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Republican Vermont 

Inside Track

Looking back, what's Vermont going to remember from the 2006 general election?

Certainly, watching Independent Bernie Sanders easily win a U.S. Senate seat was nice in a historic, destiny kind of way. To the rest of the nation, he'll be the U.S. Senate's first "democratic Socialist," but to us he's just "Bernie."

Democrat Peter Welch's victory in the race for Ol' Bernardo's U.S. House seat wasn't the same kind of slam-dunk. In fact, most of the talk was about Welch's Republican opponent, who made it an eight-point race and left everyone talking about her future.

Hey, in the short term, the Douglas administration is hurting for management talent in a couple spots, including the Agency of Natural Resources. A veteran National Guard adjutant general like Martha Rainville possesses those skills, right?

There's also another election just over the horizon in 2008.

What about Democratic gubernatorial candidate Scudder Parker?

Since the election, he told us the other day, he'd "vacuumed the house, took the recycling to the dump, and stacked two-and-a-half cords of wood."

"I feel like I'm getting back into the physical realities of life," Parker told us late last week. This week he's getting some R&R on Sanibel Island, Florida.

As for assessing potential flaws and shortcomings in a race that saw incumbent Republican Jim Douglas sail away on a 57 percent landslide, Parker had yet to find much fault with his own campaign. He was still playing defense.

"I feel like I've been in a pretty good place and ran the kind of campaign I wanted to run. I really focused on the issues," said Ol' Scud, the 41-percenter. "I feel very good about the way I focused on the issues," he repeated.

I know. What do you expect the poor guy to say? In what's arguably the most liberal state in America, the land of Howard Dean, Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, how does a liberal universal health-care Democrat get crushed by an anti-wind energy, pro-insurance company Republican?

Tactics.

The fact is, Team Douglas pulled off a successful game of political hide-and-seek. They removed a target - the governor's weekly press conference.

Back in August, Candidate Parker scheduled a presser of his own for one hour before the governor's. It set up the potential for a natural back-and-forth - "he said" versus "he said." Parker lacked name recognition, and battling press conferences was an effective way to get some for free.

The Guv is not stupid. Politics - and holding elective office - has comprised Jim Douglas' entire adult life. In fact, these days, Gov. Scissorhands appears to be the leading Republican in all of New England, doesn't he?

Our records check shows Douglas' last regularly scheduled weekly press conference, a unique and traditional feature of Vermont state government, was held on August 31. He then simply removed the target.

Surprisingly, Ol' Scud stopped holding press conferences, too. Is that really a good move for a challenger? What was the "media strategy," anyway?

At the moment, Parker prefers to compare his race against Douglas with Rich Tarrant's race against Congressman Sanders.

"Rich Tarrant took on another incumbent, spent $7 million, and didn't gain any ground at all," said Parker. "I came out of nowhere, with no political base, no support from the national party and no personal fortune, and I cut the margin in half."

That's one way of looking at it, eh? You certainly are no Rich Tarrant! Congratulations.

Now it's time for Sanibel Island, "to read novels, catch up and recover." The experience of the gubernatorial campaign, the contact with people, said Scudder, "was energizing and exciting."

Great. Glad you enjoyed it. However, getting just 41 percent of the Vermont vote in the November 7, 2006, election will not be recounted as much of an achievement down the line. Many folks familiar with his past service on the pulpit, in the state senate and on the renewable-energy front at the Department of Public Service were terribly disappointed by the lackluster race Scudder ran. He even frowned in his campaign commercial.

Until former Paul Wellstone aide Bill Lofy got on board in the closing weeks, Parker wasn't even holding regular pressers - the "free media" a challenger must use to get his name out.

Did he do anything wrong?

"I'm sure I did a number of things wrong," replied Candidate Parker, "but I'm not going to enumerate them. I'm not going to do that on the record until I've had more time to look back."

Won't that be fun?

P.S. When Parker traveled in the last weeks, he had a top-heavy entourage around him. Douglas only had his state trooper. Starksboro native Dennise Casey ran the incumbent's campaign out of a tiny office in Montpelier's Capitol Plaza. She sure got the job done. Lands on her feet next month on the Fifth Floor as a special assistant to the governor.

********

Happy Mad Dog? - Not a good Republican year, as they say, but in Vermont, things could have been worse, a whole lot worse.

Vermont State Chairman Jim Barnett described it as "mixed results." Obviously, he said, he's disappointed in the legislative races and in the U.S. House race in particular. Yes, indeed, they had high hopes for Marvelous Martha. But it was a national anti-Republican wave, and Mad Dog told us he "saw it coming."

With three exceptions, said Barnett, every Statehouse seat they lost was on their list of seats to be worried about. Reps. Tom DePoy and David Allaire of Rutland and Sylvia Kennedy of Chelsea were the three losses, he told us, that caught him off-guard. Allaire and Kennedy came in on the civil-unions backlash vote of 2000. The Democrats, he said, did "better than expected."

"To survive with three statewide Republicans (Douglas, Brian Dubie and Auditor Randy Brock) in a year like this is an accomplishment," said Barnett, the youngest GOP state chairman in the country. But what explains the Jim Douglas landslide?

"I think Vermonters are very familiar with Jim Douglas and very comfortable with his brand of leadership," said Mad Dog. "They embraced his message of affordability and trust him to do what's right. He's in many ways sort of the antithesis of all the things that went wrong in Washington, and people recognize that."

Yes, indeed, the unique Vermont voter. One who votes for Jim Douglas and Bernie Sanders! Might even toss Martha Rainville into the mix?

