Landmark moment in Vermont journalism: VTDigger founder Anne Galloway is stepping out of her leadership role and back into reporting. Her new title, editor-at-large, seems to offer her a great deal of freedom to work on big projects. You know, the kind of stuff that goes undone amidst the daily bustle of shoestring journalism.
Something like this needed to happen. It should have happened years ago, but I’m more than a little surprised it happened at all. It takes a rare clarity of vision to realize that the organization you brought into being has outgrown you.
VTDigger would not exist without Galloway’s dogged determination, without her burning the morning-to-midnight oil and probably risking her health, mental and otherwise. As it slowly grew, its internal structure didn’t develop accordingly. That’s because Galloway was still working as if she was head of a tiny, struggling startup. She was chief editor. She was the head of the entire enterprise. She was the public face of VTDigger. And, when she felt the call, she dove back into the foxhole of reporting.
It was too much for any person, and it inhibited Digger’s growth into a sustainable institution with a consistent management structure. Now it seems that that push has finally come to shove, and Galloway had to choose which role/s she wanted to keep and which she was willing to let go of.
Necessary disclosure: I worked for Galloway for a few months in 2020. She fired me under dubious circumstances. But I haven’t changed my view of VTDigger as an organization. I saw it the same way before I signed on, while I worked there, and after my defenestration. Before, during and after, it was an organization in need of transition with a leader who was deeply ambivalent about letting it happen.
👏👏👏👏👏 to Seven Days’ Sasha Goldstein for doing what few reporters have bothered to do: He took a deep dive into Congressional candidates’ campaign finance reports. Those filings are more than a month old, but as he discovered, there was still plenty of meat on them old bones. Let him serve as an example to us all.
What did he find? Turns out Lt. Gov. Molly Gray has a f-ton of D.C. lobbyist money behind her campaign for Congress.
I don’t begrudge her raising money wherever she can. Running in a competitive primary for Congress is an expensive proposition, and I don’t really think she’ll be at the beck and call of big-money interests any more than St. Peter Welch has been. He’s taken loads of money from lobbyists and corporate interests. And we know he’s not compromised.
Anyway. Gray is cashing in on her D.C. connections and her very real ties to the Welch/Pat Leahy orbit. Fine. Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale has received max contributions from quite a few AAPI donors, and Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint has the support of LGBTQ+ contributors and organizations.
They’ve all got their affinity groups. Gray’s happens to be D.C. insiders. But the trouble starts when this recipient of Beltway Bucks attempts to claim the moral high ground on campaign finance. She doesn’t have a leg to stand on, or a pickup truck to ride in.
In the category of “Get your popcorn ready,” no state Senate race is likely to outdo the contest shaping up in the newly-created Chittenden North district, a.k.a. “The Democrats’ Gift to the VTGOP.” The Democratic majority who controlled redistricting managed to create a new district out of Chittenden County that seems to have a pretty strong Republican lean. Chittenden North includes the strongly Republican towns of Milton, Fairfax and Westford, plus most of Essex, whose internal politics are as fraught as a Montague-Capulet family reunion.
The declared candidates are Rep. Leland Morgan (R-Milton) and Democrat Irene Wrenner. In addition, potential candidate Brian Shelden has yet to declare — but he has set up a website for a Senate candidacy and filed a campaign finance report in March detailing more than $4,000 in donations. Those would seem to be rather outsized hints. Shelden is chair of the Essex Democrats and a former candidate for House and Selectboard.
Before we get to the particulars, I must point out the half-hearted job done by VTDigger in its story “2 early contestants join race for new Chittenden North state Senate district.”
Should be “Two,” not “2”, but that’s a detail. The real problem is that the story gave an incomplete and misleading account of Wrenner’s community activism and didn’t discover Shelden’s proto-campaign at all. In addition to missing the Shelden for Senate website, Digger also missed Shelden’s campaign finance filing. This seems to be yet another case of going through the motions on a rote article about a developing campaign. Really, people, if you’re going to produce these pieces, put some effort into them. In the age of The Google, it shouldn’t be that hard.
Back to the race itself. Assuming Shelden is a candidate, the Democratic primary may produce more fireworks than the collective Fourth of July festivities in all of Vermont because Wrenner and Shelden have serious beef.
