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A Haunted House? 

Inside Track

Published January 17, 2001 at 9:44 p.m.

Legendary House Speaker Ralph Wright (D-Bennington) isn’t dead yet, but he already has a ghost that walks the halls of the Statehouse at night and frightens editorial page editors. At least, that’s the haunting feeling one gets reading some of the editorials in Vermont’s largest daily newspapers lately.

One must either believe in ghosts or completely suspend reality to grasp last Thursday’s editorial in the Rutland Herald. It praised the new Republican Speaker of the House for demonstrating bipartisan fairness in assigning House members to committees. Ralph Wright, claimed the Herald, abused that power to punish political opponents. A big no-no. In the Herald’s foggy view, Walter Freed took the high road.

Horse feathers!

The Rutland daily backed up its claim that Walt the Salt ain’t no Ralph Wright by citing several examples. They reveal the editorial writer knows remarkably little about Statehouse reality.

For example, the January 11 edit, “Naming Names,” stated “The appointment of Peg Flory as chairman of Judiciary showed that Freed did not want to become bogged down in debate on civil unions.”


Not a word about the fact that Freed tossed out Judiciary Chairman Tom Little (R-Shelburne), who courageously did the right thing last year on civil unions. Now Little’s on Ways and Means, stripped of a coveted chairmanship, punished for doing the right thing and standing up for the Vermont Constitution. Fair enough?

The Herald conceded that “Some members ended up in odd places. Carina Driscoll, a Burlington Progressive and daughter of the wife of Rep. Bernard Sanders, was consigned to Fish, Wildlife, and Water Resources, as was Nancy Sheltra, who was kept away from the committees where her strident conservativism would have more effect.”

More horse feathers. Nancy “Gimme” Sheltra has served for the past four years as vice-chair of the Wet and Wild Committee. It’s where she wants to be. It’s the committee assignment she requested.

For Rep. Driscoll, on the other hand, Wet and Wild was not one of her three requests. Nor was it on the wish list of Burlington Rep. Mark Larson. Rep. Larson is the only freshman who got to the Golden Dome by defeating an incumbent, Jim McNamara, who voted against civil unions.

And the Herald totally ignored the mathematical fact that, of the 14 committee chairmanships, Freed the Fair gave just two to Democrats. That’s right, two. Last year under Democrat Speaker Michael Obuchowski, Republicans had three chairmanships. Go figure.

Apparently, in the eye of the powers that be at Vermont’s second largest daily, rookie Speaker Walt Freed automatically qualifies as fair and bipartisan solely because his name is not Ralph Wright.

Kind of spooky.

Good Line, Patrick — There he was at center stage Tuesday afternoon, Vermont’s senior U.S. Senator, Patrick J. Leahy, presiding over the Senate hearings on attorney general designee John Ashcroft. With a 50-50 split in the new Senate and Al Gore still vice-president, Leahy gets to play committee chairman. That will end shortly on Inauguration Day, when Dick Cheney is sworn in as our new veep. Republican Orrin Hatch will get the chairmanship back.

As the show opened, Sen. Hatch formally presented Sen. Leahy with the gavel. A rather skinny little gavel at that.

“This gavel,” noted St. Patrick for the live national audience, “was made by my son Kevin when he was in seventh grade. It just shows you how long it’s been since I’ve been chairman of anything.”

The Republicans have held the senate majority since 1994. And Attorney Kevin Leahy turns 37 this very day. Happy birthday!

P.S. The more we hear about Ashcroft’s past, the scarier he gets. And Newsweek reports our moderate maverick, Jim Jeffords, was a big Ashcroft booster early on.

Where’s Ho-Ho? — So far in the new millennium, Gov. Howard Dean has continued his long-standing tradition of delivering easily forgettable Statehouse speeches. Code word: boring. But aside from merely being forgettable, Dean’s addresses this year to the General Assembly have made a few people wonder if his attention remains on the high-profile job he’s held since 1991.

In his Inaugural, Ho-Ho drew criticism for whipping up yet another blue-ribbon commission to tackle health care. And in his budget address last week, he left all of his gold town supporters high and dry when it came to Act 60.

