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Selective Memory 

Inside Track

For better or worse, the year 2005 A.D. will soon go down in the record books. That means it's time for our annual look back -- only this year we're going to do it a little differently.

In the past, we simply rewound the clock and recounted the year's events chronologically. This time we're taking more of a memory-lane approach. What stands out? What was actually important? What should not be forgotten?

Well, the first thing that stands out to yours truly are the deaths of four very special Vermonters.

Burlington singer-songwriter Rachel Bissex died in the spring. An overflow crowd packed the Unitarian Church in Burlington to say farewell. Very sad. But Rachel herself would be the first to say, "Cheer up!" And thanks to her recordings, her songs and her voice will live on forever, just like her spirit.

UVM Professor Will Miller, long a voice of reason from the left, also passed on in 2005. Just as Rachel touched so many through her songs, Will's words and scholarship shaped countless UVM students.

Also, Republican State Sen. Julius Canns passed away this year. The mixed-race conservative from St. Johnsbury was, to the end, a work in progress. In his eighties, Julius was still open to new ideas, and he gave many of us a lesson in how to live a full life to the bitter end.

WCAX-TV owner Stuart "Red" Martin departed Planet Earth this year as well. Red was known to "Inside Track" readers for his dogged conservatism and financial generosity to Republican candidates. At least he won't be around to watch Bernie Sanders become a U.S. Senator, eh?

Red's real gift to Vermont lives on in the form of Ch. 3, the independent, locally owned television station he built. His son, Peter Martin, has been general manager for years. In the wake of Red's passing, the next generation of Martins -- in the form of Alex Martin, who is Red's grandson and Peter's nephew -- joined the team on Joy Drive, with hopes of keeping Ch. 3 in the family for years to come.

We're going to miss all of them.

Censorship -- Sad to report, 2005 was a pretty good year for censorship in Vermont!

First, there was the fine example provided by the Public Broadcasting System. PBS, as everyone now realizes, is no longer the "liberal" non-commercial channel on the TV dial. In this sorry Age of Bush II, the regime has taken hold of the levers of power and communication, including PBS.

A sparkling example of censorship came last January when Margaret Spellings, in her first official act as Secretary of Education, forced PBS to yank an episode of "Postcards from Buster" because it featured a Vermont family with two lesbian parents!

Republican Gov. Jim Douglas thought it was no big deal -- a matter between the education secretary and PBS.

What did you expect him to say? That he was shocked and outraged by the Bush appointee's bigotry? That in Vermont we know same-sex couples make wonderful parents? That as leader of the first state in the union to recognize the loving, committed relationships of gay men and women with passage of civil unions, he would personally invite Sec. Spellings to Vermont to see the error of her ways?

Dream on.

Instead, 60 legislators -- Democrats, Republicans and Progressives -- signed a letter to our nation's homophobic education secretary.

"As members of the Vermont General Assembly, we were extremely disappointed to learn of your objection," they wrote. "Under Vermont's anti-discrimination laws, sexual orientation is treated in the same way as are race, gender, disability and national origin . . . We hope that similar attempts at censorship will not be forthcoming from your office."

Why couldn't Vermont's governor express similar sentiments?

The second censorship incident of the past year demonstrates that Republicans don't have the market cornered. The censorship market, that is.

"And y'all thought it couldn't happen here, right?" we wrote in September.

"You thought that art was expression protected by our constitution, eh? That the First Amendment prohibits the government from censoring art even if individual government officials disagree with what they perceive to be the message?

"Think again."

The occasion was Burlington's 13th annual South End Art Hop. The art in question was on a Burlington Electric Department building on Pine Street. Artist Ron Hernandez had painted a giant blue wave poised to crash on a host of tanks and guns tucked into the lower left corner.

Someone complained, and BED management and the utility's volunteer commissioners quickly turned into Nervous Nellies and ordered the artist to cover up the war imagery.

In a red state, such a censorship move might not have appeared out of the norm, but in the People's Republic of Burlington, Vermont?

BED communications director Mary Sullivan, the chair of the Burlington Democratic Committee, called the artwork "blatantly political," even though it contained no reference to a particular nation or war. Hernandez was ordered to alter his creation and did so.

Apparently, the powers that be at BED view any expression of opposition to senseless slaughter "blatantly political."

Representing, perhaps, society's increased acceptance of censorship, the local mainstream media ignored the story.

In fact, last February the state's largest daily newspaper embraced censorship! The matter at hand was a line of bears produced by the Vermont Teddy Bear Company.

The "Crazy for You" bear was attired in a strait-jacket and came with commitment papers. It was a joke!

But not to mental health advocates. And in an editorial, The Burlington Free Press called for Teddy Bear President Elisabeth Robert to resign from the board at Fletcher Allen Health Care because of the "Crazy for You" Bear.

It's a crazy world, indeed, especially when free speech gets flushed down the toilet because somebody, somewhere is offended by something, be it a stuffed animal or an antiwar painting.

Maybe "Inside Track" will be next?

The Political Beat -- For a non-election year in Vermont, 2005 did not lack for political juice. And this year, yours truly agrees -- for a change -- with the Associated Press on Vermont's top story!

It happened on April 20. U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords walked into a Wyndham Hotel ballroom and told the assembled press and a live international TV audience he would not seek reelection in 2006. For the second time in 32 years, the Green Mountain State would have a Senate seat up for grabs!

