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Simple Symington? 

In a phone interview from Democratic-controlled Capitol Hill, Sanders tells Freyne, The momentum is with us.

Apparently, not anymore.

Mark last week on your Vermont political calendar. For the first time in recent memory, Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington - the Vermont politician who despises the politics in politics - appeared to be finally acting on the advice of her paid political advisor Bill Lofy.

Speaker Gaye has avoided every opportunity to respond to Gov. Scissorhands' pointed criticism of the Democratic legislative leadership. It's just not her style, she insists. She's about "ideas" and "building consensus," rather than political mudslinging.

But doing so has allowed Republican Gov. Jim Douglas to light up the scoreboard as he's successfully painted the majority Democrats as a bunch of tax-raising, anti-business loonies.

Then, suddenly last week, Symington launched a political missile in the direction of the Douglas administration. Specifically, she zeroed in on Transportation Secretary Neale Lunderville, a.k.a. "The Boy Wonder." Young Neale heads a state agency that deals in hundreds of millions of dollars, and yet his only prior transportation training was driving his own personal car and managing Gov. Scissorhands' first two successful gubernatorial elections (2002 and 2004).

The House Speaker gave credence to allegations by St. Albans Democratic State Rep. Jim Fitzgerald that the Boy Wonder had twice tried to buy his vote on a veto-override by promising $50,000 for a Franklin County intersection upgrade.

Bribery!

The Symington offensive did at least two things. One, it got the story of the Democratic leadership looking like Richard Nixon clones out of the news. Despite growing grassroots support, both Symington and Senate boss Peter Shumlin slammed the door on the Impeach Bush folks last week. "No time," they said. [More on Shummy and impeachment below.]

Two, it put the Douglas administration on the defensive, a place they have rarely been under the golden dome this winter.

And Symington also showed signs of political coaching when she canceled her usual Friday bagless "Brown-Bagger" with the Statehouse press.

Smart move. End the week on a high note. No chance of putting your foot in your mouth and changing the story if you don't allow the opportunity for that to happen, right?

And there's more.

For the first time in her speakership, the anti-politics speaker sat down with the political columnist for a little one-on-one. Speeder & Earl's on Burlington's Pine Street was the setting on Monday morning.

Speaker Symington is not a coffee drinker these days. She prefers tea. Here's a taste of what went down:

PETER FREYNE: You've raised concerns about the Lunderville/Fitzgerald situation and offering a bribe, essentially, and have called for further investigation. Administration spokesman Jason Gibbs says this happens all the time; deals are cut all the time under the golden dome. Isn't he right?

GAYE SYMINGTON: I have a hard time believing the administration can't see the difference between a secretary of an agency offering to cut a check for taxpayer dollars for a project - a project that had been rejected at the end of February - in exchange for a vote, on one hand; and then legislators working together with each other to advance projects but still within the context of having to have the whole legislature vote on projects. I think it's a whole different thing.

Legislators work on behalf of each other's interests, yes. But that is totally different from the secretary of an agency offering to write a check - and he has the power to do that - for a project in a specific district in exchange for a vote.

PF: Is he going to be called to the Rules Committee? What's going on?

GS: I've asked Secretary Lunderville and Rep. Fitzgerald to come to the Rules Committee. I understand that I don't have any power over them to force that to happen. If they choose not to come, then the place I would like to focus next is . . . I think it's time Vermont had an ethics council, as many other states do, so that if this kind of situation arises again, there'd be a more clear place that someone could go.

PF: An ethics council? Or an ethics law? Or what? For lawmakers?

GS: What I'm going to ask the Rules Committee . . . I don't have a draft bill ready to go. What I'm thinking is, we would pass a law that would codify the code of ethics the executive branch has on their website, and consider ethics guidelines for the legislative process as well.

PF: The governor makes the point that legislators don't have a code of ethics. This is a little high-handed?

GS: I have no problem considering having ethics guidelines codified for both the administration and the legislative branch. I think that we need some kind of ethics council. There are over 30 states that have ethics councils, and I think it's time for Vermont to have something similar, so that if there's this kind of question in the future, there's a place to go and it won't appear so political.

Don't worry, folks, this will all likely blow over this week. Can't imagine the Boy Wonder testifying. Neither party wants to prolong the public mudslinging.

*****

Impeachment Update - Dozens of Vermonters from the 38 towns that adopted impeachment resolutions on Town Meeting Day were due at the Statehouse Tuesday to continue to press their case, despite rejection by not only our Republican governor but our Democratic legislative leaders, too.

Top Ds argue that the Bush Impeachment Resolution is an issue being pressed by not more than a small handful of lawmakers. We'd suggest that only shows how out of touch current Democratic leaders are with grassroots Vermont outside the building.

While Speaker Symington has been clear from the start that she was not an impeachment fan, Sen. Peter Shumlin (D-Windham) has tried walking both sides of the impeachment street simultaneously. It hasn't helped him, reputation-wise.

When asked about impeachment just one month ago, Shummy told "Vermont Daily Briefing" Blogger Philip Baruth, "I support it."

