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Friday, December 8, 2017

Walters: The Political Fringes Are Blooming

Posted By on Fri, Dec 8, 2017 at 2:53 PM

  • Aaron Shrewsbury
  • Randy Quaid
Vermont Republicans may still be searching for a candidate willing to take on Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) next year — and Democrats are still looking for an alternative to James Ehlers and eighth-grader Ethan Sonnenborn for their gubernatorial nomination — but things are poppin’ on the fringes of our political scene.

In recent days, we’ve had two potential challengers to Sanders  surface: one a political unknown, and the other a famous Hollywood figure whose candidacy would be the subject of a reality TV show. And a brand-new political party has announced itself to the world.

Let's start with the second one first: On December 1, renowned actor turned backwoods Vermonter Randy Quaid announced in a (since deleted) tweet that he’d been approached by “some very powerful people representing a super pac” about running against Sanders. The entertainment news site Deadline.com reported that the Quaid candidacy is the subject of “a reality show pitch …making its way around town.”

As reported by Seven Days' Mark Davis, Quaid wound up living in Lincoln after a series of legal misadventures. He and his wife, Evi, were being sought by California authorities for alleged financial misdeeds; they moved to Canada and lived there for five years. When they sought to return to the U.S. at the Vermont border, they were detained for extradition. But a Franklin County judge voided the California warrants, and the Quaids headed for Lincoln, where Evi's father lives.

The report identified the outfit behind the pitch as Public Spectacle Media, which is co-owned by Len Britton and Bradford Broyles. Britton was the Republican challenger to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in 2010; he now lives in California. Broyles, who remains a Vermont resident, confirms that his company is pursuing the project. He refused to comment further until plans are more developed.

On the confirmed candidacy front, Essex attorney Jasdeep Pannu is running for U.S. Senate. He announced his bid in a Wednesday morning appearance on WVMT Radio’s “Charlie + Ernie + Lisa” program. Pannu plans to seek the nomination of the People’s Party — although he might change affiliation or run as an independent.

The People’s Party is a new entity that hasn’t been active in Vermont. Its membership includes former supporters of Sanders’ 2016 run for president — and the party is trying to draft Sanders as its presidential candidate for 2020.

The centerpiece of Pannu’s platform is a plan to legalize, regulate and tax all drugs, including marijuana, cocaine and heroin. “The war on drugs is dangerous, deadly and dumb,” he says. “I call it Prohibition, round two.”

He would convert the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to the Child Trafficking Enforcement Administration, calling that “a huge industry” that’s worthy of a concerted effort.

The revenues from taxation, he says, would be more than enough to pay for his other plans — free college and postgraduate education, free health care and an ambitious infrastructure program.

He would also limit welfare benefits to one child per family, in order to “eliminate incentive-based pregnancies.” There would be exceptions for pregnancies caused by sexual assault, and for twins and other multiple births.

Other planks in his platform include reducing the U.S. military role as “world police,” term limits for members of Congress, a ban on personal electronic devices in schools until fifth grade and the addition of Braille onto American currency.

“I don’t want to be a politician,” he says, “but it shocks me that no one has advocated these ideas.”

Pannu is sure to face questions about a dark chapter in his legal career: he was found guilty of criminal contempt of court and fined $2,000 (a ruling upheld by the Vermont Supreme Court) and publicly reprimanded by the Vermont Professional Responsibility Board for his conduct in a 2009 trial.

Pannu represented 30-year-old James Spearman, who was accused of repeatedly sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl. Pannu tried to introduce evidence of the victim’s sexual activity; the judge barred that under Vermont’s rape shield law. After numerous warnings, Pannu broached the subject during cross-examination of a police witness, which led to the contempt ruling.

Pannu says he welcomes the opportunity to discuss the case. He argues that he was simply doing his job as defense attorney; he saw exceptions in the rape shield law that should have allowed him to introduce the evidence. He still believes he was right.

The case, and his platform, are sure to get a full airing if his candidacy lasts. And while he may be running for a brand new minor party nomination, his campaign kickoff hints that there’s some money involved. He’s holding the event Friday, December 8, at the Hilton Waterfront in Burlington. The proceedings will include appetizers and “a limited cash bar,” he says. His campaign website, pannuforthepeople.org, should be live by the time the first drink is poured.

Finally, on Friday morning, Seven Days received an email announcing the formation of the Green Mountain Party. The missive came from Waitsfield resident Neil Johnson, who has registered the party with the Secretary of State’s Office; the email included an image of a brochure outlining the party’s positions.

