A Dream Come True? | Inside Track | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice
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A Dream Come True? 

Inside Track

"Yes, it is," said the brand-new Independent U.S. senator from the Green Mountains.

"It feels absolutely great!" said Bernie Sanders of Burlington, Vermont, the Senate's first "socialist," in a phone interview late Monday afternoon from his new office on Capitol Hill.

Is this really happening?

Both of us remembered for a moment the time 26 years ago when we first met on a College Street sidewalk - January 1981. The upstart, loudmouth, semi-disheveled radical with the Brooklyn accent was on his way to an interview with The Burlington Free Press editorial board. He was running in a three-way race for mayor, the apparent outsider. Needless to say, he did not get the Freeps' endorsement.

And it appeared to this newcomer to Vermont journalism that Sanders was running an impossible longshot race against an established, entrenched Democrat named Gordie Paquette.

What did we know, eh?

Ol' Bernardo won by 10 votes that March, and the rest is history. Who could have imagined then that the screaming champion of "poor people, working people and the elderly" would one day preside over the U.S. Senate, as the former Burlington mayor (1981-89) did for a couple hours on Tuesday. Saw him on C-SPAN!

"We're settling in," said Sanders. "We're putting together a dynamite staff, and we're beginning to put together a very strong progressive agenda, which for the people of Vermont will be a very familiar agenda, but for down here, it is not quite so familiar."

After 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, which has 435 members, Sanders is in a very different environment in the 100-member Senate.

"Everybody here on Capitol Hill knows who a senator is," said Ol' Bernardo. "We get calls from staff on committees that we're not even on, wanting to know our opinion."

Also, said Sanders, the Senate has its own key phrase, one you don't hear in the House, that defines the accepted style of doing business: "No surprises."

"Whatever your point of view may be," said Sanders, "they want to know where you're coming from. Can they accommodate your needs? It's a very strange process, but that's what the word is," he said with a chuckle.

Ol' Bernardo told us his staff has already met with reps from committees he doesn't sit on - one was the Finance Committee - "wanting to know our views on trade and a bunch of other issues."

An issue the Vermont freshman will be heavily involved in is global warming. His seat on the Environment and Energy Committee guarantees it.

"This 'winter' has shaken a lot of people in terms of what the real impact of global warming can be," said Sanders. "I will be reintroducing Jim Jeffords' global-warming bill, which is in fact the strongest piece of legislation addressing the need to break our dependence on fossil fuels and cut carbon dioxide emissions. I am very nervous about global warming, and we're going to be as strong as we can here in a variety of ways, trying to move this country in a very different direction."

But can you succeed with George W. Bush sleeping in the White House for two more years? He may be a crooked liar, but he still has the power of the veto pen, we noted.

"If Bush wants to veto this legislation," warned Sen. Sanders, "if his Republican colleagues here support his veto, they're going to pay a very, very heavy price."

In terms of global warming, said Sanders, "Everybody's nervous, regardless of your political ideology. People know we need to move very, very boldly in new energy directions. If Bush doesn't, if Republicans don't, I think they're going to pay a heavy political price and, by the way, I don't think they're that dumb."

Let's hope, eh?

We could tell from his voice - a voice we've listened to closely for more than a quarter-century - that Bernie Sanders is a very happy camper.

"I am," he agreed. "It's such an awesome responsibility. You really do have a lot of power. Believe me, your phone calls get returned. And the question is how one uses one's power most effectively. And that's going to be a learning curve. I've got a lot to learn about how one functions here in the most effective possible way, but I'm really very happy to be here."

It shows.

**********

Finally! - This time last year, Democratic State Sen. Peter Welch was kicking off another session under Montpeculiar's golden dome as the Vermont State Senate's president pro tem.

This year, Peter's on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., presiding over the U.S. House as the new congressman from Vermont, while also serving on the rather prestigious House Rules Committee.

Last week, Burlington businessman Bobby Miller rented a private jet to take a few of the local boys down to catch Welchie's swearing in. Among those on board was veteran Democratic State Sen. Dick Mazza from Colchester.

"It was exciting to see," Mazza told "Inside Track." "It was something Peter had been looking forward to for so many years. He deserved it. He earned it."

And he hit the ground running, as the first female Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi assigned the Vermonter to the powerful Rules Committee.

"There's not a lot of phoniness in Peter," said his old pal Dick Mazza. "He's an honest and sincere guy." And even though he's currently swimming in a much bigger pond, said Mazza, "Peter seemed no different than when he was here."

**********

Home Sweet Home - It was great to get back from our trip to the Southwest over the Christmas holiday. Yours truly got covered with more than 2 feet of snow in enchanting New Mexico. Temperatures were in the single digits. Nothing like being in a snowy border state at Christmas, eh? Even if it had to be the Mexican border!

This out-of-state jaunt was our first in - would you believe - 15 years?

Now we're reminded of why we don't ever leave. The contrast between "out there" and small-scale, human-scale, look-you-in-the-eye Vermont remains all too obvious.

That was reinforced at the Statehouse the other day by two genuine Vermont good ol' boys.

Sen. Robert Starr (D-Essex-Orleans) owns a trucking company.

Sen. Phil Scott (R-Washing- ton) owns a construction company. He also races cars real well on the finest dirt ovals in the Green Mountains.

If you, dear reader, are sick and tired of all the damn email that floods into your 21st-century electronic world, these guys are your kind of state senators.

"It's a drain on time to respond," said Sen. Scott, 48, the chairman of the Institutions Committee, "and they do expect an instant response."

