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Bernie to Jeezum: Time for a Change! 

As Bush proves to be more conservative than his campaign suggested, Sanders recommends Jeffords switch parties to rebalance the power in U.S. Senate.

He’s the King of the Hill, the Lord of the Manor, the Cock of the Rock. We’re referring, of course, to Vermont’s superstar Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords.

As everyone knows, in today’s evenly-divided, 50-50 U.S. Senate, Jeezum Jim stood up to the White House and shot down Bush II’s plan to pay back the millionaires for his glorious election. Ever since, Jim Jeffords has been a newly discovered Capitol Hill media darling. The quietest member of the Vermont delegation is now a political legend in the making.

Like a David against Goliath, the Rutland High School grad put the breaks on the presidential tax cut for the rich. Stories abound in newspapers across the country about the quiet Vermonter who just did what he thought was “the right thing to do.”

But our Jeezum Jim has also been the target of right-wing columnists who’d like to see him thrown into a dungeon for betraying the Republican Party.

In that vein Monday, Washington insider and Roll Call columnist Norm Ornstein warned the Bush II crew to be extra careful about messing with Mr. Jeffords. Ornstein noted Jeezum Jim has one mighty ace in the hole.

“Push Jeffords far enough,” wrote Ornstein, “and he can use the nuclear weapon he has in his arsenal. In a nanosecond, he can go to Sen. Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) and offer to switch parties if the Minority Leader will let him keep his chairmanship.”

Instantly, the Democrats would hold the Senate majority. Sen. Patrick Leahy would take over as chairman of Judiciary, guaranteeing Bush II’s right-wing nominees for the federal bench and the U.S. Supreme Court won’t get a rubber stamp.

Monday afternoon, we asked Independent Congressman Bernie Sanders if he had any advice for Jeffords about switching teams. Sanders eyes lit up at the implications of a Jeffords switcheroo.

The congressman noted his disappointment with the new President. Despite losing the popular vote, said Sanders, Mr. Bush had taken over the White House and immediately set a “hard right” agenda. Bernie said he thought Bush would have read the tea leaves better and “taken a fairly moderate stance and moved a little bit more to the center.”

Bernie was wrong.

If Jim Jeffords switches parties or even becomes an Independent like him, said Bernie, it would dramatically change the power structure in the Senate.

“The Republicans would cease to control the United States Senate,” said Sanders. “Opposition to many of the President’s proposals would be much, much stronger. We can slow them down. We would have a much stronger negotiating position.”

Bernie was clearly digging it.

“To the degree that Sen. Jeffords considers himself a moderate,” argued Sanders, “I think it would be a very positive thing for this country and this state if he would give thought to leaving what is now a very right-wing party.”

Attempts to reach Sen. Jeffords for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful. His press secretary, Erik Smulson, said the boss had a very busy schedule. As for Bernie’s advice, Smulson called it a “nice suggestion.” He noted it “isn’t the first time we’ve heard it over the years.” Sen. Jeffords, he said, “is comfortable as the most conservative member of the Vermont delegation, and regardless of party label, will continue to do what he thinks is right for Vermont and the nation.”

That didn’t sound like an absolute “no,” did it? After all, in Jeezum Jim’s world view, Democrats aren’t that weird — he’s married to one!

Minority Viewpoint — Despite the great success of Congressman Bernie Sanders and the control of City Hall in Burlington, the Progressive Party remains a work in progress statewide. Anthony Pollina, the party’s candidate for governor, got less than 10 percent of the vote last fall.

Out of 180 members in the Vermont Legislature, one can count the Progressive Party legislators on the fingers of one hand. The Fearsome Foursome of leftists from the Queen City are David Zuckerman, Steve Hingtgen, Carina Driscoll and Bob Kiss. They’re widely regarded under the golden dome as hard-working, intelligent members and good communicators, too. Gone is the elitism of olden days when the infamous Self-Righteous Brothers — former Reps. Dean Corren and Terrill Bouricius — ruled the Prog caucus.

Had there been more Democrats and fewer Republicans elected to the House last fall, the Progressive caucus might have been in a powerful position with its four “swing” votes.

But with 83 Republicans, the Republican agenda has moved forward smoothly. That’s what majority rule is all about.

Last week’s Progressive Legislative Update provides a interesting angle on what’s been going on in Montpeculiar this session. Friday’s was written by Hingtgen, the old eagle Scout. As the clock winds down, he noted, important issues are put on the House’s back burner, as the GOP majority exercises its “desire to make government the moral authority of the people.”

Housing, child care, health care can wait. Now’s the time for Vermont’s religious right to flex its muscle and tackle its favorite issue — sex! Abortion rights for minors and civil unions for homosexuals are the Republican targets in the final days. Hallelujah!

Back in January the new GOP majority stumbled badly on a couple of floor fights. That’s been corrected. According to Hingtgen, “The rift between the Corporations-first Republicans and the Christianity-first Republicans is subsiding as both sides realize they can work together to accomplish both goals.”

The Prog Report is no kinder to the other major party.

“Democrats have been even more directionless this year than in the past. Clearly, the Democratic leadership in the Senate is consumed with posturing for the 2002 Governor’s race and will likely say “yes” to many of the bills coming out of the House rather than put up a fight that might hurt their chances in the next election. If this all seems both sad and comical, you’re right. And it’s not going to get much better until a few more progressive legislators serve in Montpelier.”

That may be a while. Don’t wait up.

