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Cashing In: Shumlin Dials for Dollars as He Seeks a Third Term 

Fair Game

Gov. Peter Shumlin said Monday he’s planning to run for a third two-year term next November.

But don’t expect a formal campaign kickoff anytime soon. As he did before last year’s easy ride to reelection, Shumlin said he plans to put off electioneering to “focus on governing” until next Labor Day — a mere two months before Election Day 2014.

“I certainly won’t announce my reelection until whenever it’s appropriate,” Shumlin told Seven Days. “I’m focused on my job. But it is my intent to run for reelection at this time.”

Though no opponents have emerged to challenge the East Montpelier Democrat, he’s already squeezing Vermont’s power elite for campaign cash. On the night of last month’s mid-term elections — precisely a year before he himself faces the voters — Shumlin held an exclusive fundraiser with Vermont business leaders and a slew of prominent Republicans.

Commercial real estate developer Bobby Miller and his wife, Holly, hosted the shindig at their penthouse suite at Burlington’s College & Battery condo complex. According to half a dozen people who attended, Shumlin and Miller personally phoned potential donors to invite them and solicit contributions. Those people said they gave $1000 or $2000 to be there.

“They asked me if I would have a little get-together, and so we agreed to do that,” says Miller, a self-described Republican-turned-independent.

The invite list was a who’s-who of business leaders who work closely with state government. They included Green Mountain Power President and CEO Mary Powell, Jay Peak co-owner Bill Stenger, Walmart developer Jeff Davis, Barre real estate developer Thom Lauzon, and former GMP and NG Advantage exec Neale Lunderville.

Lauzon, a Republican, also serves as mayor of Barre. Lunderville held several top-ranking posts in the administration of former Republican governor Jim Douglas and briefly joined Team Shumlin to coordinate the state’s response to Tropical Storm Irene. He says he was a “guest” at the fundraiser and did not contribute to Shumlin’s campaign.

“It was all Republicans!” jokes Lauzon, who says he and his wife, Karen, donated $2000. “Certainly with Republicans, one of our issues is we don’t want to see broad-based taxes increased. The governor’s probably led that charge as well as any other governor has.”

Shumlin declined to say how much money he raised at the event, who else attended and whether he’s recently held any other fundraisers. In July, he reported that he’d brought in nearly $88,000 during the eight months since his last reelection, leaving him with more than $700,000 in the bank at the time. He’s not required to disclose any further fundraising information until July 2014.

“Like all candidates for office, I do raise funds and have engaged in a few fundraisers, although that’s not what I’m focused on,” the governor said.

While hardly unusual in state government, last month’s fundraiser illustrated how neatly Vermont’s business and political worlds overlap.

The day after Miller’s November 5 fundraiser, for instance, Davis and Lauzon appeared with Shumlin at a press conference announcing a deal the governor brokered allowing Davis to build a Walmart he’s proposed for Derby Line. In exchange for dropping their opposition to the store, the Vermont Natural Resources Council and the Preservation Trust of Vermont secured a promise from Davis that he wouldn’t propose another Walmart until 2020.

To sweeten the deal, Shumlin pledged $500,000 in state funding to downtown tax credits, which have been a boon to Mayor Lauzon’s city — and to his personal real estate empire.

Jay Peak’s Stenger, the brains behind a half-a-billion-dollar development project in the Northeast Kingdom, paid $20,000 in September to fly Shumlin and two other state officials to Asia to court foreign investors. Last year, he hired Shumlin’s former campaign manager and deputy chief of staff, Alex MacLean, as a project manager.

But the ski magnate, who contributed $1000 to attend Miller’s fundraiser, says those ties had no bearing on his decision to attend, adding, “There are no favors paid to Jay Peak.

“I just simply feel he deserves my support when I give it to him. That’s why I showed up. Didn’t feel any pressure,” says Stenger, also a Republican. “We’re a small state. The [idea that you can] conduct your business and not interact with government officials is naïve.”

Miller, the party’s host, is a perfect example of that reality.

In April, his Williston-based commercial real estate company, R.E.M. Development, paid the state $2.4 million for a disused, 180,000-square-foot building in Essex, the Vermont Press Bureau’s Peter Hirschfeld reported in July. At the time of sale, the 50-acre property was appraised at $4 million.

Back in 2005, when Douglas was governor and the real estate market was booming, the state paid $6.2 million for the property. Officials hoped at the time to house a state police barracks, an emergency operations center, and health and forensic labs in the space. But after the economy tanked and state coffers dried up, state officials killed the project and tried to sell off the property.

Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding, who negotiated the deal with Miller, says Shumlin was not briefed on it until the final stages, when he and legislative leaders signed off. Though the state lost nearly $4 million on the transaction, Spaulding says, “I feel we got the best deal possible.”

