Forget Act 60. The real political heat these days is behind the curtain, where the merry band of Vermont's finest are pondering their moves in the upcoming millennium election of 2000. It's really just around the corner.
The big prize on the table is the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Jim Jeffords, and it's not only Democrats who have him in their sights. Sources close to Vermont's independent congressman tell Inside Track Bernie Sanders is itching to take on Jeezum Jim. There have been signs.
Yes, that was Ol' Bernardo in Rutland last Friday in what sure appeared to be campaign mode. He was speaking to students at the College of St. Joseph and Rutland High School. The Bern was getting the word out on his latest cause — higher education: He recently introduced legislation that would double the amount of money put into Pell Grants to pay for college tuition. The champion of "poor people, working people and the elderly" is now staking out new turf as the champion of higher education.
Funny, but Rutland is Jim Jeffords' home turf, and education is Jim Jeffords' bailiwick. He is, after all, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, where national education legislation is born. Sanders' Rutland swing did not go unnoticed by the Jeffords camp. Officially, the word is that they "don't anticipate" the Bern taking Jim on in 2000.
"You look at an opportunity," says Jeezum Jim's chief of staff, Susan Boardman Russ, "and weigh it against the risks. Do you give up a secure House seat and challenge an incumbent?" she asks.
Obviously, Susan believes the answer is hell no! "There are a lot of things about Bernie Sanders I disagree with," Russ tells Inside Track, "but he does care about Vermont. And Bernie's accumulated a lot of seniority in the House." It sure is comforting she's looking out for Bernie's political future.
In Russ' view, giving up all that House seniority to send Jeezum Jim into retirement would not be good for the state. "Even if Bernie were successful," says Russ, "it would be bad for Vermont." Senator Sanders would start at the bottom again, and so would his replacement in the House. She dubs it a "lose-lose" situation.
The Sanders' camp points to the record. In 1994, the year of the Great Republican Revolution, Jeffords got just 50.3 percent of the vote in a race against a statewide unknown — Jan Backus.
Second, Bernie the Socialist plays well among rural conservatives, aka woodchucks, the fiercely independent rebels who turned out for Ruth Dwyer. To them, Jim's been a sellout Republican.
Third, sources say The Bern was none too pleased with Jeezum Jim's enthusiastic support for Susan Sweetser in 1996. The unwritten rule has been that, with a tiny three-member delegation, Vermont's Washington crew stayed out of the partisan fray back home. Jeffords broke that rule in the '96 race, and publicly bashed Bernie as an "ineffective" loner on Capitol Hill. Maybe it's guilt, but there's a strong feeling in the Jeffords camp that Mr. Sanders is looking for a little payback.
And take note, even with Jeffords' support, Susie Creamcheese got just 32 percent of the vote.
Fourth, sources say Sanders is getting a little tired of having to run for reelection every two years. The campaign never ends. With a seat in the senate and a six-year term, he could focus more on the causes he champions. (Plus, Minesota Sen. Paul Wellstone would finally have someone in the chamber who understands what the hell he's talking about.)
And fifth, in the current Impeachment Game, Jeffords is coming off like a leaf blowing in the wind. Last week when he flip-flopped on calling witnesses, State Sen. Elizabeth Ready was on the verge of putting together a press conference with a pack of Ds to whack Jim-Bob.
"I never saw a guy," says Ready, "who could ride both sides of a barbed-wire fence with such comfort."
That brings us to the other big question. If Sanders gets this one, would the Democrats sit it out?
First off, our sources say Gov. Howard Dean has taken himself out of the running. He's made it clear to both Jeffords and the Democratic National Committee he's not interested in a Senate bid in 2000. We've got him on Al Gore's list for veep. That leaves four horses in the post parade: Sens. Jan Backus, Liz Ready, Peter Shumlin and State Auditor Ed Flanagan.
What would they do if Bernie was in the mix? Chainsaw Liz says she'd probably work on Sanders' campaign. Jan of Arc says "the Democrats would have to sit down and decide if they want to run anyone." Shummy and Fast Eddie are a little less clear at this time. After all, Flanagan's already stopped by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington. Shumlin's due to pay a courtesy call next week. Don't expect either pooch to roll over and thrust his paws into the air just because a Big Dog like Bernie starts barking.
And what does Mr. Sanders say about all this? "We're in the third week of a new term," says our congressman. "It's way, way too early" to think about the 2000 race."
The other side of all this is, who runs for Bernie's open seat?
Everybody! Among the pack is Burlap Mayor Peter Clavelle. Mayor Moonie is ready for statewide prime time and will rejoin the Democratic Party to do so. That is, if he beats Republitan Kurt Wright on March 2.
Chauffeur Update — Good news for Haskell Garrett. On Friday, District Court Judge Linda Levitt granted Garrett's request to be allowed to leave his Burlington home to drive Democratic Party Chairman David Curtis to the Statehouse "provided Mr. Curtis reports any violations."
Garrett was charged last month with kidnapping, stalking and aggravated domestic assault. Hey, maybe there's a way to get two birds with one stone here. While waiting around at the Statehouse to drive Mr. Curtis back to Burlap, Mr. Garrett could testify before the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. Surely they'd like to hear firsthand how tough Vermont is on domestic assault. It would be fascinating testimony.
As for other offenders on 24-hour curfew, there's still Republican Party Chairman Patrick Garahan. As far as we know, Pat doesn't have a court-assigned chauffeur ... yet.
Media Notes — WCAX-TV reporter Bridget Barry Caswell is back on the box following maternity leave. Bridget's second child is a boy. Jack Barry Caswell was named in honor of her dad, the late, great king of the Vermont airwaves, Jack Barry. And according to his pediatrician, little Jack is already warming up for talk radio. "Be sure and tell 'em Barry brought you."