Vermont’s fearless Republican leader, Jim Douglas of Middlebury, had a bad week. Not like him. He’s widely viewed as a cinch for re-election to a fourth straight term as Vermont’s chief executive in 2008, despite his GOP affiliation.
Because Gentleman Jim Douglas is a master of the middle.
And the Democrats were simply unable to find a candidate to give him a close race in his 2004 and 2006 reelection bids (Peter Clavelle and Scudder Parker played sacrificial lambs). GOP Jim won each in a landslide. And, yes, this is the same state that in 2006 elected the first socialist to ever serve in the United States Senate!
But despite his success in November, Gov. Douglas stumbled a couple weeks back when he tried to blame his lack of effectiveness in dealing with the sarcoi- dosis outbreak in Bennington on the administration of former Gov. Howard Dean. Douglas later went into damage-control mode and apologized for that.
Then last week, the guv stumbled on two fronts — well, actually three. One involved the War on Illegal Aliens, the other the War on Drugs, and the third, perhaps most troubling, was the War on Truth and Accuracy.
Sunday’s Burlington Free Press reported an eyebrow-raiser about a Middlebury farm owned by Gov. Douglas’ inlaws that has employed illegal immigrant farm workers from Mexico for the last four years!
Veteran investigative reporter Sam Hemingway also added the rather juicy tidbit that our governor was well aware of it, fully cognizant the law was being broken.
“I’m certainly aware they have Mexican workers, but I’ve never run into any of them when I was there,” Jimbo told Ol’ Sam.
That’s a relief, eh?
“Farm business people feel it’s appropriate to do this to be successful,” Douglas continued. “I don’t have any particular advice, other than to write your congressional members and tell them we need immigration reform.”
Douglas’ remarks sparked a fiery reaction from the right-wing callers to “The Mark Johnson Show” on WDEV radio Monday. They do not take kindly to lawbreakers and those who look the other way and condone criminals, and that’s exactly the boat they put our governor in.
Meanwhile, over the mountains in eastern Vermont, veteran Windsor County State’s Attorney Robert Sand has been increasingly outspoken on the abysmal failure of the War on Drugs in this country and in Vermont. Last week, the Valley News’ Mark Davis reported on some rather newsworthy remarks Mr. Sand, a Pomfret Democrat, made at a County Democratic Committee forum in Hartland on February 12:
Windsor County State’s Attorney Robert Sand voiced support for full legalization of marijuana and government regulation of heroin distribution last night, his boldest remarks yet in his campaign to decriminalize illegal drugs and abandon what he considers the failed “war on drugs.”
In front of a supportive crowd of 60 inside Damon Hall, the veteran prosecutor said he has yet to be convinced that marijuana users should be treated as criminals.
“No one has made the case to me that this is a substance that should be involved in the criminal justice system and all the extraordinary resources we are spending on it,” Sand said.
Prosecutor Sand also wants to see a review of the current failed policy for dealing with heroin addiction. Treating users as criminals instead of addicts, notes Sand, has been a dismal failure.
He has a point, does he not?
So yours truly could not resist asking Vermont’s governor at his weekly presser last Thursday afternoon about the outspoken Windsor County state’s attorney who’s going around telling audiences marijuana should be legalized. Douglas’ reaction?
“Well, I don’t agree with it,” replied Gov. Scissorhands. “And I think, to be perfectly honest, the voters of Windsor County perhaps had a right to know this before he was re-elected rather than immediately after that.
“I believe we need to be serious about drugs in our state,” said Vermont’s chief executive. “We are serious. Our state police, through the heroin enforcement action team, have been very aggressive in rounding up drug dealers and making it very, very clear that we don’t tolerate that.
“So I think that what [Sand] suggested is the wrong way to go.”
“Is Mr. Sand fit for the the law-enforcement position he holds?” we asked.
“Well, it’s curious,” replied Gov. Douglas, “but I hope and assume he’ll be true to his oath of office, which is to uphold the laws of our state.”
Well, what did you expect Republican Gov. Jim Douglas to say?
Something along the lines of: “I think Prosecutor Sand is demonstrating tremendous courage and his deep, deep concern for the people of Vermont. The War on Drugs has been a disaster and everyone knows it. The so-called ‘illegal drugs’ are everywhere and we’ve created an enormous $400 billion criminal culture that’s clogged the courts and packed the prisons coast-to-coast. It’s time for the legislature to listen closely to what this brave law-enforcement official is saying.”
But at least the governor should have gotten his facts straight about Sand’s history of criticism of the flawed drug policy. He didn’t just start speaking out after his re-election in November 2006. Bobby Sand, in fact, went public with his criticism a few years ago, and he hasn’t kept it a secret. Rather, it appears to be a case of the Vermont press not shining a spotlight on his position.