Some emailers even request a prompt response from either "you or your staff," said Phil Scott. "We don't have staff," he noted.

Welcome to Vermont.

"If you want to get a hold of me," said Sen. Starr, 64, "call me, write me, just don't try to email me!"

Ol' Bobby's been making the winter pilgrimage to Montpe-culiar since 1979. He served 13 terms in the House, where he chaired the Agriculture Committee. He moved over to the smaller "upper" body two years ago.

"I'm busy. I don't spend time reading junk mail," said Bobby, a political institution from the Northeast Kingdom. "I like hard copies of letters, phone calls, and I always return that stuff," said Sen. Starr.

What's wrong with these guys?

How about nothing?

*********

Dems Get New Look - House Speaker Gaye Symington, a woman who may well be more than speaker one day, has successfully got a protégée installed as the new executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party.

Jill Krowinski, 27, ran the House campaign for non-gay Gaye the last time around. Then she was state field director for the party. Ms. Krowinski, of North Tonawanda, New York, is a 2002 grad of the University of Pittsburgh.

Straight out of Pitt, she hooked up with an outfit called 21st Century Democrats in Washington, D.C. She describes the group as progressive with a small "p." After picking up a little grassroots organizing training there, Krowinski picked Vermont as her top choice for placement. She had never been here before. She told "Inside Track" she really liked the politics of the state.

Can't blame her for that, can you?

"I knew that Vermont had passed the civil-unions bill," said the Vermont Democratic Party's new state director, "and had a longstanding tradition of being independent thinkers, taking the plunge, and doing what a lot of people felt was right despite what the political implications would be. And I had a tremendous amount of respect for that," she told us. "And there are no billboards. I love that!"

Get ready for some changes at Democratic HQ. Krowinski said she is "going to take a little time to revamp the staff structure." She wants to build on what went well during the recent coordinated campaign, and incorporate what Lite-Gov candidate Matt Dunne did with his "service politics."

She's also been given the green light to create the new full-time staff position of party fundraising director.

In the past, Krowinski said, "We've had consultants here and there to come in and help out." But it's never been a 24/7 post. "We need someone to devote time to specifically cultivating our donor base," said the new party exec.

**********

More Than Money - That, we suggest, is what it's going to take if Vermont Democrats truly expect to regain the governor's office. Republican Jim Douglas has won three in a row and shows no sign of letting up. How does he do it?

Last Thursday yours truly got home from the Western swing just in time to catch the 11 o'clock news coverage of Gov. Scissorhands' inaugural address.

At a Montpelier presser a month earlier, the guv had played down the urgency and importance of reducing global warming, when compared to the urgency of reducing the rise in property taxes to pay for our public schools.

Terri Hallenbeck from the Freeps asked, "Peter Shumlin wants to make [global warming] a priority for the session; where do you see it going with Vermont fighting global warming?"

"To be perfectly honest," replied Douglas, "as I campaigned around Vermont, I think we all heard a lot more about property taxes than global warming." The GOP Guv emphasized "what a small percentage of the surface of the world Vermont represents and how low our emissions are. We don't have much in the way of greenhouse gas emissions."

Yours truly pressed him on it, noting some scary weather changes and impacts on Vermont traditions such as maple sugaring. But Jim Douglas showed no fear.

"I'm trying to put it into perspective," said Vermont's top dog. "More power plants are being built in China and India, emitting more greenhouse gasses than the United States is reducing at any given point. This is a problem that's far beyond the ability of the state of Vermont to contain."

Then, ready for this? Less than one month later, making Vermont a world leader in the fight against global warming is suddenly a cornerstone of his inaugural address. He dubs it the "Vermont Way Forward."

"By attacking the prime drivers of greenhouse gas emissions and redoubling our pledge to use renewable energy resources," said Douglas, "Vermont will do even more to strengthen its position as a world leader in the environmental sciences."

Tell 'em what they want to hear, eh? Couldn't have anything to do with the fact that the Democratic legislature is kicking off the session with three weeks of major joint House and Senate hearings on global warming?

In politics, packaging is everything. And few are able to adjust and readjust their packaging as quickly as does Jim Douglas, the Republican who rules in leftist/ progressive Vermont.

Bravo!

**********

One Brave Law Man - Robert Sand has been a prosecutor for 15 years. He's been the Windsor County State's Attorney for almost a decade. And he has courage that, unfortunately, is in very short supply. Wrote Sand in a January 4 Rutland Herald op-ed:

"The time has come for peace talks in the war on drugs . . . It's time to devise an intelligent exit strategy, one that includes consideration of a regulated public health approach to drugs instead of our current criminal justice model.

"As a career prosecutor, I see strong indications that our enforcement model may actually be counterproductive to public and personal safety. Violence spawned by the war on drugs continues to plague our communities."

Despite swift criticism from the Douglas administration, Sand told "Inside Track" this week, "The response has been overwhelmingly positive." Sand told us he's "been surprised by the number of police officers who have told him in recent weeks that what we're doing right now doesn't make sense."

Really?

Sand emphasized that what he's really calling for is dialogue.

"Yes, I have opinions, but unless you can say the current system is the best system there is, then we have an obligation to dig a little deeper," said the prosecutor. "And there isn't a person in the world who can say that," he added.

Can't argue with him on that.

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Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne

Bio:
Peter Freyne, 1949-2009, wrote the weekly political column "Inside Track," which originated in the Vanguard Press in the mid 1980s; he brought it to Seven Days in 1995. He retired it shortly before his death in January, 2009. We all miss him.

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