The leader of the Vermont Senate was crystal-clear as he told Baruth: "There's no question that the president and the vice president lied about the weapons of mass destruction, lied to the American people about the reasons to go to war. And if you can be impeached for a personal indiscretion, as they did to Bill Clinton, then there certainly should be impeachment hearings over lying to the American people that results in death to our citizens. And hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. And a budget mess that our grandchildren will be paying for. It's an outrage . . . I think it would be a great thing for Vermonters to move forward on the impeachment process."

Now, Sen. Shumlin's line is, the legislature does not have the time. They want to adjourn in a few weeks. The pro-impeachment folks, he says, should have spoken up sooner.

That marvelous display of double-talk may well come back to haunt Sen. Shumlin.

On Monday, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman pointed out that, on the national level, Democratic leaders have been running away from their anti-Iraq war grassroots for some time. He argues that Democratic Party leaders were "dragged by their base" into opposing the Iraq war.

Looks like Vermont's Statehouse Democrats still need a little more dragging, eh?

Certainly, Saturday's pro-impeachment editorial in the Brattleboro Reformer, titled "Impeach Bush, or get out of the way" (the Bennington Banner ran it on Tuesday as "Impeach, or face history's judgment"), didn't hurt:

There will be a time when future generations will look at us and wonder why President Bush and Vice President Cheney were not removed from office.

They will look at us and question why, when confronted by the most corrupt and incompetent administration ever witnessed in the United States, nothing was done to stop Bush and Cheney.

Well, because Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington and Democratic Vermont Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin said they didn't have time!

*****

Sanders Update - One thing hasn't changed about Bernie Sanders in the 26 years we've been asking him questions: He's still a bundle of energy.

If the key to happiness is finding a job you absolutely love doing, then Ol' Bernardo has certainly been holding the key for a long time.

In fact, in a phone interview from Capitol Hill on Monday, it was obvious Sanders has never been happier!

Not only is he a member of the United States Senate, but he walked into that prestigious chamber just as the balance of power shifted. The freshman senator from Vermont saw with his own eyes "the end of one-party rule."

Finally, after more than a decade, said Ol' Bernardo, we're "beginning to see the end of right-wing extremism."

With the November elections bringing Democrats back into the majority in both House and Senate, members Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan became chairmen of their respective judiciary committees and are finally able to start asking questions of people such as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

"And they have to answer the questions," added Sanders.

For those out there who may continue to suffer some depression over the apparently endless bloodbaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, the profiteering of Big Oil and Big Drug and the rapidly advancing effects of global warming, Sanders had some words of encouragement.

"Think what would have happened if Sen. Leahy did not now chair the Judiciary Committee?" he asked. "If the Democrats did not control the House?

"This president had the chutzpah," said Ol' Bernardo, "to actually say the American people voted for a change in policy in Iraq and we are giving them a change by expanding the war!"

"Even evangelicals are breaking with Bush," he noted.

Praise the Lord!

"The moronity of it all is about to end. Hey, is that a word? 'Moronity'?" asked the senator.

Yes. Looked it up online. Means "mild mental retardation."

And Bernie's top three "to-do" list items sound true to form:

1. Rescind the huge tax breaks for the very wealthy,

2. Cut wasteful military spending, and,

3. End this war as soon as we can.

"The momentum is with us," he told "Inside Track" with excitement in his voice. "The American people are catching on quickly to what an unbelievable disaster the Bush administration has been."

Better late than never, eh?

P.S. Bernie wanted to let us in on a few other items, such as the success this Brooklyn-born Vermonter is having in tree-hugger land!

You see, Sanders has a seat on the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee (among others), and he appears to be absolutely loving it. Honest. The Ol' Sanderista battlefield of the 1980s is a lot bigger than class warfare and War & Peace these days. Bernie will argue it always has been, but yours truly has noticed a change.

At present, this is one socialist who can talk your ears off on energy-efficiency standards and the jobs the global-warming battle will bring to Vermont. Sanders spoke at five Step It Up events around Vermont on Saturday.

We just checked, and the lead item on his official website - http://www.sanders.senate.gov - is: "We Must Act Now on Global Warming."

Below that is a video of Al Gore praising the Sanders-Boxer Bill as the former veep testifies before the Environment Committee, and Sen. Sanders heralding the potential economic boon the "Green Revolution" could bring to our nation.

Gore-Sanders?

Hell of a 2008 Democratic ticket, eh?

And though he's never "worn the uniform," as they say, Mr. Sanders has, since his days in the House in the early 1990s, been a champion on Capitol Hill for those who have. He recently met with every veterans' organization in the country, and he told yours truly his Senate allies "have put $3.5 billion more than Bush into the budget for veteran's health care."

A big showdown on this one lies ahead.

Since this president has been so good at wrapping himself in the flag, most Americans will be shocked to learn of the Bush administration's shameful lack of support for veterans. But deception, after all, has been the Bush-Cheney-Rove team's greatest skill, has it not?

And we're all paying the price.

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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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