The day was Monday and the setting was the board room at the Burlington School Department. U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy was there to announce a Megabucks-size $5.6 million "Safe Schools" grant. The federal gift will fund 18 new positions as well as improve security in Burlington schools. Soon there will be cameras in the hallways and on school buses. Big Brother will be watching.
These days we just can't seem to get enough security. It's why you can't carry tweezers on an airplane.
It's why President George W. Bush tore up our Bill of Rights and now claims the power to hold American citizens incommunicado without the right to an attorney.
It's why the federal government can snoop through your e-mail or check the local lending library to find out what kind of subversive material you've been reading.
George W. Bush already was a big brother when he moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. His little brother, as you know, was recently reelected governor of Florida.
But since September 11, 2001, it's become increasingly clear that Dubya takes the "big brother" stuff more seriously than anyone imagined. And Americans are just starting to wake up to the fact that the Big Brother of George Orwell's 1984 has finally arrived.
Hey, better late than never, eh?
Monday night, the Burlington City Council adopted a resolution calling for the repeal of the draconian parts of Big Brother's so-called Patriot Act. Quickly adopted after the twin towers fell, the Patriot Act has absolutely nothing to do with patriotism. In fact, it's an insult to all the true patriots who've fought to make America free.
Recently, Congress passed a law establishing an enormous new bureaucracy called the Department of Homeland Security. Americans are safe now, right? On Monday we put the question to St. Patrick.
"In your opinion, Senator, are the ordinary citizens of the United States safer today than they were on September 10, 2001?"
"Safer in what way?" replied St. Patrick.
"Safer from a terrorist slaughter of innocent civilians," we answered.
Leahy paused for a full seven seconds. The tension in the room mounted. He thought about it, took a breath and answered firmly, "No!"
Leahy said he's seen a great deal of "cosmetic" security measures, but little in the way of real security. He pointed to last week's attempt to shoot down an Israeli passenger plane as it took off from Mombassa.
"If terrorists wanted to wreak enormous economic havoc" on this country, said Leahy, they could do so by using just two shoulder-fired missiles, one in the eastern part of the country and one out West. It wouldn't even have to be at a major airport. "There wouldn't be a plane that would fly in this country," he said.
Until the U.S. government gets "a stronger handle" on its Middle Eastern policy," said Leahy, "I think you're going to have more attempts to go after us."
Meanwhile, he noted, the Bush administration has been gutting the Freedom of Information Act, to the delight of Attorney General John Ashcroft. And the FBI under Ashcroft, noted Leahy, completely ignored the terrorism threat and proposed cutting funding for anti-terrorism efforts right before September 11's suicide attacks.
In fact, on September 11, the FBI was focused on a major undercover investigation in New Orleans that involved 5000 wiretaps. As a result, the FBI uncovered two houses of prostitution. It made John Ashcroft swell with pride.
"I would have felt more secure if they had been checking the shipping that comes into the port of New Orleans," said St. Patrick.
The Whole Enchilada -- It's all or nothing for Rep. John Tracy (D-Burlington). The House minority leader's plans for 2003 changed dramatically on Election Night when Speaker Walter Freed's Republican train went off the rails. Tracy quickly declared his intention to challenge the Duke of Dorset for the podium and all the power that goes with it.
The 150-member Vermont House that gets sworn in next month will be composed of 74 Republicans, 69 Democrats, four Progressives and three Independents. Winning the race for Speaker requires 76 votes.
Tracy recently picked up the support of the four Progs. If he can hold his Democrats together, that would give him 73 votes to Freed's 74. Oh, to be an Independent, eh?
The Independents are veteran Reps. Jack Anderson of Woodstock, Daryl Pillsbury of Brattleboro and rookie Tom Pelham of Calais, former commissioner of finance for Howard Dean. Seven Days has learned that the trio is planning to get together next week to privately talk things over. The meeting will be held at an undisclosed location.
"I've made commitments to no one," said Rep. Anderson, who served as a Democrat in the last session but ran this time as an Independent. Anderson, who teaches Civil War history at UVM and Norwich, told Seven Days he has been contacted by both Freed and Tracy.
Ditto for Rep. Pillsbury. He hasn't made up his mind yet, either. But he is excited about the coming two years.
"The next two years are going to be fun," said Pillsbury. "We're going to matter now. With the four Progressives, we can have our own coalition. I can't wait."
Mr. Pelham could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
As for handicapping the Speaker's race, we must note that the word around the building is, the Duke of Dorset has it locked up with a projected 80 votes. Is it true?
John Patrick Tracy isn't buying it.
The Old North End Democrat told Seven Days, "Walter's counting people he doesn't have. It's going to be tight. You never know with a secret ballot."
Earlier, there had been speculation that Tracy might try to get his caucus to hold off on electing a leader until after the Speaker's race is decided. But Tracy has decided otherwise. If he loses to Freed, he'll be just another Democrat.
"I'm going for the whole enchilada," said Tracy.
Incidentally, House Democrats will be meeting at the Statehouse on Saturday, Republicans on Sunday. They'll choose their leaders for the coming two-year battle. Regardless of how Tracy fares on January 8, House Democrats will have a new leader. Rep. Gaye Symington of Jericho is running un-opposed.
