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Two Victims of Success 

Inside Track

Time sure flies. Today she's a campaign worker for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rich Tarrant - the gazillionaire self-funded political rookie who has so far been little more than a political embarrassment in his race against Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders.

But throughout the 1990s and into the first years of the 21st century, Ms. Kate O'Connor was Democratic Gov. Howard Dean's top aide. And when Ho-Ho was starting his presidential quest back in 2002, Kate was by his side. They were inseparable. Last weekend she recounted that escapade on a panel with other former Deaniacs at the "Action Coalition for Media Education Summit" at Champlain College.

Ah, the memories!

Kiss Me Kate recalled when the presidential light bulb first went on in Ho-Ho's head. It was early in 2001. Dean was "reading the newspaper and getting angry," said Kate. "He thought, 'I could stay angry, or I could run for president.' It's a true story," said O'Connor. "He just came into the office one day and said, 'What do you think if I run for president?'"

And right from the beginning, she said, Dr. Dean had three top issues: one, fiscal stability; two, health care for all; and three, equality for all Americans.

"From the beginning," said O'Connor, "we had a message." And it was a message, said Kate, "that came from within Howard. It was not a message hatched by consultants."

Sounds like Ho-Ho, eh? But what went wrong? What derailed the Howard Dean presidential train?

"I'm a Democrat," said Kate the Pro, currently a Republican campaign staffer. "I always will be a Democrat, and I came out of the presidential campaign just a little bit worried that who we were touching was not the traditional grassroots Democrat. I think that's partially why we had the problem in Iowa."

Ah, yes. January 2004 - the Iowa caucuses. That was when Ho-Ho's presidential dream began to go backwards. The long shot from Vermont, the doctor who had signed a "marriage" bill for same-sex couples and came out early against going to war in Iraq, finished a disappointing third, with just 18 percent, behind Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts (38 percent) and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina (32 percent). But what a ride it was!

If nothing else, the Dean for President Campaign will be remembered in the history books for its introduction and use of the Internet in politics. But while Dean and O'Connor were racking up the frequent-flyer miles, they were actually among the last to know that this new Internet craze was even happening.

"It was just crazy on the Internet," said Kate. "It was raining money hand over fist, and we had no clue this was going on."

O'Connor said the candidate and the campaign were existing in "two parallel worlds." She and Ho-Ho were on the road sleeping in people's houses and at Super 8 Motels. But back in Burlap, the money was rolling in online and the website was jumping.

Looking back at the campaign's mistakes, O'Connor said, "We never really coordinated the Internet with the traditional grassroots effort, and that's where we stumbled a little bit. If we had made it through Iowa and then had the movement start, we could have won. If it was just a solid vote across the country, Howard Dean would be president right now," said the current Tarrant for Senate staffer. "Our problem is, we had to get through the Iowa caucuses, and we actually overwhelmed Iowa."

O'Connor said she and Ho-Ho "tried to target independent Iowa voters at pancake breakfasts or whatever, but they'd turn into Dean rallies." The Dean Internet organization was bringing in volunteers from Oklahoma, Minnesota, New Jersey and California. Anybody but Iowa people were coming to our Iowa events."

"So if I were to make one recommendation to any future presidential campaign," said O'Connor, "the Internet is extremely important. The traditional grassroots effort is extremely important. It's somehow you have to work them together . . . It was a wonderful thing, but in the end we've got to have a balance. In the end," said Kate, "it overwhelmed us. We were actually a victim of our own success."

And look where they are today!

Howard Dean is chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and in 27 days the Democrats look like they will regain a majority in at least one congressional chamber. Chairman Ho-Ho will sure be looking good, eh?

Kate, however, is doing something - we're not sure exactly what - for Richard Tarrant's U.S. Senate ego trip.

Politics can be a strange business sometimes, eh?

**********

Debate Fever - Did you catch Sunday night's Winooski debate between Richie Rich and Rep. Bernie Sanders?

Very entertaining, though we were surprised to hear WGOP, er, WCAX is not planning to televise a statewide debate between the gubernatorial candidates.

Ol' Bernardo is so far out in front in the polls that "Inside Track" has already declared him the winner, but it's surprising that "Vermont's Own" is not broadcasting a debate in a race that is actually still up for grabs. More on that story below.

As for the Senate "race," it's been tough to keep a straight face in this one. That's principally because of Tarrant's trustee days at Fletcher Allen Health Care, when the biggest financial scandal in Vermont history was underway right under his trustee nose. And when the candidates asked each other questions Sunday night, the Mary Fanny Scandal was at the top of Ol' Bernardo's list.

Sanders noted that Tarrant had made his knowledge about health care an important part of his campaign.

"My understanding is that the only position you've ever held with semi-public responsibility in the state of Vermont was on the Fletcher Allen Board of Trustees," said Bernie. "During your tenure, as the people of Vermont know, Fletcher Allen underwent the largest scandal in the history of the state of Vermont, and the result was that health-care costs went up to the tune of many tens of millions of dollars. Could you please illuminate some of us on your expertise on health care and your lack of understanding of what was going on right under your nose?"

Good question.

Tarrant was ready for it. "Mr. Sanders, anytime you want a debate in health care, my number's 862-8808," he snapped back.

"Let's do it," replied Sanders. "I'm up!"

"The Fletcher Allen incident was certainly unfortunate," said Tarrant. Nonetheless, he was "very proud of the work I did."

"The fact of the matter is," claimed Richie, "management defrauded the board. Manage- ment kept information from us. We were the victims of the management."

You know, this victim stuff is getting old. Last week, Repub- lican U.S. House candidate Martha Rainville played the victim card after the embarrassing story broke that position statements attributed to her were plagiarized by her policy researcher - from Democrat Hillary Clinton, among others. Hey, we're all victims.