Its guiding principle is ethics and openness in government. “Bring Vermont ethics from a D-minus to an A-plus,” it says. The brochure calls for getting big money out of politics, cutting health care costs and taxes by unspecified means, finding new ways to combat the scourge of drugs, and boosting jobs and housing.

Clean government, the brochure claims, is the core issue. “Good ideas don’t need million-dollar lobbyists, but bribes do, inside deals most certainly do,” Johnson wrote in the flyer. The party also emphasizes local control, citing Vermont’s town meeting tradition and local governance of public schools.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Walters: One Small Step on Volkswagen Settlement Funds

Posted By on Wed, Nov 29, 2017 at 7:53 PM

Natural Resources Deputy Secretary Peter Walke and Gov. Phil Scott - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Natural Resources Deputy Secretary Peter Walke and Gov. Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott held a press conference Wednesday afternoon that his office promised would "detail" his plan for spending the state's share of funds from Volkswagen's legal settlement for cheating emission tests. The event itself was short on detail and provided only the bare bones of an actual plan, leaving many crucial issues wide open.

Vermont is expected to receive $18.7 million over the next three years from the national fund. The money is supposed to help reduce nitrous oxide emissions from diesel-powered vehicles. Within that broad mission, it can be spent in a number of ways.

On Wednesday, the administration announced three broad principles for spending the money, and a general outline of which transportation sectors would be eligible to apply for VW settlement funding. The full proposal is available on the Agency of Natural Resources website.

Some background: The $18.7 million cannot be spent on personal or private vehicles — it's devoted to industrial and commercial vehicles such as trucks, buses, construction equipment, ferries, tugboats, and service vehicles used at airports and rail yards. The money can be spent on replacing diesel vehicles with electric ones, or replacing older diesel vehicles with modern, cleaner diesel engines. And up to 15 percent of the fund can be spent on electric-vehicle charging infrastructure.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Walters: State Panel Provides Few Answers for Water Cleanup

Posted By on Wed, Nov 15, 2017 at 8:52 PM

Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore
A state working group tasked with proposing legislation and identifying a funding source for Vermont’s 20-year effort to reduce phosphorus pollution in its waterways has finished its work — without achieving either of its primary goals.

The Working Group on Water Quality Funding was created by Act 73, a law passed this year by the state legislature. Its members were mainly officials from the administration of Gov. Phil Scott. Its final report was delivered to the legislature on Wednesday.

Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore, a member of the group, blames its failure to reach conclusions on a short timeframe and a raft of complications. “There’s a need for several important public policy questions to be discussed,” she says. “We need to have clarity on how much we need to raise before we can propose legislation.”

Other complications, she adds, include how to collect and administer a per-parcel water-quality fee that remains the most likely long-term revenue source, and how to split costs between state and local governments for many types of improvement projects. The working group is effectively kicking back many of those questions to the legislature.

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Walters: Degree Leaving Senate for Administration Post

Posted By on Wed, Nov 15, 2017 at 8:33 AM

Dustin Degree - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Dustin Degree
Updated 6 p.m.

Vermont Sen. Dustin Degree (R-Franklin) is resigning from the state Senate to accept a position in Gov. Phil Scott's administration.

Degree will serve as special assistant to the governor and executive director of workforce expansion, the governor's office said in a Wednesday morning press release. Scott also appointed Sarah Buxton, a former Democratic House member from Tunbridge, to serve as director of workforce policy and performance within the Vermont Department of Labor.

Buxton lost her seat last November and has been working in the Labor Department since March. She'll start immediately.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Walters: Vermont Democratic Party Chair Faisal Gill to Step Aside

Posted By on Tue, Nov 14, 2017 at 3:43 PM

  • File: Robin Katrick
  • Faisal Gill
Vermont Democratic Party chair Faisal Gill has decided not to seek another term as party chair, and two others will compete for the post in an election Saturday.

Last week, Gill told Seven Days he was considering whether to run; now he's made up his mind.

"The big issue is I'm too interested in policy," he says. "As chair, I'm not supposed to be involved in policy."

Like the difference between an umpire and a ballplayer? "That’s a perfect way to put it," he says. "I want to be a player."

He adds that he "absolutely" plans to run for elective office "if the opportunity becomes available." Gill was a candidate for state Senate in 2016, when there were two vacancies among Chittenden County's six seats. He finished eighth in a hotly-contested Democratic primary.

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Sunday, November 12, 2017

Walters: A Roomful of Angst Over Tax Reform

Posted By on Sun, Nov 12, 2017 at 10:29 PM

Left to right: Bill Sayre, Congressman Peter Welch and tax commissioner Kaj Samsom - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Left to right: Bill Sayre, Congressman Peter Welch and tax commissioner Kaj Samsom
On Friday, Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) talked federal tax reform with representatives of Vermont’s business and nonprofit communities and government officials.

