one. You’d think that Scheuermann would be one of Phil Scott’s most trusted lieutenants, with a bright future in Republican politics. But as with Allbee and Olsen, she has apparently decided that the Republican brand is too toxic to advance her goal of electing lawmakers who are focused on economic issues.

Take all these events together, and it seems like the Republican center-right is fragmenting in all directions rather than coming together behind Scott and Sunderland. That, I think, is a very bad sign for Scott’s effort to broaden his party. The people who might have been part of a new, broader, more vibrant VTGOP are channeling their energy in other directions.

It may seem unfairly early to declare Scott’s project a failure. After all, it’s been less than a year, and it took quite a few years for the VTGOP to get so badly screwed up. But Scott’s party has no resources and few candidates; if he fails to make any headway in Legislative elections, a substantial portion of the party will be ready and eager to unseat Scott’s team and return the party to its former course: down an ideological dead end.

Advertisements

Mark Donka steps very close to the edge

Random thoughts on a Monday afternoon in July, the weather is warm, the sun high in the sky… and some people’s thoughts turn apocalyptic.

 

Screen Shot 2014-07-21 at 1.17.29 PM

That cheery idea comes from the brain of the likely Republican nominee for Congress in Vermont. Mark Donka faces two equally rabid conservatives in the GOP primary, but he should have a name-recognition edge from his disastrous 2012 bid to unseat Democrat Peter Welch.  I assume he will win the nomination.

To be fair to Mr. Donka, I really don’t take this Tweet as an authentic wish for a catastrophic attack on America — although he clearly opens the door to such an interpretation. But even if you give him the benefit of the doubt, this is so wrong in so many ways. (For starters, let’s run it by the families of 9/11 victims.) I wouldn’t want anyone who thinks like this anywhere near a position of authority. And of course, he knows deep down that he’s never going to be a Congressman, so he’s free to spout whatever hurtful nonsense he likes.

But let’s leave aside the moral dimensions of this offensive remark, and focus for a moment on the practical.

Did 9/11″light the fuse of change”?  Well, I guess you could say it did. It ushered in the Bush Administration’s two disastrous wars, the building of a huge security apparatus and the exercise of broad new government powers, and the explosion of federal deficits (as Bush chose to cut taxes even while prosecuting two wars).

But considering that Mark Donka describes himself as a limited-government conservative who wants to rein in federal authority, cut spending, and pay off the debt, it’s interesting that he should believe that another 9/11 would promote his kind of change, instead of the precise opposite.

Mark Donka: dangerously wrong. And, assuming victory in the primary, one of the top names on the Vermont Republican ticket. Be proud, VTGOP.

 

When public policy becomes personal

Let’s look at the two guys likely to headline the Republican ticket, such as it is, in Vermont this year: gubernatorial candidate Scott Milne, and incumbent Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott. Both are men of moderate reputation and widely seen as “nice guys.” Both have shown a disinclination to take hard-and-fast political stances.

But for each of them, there’s one exception to the general tone of moderation. Milne and Scott have each spoken loudly and strongly on one issue respectively. For each, it’s an issue that has left the realm of abstract policy and directly impacted their own fortunes. In the case of our Lieutenant Governor, it’s public campaign financing; for Milne, it’s the approval process for new developments, most especially Act 250.

It’s funny how a personal stake can turn a moderate into a firebrand. But it does call into question their ability to govern dispassionately. One of the most important things I want to know about candidates is this: Can they make decisions based on the public good, even if they’re going against their own personal interest? Can they set their interests aside?

Both top Republicans are in danger of failing that test.

As for Scott, after years of building a politiical career on being inoffensive and avoiding the tough call, he has become a late-blooming opponent of public campaign financing. When he was a state Senator, Scott wasn’t particularly against the idea, and he had his chances. And during his tenure as Lieutenant Governor, he’d never spoken out about it.

Until now, when a publicly-financed candidate threatens to give him a real race. Now he’s decided that public financing is an unfair burden on taxpayers, forcing them to effectively support a candidate they may personally oppose. Which ignores the whole social-good function of publicly financing ANYTHING — roads, welfare, education, police, military. Every one of us pays taxes to support something that we personally would not choose to spend money on. Public financing is a drop in that particular bucket.

As for Milne, he’s hot and bothered over the development approval process because of his big personal stake in Quechee Highlands, a proposed housing/retail project slated for a large parcel near Exit 1 of I-89. (This story was broken earlier this week by my colleague BP at Green Mountain Daily.) How hot and bothered? In an essay published last August in the Valley News, his opening salvo was:

All who care about Vermont’s future, fairness in government and how communities settle disputes should pay heed to what is happening a few miles from the Connecticut River at Quechee Highlands.

