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Two Left Feet 

Fair Game

Heading into the final fortnight of the 2008 election, the two key questions are: Will Gov. Jim Douglas, well ahead in the polls, earn more than 50 percent of the vote?

And if not, will a legislature dominated by Democrats choose to elect the party’s nominee, Gaye Symington or, should he finish strongly, Independent Anthony Pollina?

Going into the 2002 election, the Vermont Legislature was controlled by the GOP. No gubernatorial candidate received a majority of votes, but Vermonters put Democrats in control of the Statehouse. Democrat Doug Racine came in second in the popular vote, but said the top vote-getter should get the nod.

Douglas has never shared that sentiment.

“The governor has always said it is the Legislature’s constitutional prerogative to vote their conscience,” said Dennise Casey, Douglas’ campaign manager. “Most of them, he believes, would support the person with the most votes — just as they did in 2002 and have done the vast majority of the time.”

Today, Democrats hold a 23-to-7 advantage in the Senate, and have 93 seats out of 150 in the House. Republicans hold 49 seats, Progressives seven, and there is one Independent.

That configuration is not likely to shift much on November 4, which means a staunchly Democratic legislature will be seated in January. But, either Symington or Pollina will have to be within two or three percentage points of Douglas to make upending a popular vote credible with voters.

Even if the race does tighten, what are the chances of the Vermont Left uniting to unseat Douglas? Slim to none.

That’s because the Ps and Ds are, once again, unable to get past their mutual animosity and work together. It’s time for that to end, said Kristina Althoff, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party.

“I think it’s important to remember that Progressives and Democrats agree on a lot more issues than we disagree,” Althoff said. “I think we have an opportunity to govern together more effectively, and that will make us both stronger.”

The Progressives see it somewhat differently, especially when it comes to the gubernatorial race. Pollina (who first ran as a Prog) reached out to Dems for 10 months, but was rebuffed.

Morgan Daybell, the Progs’ executive director, said there was “a real opportunity” for both parties to unite around Pollina. Instead, the Dems decided to put up “a weak campaigner” in Symington.

“It shows that, in some ways, we are perceived as the bigger threat,” Daybell said. “Without us in the mix, [Democrats] can go to voters and say, ‘Vote for us, we are not Republican,’ and do well in Vermont. Where we run, the discussion becomes Catamount versus universal health care and shutting down Yankee versus relicensing for only 10 years.”

In legislative races, Democrats and Progressives are, indeed, taking on each other as much as they are the Republicans. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Burlington, the birthplace of the Democratic-Progressive family feud.

Reps. Chris Pearson and Dave Zuckerman are fending off challenges from Democrats Kesha Ram and Phillip Ortego. Ram is a former University of Vermont student president, and Dems hope she can snag one of the two seats in a district that encompasses UVM and off-campus student housing.

Several Democrats have endorsed both Zuckerman, who was appointed by Symington to chair the House Agriculture Committee, and Pearson, who are running as “your team in Montpelier.”

“For people who believe in small ‘p’ progressive politics and issues such as universal health care, renewable energy and workers’ rights, we have been effective leaders that have pushed the entire chamber — both Republicans and Democrats — on those issues,” Zuckerman said.

The Dems’ focus on his district is unfortunate, Zuckerman says, because he and other Progs have sat down with Dems to map out where to run House candidates so the parties could better spend their limited resources.

Ram said she has not encountered two-party animosity during her door-to-door campaigning.

“It doesn’t come up as much as you would think,” Ram said. “For many people, it’s not about party politics. People just want two representatives who are strong leaders in the community.”

For their part, the Progressives have opted not to challenge the Democrats in a neighboring Burlington district represented by Democratic Reps. Rachel Weston and Jason Lorber.

Likewise, Democrats are not running a candidate to fill the Brattleboro House seat vacated by Independent Rep. Darryl Pillsbury. Prog Mollie Burke is running unopposed.

The parties are working together on one race: Burlington City Councilor Tim Ashe, a Progressive, earned a spot on the Democratic ballot for a Chittenden Senate seat, and has been campaigning with the other five Dems running for office, Althoff said.

Progs and Dems are also vying for seats outside Burlington.

In Enosburg Falls, Progressive Cindy Weed is part of a three-way race with Republican Peter Perley and Democrat Dennis Williams to fill an open seat. Incumbent Prog Rep. Dexter Randall in Troy is facing a challenge from Democrat Patricia Sears and Republican Mark Higley.

Progs and Dems agree on one thing: Both parties loathe GOP flyers (and TV ads in Rutland City) highlighting legislative voting records as tallied by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. As luck would have it, the chamber gives Progs and Dems Fs on key votes, while GOP candidates get As and Bs.