“The governor is flat wrong that I withheld my views until after the election,” Sand told the Valley News the other day. “And, frankly, it’s a little insulting to hear the suggestion that criticizing a flawed approach is some indication that I’m not going to be true to my oath of office. ”
As far as we can tell, Sand first publicly called for decriminalizing marijuana in a February 2005 op-ed in the Valley News titled “Common Misperceptions About the Criminal Justice System.” Among the misperceptions this tell-it-like-it-is prosecutor cited were: “The criminal justice system prevents crime”; “Increased punishment increases deterrence”; and “The war on marijuana is winnable and worth fighting.”
“The reality is that marijuana is not a criminal justice menace. Police do not respond to pot-induced domestic assaults — alcohol-induced, yes, but not marijuana.
“Instead of the vast resources devoted to the eradication of this prevalent weed, we ought to reallocate time and effort to the eradication of physical and sexual abuse of children (a war truly worth fighting), and adopt a public health approach to the problem of marijuana use and abuse.”
He’s got a point.
Sand, a 1987 Vermont Law School grad and the top prosecutor in Windsor County for the last eight years, even told the Rutland Herald’s Susan Smallheer about his personal pot past.
The prosecutor admitted “that as a high school and college student he used marijuana, but that he hadn’t used it since 1982, although he said he might have smoked once at a party during law school.”
He said he used it because of the social scene.
“It made me kind of paranoid and more reserved than I already am,” Sand said. “I’m not proud of it; I’m not ashamed of it.”
Sand told Smallheer he had been “expecting to be asked whether he smoked marijuana ever since he raised the issue about the war on drugs, and he was surprised it hadn’t been raised earlier.”
He also pointed out that, despite the perception that very little emphasis is placed on criminal prosecution for pot possession, a recent study by the Vermont Crime Information Center found that in the past two years there were more arrests for marijuana than all other illegal drugs combined.
Both Davis at the Valley News and Smallheer at the Rutland Herald reported in their pieces that gubernatorial spokesman Jason Gibbs had not returned their calls.
Really? Ol’ Jason didn’t return ours last time, either. Busy guy.
So our hopes were not high when we emailed Mr. Gibbs Tuesday morning seeking an audience over the telephone before noon.
The audience with the gubernatorial spokesman was granted.
“The governor has a fundamentally different point of view on the issue of illegal drugs, and on those who want to poison our children for profit, than Mr. Sand does,” said Gibbs. “And they’re always going to disagree on this issue.”
As for Gov. Douglas insinuating at his press conference that Sand had not been forthright with the voters about his legalize-pot position, Gibbs said, “The governor’s point was, the voters should have had the benefit of a debate.”
Funny you should say that, Jason. Because Vermont Democrats are looking for a candidate who could effectively debate your boss in his 2008 bid for re-election.
“Sand for Governor?”
The Other Issue — With the majority of Vermonters strongly opposed to Republican President George W. Bush’s War in Iraq, you’d think Republican Gov. Jim Douglas would have no trouble distancing himself from the White House’s bankrupt policy.
We tried to give him the opportunity to do so at his last presser.
“Don’t we all know now, Governor,” yours truly asked, “this was a mistake — the invasion of Iraq — wasn’t it?”
Douglas: Well, Peter, you’ve asked that a number of times and it’s easy to second-guess the decisions after the fact, and I don’t think that’s useful.
A lot of Vermonters have answered the call to serve. They’ve given it their all. We need to honor their service and sacrifice, and I don’t think it’s useful to look backward. I think it’s more important to look forward.
Q: But if we can’t acknowledge our own mistakes, how can we ever hope to be useful at anything?
Douglas: At some point history will render its judgment, and I think we ought to focus on the best strategy to bring this to a successful and rapid conclusion at this point.
Q: I was asking, do you think the policy in Iraq, supporting President Bush on Iraq, is going to hurt not America but the Republican Party? Because you are, more and more, a mover and shaker in the Republican Party.
Douglas: It’s too early to tell. You know the old saying — “A week is a lifetime in politics.” I don’t think it’s useful to speculate on how this might affect the next election.
Well, just between us, Jimbo, it’s not terribly likely Vermonters will forget how you bobbed and weaved on this one. You might want to consider adopting an Iraq War position that’s a little closer to that of the state’s congressional delegation and farther away from Dubya’s.
Just trying to be helpful.
Media Notes — Maggie Maurice, who for more than a generation filled the role of “society/gossip” columnist at The Burlington Free Press, died the day after the Valentine’s Day Blizzard. Ol’ Maggie was 82 and a legend in her own time.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Burlington was shaking off the dust of the ’50s and the Dutch Elm Disease of the ’60s. The city was reborn in the wake of the 1981 political upheaval at City Hall led by a screaming socialist with a Brooklyn accent and a passionate focus on “poor people, working people and the elderly.”
And it wasn’t just a lot of talk with Bernie Sanders.
Whatever happened to him, anyway?
Back in those old days, yours truly’s “Inside Track” was running in the Vanguard Press, Burlap’s upstart “alternative” weekly of the day. Needless to say, there was quite a competitive spirit between the local Gannett-chain daily and the local leftist weekly. With some folks it got personal.
Never with Maggie. Always a smile and a quip. A kind and good spirit was she. She’ll be missed by many of us, but not forgotten.