The 18 members of the FAHC Board of Trustees, said Tarrant, "all were very diligent in our work. Why didn't Senator Leahy fire his Vermont chief-of-staff who sat with me on the board?" asked Richie Rich rhetorically.

"He was right not to," said Tarrant, answering his own question. "He did a great job, as did all of us."

Then he shut up and sat down. Nice try to dodge the bullet, pass the buck and accept no responsibility, eh?

Surprisingly, Mr. Tarrant has revealed himself as a man of very few words. But the 481-word, two-page sworn affidavit he filed in the criminal case of United States vs. William V. Boettcher speaks volumes about the "great job" Tarrant did as a Mary Fanny trustee. A job he obviously does not want to discuss.

Tarrant filed the document because Boettcher, the convicted hospital CEO, was going to use Tarrant's extremely defensive Burlington Free Press op-ed of March 11, 2003, as evidence of what really happened, in hopes of getting a light sentence. Tarrant had vigorously defended the hospital management from charges of wrongdoing. "No one can justly accuse Fletcher Allen of hiding the true costs of the project," wrote Richie, a man in total denial.

In the affidavit he signed on April 24, 2005, however, an embarrassed ex-trustee wrote that he didn't have a clue as to what Boettcher was up to when the CEO steered the enormous hospital expansion proposal past the "vigilant" trustees and state regulators.

Tarrant, the man who now wants to represent all Vermonters in the U.S. Senate, wrote that he was "not aware," or "did not have or review all of the communication," between the hospital and state regulators. Or that he had "overstated" the extent to which he received information. Or that he "did not recognize" misrepresentations made to the state about project costs.

Hindsight is always 20-20, eh?

But in the real world, folks, it's hard to think someone who missed so much can ask Vermonters to ignore his lack of vigilance and elect him their U.S. senator anyway.

*********

The Guv's Race - Friday's Rutland Herald/Times Argus, after obtaining internal Douglas administration memos through a public-records request, reported that Gov. Jim Douglas, former Secretary of Natural Resources Tom Torti (who left in August), and Commissioner of Forests and Parks Jonathan Wood were a whole lot cozier with the Ver- mont Traditions Coalition and other groups seeking to scuttle the federal Vermont Wilderness Bill than anyone imagined. Also of concern is that Torti was heavily involved even after his quiet, behind-the-scenes acceptance of his new Lake Champlain Regional Chamber post.

Republicans like Martha Rainville, in fact, are opposed to adding even one more acre of wilderness designation to Vermont forest land. Currently the Vermont Wilderness Bill, which has passed the U.S. Senate, is in limbo in the House of Speaker Denny Hastert. Congress has adjourned until after the November 7 election.

Gov. Scissorhands insists the bill will be passed in the post-election lame-duck session. We'd suggest Douglas must say that. The alternative is to accept his responsibility for the bill's demise, and that would cost him votes.

Democrats say he's dreaming about the bill passing in the lame-duck session. They say that if Peter Welch beats Martha Rainville, the House Republican leadership will not be eager to pass something that so many Vermont Democrats and Progressives want and so many hard-core property-rights Republicans oppose.

Democrat candidate for Vermont governor Scudder Parker went on the attack Monday. Even Ch. 3 showed up to cover him, though they aired only a three-second sound bite that evening.

"We now know," said Scudder, "that two senior Douglas officials were thinking more about helping the governor's political campaign this summer than they were about looking out for the interests of the people of Vermont. Those kinds of calculations have no place in this discussion, and memos like that certainly wouldn't be written by anyone I appoint."

And how does he see the race going? Is he closing the gap with Douglas?

"The reality is, people are learning my name," said Parker. "People are coming up to me when I go to events and saying, 'Oh, Scudder, I wanted to meet you.' So the name is getting out there. The response is there. That's exactly what we need to be doing four week out."

Feel confident?

"Absolutely," said the Democrat. "I felt confident for 14 months, but I feel even more confident now."

*********

The Guv's Debate - There isn't going to be one this year on "Vermont's Own" WCAX-TV. Why not?

In response to our email inquiry, Ch. 3 General Manager Peter Martin replied:

"We traditionally do debates on weekends. In thinking about this year, the first thing we looked at was which weekends we could count on for a reliable start time given the NFL and college football schedules. When there is a 4 p.m. game start, we almost invariably end up with an overrun, which pushes back the network schedule, which in turn makes the debate start time an unknown. As well, we had to consider the network schedule of programs.

"We ended up with two weekends in which we could reliably schedule debates. Given that there were two, we determined that the senate and congressional races were the priority in terms of the nature and significance of the races."

Cynics might suggest that keeping the statewide gubernatorial debate TV screen dark will be advantageous to the incumbent Republican, who after 35 years in the game has 100-percent name recognition. Some people suggest one hour head-to-head on prime-time TV with Douglas could boost Parker several percentage points.

Parker's campaign manager Tuck Rainwater told "Inside Track," "I think it's an unfortunate decision, because our race is shaping up to be one of the most exciting this season. Football is, I suppose, an important thing for people to watch," said Tuck with a chuckle, "but I think that the future of the State of Vermont and the governor's race would have risen to the level of priority for them to make it one of the choices."

Dream on.

********

Blog Land Beckons - Yours truly is hooked. The new "Freyne Land" blog at http://www.sevendaysvt.com is becoming a daily habit. We appreciate the extra space, because there's a whole lot happening in Vermont politics. That's where we'll post Rainville's responses to the pointed questions she got from three Freeps journalists at her recent presser. Check it out. Old dogs can learn new tricks.

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

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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