Wow. That’s putting it pretty strongly. “Vermont’s future” depends on Milne getting his way on this project. Lacking in perspective much?

He goes on to slam the regional planning commission for denying an Act 250 permit for the project. In the process, he reveals substantial ignorance about the mission and workings of those commissions. Most notably, he wrote that the commissions’ purpose “should be to help promote development that creates a foundation for economic health.”

Er, Scott. Hate to break it to you, but those Act 250 bodies are meant to balance development with conservation, not to promote development. And your little project, I have to say, would be built in an area with precious little road infrastructure. The corridor between Exit 1 and Woodstock is already a mess, and the vicinity of Exit 1 is especially bad. The original proposal was for an entirely retail project, which would have been a traffic nightmare. Milne and co. later revised it to mixed-use, residential plus “less than 37 percent retail.” Which is still quite a lot of retail in a 168-acre development. (The retail is clearly aimed at cashing in on the proximity to I-89. The site is less desirable for housing because of freeway noise.)

At the time, one of the pillars of Milne’s argument was that while the regional board had said “no,” the town of Hartford was in favor of the project. And he asserted that the town’s view should have greater weight.

Since then, Hartford has changed its tune. In May, the Hartford Selectboard amended its master plan to bring it into compliance with the regional commission’s plan. Before the Selectboard’s vote, Milne warned that QH would be “dead” if the changes were adopted. He’s already pursuing appeal of the regional commission’s ruling; he’s now threatening to take Hartford to court as well:

“I’m going to try to figure out if I’m going to do anything, and if I do, it’s probably going to involve more lawyers, and it’s just going to continue to brand Vermont as a bad place to do business,” said Milne.

Sheesh. Rejection of Milne’s project will “brand Vermont as a bad place to do business”? Mr. Milne seems to have an awfully… shall we say, expansive… view of himself and the importance of his project.

And it wasn’t long after the Selectboard action that Milne began publicly mulling a run for Governor, having previously given no hint of ever desiring a political career.

Now, I don’t think Scott Milne wants to be Governor so he can save Quechee Highlands. But it’s clear from his own statements that he has very strong pro-development views. And if he were to become Governor, he’d clearly push for substantial changes in the Act 250 process that would shift its focus from conservation to, in his own words, “help promote development.”

That’s a pretty radical take on Act 250, is it not? It’s looking like Milne is not that much of a moderate, at least on this very crucial issue. It calls into question his ability to dispassionately consider issues in which he has a personal interest. It also calls into question the entire foundation of his campaign, which portrays him as a centrist who can build bridges and work with the Democrats.

You never know what’s gonna stick

Funny thing about blogging. You put a lot of stuff out there, and you have no idea what will make a lasting impact and what will sink like a stone. I’ve had my share of stories I thought were important, but saw them vanish without a trace. My cogent analyses of current politics? In one collective ear and out the other.

And then there’s a little offhand thing I posted in January 2013 after a gubernatorial news conference. At the time, Governor Shumlin had just proposed a tax on break-open tickets — those small-stakes lotteries you can find at fraternal societies and many bars around Vermont. A little meaningless chat about bars and beer ensued, featuring Shumlin, Seven Days’ Paul Heintz, and Admininstration Secretary Jeb Spaulding…

Heintz: Do you ever play the break-open tickets?

Shumlin: Oh yeah, anyone who drinks beer has played break-open tickets.

Heintz: I drink a lot of beer, and I haven’t played any.

Shumlin: Oh yeah? Well, you’re not drinkin’ in the right place.

Jeb Spaulding: You’re drinking those five-dollar beers.

Heintz: Where do you buy them?

Shumlin: Oh, you can get ’em at any club or bar in Vermont. I’m a Windham County boy, so I’ve played ’em in Windham County. Rockingham, the Elks, the Brattleboro Legion. I can take you there if you want, I’ll even buy you a beer. But you’re not gettin’ that Gucci beer. We’re drinkin’, you know, Budweiser.

Okay, I knew the Governor didn’t really mean it. When he starts droppin’ his G’s, he’s putting on his Good Old Vermonter Boy persona, painting himself as a Man of the People. I, however, seizing the opportunity to stir up a teapot tempest, wrote it up on Green Mountain Daily under the title: BREAKING… URGENT… Shumlin Disses Vermont Beer!!!

Hahaha, very funny. Got a few sideways glances from the Governor after that went viral.

