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November Nail Biter 

Inside Track

Vermont has two federal races this fall, but only one of them is a sure thing. In the U.S. Senate race, we've already declared Indepen- dent Rep. Bernie Sanders the winner over GOP gazillionaire Rich Tarrant.

It's been nothing short of a Tarrant embarrassment so far. And not even the little pot bust of Bernie supporter Willie Nelson in Louisiana on Monday is going to change that.

It's the race for Ol' Bernardo's open U.S. House seat that promises to be Vermont's November 7 nail biter.

Democrat State Sen. Peter Welch is holding a six-point lead over Republican General Martha Rainville (47-41), according to the Sanders Campaign's weekend tracking poll of 500 likely voters. But think of it as a dead heat.

That's because, as of Tuesday afternoon, the Republican National Congressional Committee hasn't started airing its expected arsenal of ads attacking Mr. Welch. You know, the ones that will paint him as a greedy little ambulance-chaser who was late reporting his annual income to the Federal Elections Commission?

Marvelous Martha's strategy is to avoid direct attacks on Welchie, promote goodness, virtue and her military record, and let the RNCC do the dirty work. The Welch crew knows it's coming and anticipates Pedro will experience a drop in the polls as a result. Their challenge will be figuring out how to effectively respond.

So far Welch, the Democratic attorney, widower and dog owner, has had one message and one message only: A vote for Martha is a vote for George W. Bush. Indeed, control of the U.S. House of Representatives is actually in play for the first time in 12 years.

The key will be Vermont's old "Howard Dean Democrats." Remember them?

Back in the mid-to-late 1990s, we used to call them the Blue Dog Democrats in the Vermont House - 12 to 15 moderate Ds who would join with the minority House Republicans to stop the liberal Democrat leadership dead in its tracks. It's all about who can get 76 votes.

The Statehouse Blue Dogs and the Election Day Howard Dean Democrats were prominent in the days before Ho-Ho had his 21st-century political sex-change operation on the road to the White House. They're middle-of-the-roaders, and they swing both ways depending on the horse in the race.

Rep. Ruthless Ruth Dwyer of Thetford, who lost to Dean twice (1998 and 2000), was a bit too far to the right for them. But they've preferred Republican Jim Douglas over Doug Racine (2002) and Peter Clavelle (2004). And a lot of them have come to like Bernie over the years (as had Ho-Ho himself).

Who will they back in the congressional race?

Well, Martha Rainville sure ain't no Ruth Dwyer. And Peter Welch does not rekindle memories of Howard Dean.

It's a wide-open race, folks, and one that sure makes us appreciate this democracy thing. Every vote is going to count, and the outcome of Vermont's vote just might decide the balance of power in Congress.

No big deal.

********

Circ Still Kicking? - Despite using every trick in the book, Gov. Douglas has failed to deliver one of his biggest campaign promises from 2002. Gov. Scissorhands was going to be the guy who got the Circumferential Highway built after more than 20 years of delay.

Back in November 2002, right before his first gubernatorial election, Douglas used his Republican connections to get the Bush White House to put Chittenden County's long-envisioned "IBM Highway" on the fast track.

As Vermont's new Republican governor, Douglas later held a groundbreaking - which turned out to be for a road to nowhere. Construction was quickly shut down by court order. The law applies to the state of Vermont, too.

In May 2004, U.S. District Judge William Sessions agreed with Circ opponents, including the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and VPIRG, that the project's 1986 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was more than a little out of date.

Let's see now - 1986? You could smoke in Leunig's and most other restaurants. And nobody carried a cellphone or a laptop.

The state Agency of Transportation is working on a new EIS and a no-build alternative is among the options, according to Vermont's new Transportation Secretary Neale Lunderville. Public hearings could start as early as November, he said.

Yes, he is the same Neale Lunderville who, as "The Boy Wonder," was Jim Douglas' brilliant and successful campaign manager in 2002 and 2004. His deputy back in 2002 was Mad Dog Jim Barnett, now the Republican Party's salaried state chairman.

"There were parts of the District Court ruling that the Agency of Transportation and federal highway disagreed with," said the VTrans rookie-in-chief, "and we're seeking further clarification on those parts of the ruling. Part of that ruling could have an impact on other projects outside of the Circ, and we want to make sure we're clear on everything."

Nothing wrong with a little clarity, eh?

"Let's be honest," said Lunderville, "by the time the Second Circuit makes a ruling, I actually think the EIS process will be done and there will be a preferred alternative that comes out of that and construction may have already started."

Construction of what, though?

According to Sandy Levine of CLF, one of two attorneys who argued and won the case, the filing of an appeal by the Douglas administration "is a waste of money and certainly a waste of time."

Judge Sessions "issued a really good decision in this case," said one of the winning attorneys. "It was very strong, very solid on the law. The fact is, they tried to push through a 16-year-old environmental review and lots has changed since then. I don't see how an appeal of this is going to result in any decision different than what Judge Sessions ruled."

Actually, it's tough to argue with her. Sessions was only upholding the oldest environmental law in the country. What was Gov. Scissorhands thinking?

Maybe he was thinking that if it took a federal judge to stop him, Big Blue couldn't complain that Vermont's GOP chief executive didn't do everything possible to build their IBM Highway? And there's no sign he's stopped trying, either.

Meanwhile, a new consultant's traffic study for the Town of Williston throws more cold water on the Phantom Circ Highway. According to Brian Dunkiel, an attorney with the Smart Growth Collaborative, the study of a new road grid for the fast-growing, former rural community examines how things would work with or without the Circ Highway. "The study found," said Dunkiel, "that the Circ would have minimal beneficial impacts on Williston."

Indeed, the study by RSG Inc., found the Circ would only result in "minor" differences in traffic volume along Williston roads.