Rep. Symington spent her first six years under the golden dome squirreled away in the closet known as the Ways and Means Committee. Gaye's an intellectual who wears Birkenstocks over thick wool socks. She's also got an M.B.A. from Cornell and is a recognized expert on Act 60. And Symington, currently a stay-at-home mom, told Seven Days she is ready for prime time.
"I'm ready to move out of the Ways and Means closet," said Symington, "and make the caucus work as a team."
On Sunday, House Republicans are expected to elect their current assistant leader to the top spot. Rep. Connie Houston, a Ferris-burgh realtor, has spent a decade at the Statehouse. She'll replace John Labarge, who lost his recent race for state treasurer. Rep. Rick Hube of South Londonderry is unopposed for the number-two spot.
Let the games begin!
P.S. Incidentally, if Mr. Tracy pulls it off, he said he will lift the ban on cameras in the House chamber, instituted by Speaker Freed. Last session Freed showed his Nixonian paranoia by ordering Capitol Police to confiscate VPIRG's video camera.
"No way," said Tracy. "It's the people's house."
The Resurrection of Peter -- Over in the Vermont Senate, where Democrats increased their majority, sources say Sen. Peter Welch (D-Windsor) has the president pro tempore spot all sewed up. And it's a spot that positions him perfectly for a second bite at the gubernatorial apple.
Welch served in the Senate in the 1980s. Was quite the up and coming, dashing young liberal. But Pedro lost the 1990 governor's race to Dick Snelling and faded away. Now he's back.
Of course, Welch didn't completely fade away. Peter's mug is seen regularly on WCAX-TV, where he stars in a commercial for his personal-injury law firm. It sure looks like a political campaign commercial. Looking very gubernatorial, Welch musters up a heavy dose of sincerity as he stares into the camera and says the magic words: "If you've been hurt, call me."
He feels your pain!
Jeezum Digs In -- It was hardly surprising that in the wake of Republican gains on Election Day, Vermont's junior U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords would be a target. Pay-back time for Jeezum, eh?
After all, Sen. Jeffords' May 2001 declaration of Independence knocked Sen. Trent Lott and the GOP off their Senate pedestal. What was surprising was how cheap and dirty the attacks were.
Yours truly received several e-mails from the local right-wing community that ought to have come wrapped in toilet paper. That's because they echoed a common fetish, suggesting that Vermont's brave Independent would end up cleaning urinals or toilet bowls on Capitol Hill. The writers are obviously people you wouldn't want to shake hands with, if you know what I mean.
The most outrageous attack on Jeezum appeared on the editorial page of the pathetic Washington Times. Under the heading "Sorry, Jim," the Times' editorial page editor Tony Blankley accused Jeezum of "putting out feelers" to the Republican leadership shortly after the votes were counted, hoping to hang on to a committee chairmanship. Blankley, former spokesman for Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, used unnamed sources. And he never even called Jeffords to confirm it or get a response.
The story enjoyed wide circulation. Let's face it, President Big Brother and his zealots loathe Ol' Jeezum Jim for slowing down their takeover of America. God forbid the truth, or even common sense, would get in the way.
The fact is, in Vermont, Independent Jeffords' approval rating is more than 70 percent. The vast majority of Vermont voters sing Jeezum's praises. Switching back to Trent Lott's team doesn't pass the straight-face test.
Despite the senator's denial and the paper's inability to prove its story, the Washington Times refused to correct Blankley's error. After all, this is a newspaper that considers people like Rush Limbaugh and Rev. Jerry Falwell to be outstanding American leaders.
The Washington Times did publish a letter to the editor from Sen. Jeffords. A rather well-written one at that:
"Regarding your Nov. 20, 2002 editorial, 'Sorry, Jim': For those who may still believe what they read in the Washington Times, I would like to just set the record straight. I have absolutely no interest in caucusing with the Republican Party, and I have absolutely no desire to rejoin the GOP. Neither I, nor any staff member, has made overtures of the type you claim. I am very comfortable where I am, thank you.
"I can only guess why your unidentified 'senior Senate leadership source' may have been tempted to fabricate and float such a story (if there was, in fact, any such source). But I learned long ago that it is dangerous to ascribe motives, especially here in Washington. I would have been glad to set you straight had you only called. But you probably knew that following the most basic rule of good journalism would surely take all the fun out of the game."
In the past week, Jeezum Jim has come out swinging. On Saturday he gave the Democratic response to Big Brother's weekly national radio address. The same day The New York Times ran his op-ed piece highlighting the Bush administration's failure to address important national "security" issues like millions of jobs moving offshore and the pollution spewing from coal-fired power plants that leads to thousands of premature deaths each year.
And Jeezum Jim made it perfectly clear that he's one Vermonter who has only just begun to fight.
"If the new, razor-thin Republican majority abuses its power," wrote Jeffords, "and moves forward with an extreme agenda that overlooks the concerns of the many and benefits only the privileged few, there will be repercussions... If the Republicans read the recent election results as a rejection of moderation and a mandate to steamroll opposition from within the party, they will be making a grave mistake."
Our bet is, the Bush team gets out the steamroller again. It's the only set of wheels they know how to drive.