Well, apparently my little jape has legs. Today, the Governor has been putting out a series of Tweets about the honestly impressive Vermont brewing sector, which is not only an artistic success but a growing part of our economy. And Neal Goswami, chief State House scribe for the Mitchell Family Organs, replied thusly…

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 2.29.02 PM

I am honored, sir, by my apparent inclusion in the Vermont political lexicon. It was one of the least meaningful things I ever wrote, and it’s had a larger ripple effect than any of my meaty, weighty, serious works of commentary. If I died tomorrow, they might just put “Gucci Beer Guy” on my headstone.

And the Governor might happily toss a shovelful of dirt on the casket.

 

Shumlination

Might seem like an oxymoron, but a radio guy has created the second-best visual representation of Governor Shumlin’s fundraising power. (VPR’s Taylor Dobbs by name.) It’s a simple bar graph: Shumlin’s money totals are indicated by two impressively erect columns reaching for the sky; Scott Milne’s are two thin smears on the bottom line.

I say “second-best” because the best comes from the legendary cartoon “Bambi Meets Godzilla.”

BambiGodzilla

There are a couple of big takeaways from the size of Shumlin’s warchest: (1) He came into 2014 with enough money to virtually guarantee re-election. He’ll exit 2014 with enough money to virtually guarantee victory in any race he chooses to enter for at least the next four years. And (2) It’s not Lenore Broughton who’s responsible for bringing big money into Vermont politics. It’s Peter Shumlin. And Peter Welch and Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders.

Oh, and (3) a very interesting collision is shaping up for the 2015 legislative session, with VPIRG focusing its energy on campaign finance reform and our top Democrats greatly benefiting from the system as it is.

Let’s go deeper, shall we?

First point: Shumlin departed the 2012 campaign having spent only $346,000 to beat Randy Brock. He had a surplus of $915,000. Which meant he started 2014 with basically a million-dollar head start. That’s more than had ever been spent in any state-level campaign in Vermont with, I believe, three exceptions: Jim Douglas in 2008, and Brian Dubie and Peter Shumlin in 2010.

He had a huge lead. And he has continued to raise money. And to spend very little of it. Chances are, he’ll exit 2014 with an even larger kitty — it wouldn’t surprise me if he has $1.5 million in the bank on December 31. If he tries at all, he could make it $2 million or more.

(Scott Milne has talked of Vermonters becoming fatigued by campaigns that cost $2-3 million. Which misses the point because while Shumlin’s campaign might possibly raise that much, it’ll spend only a tiny fraction of that. This will not be anything like a $2 million campaign. It may not even top a half mill.)

Which gives him an even bigger edge next time around, and ensures that he will be a prohibitive favorite for re-election in 2016 and beyond — or, if he decides to run for something else, he will be the prohibitive favorite for that race.

Unless, of course, he has to run against Peter Welch for any Senate seat that might open up between now and 2020. (Safe to assume Shumlin wouldn’t challenge Pat Leahy or Bernie Sanders, right?) Because Welch has even more money on hand, and even less reason to spend any of it.

My conclusion: the only reason Shumlin is raising money at all is to (a) make it prohibitive for anyone to run for Governor as long as he’s in office and (b) block out any potential competition for a future Senate race.

Bringing me to point #2. Lenore Broughton did her best to influence the 2012 election by spending a million bucks on Vermonters First. It was a complete flopperoo, and if her latest finance filing is any indication, she has no plans to repeat the experiment. Her case is incessantly cited by top Democrats as a rationale for campaign finance reform, but she was an outlier. And a failed outlier at that.

The real, structural change to the financing of Vermont politics is that our Governor and our members of Congress have taken fundraising to a whole new level. They are drawing from the bottomless pool of money at the national level, while everyone else in Vermont is still playing at the state level.

This fact hit home for me when I looked at the latest filing from the Coca-Cola Nonpartisan PAC for Good Government. It’s 29 pages long! The typical filing by a state-level PAC is more like five or six pages. In terms of money, it’s the difference between the Vermont Lake Monstera and the New York Yankees. And, to stretch the analogy further, that’s the field Shumlin et al. are playing on.

So if you want to complain about the influx of money into Vermont politics, don’t complain about Lenore Broughton; complain about Peter Shumlin, Pat Leahy, Peter Welch, and yes, Bernie Sanders. No one, Republican, Democrat, or Progressive, could hope to mount a competitive race when the incumbents have such an overwhelming advantage.