Meanwhile, Morgan can sit back and chuckle. The makeup of the district seems to give him the edge to start with. And the Democratic primary may splinter the party base; there are plenty of Essexians who support either Wrenner or Shelden and wouldn’t be caught dead voting for the other. (Some of ’em will cross the aisle and vote for Morgan out of spite for the Democratic winner.)
As the Legislature winds down, the political news is coming thick and fast. Got several items worthy of comment including Gov. Phil Scott’s generic condemnation of persons unknown, a better use for the state’s “extra” money, three potentially interesting House races, and a depressingly rote report on last night’s Congressional debate. Let’s GOOOO!!!
Scott condemns… somebody. Perhaps because of the killing of Fern Feather, the governor (or his comms staff) took to Twitter and amped up his language condemning hate speech in the political arena. He cited “disturbing hostility toward the transgender community” and lamented that Vermont “is not immune to this.” It was a good statement, as far as it went.
But he failed to mention the source of all the hostility: his own Republican Party. He also failed to name the two individuals responsible for bringing the hate home: VTGOP chair Paul Dame and Burlington Republican Committee chair Christopher-Aaron Felker. As long as the governor refrains from identifying those responsible and refuses to step into his own party and deal with this garbage, his words are sadly empty, In the vernacular, it’s time for him to grow a pair.
Four of the five Democratic candidates for Congress had their first debate Tuesday night, obligatory sponsor credit to VTDigger, and I have to say, all four of them did extremely well. From start to finish, they put on one of the best debate performances I can recall viewing. Their answers were direct and concise (I only counted one time when an answer went over the 90-second time limit). Each of them had a clear message, in words and in presentation, and they got their messages across. A few jabs were thrown, but there were also expressions of respect. Camaraderie, even.
Maybe this is what we get when the women take the stage. Makes me think we’ve been electing the wrong gender all these years.
So, before I start picking away at this thing, I’ll say it again: I came away with a positive view of all four participants. You have to get down to the nit-picky level to find grounds for criticism. They even handled the “Name one mistake you’ve made” question with aplomb. None fell back on the “I can’t think of one” or “Sometimes I’m too smart for my own good” kind of stuff that you often hear from, well, male politicians. Each referenced a mistake, owned it and explained it, openly and honestly.
The debate was a real display of the importance of representation. Lt. Gov. Molly Gray named paid family leave as her top priority. I doubt you’d hear a man say that. Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint made eloquent use of her identity as a gay woman. Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale and Sianay Chase Clifford showed how their lived experience informs their work on behalf of women and people of color.
I’m going to focus most of my attention on presentation, for two reasons: Voters are more swayed by their impressions than by policy positions. Likeability and relatability count for a lot, and I say that as someone who cares about policy. Second, there simply wasn’t much separation on the issues. Gray took a more moderate position several times, but that makes her a Pat Leahy/Peter Welch type, not some Republican in Democratic clothing. Ram Hinsdale and Chase Clifford positioned themselves in the progressive camp; Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint was, for the most part, right there alongside. She differed more in approach than in substance.
Tonight (Wednesday), VTDigger is hosting a very important early event in Vermont’s most competitive primary race of 2022 — the Democratic contest for U.S. Congress. It’s the first high-profile candidate forum in the race. There are five declared candidates; four of them will be included.
Above is the other guy: Dr. Louis Meyers, hospital physician at Rutland Regional Medical Center. Why won’t he be there? Well, because VTDigger, for reasons of its own, refused to invite him.
I’m not here to bash Digger; I think they made a considered decision. But on balance, I think it’s a mistake to exclude Meyers.
Meyers is a moderate Democrat. He’s been a practicing physician for three decades, and offers first-hand experience with the health care system. No reason to not take him seriously so far.
The other side of the coin: Meyers has twice run for state Senate in Chittenden County and finished dead last in both Democratic primaries.
If pressed, Digger would likely point to his electoral record and claim that he has no proven appeal. Certainly not compared to the three heavyweights in the race: Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, and Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale.
But then there’s the fourth candidate, Sianay Chase Clifford. She has Congressional experience as an aide to U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachiusetts, but she’s never run for or held elective office. And while she spent her youth in Vermont, she moved away to go to college and only returned to Vermont within the past two years. She has no more proven appeal than Meyers. So why will she be there?