Miller, who plans to tear down the existing building and replace it with 420,000 square feet of warehouse space, says of the deal: “I think it was fair on both sides. But I don’t think we stole it.”

Organizing the fundraiser and collecting checks for Shumlin was not a lowly campaign staffer, but a member of his administration: Deputy Commissioner of Labor Erika Wolffing.

A former Vermont State Employees Association staffer, Wolffing has twice served as the Shumlin campaign’s finance director and landed in a government job after each stint. In June 2012, she left her position as principal assistant to Commissioner of Labor Annie Noonan to help Shumlin raise $1.24 million for his reelect. When she returned to state government in January 2013, he promoted Wolffing to deputy commissioner.

According to Shumlin, he has yet to hire or pay any campaign staffers this time around. Any political work his official, taxpayer-funded employees do, he said, is “on a voluntary basis.”

“Erika has been a valued member of any election effort of mine,” he said. “And I’ve been having discussions with her about the future, but no decisions have been made.”

Wolffing certainly wouldn’t be the first gubernatorial appointee to spin through the revolving door of campaign and state, though it’s less common for a deputy commissioner to do so. Several Douglas aides moved back and forth between political and government jobs, while all three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation employ official staffers who move to the campaign side during the election season.

“I don’t think there’s been an incumbent governor of Vermont who hasn’t engaged people for their campaign that works in either the public or private sector when there is no campaign,” Shumlin said.

Wolffing, who declined to comment, also appears to be involved in Shumlin’s work chairing the Democratic Governors Association. She and Shumlin chief of staff Liz Miller attended the partisan electoral organization’s fundraising “retreat” in Manchester last September, both said at the time.

And while Shumlin won’t disclose where and when he’s been holding fundraisers lately, it appears that the DGA has been lending a hand with his reelection efforts, too.

As the Connecticut Mirror’s Mark Pazniokas reported Tuesday, the DGA held a fundraiser on behalf of Shumlin and New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan last month at the home of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

Pazniokas’ source? Walmart’s website, which bragged that the big box store’s New England spokesman, Chris Buchanan, attended “the intimate event,” at which “several governors … spoke positively about the shopping center industry.”

“While the function was primarily focused on supporting Governors Shumlin and Hassan’s reelections, there was uniform acknowledgement of [International Council of Shopping Centers] members’ roles in employment and economic development across New England,” Walmart’s website says.

A Shumlin spokesperson said the fundraiser benefited the DGA, not the Shumlin campaign, though it’s commonly acknowledged that the DGA credits governors who bring in cash for the organization and then doles it back out to their reelection efforts.

This week, Shumlin’s at it again.

According to Pazniokas, he and three fellow Democratic governors are scheduled to attend an exclusive “seated buffet breakfast” Wednesday morning in Connecticut at the Hilton Hartford, where the DGA is holding its “winter policy conference.” The breakfast is open to representatives of companies and labor unions that donate more than $100,000 annually to the DGA or more than $10,000 to sponsor the conference.

With his post-Labor Day campaign kickoff still nine months away, is Shumlin spending too much time courting wealthy donors and powerful corporations — and not enough doing his job?

“As you can imagine,” Shumlin said, “I’m focused on governing the state of Vermont, not raising funds.”

Wright Opportunity

A shakeup is coming to Burlington City Hall.

Three of seven city councilors whose terms expire in March say they won’t seek reelection next Town Meeting Day.

The retirements include two Democratic newcomers, Bryan Aubin (D-Ward 4) and Kevin Worden (D-Ward 1), and one GOP veteran, Paul Decelles (R-Ward 7), the sole Republican on the 14-member council.

But at least one prominent Burlington politician hopes to step into the void. Rep. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington), a former city councilor who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2012, says he plans to run for the New North End seat Aubin is relinquishing.

“I’ve told people I’m just crazy enough that I happened to enjoy my time on the council,” says Wright, who’s served several tours of duty on the council over the past 20 years. “And I still think I have something to contribute. So I’m going to see if the people of Ward 4 also think I can contribute.”

All three departing councilors say they simply don’t have the time to juggle family, professional and council obligations. Decelles was first elected in March 2006, Aubin in March 2012 and Worden in a special election in November 2012.

Burlington Democratic Party chairman David Scherr says the departure of two of his incumbents “makes our task a little tougher,” but he says Democratic candidates have stepped up to run in all three wards.

Currently, Democrats control seven seats on the council, while Progressives hold four, independents two and Republicans one.

Three others facing reelection next spring — Max Tracy (P-Ward 2), Chip Mason (D-Ward 5) and Karen Paul (I-Ward 6) — say they’re running. Councilor Rachel Siegel (P-Ward 3) did not return phone calls seeking comment.

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About The Author

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

Bio:
Paul Heintz is Seven Days' political editor. He writes the weekly column, "Fair Game."

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