Third, VPIRG’s annual summer outreach program is about campaign finance reform. Last summer’s was about GMO foods, and it set the stage for easy passage of a GMO labeling bill this year. If you read the polls, campaign finance reform is a popular cause, just as GMO was. How will Shumlin and the Dems react when VPIRG drums up a groundswell of public support for a ban on contributions by corporations and lobbyists? Should be an interesting legislative battle in the new biennium.

Unlike many of my friends on the left, I don’t see many signs that the money is having a corrupting effect on the Administration. But it sure does look bad, especially when the Governor does something like strongly opposing a tax on soft drinks and then rakes in thousands of dollars from Coca-Cola, as the Burlington Free Press’ Terri Hallenbeck Tweeted today. I will say this: if you believe Shumlin is being corrupted by big money, what about Pat Leahy and Peter Welch? (I’ll give Bernie a pass on corporate donations, since he’s gotten most of his money in small amounts from individuals. But he’s still playing with millions, while most Vermont politicians get by with a few thousand at most.)

Is the VTGOP broke?

Click the link to see the Vermont Republican State Committee’s campaign finance report for July 15. Do you see what I see?

I see a party with a negative balance. More expenses than revenues for this campaign cycle so far.

Yikes.

The key numbers:

Total contributions, campaign to date: $61,367.32.

Total expenditures, campaign to date: $62,523.00.

Negative eleven hundred bucks, amirite?

Now, the VTGOP also files with the Federal Elections Commission; its most recent filing came in mid-June, and showed a balance of $36,430.25. I’m not smart enough to know the difference between the state and federal filings; I can say that either way, the bottom line is kinda pitiful. Still gonna be a long slog for “Super Dave” Sunderland as he tries to rebuild from the inglorious days of Angry Jack.

Also, there’s a curious fact in today’s state filings: while the state GOP is bereft of funds, quite a few local and county GOP organizations are rollin’ in it. Well, by Vermont Republican standards anyway. There seem to be a lot of die-hard Republicans who are supporting their local colleagues/cronies, but aren’t doing so for the state organization.

I’m still pondering the meaning of that. And I’ve got some other notes on deadline day coming along shortly. Stay tuned!

Oh, what the hell. Let’s judge a book by its cover

September 3, 2014: Vermont’s bookstores are certain to crack open their doors at the stroke of midnight, in anticipation of an overwhelming response to Jim Douglas’ three-years-in-the-making autobiography. Yeah, it’ll be just like the Harry Potter release crowds.

Well, maybe not. But while we still have almost three months to wait for St. Jim’s tome, we have gotten a gander at the cover.

And boy howdy, is it ever a… er… well… a thing. Jim-Douglas-book-released-Sept--3---img

The picture, title and subtitle, taken together, paint a broad-stroke portrait of arrogance in exile.

The image, Douglas in a suit w/obligatory flag pin, is a reproduction of his official state portrait. Next to him is the title: “THE VERMONT WAY.”

Oh dear.

The unspoken, but clear as day, message: Jim Douglas is the embodiment of the Vermont Way. He is the quintessential Vermonter, the carrier of Vermont values into a new and uncertain century.

And then the subtitle: “A Republican Governor Leads America’s Most Liberal State.” Underscoring what, I fear, will be one of the book’s central messages: Jim Douglas was a uniquely talented politician — the only person who could lead a constituency largely inimical to his party’s policies.

Which omits the fact that Vermont wasn’t nearly as liberal when Douglas took office as it was when he departed. During his eight years as Governor, the Republicans lost ground everywhere else in state government. By the end of his tenure, he could do little beyond castigating the Democrats for overriding his vetoes and ignoring his wise counsel.

Douglas definitely deserves some credit for passing a conservative camel through the eye of a liberal needle. But doesn’t he also deserve blame for the leftward shift of Vermont politics while he occupied our highest office? Doesn’t he deserve blame for leaving his party in shambles, with scant resources, no grass-roots organization, and a nearly complete lack of up-and-coming talent?

And doesn’t he deserve blame for leaving a legacy so pitiful as to be virtually nonexistent? How did he shape Vermont politics during his tenure, and how have his policies influenced post-Douglas political discourse? The answer, it seems to me, is not very much at all.

So he managed to “lead” America’s most liberal state, if only in the sense that he occupied the corner office. But while he was Governor, and even more so since he retired, his state did not follow him. In fact, it moved steadily in the other direction. It’s a severely limited kind of “leadership.”

As for the book cover’s visual equation of Jim Douglas with The Vermont Way… well, if that were true (which it’s not), we’d be well and truly fucked.