Press Matters — No sign of a thaw, yet, in our relations with Speaker of the House Walter Freed. But there is one “rude and disrespectful” columnist he is talking to. The other day Freed was snuggled up in the Statehouse cafeteria with fellow traveler James Dwinell.

Dwinell’s an interesting political animal. On the national stage he was a top aide to Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart in the 1984 race. Donna Rice put him and Hart out of a job. Later James bought a little unknown political rag, spiffed it up and sold it for a nice profit. Campaigns & Elections magazine is a hardware store for politicians big and small.

After returning to his homeland a few years ago, James ran unsuccessfully for auditor against Ed Flanagan (who we hear is eyeing a comeback in 2002 as state treasurer). Then Mr. Dwinell became executive director of the Vermont Republican Party. James started up a weekly Vermont GOP Update that zinged the Democrats and zinged the “liberal” Vermont media, too.

Dwinell can be a bit prickly, as many who know him will attest. A year ago he was sacked by Pat Garahan, the state GOP chairman (Patsy said yesterday he’s moving to San Diego. Hey, that’s one cherry of a Spear Street hacienda going on the market!)

Next, Dwinell surfaced as an online political journalist with the weekly Dwinell-Sternberg Report. And recently James popped up writing editorials for the Addison Eagle, a free weekly broadsheet. Over the winter he hosted a one-hour afternoon talk show on WKDR. Recently, however, he was bumped off the dial by the return of Louie Manno and Jim Condon.

Dwinell’s kind of like John McClaughry with a sense of humor. He’s predictably pro everything Republican and anti- everything that isn’t. Personally, yours truly prefers not to discriminate. Whack ‘em all, we say, regardless of party label. James, however, chooses to preach to a right-wing choir and, make no mistake, he has every right to do so.

The question of the day is, does Gov. Howard Dean have to take Dwinell’s questions?

Last week, James the Journalist attended the governor’s weekly press conference and asked a few questions. At first, Ho-Ho was a consummate professional and handled Dwinell’s inquiries about farm signs in the right of way without blinking. The hot topic that day was the continued non-appearance of Dean’s “secret” plan to “fix” Act 60 and its treacherous “shark pool.”

As in recent weeks, Ho-Ho took the heat, kept his cool and stuck to his guns. He’s in charge and he’ll do what’s best. After about 40 minutes, just as it looked like everyone had run out of questions, Dwinell popped up again with a couple more.

The expression on Ho-Ho’s face indicated his patience with Dwinell had just left his body. When Dwinell mentioned Act 60 again, Dean stiffened. He rubbed his nose like a boxer and gave Dwinell a couple good shots.

“In all due respect,” said the Guv to the journalist, “since you do work for the Republican Party, I really don’t think this is the appropriate place to answer these questions. What you do in your publication that you put out from time to time is take what I say and parody them and ridicule them. And that’s fine to do,” said Dean, “but I’m afraid I’m not going to give you the time to do it at my press conferences. You’ve asked several questions. You’ve gotten the answers. You’re welcome to go back to write your newsletter, but I don’t think I’m going to pursue this with you. Thank you very much.”

With that, Dean asked for other questions, and hearing none, quickly departed stage left.

“That’s an incorrect statement,” shouted Dwinell as Dean walked out of the palatial Statehouse ceremonial office.

Dwinell was absolutely right about that. He does not work for the Republican Party anymore, and Ho-Ho knows it.

As Seven Days hits the street this Wednesday, another weekly press conference is on the schedule. And Dwinell told Seven Days on Tuesday he’s “hoping to be there.”

And if the remarks of the governor’s press secretary are any indication, it ought to be a good show. Susan W. Allen told Seven Days Ho-Ho’s weekly press conferences are held for the benefit of “credible, non-agenda-driven media outlets.” Dwinell “writes for an agenda-driven newsletter,” she said. The Dwinell-Sternberg Report, said Allen, “has a bitter, mean-spirited edge.”

Sounds like you guys “don’t like” James’ writing? we inquired.

“It’s not like we don’t like it,” replied Sweet Sue. “It’s that the weekly press conference is for legitimate journalists.”

In fact, they’ve been broadcast for years on public access TV channels across the state. They’ve been so popular, Vermont Public Television now airs them, too.

As you may recall, our buddy, the East Dorset millionaire and Speaker of House recently made a big deal over the fact he’d “allowed” yours truly to attend his recent Statehouse press conference. Bless his little heart. Speaker Walt Freed noted we were deliberately “not invited.” However, Mr. Sports Car bit his lip and answered our questions politely and professionally.

If the Speaker can do it when he has to, the Governor should, too. Ho-Ho may not like Dwinell’s writing, his point of view or the way he parts his hair, but it’s not for Ho-Ho to define who is and who isn’t a legitimate journalist. Ultimately, readers, and in the case of the weekly televised press conferences, viewers decide that one.

Meanwhile, Dwinell told Seven Days Tuesday the governor’s press secretary has never returned his calls. He said he had asked Addison Eagle publisher Dan Laberge to call her and verify Dwinell’s press credentials. Dwinell said the publisher called four times and hadn’t heard back as yet.

Asked about the unreturned calls, Allen replied, “I’m not going to comment on that silliness.”

As for a potential showdown at this week’s press conference, Allen said, “We’re respectful of [Dwinell]. The governor is respectful of him and will continue to be.”

Stay tuned.

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About The Author

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne

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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