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Vermont's New Voice 

Inside Track

Never heard of him.

Neither had the members of Vermont's congressional delegation, but, hey, life is full of surprises. The latest arrived quietly in the Saturday edition of the Rutland Herald/Times Argus.

The news was that Vermont has a brand-new voice in Washington. In addition to U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch, we've also got Craig Pattee, a New Hampshire native who's president of Dutko Worldwide.

The Pattee contract, worth about $70,000 over six months, went out quietly and without going to bid. Pattee, a Mitt Romney for President supporter, will represent Vermont interests "in the morass that is Washington," according to Gov. Jim Douglas' spokesman Jason Gibbs.

"I'm glad the Douglas administration realizes that they need professional help if they are to stem the tide of damage headed Vermont's way from the Bush administration," Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington told "Inside Track" this week.

Democratic Rep. Welch's Chief of Staff Bob Rogan told yours truly he didn't recognize Pattee's name.

"Never heard of him," said Rogan. "Look forward to working with him."

A few eyebrows were raised by the fact that the state contract was not put out to bid. If anything, it was kept rather hush-hush. Spokesman Gibbs said the Douglas administration "needed boots on the ground" in Washington in early August.

Strange that they didn't even notify our elected team on Capitol Hill, eh? Vermont's Washington troika had to read it in the paper like everyone else.

When we followed up this week, Jason the Argonaut spun it like this:

"Much of the work that we're doing in D.C. is related to the National Governors Association and building consensus among governors, something the delegation can't do," he said. "Their focus is on legislation, and helping Vermonters receive various federal services and the day-to-day sniping of Washington."

Nice, eh?

However, noted Speaker Symington, "It's a sorry state of affairs that so many states have reached the point of having to hire expensive partisan political lobbyists to protect themselves from their federal government."

************

Dr. Deb vs. Novartis - Very interesting interview, in Saturday's New York Times, with Daniel L. Vasella, chief honcho at the $39 billion Swiss-based Novartis pharmaceutical company.

"Health-care costs have increased to 16 percent of gross domestic product," said Vasella. "That creates enormous pressures on the system."

No kidding.

We in the United States spend the most but get far from the best results when compared to countries where universal care and coverage is provided as a right of citizenship. Everyone's in. Health, not profit, is the priority.

In Vasella's view, however, everything would be better if we just had "better patient education and better nutrition," and dealt with the unhealthiness brought on by "lack of exercise and being overweight."

There exist, he said, "huge liabilities" for doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical and insurance companies. It's an over-$100-billion-a-year industry, he said. Everybody's got to take their cut, eh?

The Novartis CEO was asked by the Times if he had seen Sicko, Michael Moore's enlightening summer movie, the one that dramatically exposed the downside, waste and unhealthy greed of America's profit-driven and crumbling health-care system.

No, Mr. Novartis had not.

"But I know," said Vasella, "[Moore] has great skill in mixing things which are true with things that are skewed or biased."

Really?

Unfortunately, the pharmaceutical CEO did not provide a single fact to back that little credibility smear job. And, unfortunately, the once-prestigious New York Times did not ask him to.

But "Inside Track" couldn't let Vasella slide. We forwarded the interview to Vermont's leading health-care-for-all activist, Dr. Deb Richter, a Cambridge, Vermont, family practitioner. She has seen Sicko many times. And the good doctor even set up her "Vermont Health Care for All" table outside the movie theaters, signing up folks on the VHCA petition calling for universal health care in the Green Mountains. That's something Vermont's Statehouse Democrats appear to have dropped the ball on.

"The facts in Michael Moore's movie are dead on," said Vermont's point-person on health-care reform. Richter provided a World Health Organization report that made the dry observation, "For its income level, the United States has an unusually high proportion of its population without health insurance protection."

Richter also attached the statistics from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showing how life expectancy in the United States has dropped several notches compared to that in other countries with universal coverage, including Canada, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Spain, Denmark, Finland, France and Greece.

Michael Moore, said Dr. Richter, "has backed up every single fact with peer-reviewed data published in well-respected journals." Moore's data, said the Vermont firebrand, "is right on the money. The U.S. trails behind every other leading industrialized nation in all measures."

How much longer can we go on pretending it ain't so?

Let's face it: "Profititis" is killing us.

************

Love & Marriage? - "Go together like a horse and carriage," right?

"The court in the Baker case basically left open the question of whether the Vermont Constitution protects the legal right of same-sex couples to be married," said attorney Beth Robinson on WDEV's "Mark Johnson Show" the other morning. "They didn't say we have a legal right to be married. They didn't say that we don't.

"What they did say," she continued, "is that the state needed to provide same-sex couples with all - and I emphasize the word all - of the protections, supports and obligations of civil marriage."

Robinson was referring, of course, to the historic Baker v. State case of 1999. In 2000, the Vermont Legislature passed - and Gov. Howard Dean signed, behind closed doors - the civil-unions law that put Vermont in the forefront of equal rights for same-sex couples.

As history has unfolded, none of the fire-and-brimstone warnings that the Green Mountain State would become a Sodom and Gomorrah for gays and lesbians has come to pass. In fact, things have become so mellow that the only gay bar in Burlington closed down.

Several other states have followed Vermont's lead in instituting civil unions, while Massachusetts went all the way and made full marriage legal for same-sex couples.

Robinson argues that Vermont civil unions fall short of providing all the protections and benefits of civil marriage. One of the benefits of civil marriage, she said, is "the legal status of being married." The very fact that this conversation arouses such intense debate, said Beth, "is a testament to the importance of that legal status of being married to so many people across the spectrum."

But doesn't the Vermont Legislature have more important "bread-and-butter" issues to address?