And the first arm to reach out was that of an "Inside Track" regular. We wrote at the time:

As it turned out, Rep. Sanders did get a press release out within the hour reminding everyone he's had his sights on a U.S. Senate seat for quite some time. Jeffords' announcement began at 1 p.m. Officially, Ol' Bernardo's press release went out at 1:33 p.m.

Not bad.

The Democratic Party is solidly behind the iconoclastic Vermont Independent with the Brooklyn accent. Both Howard Dean and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid called him to express their support. The skids are greased.

The only one who could possibly derail the Senator Sanders train is Republican Gov. Jim Douglas.

The only question is, does he have the guts to go head-to-head with Bernie?

We all learned the answer within two weeks: No, he doesn't. Gov. Scissorhands put the speculation to rest quickly and firmly. He loves his job, has much more to accomplish, and has no desire to head for Washington!

Of course, many observers think a race against Ol' Bernardo in 2006 would be curtains for Douglas and put the lifelong Middlebury politician out of work -- it would only be the second loss in a political career that goes back to the 1970s.

For drama, Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie crashed Douglas' announcement and elbowed himself into the story. Doobie-Doo kept speculation alive for months about his candidacy before finally deciding he wasn't going to beat Bernie, either.

At year's end, that near-insurmountable challenge has been left to the richest Republican in Vermont: Rich Tarrant. The St. Michael's College basketball star of the 1960s is poised for a career change, having struck a deal to sell his beloved IDX Systems Corp. of South Burlington to GE for $1.2 billion!

Richie Rich made his campaign official in the fall, pumping $1 million of his own cash into it and hiring out-of-state "campaign professionals."

But let's be honest, folks. At year's end, Tarrant and his campaign already have shown repeated signs of trouble. In fact, knowing Richie to be a smart Irish-American kid from Jersey, "Inside Track" would not be shocked if, early in 2006, before embarrassing himself further, he woke up from his political wet dream.

For example, this fall "Inside Track" reported on a unique characteristic of the Tarrant charitable foundation. According to the foundation's IRS filing, Tarrant the Republican has a special restriction on its grants: Not one cent will go to nonprofit organizations that support either a woman's right to choose or a "progressive socialist-type agenda."


Richie, the vast majority of Vermont voters support a woman's right to choose. And for the last eight -- count 'em, eight -- statewide elections, Vermonters have elected the only "progressive, socialist-type" congressman America has seen in half a century: Bernie Sanders. In 2004, Ol' Bernardo got the votes of 67.5 percent of Vermonters.

Richie, what were you thinking? And writing it down is about as smart as Richard Nixon saying all that embarrassing stuff for the Oval Office's recording system.

Then there's the little matter of the candidate's brand-new Bentley, which he keeps at his Florida address.

A snowball would have better odds of survival in hell than Tarrant will have on next November's election ballot. But, hey, who are we to tell a guy with hundreds of millions of dollars how he should spend it?

Weirdest Stories -- On the political beat, three items stand out.

The Progressives, Vermont's beloved third party, made a very big stink about Instant Run-off Voting. The citizens of Burlington voted for it overwhelmingly on Town Meeting Day, and the legislature approved the Burlington Charter Change to allow it.

IRV looked to be the perfect mechanism to ensure the survival and success of Progressive mayoral candidates in Burlington after the retirement of Mayor Peter Clavelle in 2006.

But at year's end, the Progressive Party cannot find a mayoral candidate!

The trailblazing Proggies of the 1980s have become the unambitious, well-paid, fat and lazy Progs of the 21st century. The political era began with Bernie Sanders' 10-vote upset win of the mayor's office in 1981 -- is it on the verge of extinction?

The second weird political story was that of Burlington Attorney Ritchie Berger. We broke the news last spring that the successful corporate defense lawyer had been nominated to be Vermont's new United States Attorney, the top federal prosecutor in the state.

It looked like smooth sailing. Until suddenly, several months later, Berger withdrew his nomination and quietly slipped back behind the curtain of private practice. He publicly expressed a change of mind and a desire to stay with his firm.

Sorry. We're just not buying it. Berger, known in legal circles as "The Terminator" because of his aggressive legal talent, is much too deliberate, thoughtful and experienced to reach for a brass ring he did not really want.

What's remarkable is not that Berger won't say anything more about it, but that our normally friendly and useful "unnamed sources" have also clammed up.

The final weird political story of 2005 is that of Burlington State Rep. John Tracy -- the man who would be mayor!

At least that's what he told everyone for years -- this mainstream Democrat yearned for the mayor's job more than any.

And John-John proved it when he spilled the beans to "Inside Track" last March, saying publicly for the first time he intended to be a candidate for mayor in March 2006, regardless of what Mayor Clavelle decided to do!

The rudeness of his declaration of candidacy, one year before the election, and without giving the incumbent mayor of his own party a heads-up, was a rare peek at the burning ambition most politicians try to keep under their lids.

Then, after sticking his you-know-what out so far, Tracy pulled it back behind the zipper in November. "Trace" announced he would not run for mayor after all. Instead, he'll stay in the legislature working on a solution to the health-care mess.

Strange world, eh?

And it will continue to be strange in 2006, so let's keep in touch.

Remember, Seven Days doesn't publish next week. We'll be back on the streets January 11. Till then, stay out of trouble, will ya?

Got something to say? Send a letter to the editor and we'll publish your feedback in print!

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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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