Interestingly, one so-called “bad” vote would have made the owners of Vermont Yankee pony up more money to decommission the nuclear power plant — a move that doesn’t seem so foolhardy given the plummeting stock value of the decommissioning fund.

Tayt Brooks, the Vermont GOP’s executive director, defended the flyers.

“I think it’s important when people are held accountable on their voting record,” Brooks said. “I think they have to look in the mirror, instead of pointing the finger.”

I guess it depends on which finger they’re pointing.


Truth in Advertising — The airwaves will be a bit more crowded these closing weeks before the election. And because Vermont isn’t a battleground state in the presidential race, we’re free of a lot of the candidates’ national advertising.

Still, we get our share. No fear — it’ll be over before you know it.

Independent Anthony Pollina will launch his first TV ad of the campaign season this week on WCAX-TV. The ads will air through Election Day. “Nothing slick and no attacks, just me, talking to Vermonters,” Pollina said. “Most Vermonters already know who I am. I don’t need to blanket the airwaves.”

More ads are expected from the Douglas and Symington campaigns — and from their supporters. Will they get rough? You betcha.

One group critical of Symington plans to launch an ad this week taking her to task for deleting her emails. The ad, paid for by First Class Education for Vermont, will air on WCAX and Comcast. In it, the group claims, “House Speaker Gaye Symington and her friends are destroying public records on education policy. She says the law doesn’t apply to her.”

The group’s founder, Curt Hier, is suing Symington to keep her from trashing her emails related to education funding. His suit was filed after an open-records request in September revealed that all Legislators’ emails are automatically deleted from the main server every 90 days. It’s up to each individual lawmaker to save them.

He also learned that the legislature’s lawyers believe such emails are not even public records.

Despite that legal advice, Symington made education funding-related correspondence to and from Vermonters available to Hier. To date, he has apparently not bothered to review the records, according to Alexandra MacLean, Symington’s legislative aide.

And, it’s not likely he will.

“What Gaye’s offered is redacted constituent letters,” Hier told “Fair Game.” “That’s not what I want. I’m not interested in the people of Jericho. I want to know about the lobbyists, whose communication does not need to be privileged.”

MacLean said Symington’s office prints out all emails and responds to them via letter. In fact, she has a stack of letters dating back to 2005. Note to Hier: You might want to take a minute to read that correspondence. It may just have the lobbying info you’re after.

Symington claims Hier’s request for the emails is politically motivated, an assertion he rejects. “We’re no more and no less political than [Vermont State Employees Association] VSEA,” Hier said.

Earlier this year, VSEA sought, and received, thousands of emails from the Douglas administration dating back through last year. The union’s objective was to find out the details on Douglas’ plan to cut 400 jobs from the state’s payroll.

If nothing else, in the upcoming session, you can bet there will be some “clarification” about how lawmakers should store and save their emails.


Mano a Mano — Anyone who thinks Pollina and Douglas going at it one-on-one would be better than the three-way debates we’ve been subjected to will get their wish this week.

The weekly WCAX-TV show “Late Night Saturday” invited the three leading candidates to take part in a lighthearted debate. Symington declined and instead attended a fundraiser. All work and no play for her, I suppose.

Which is too bad, because the LNS “debate” — which will air Saturday, October 25, at 11:30 p.m. — was designed to let the candidates relax a little.

“All questions were geared for fun so that we could all get a taste of the human side of the candidate, and they did not disappoint,” said the show’s host, Tim Kavanagh. “I got the candidates to sing their own political song, take a question from our own Sarah Palin and milk a cow on stage.”

At the show’s opening, Kavanagh gave Douglas and Pollina 30 seconds to appeal to voters. And, they had to make their pitches simultaneously.

Kavanagh also posed 20 questions to the candidates. Here’s one of them:

Which do you feel has a bigger social impact on the citizens of our state, groundbreakings or ribbon cuttings?

Kavanagh also asked the candidates to show off their best ceremonial pose.

I think shovels come in handy during election time — much more so than scissors.


Savage Stays — Speaking of coming in handy, one of Rep. Peter Welch’s top congressional aides is staying put.

As “Fair Game” noted earlier this year, The Hill voted Andrew Savage as one of the 50 best-looking people working in Congress. But something tells me Welch isn’t keeping him around for his good looks.

Savage was supposed to take over this week as deputy director of the anti-global warming group But last week he announced he was staying put as the congressman’s aide. Why? He was offered a promotion.

Savage will give up his communications duties to take on the roles of deputy chief of staff and legislative director. More policy, less press.

Savage has worked alongside Welch since 2003, when the Windsor Democrat was president pro tem of the Vermont Senate, and he served as Welch’s spokesman during the hard-fought 2006 congressional campaign against Republican Martha Rainville.

Why mess with success, right?

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About The Author

Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.


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