"That was one where, had it been any other year," said Barnett, "she would have ended up Congressman Rainville. Her favorables were through the roof!" he said. "She's probably more popular than Peter Welch, but Vermonters, this year, just couldn't stomach contributing to a Republican majority."

That's for sure.

"I don't know what her future holds," said Chairman Mad Dog, "but I hope that she will continue to consider electoral politics. She makes a great candidate, and I think someday she will be elected to higher office."

As for the veto-proof majority the other side appears to have won over at the Statehouse, Barnett said the minority Republicans will "work hard to build coalitions across party lines."

In fact, we reminded Barnett, Gov. Douglas' predecessor, a guy named Howard Dean, used to hold back the liberal/progressive tide by building an alliance between House Republicans and moderate-to-conservative Blue Dog Democrats. Ah, yes, the old Howard Dean!

In a memo analyzing the election returns that Chairman Barnett put out to members of the Republican State Committee, it's clear Vermont Republicans fared much, much better than those in other New England states.

"The national anti-Republican wave that consumed the nation was felt in Vermont," wrote Mad Dog. "However, because we anticipated a difficult election year and worked hard to mitigate its effects, Vermont Republicans finished better than Republicans in the rest of the region. In fact, because of our successes and because Republican losses elsewhere were even more severe, Vermont has survived to become the most Republican state in New England!"

Who'd have predicted that?

"I think we've put together an outstanding program," Barnett boasted this week, "qualifiably light years ahead of where we were. We've got thousands more donors. We've raised more money than ever before. We had a ground game. For the first time made 140,000 volunteer phone calls in the last 12 days of the campaign. Our voter file's in the best condition it's ever been in. We built a good machine. This just wasn't the year for it to show through," he said.

********

Chairman Leahy - He wasn't on the ballot, but the reigning godfather of the Vermont Democratic Party campaigned heavily for the Democratic ticket and for Independent Bernie Sanders. Those two are about to become a very complementary team. Definitely on the same page, eh?

Talking to reporters in Montpeculiar before heading back to the nation's capital, St. Patrick was clearly in seventh heaven with the prospective chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee before him and Democratic majorities in both House and Senate.

"It means," said Leahy, "we'll get rid of the idea of a rubber-stamp Congress. In many ways it's going to be better, not only for the country, but in an interesting way it's actually going to be better for President Bush." Under current conditions, he said, "No matter what mistake the president made, no matter what mistake the administration made, nobody would call them on it. That is now changed."

The country, he said, will benefit from that.

The country likewise will benefit from St. Patrick holding the chairman's gavel once again on the Judiciary Committee.

"I would like to get the Judiciary Committee going back to what it's supposed to be," said Chairman-to-be Leahy, "a true oversight committee - one that is willing to ask questions."

We trust the Federal Bureau of Investigation reads Seven Days?

"Last time I was chairman," said Leahy, "I held the first real oversight of the FBI in, I think, 20 years. You had the first reauthorization of the Department of Justice in decades, and I'd like to do that," he said.

Specifically, the Vermont senator wants to get to the bottom of "the hundreds of millions of dollars the FBI has thrown into its computer system" and "still can't get it working right."

"I'd like to ask questions about that," said St. Patrick, "and about why they have not hired the translators that they were told to after 9/11. There are a number of things the 9/11 Commission has recommended to make us safer as a nation that have not - because of turf fights - been done. We'll certainly hold hearings on that."

As for new federal judges in the next two years, things have certainly changed.

"The president gets to nominate, but the Senate's supposed to advise and consent," said Chairman Leahy. "There has been an attempt during the past six years to politicize the federal judiciary and to make it basically an arm of the Republican Party."

Ouch.

"I would oppose having the federal judiciary an arm of either the Republican or the Democratic Party," continued Leahy. "The beauty in this country is that it's independent. We have the most independent judiciary of any country in the world, and that's the way we should keep it."

Government oversight? What a concept! C-SPAN's certainly going to be providing interesting programming in the new year, eh?

Remember, the tall, bald guy - a county prosecutor in his last job more than 30 years ago - will also be third in seniority on the 29-member Appropriations Committee. That's good news for Vermont's economic development prospects. Could we become a mini-Mecca for companies in the growing wind-energy business that appears to be sweeping Planet Earth?

"There are a number of things in the high-tech area where I've done a lot in the past in patent reform and so on," said Leahy. "Sounds dry, but it's the sort of thing that creates hundreds of thousands of jobs around America."

Of course, there's still the hopeless Bush-Cheney mess in Iraq that must be cleaned up with as little additional loss of life and limb as possible. How did we ever allow a regime to rule America that made diplomacy extinct as a matter of administration policy?

"We're going to do away with some of the cockamamie ideas of passports to go across the Canadian border," added St. Pat. "This is something that's been highly offensive to the Canadians - should be to us. I don't know a single person involved in business in Vermont who thinks this is a good idea."

Amen!

And Leahy bristled at his presser when a questioner suggested the November 7 coast-to-coast anti-Bush vote was not a vote to support our troops in battle.

"We support the troops," Leahy fired back, "but the American people do not support the war. I think they have been way ahead of the administration and the generals."

In particular, Vermont's senior senator said the American people were turned off by the "false patriotism" exemplified by Vice President Dick Cheney. Cheney made the case, said Leahy, "that you've got to support this war or you don't support America."

Leahy called that "so beyond the pale," an old Irish expression meaning very, very bad. He recalled Mark Twain saying "Love your country, question your government."

"We Democrats love our country," said Leahy, "but we're sure going to question our government."

Just in the nick of time, eh?

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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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