Interesting.

Also interesting, said Dunkiel, was the fact that Neale Lunder- ville was testifying at the Statehouse Tuesday morning about AOT, his new bailiwick, being $10.5 million over budget.

"When you see that VTrans is over budget," said Dunkiel, "and also note the Douglas administration is seeking expensive litigation over the Circ, it demonstrates that the governor's 'Agenda of Affordability' is "little more than a slogan."

Ouch.

Unfortunately for Dunkiel and his allies, the latest weekend tracking poll conducted by Bernie Sanders' campaign found Gov. Douglas looking solid and steady at 54 percent.

His Democratic challenger, Scudder Parker, had dropped down to 31 percent support. Jimmy D's attack ad last week may have drawn some blood, eh?

*******

Scudder Who? - That's what Susan, my longtime barber (since the early 1980s) wanted to know Monday. "Who is Scudder Parker?" she asked while cutting through the thick Irish mop on top.

Then there was the Rutland caller on "The Mark Johnson Show" the other day. She wasn't a Jim Douglas fan and urged Ol' Scudder to get down to Rutland and hold some big media event soon, "because people do not know who you are."

Folks, if Susan the Burlington Barber and the folks in Rutland do not know who Scudder Parker is 50 days before the November election, does anyone seriously think the ex-minister, ex-state senator and ex-energy expert has a snowball's chance in Baghdad of upsetting the incumbent?

If he does, somebody better be keeping good notes, because they will be covering a Vermont political miracle.

P.S. Candidate Parker, the Democrat who wants to be your next governor, hit the TV screens of Vermont with his first ad Tuesday. You can catch it here: www.scudderparker.com/com mercial.html.

*******

Camera Shy? - Meanwhile Parker's opponent, Gov. Jim Douglas, has won a rather prestigious award from the Defense Department! Along with Starbucks and DuPont and other employers, the state of Vermont was picked as one of 15 "outstanding employers" of National Guard members. According to Major Rob Palmer at the National Guard Bureau in Washington, Vermont won because Gov. Douglas has attended nearly all the mobilization and welcome-home ceremonies, including funerals.

But Vermont's governor has decided not to attend the awards ceremony in D.C., Thursday night, even though the awards will be given out by a Montpelier, Vermont, native - Gen. Richard Cody, vice-chief of staff of the U.S. Army. Nor will Vermont's Guv visit the White House on Friday morning for a photo op with President George W. Bush and reps from the other 14 winners.

We checked out Douglas' gubernatorial public appearance schedule, and all Jimbo's got on it Thursday is a lunchtime speech to the Vermont Chamber of Commerce - his troops - and a Friday afternoon drop-in visit to the Daughters of the American Revolution meeting at Montpe-culiar's Capitol Plaza Hotel.

That's right, the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Word is, he's sending Secretary of Administration Mike Smith, ex-Navy Seal, as his stand-in.

Let's be real, folks. Vermont's Republican governor does not want to get within 100 miles of the White House right now.

Sorry, Scudder.

Besides, he has a great excuse: He'll be debating Ol' Scudder at the Barre Opera House on Thursday - a 7:30 p.m. debate sponsored by a very Douglas-friendly Vermont Business Coalition PAC. Members include the fuel dealers, the state Chamber of Commerce, the grocers, the auto dealers and the realtors. The VBC PAC has put out a list of more than 50 targeted Democratic state reps, some without opponents on the November ballot. Dumb move.

Candidate Parker better bring along a flak jacket and a few supporters. This one could get lively.

Media Notes - First, congratulations to the Ch. 3 news anchor and education reporter formerly known as Beth LeClair. Beth's a Colches- ter native and Castleton State College grad and has been at WCAX-TV almost seven years. She recently returned to the airwaves as Beth Parent, having tied the knot with Church Street Tavern Manager Stephen Parent.

In other Vermont media news, Mr. Out-of-Work Journalist has a new job, but it isn't going to be in journalism, exactly. Former Montpelier A.P. Bureau Chief Chris Graff - sacked last March after 27 years pumping it out from Montpecu- liar - is going to become the spokesman for the National Life Group, the largest insurance company in Vermont. He starts in December. Boy, can't wait to see his new office!

National Life has operated quietly out of Vermont's capital "city" since 1850, but it is a rather big player in the game.

Christopher will start in December, which is when he has decided to end his 14-year role as host of "Vermont This Week," the reporters' panel show on Vermont Public Television. It's the show the late, great Jack Barry started back in the early 1980s.

"The decision to step down was mine," said Graff. "I felt my new responsibilities will require my full attention, and it would be difficult to keep up on the news and current affairs to do 'Vermont This Week' justice."

Chris said he's "sad to be leaving journalism and very sorry to be leaving 'Vermont This Week.'" But he's "excited about the new challenges" at National Life and "happy to have found a new job that lets us remain in Vermont."

And, we dare say, very excited about the size of the new paycheck, eh?

Congratulations!

Over in public TV land, let's hope the powers that be use Graff's departure to think about changing things beyond just picking a replacement for his host chair. As one veteran political operative put it the other day, "That show is s-o-o-o-o '70s!"

She had a point.

But it is a show with a unique, loyal audience. They're thirsty for the real news behind the news and have an especially keen interest in politics. And based on the feedback we've heard over the years, folks watch because they want more than a rehash of what they've already read in the Freeps or watched on Ch. 3 during the week.

Instead of trying to dumb it all down in hopes of attracting a broader audience, VPT brass and VTW veteran producer Joe Merone just might want to take a moment to recognize who's actually watching?

Also, an update of the stodgy old format is in order so the show can become the entertaining, informative political news and chat show it could be - the one its savvy Vermont news-and-politics audience deserves.

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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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