Running update: Sen. Brian Campion, named below as having failed to file, did actually file. Four other lawmakers — Sen. Phil Baruth and Reps. Martin Lalonde, Emily Long and Seth Chase — say they zeroed out their accounts after the 2020 election and have neither raised nor spent more than $500 since, so they don’t have to file.
Updated update. I haven’t heard from any more lawmakers (so far), but I’ve written a second post explaining this exemption in more detail.
Well, if Jim Condos won’t do it, and Sarah Mearhoff won’t do it, I guess I have to.
Allow me to explain.
Last Friday, VTDigger’s always informative Final Reading kicked off with an item about lawmakers failing to abide by the law. Specifically, dozens of them have yet to file campaign finance reports that were due on March 15. Secretary of State Condos sent an email to lawmakers asking that they comply but refused to identify the scofflaws, saying “I can’t be their babysitter,” which kind of implies that they need one. Reporter Mearhoff also demurred from naming names, but teasingly said “I know who you are.”
Gee, and here I thought it was a reporter’s job to tell us what they know. Maybe space reasons? After all, the list of noncompliers is 69 names long. That’s almost 40% of the 180 “public servants” in the Legislature. Forty percent.
Mearhoff also reminded us that when the Legislature wrote the law, it refused to include any penalties for failing to file. That’s pretty standard fare for laws touching on their own interests; lawmakers jealously guard their privileges when it comes to campaign finance and ethics and reapportionment and such. Which leaves us with the plastic épée of public shaming, which rarely manages to penetrate a lawmaker’s skin.
Before I get to naming names, I should say that any mistakes are my responsibility and I will gladly make corrections if any of those listed below can show that they did, in fact, file as required by law. Also, this list was made on the morning of April 5; any reports filed after that are not reflected below.
Hey, remember the great Trucker Convoys that tied up downtown Ottawa and shut down the Ambassador Bridge because Truckers Mad About Freedom? Yeah, doesn’t that just scream “February”?
Well, it’s March, and I think it’s time to stop paying attention.
VTDigger, WCAX-TV and WPTZ-TV didn’t agree. They sent reporters to cover Freedom Convoy gatherings in Lebanon, NH and Champlain, NY. And having sent the reporters, they felt duty-bound to produce stories — despite the fact that the only “news” was how few people bothered to show up. And both broadcasters devoted more than two minutes to the story, which is an eon in TV time.
The reporters allowed themselves to become stenographers for the convoy movement. Participants were given plenty of time to list their grievances and depict themselves as simple, peaceful, freedom-loving Americans. There was no mention of the chaos and economic disruption caused by the Canadian protests, which was exactly the outcome the American organizers had hoped to produce.
See the image above? That’s a screenshot from WPTZ’s story. While that image was on screen, reporter Liz Strzepa said that the parking lot was “filled with red, white and blue.” Um, I see only six flags, ma’am.
Maybe that was an unfortunate juxtaposition and the lot was much fuller than it appeared. But Strzepa never showed a wide angle. There were many close shots of a few people and a few vehicles, but no establishing shot that would have given the whole picture. Probably because it would have exposed the gathering for what it was: a complete washout.
It’s not exactly a surprise that legislative leaders have given up on passing a mask mandate bill, but the timing is curious indeed. Last Friday, we appeared to be one single grumpy senator away from committee approval. Now, less than a week later, the white flag is waving.
On Friday (per VTDigger’s excellent Final Reading), Ginny Lyons, chair of the Senate Welfare Committee, asked her members if they were ready to vote on the bill. Sen. Ann Cummings replied that she wasn’t. Which is pretty odd, considering that a mask mandate has been a hot issue in #vtpoli for months now. Had she given it no thought until that moment?
Lyons asked if the committee could vote on Monday, usually an off day. The not-terribly-energetic Cummings responded, “What’s the matter with Tuesday?”
The bill was on the committee’s agenda first thing Tuesday morning. But at that point, Lyons announced an indefinite delay. “Leadership continues to discuss the path forward for that bill,” she said. “It was scheduled for this morning, but we’re going to postpone our work and hopefully it’ll only be until tomorrow morning.”