"I guess that we've done a bad job," replied Robinson, "or the media's done a bad job, of communicating what's happening, because in fact the whole point of this commission is that the legislature isn't spending a second on this issue. This isn't a legislative commission."

She's referring to the Vermont Commission on Family Recognition and Protection, a.k.a. the Gay Marriage Commission, which was established a month ago.

Of the 11 members, just two are members of the legislature - one from each chamber.

"This is happening outside of the Statehouse," Robinson said. "It's happening through volunteer time. It's happening around the state in public hearings. It's not something that, by design, is going to take any legislative time."

In fact, keeping the issue outside the Statehouse, said Robinson, was "a critical piece of this strategy" for the Democratic leadership - House Speaker Gaye Symington and Sen. Peter Shumlin.

Both Symington and Shumlin, Robinson noted, "have been very clear that the legislature is not going to take it up next year."

Markie Mark the talk-show host also inquired about the behind-the-scenes chatter that suggests Speaker Gaye and President Peter came up with the study commission as a way to keep Robinson and the Freedom to Marry folks at bay . . . in the short term.

"It's certainly a more incremental path than I would personally like to be on," Robinson answered frankly. But she said she recognized the "concerns and trepidations about going back" to the all-out battle of 2000 "are pretty widespread, and I agree it makes sense for us to get this conversation back into the grassroots of Vermont."

A check of the commission's page on the legislative website shows the group's first public hearing has yet to be scheduled. For the latest, go to http://www.leg.state.vt.us. Scroll down and click under "Issues of Interest."

************

Dubie Correction - Got it wrong in the print edition last week. Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie has been in the final running for the Federal Aviation Administration's top job, chief administrator, not the number-two spot of chief operations officer. An announcement is expected any time, but as we go to press there's still no word.

Pins and needles.

If Doobie-Doo, our favorite American Airlines pilot, is picked to be the new FAA administrator, he is expected to resign his Lite-Gov post.

************

What Happens? - According to Bill Russell, the veteran chief of the Vermont Legislative Counsel, it's a different situation than in 1991, when Gov. Dick Snelling died and Lt. Gov. Howard Dean was sworn in as governor. In that first term, Ho-Ho was "the lieutenant governor acting as governor." It was understood by the great legal minds of Montpeculiar that there was no vacancy in the Lite-Gov to fill. This time, if Dubie were to get the FAA post and resign, it would be different.

"There would be a vacancy," said Chief Bill, "and the governor would have the opportunity to appoint someone to fill that vacancy."

Names such as former GOP Statehouse standouts House Speaker Walter Freed of Dorset and State Sen. John Bloomer of Rutland immediately come to mind.

************

Russell Staying On - Attention! Plans for Bill Russell's retirement have been put on hold, we learned this week. Bill turns 65 in November. Been there since 1972.

But after meeting on Monday with the management consultant/ facilitator hired by the legislature to define his job, "The process is beginning to get very, very elaborate and taking a long, long time," he says.

Besides, he has nothing planned for retirement. The legislature has been the drill for Bill since Richard Nixon was president.

************

Media Notes - Questions in media land over whether or not a line is crossed if a political writer not only attends a fundraiser for a political candidate, but forks over a financial donation, too!

The case involves UVM English professor Philip Baruth, who in his other life is a political blogger, and a pretty decent one, too. Baruth is the author of Vermont Daily Briefing, winner of a Daysie for Best Political Blog as voted by Seven Days readers.

Baruth also appears on the "Vermont This Week" press panel on Vermont Public Television.

The Vermont press was not allowed entry at the August 12 closed-door Barack Obama fundraiser in Norwich, which reportedly raised more than $250,000 for the presidential hopeful, the most ever at a Vermont political fundraiser.

Baruth, an unabashed Obama supporter, was allowed in. In fact, he interviewed Obama and wrote extensively about it in his blog and later discussed it on the "Vermont This Week" press panel. Yours truly was on his left. Times Argus Editor Sue Allen was on his right.

And when yours truly asked him after the program if he had made a financial contribution to Obama's campaign to gain entry, he admitted he had.

The blogger/professor declined to say, however, how much he donated. That fact will become public record when the campaign finance report is filed.

Philip Baruth is a fine gentleman and a good writer. But a line is crossed, is it not, when one unabashedly touts a political candidate, even donates money to their campaign, and then joins the "press" panel on public television to discuss the race?

************

Wedding Bells - The Ol' Dean Team got together in Winooski on Friday for the biggest reunion since the magical-mystery-tour presidential race of 2004. Howard Dean may not have won the Democratic nomination, but a lot of good things came out of the Dean Campaign, including romance!

Co-Deputy Campaign Manager Tom McMahon and Kristen Morgante were married at St. Stephen's Church. Kristen was Campaign Manager Joe Trippi's assistant. This time around, Joe is managing John Edwards' bid.

"Howard was acting like the proud father, glowing with pride," Co-Deputy Campaign Manager Bob Rogan told "Inside Track." About 200 attended, said Bob, now chief of staff for Congressman Peter Welch. "It was an eclectic mixture of political operatives from around the country."

Started almost a half-hour late, too, because of that Winooski rush-hour traffic. The reception followed at the "new" Hilton in Burlington.

Ho-Ho, now the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was in good shape, said Rogan. Dr. Dean said he lost 24 pounds since the height of the presidential race. Time flies.

Mr. Rogan, who previously worked on the Fifth Floor for Ho-Ho, turns 48 on Wednesday, as this edition of Seven Days hits the street.

Happy birthday!

Read "Freyne Land," Peter's blog online at http://7d.blogs.com/freyneland

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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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