The meeting, at the Burlington headquarters of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, brought together a politically diverse group. But common themes quickly emerged: All acknowledged the need for tax reform, and all were dismayed at the breakneck pace and lack of transparency in the Republican majority’s process.

“What I’m hearing is a lot of confusion,” said Betsy Bishop, president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. “Is it good or bad? No one knows.”

“I want opportunities for my customers to have a more simple, efficient tax system,” said Michael Seaver, Vermont president of People’s United Bank. “There is no confidence that this process will lead to that. There’s been no visibility in the process.”

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Friday, November 10, 2017

Walters: Keith Ellison Energizes Democrats

Posted By on Fri, Nov 10, 2017 at 8:59 AM

Congressman Keith Ellison - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Congressman Keith Ellison
For once, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wasn’t the best speaker in the room.

Sanders took second billing Thursday night at a packed Democratic Party fundraiser in Burlington’s ECHO Leahy Center for Lake Champlain. The lead act was Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the only Muslim in Congress and one of the most prominent supporters of Sanders’ 2016 presidential candidacy.

Ellison proved himself to be a masterful speaker. Without using any overt theatrics or speechifying gimmickry, he held the crowd’s attention through a 25-minute speech. Not bad, when you consider that everyone had been on their feet for at least two hours when Ellison walked to the podium.

He had been preceded by a host of others, including state Democratic party chair Faisal Gill, Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and Burlington City Councilor Joan Shannon, and — a bit oddly — Don Sinex, the man behind the redevelopment of the Burlington Town Center. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) appeared via video message; he had stayed in Washington, D.C. because his wife, Marcelle, had surgery earlier in the day.

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Saturday, November 4, 2017

Walters: Deb Billado Elected VTGOP Chair

Posted By on Sat, Nov 4, 2017 at 6:57 PM

Deb Billado and Mike Donohue - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Deb Billado and Mike Donohue
In what could be seen as a rebuke of their own sitting governor, delegates of the Vermont Republican Party elected Deb Billado of Essex Junction as state party chair, replacing David Sunderland, who stepped down after four years in the post.

Gov. Phil Scott and many other prominent Republicans had endorsed Mike Donohue of Shelburne, but he fell just short — losing by the narrowest of margins, perhaps as little as a single vote. No official tally was announced, and Billado's selection was quickly made unanimous by delegates assembled at Montpelier's Capitol Plaza Hotel & Conference Center.

Donohue moved to Vermont permanently in 2016. He had spent the previous 15 years as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., for business groups and the Catholic Archdiocese of Arlington, Va. Before that, he had worked in a variety of roles in Republican politics, including a stint as deputy press secretary on Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) 2000 campaign for president.

He had secured the endorsements of Scott, Senate Minority Leader Dustin Degree (R-Franklin), Sen. Brian Collamore (R-Rutland), eight Republican state representatives, two former lawmakers, party finance chair Dawn Terrill and Mary Daly, member of the party's executive committee and Orange County party chair.

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Thursday, November 2, 2017

Walters: Legislative Leaders, AG Promise Action on Data Security

Posted By on Thu, Nov 2, 2017 at 2:11 PM

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero)
Top Democrats in the Vermont House and Senate joined with Democratic Attorney General T.J. Donovan to promise action in light of data breaches such as the one revealed this summer by credit rating agency Equifax.

The officials said they are in the process of gathering information about data security issues, possible legislative remedies, and the lines between state and federal authority. The goal, said House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) is to draft legislation for "immediate action in January."

One starting point: a series of public hearings to be held by the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee beginning next week to gather public testimony on the impact of the Equifax breach and other data-security issues.

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Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Walters: Bolshie Bots Boost 'Buff Bernie'

Posted By on Wed, Nov 1, 2017 at 9:46 PM

  • Facebook/U.S. House Intelligence Committee
The U.S. House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday released a trove of social media advertisements placed by Russian interests during the 2016 presidential campaign. And three of them featured Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). The most instantly memorable Sanders-themed ad was for a book called Buff Bernie: A Coloring Book for Berniacs, featuring line drawings of an exaggeratedly muscle-bound Sanders in a variety of bodybuilder poses.

The ad was placed by a group calling itself "LGBT United," but it was paid for in rubles, and the funds were transferred to Facebook by Qiwi, a Russian payment processing firm. You'd think somebody in the accounting office at Facebook would notice such things.

This particular ad cost "LGBT United" 111.49 rubles. At the current exchange rate, that's ... um ... a whopping $1.91 American. The ad ran for only a single day in March 2016, attracting 848 impressions and 54 clicks.

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