One of Dr. Dean’s strengths is his determined effort to appease as many segments of Vermont society as humanly possible. Throughout Campaign 2000, Ho-Ho repeatedly expressed his personal desire to eliminate the dreaded “Shark Pool,” aka the “Sharing Pool.” It’s the mechanism that levels the playing field and makes Act 60 truly fair. But it pisses off Vermont’s beloved gold-towners who lose sleep at night over the fact that their property taxes help Vermont kids in less fortunate communities.

As Ho-Ho’s royal spokeswoman explained Tuesday, her boss sees the Sharing Pool as the “fatal flaw” in Act 60. It may “make perfect sense on paper,” said Susan Allen, “but a big chunk of people don’t understand it.”

Won’t understand it, is more like it.

Preelection, Ho-Ho told gold-towners on the campaign trail he wanted to eliminate the terrible Shark Pool. He told them over and over he was working on a way to do just that.

Guess what?

Post-election, Howard Dean not only doesn’t have a plan to drain the water out of the pool, it doesn’t look like he ever will. Instead, Dean has played Pontius Pilate to perfection and washed his hands of the matter. Instead, Ho-Ho handed it off to Speaker Walt Freed. You guys fix it!

And to that end, Walt the Salt stacked the Ways and Means Committee with Republican gold-towners determined to find the elusive “Northwest Passage” that will allow the good folks in Stowe and Manchester to share less and spend more.

Good luck, gang!

At this point, Howard Dean has “lame duck” written all over him. This August will mark his 10th anniversary as Governor of Vermont. Frankly, he appears bored.

Press Secretary Allen told us what one would expect a press secretary to tell us. She insisted her boss, our governor, is “fully engaged.” She noted Ho-Ho was at the hospital in Bennington Tuesday “talking universal health care.”

At least it’s not a subject Dr. Dean is “uncomfortable” with.

Smoke But No Fire — It was the hot ticket at the Statehouse Friday afternoon. Jeff Amestoy, Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, appeared before the House Judiciary Committee. That’s the same Jeff Amestoy who authored the Baker Decision, the landmark, unanimous, constitutional ruling that extended marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples.

The white-haired, soft-spoken Amestoy casually slipped into the room without fanfare and took the witness seat he has sat in so many, many times before during his reign as attorney general. This is the man whose name will be forever attached to one of the great legal rulings on America’s freedom trail. This is the chief justice whose brilliant words about “our common humanity” will be highlighted in the history books of the future.

But this was a very different Judiciary Committee than last year’s. The new chairman, Peg Flory (R-Brandon), voted against civil unions. And for several of the new conservative Republican freshman on the panel, repealing civil unions was their reason for running in the first place. Four reporters were in the room to catch any fireworks.

But guess what?

“It” never even came up. Everyone was on their very best behavior. Amestoy was perfectly charming as he read from his prepared text. No sharp edges. And the few questions he received were almost reverential.

The closest thing to “news” was Amestoy’s pitch to the committee to support funding for more law clerks. Currently each of the Supremes has a law clerk — usually some hot-shot fresh out of law school, willing to work long hours for low pay in return for a line on their resumes.

The remaining 32 trial judges in the state, said Amestoy, must share the other 11 law clerks.

What do law clerks do?

A lot of heavy lifting. Most people think judges write their own decisions, but the big secret is, they really don’t. They’re positively swamped by a very crowded docket and don’t have time. Judges make the call, but then they tell the law clerk to do the research to back it up and make it sound good.

“I talk to my law clerk,” said Amestoy, “more than I talk to anyone in the world.”

Speaking of Civil Unions — The Civil Unions Review Commission filed its required report with the Legislature last Friday. And so far everything’s running smooth as silk.

Between July 1 and December 29, 1527 same-sex couples got their love legalized in Vermont. Windham County recorded the most. Also, 35 percent were male couples and 65 percent were female. Just 22 percent of the participants were Vermont residents. After Vermont, the largest number of CU-ed folks came from New York, Massachusetts and California. Non-U.S. residents hailed from Canada, England, Venezuela, Mexico, Phillipines, Australia, Netherlands, Germany, India and Guatemala.

To date, the hysterical assertions by opponents that civil unions were a “threat to traditional marriage” have in no way, shape or form been substantiated.

“Winter Fest”? — Or was it a “Winter Gala?” In fact, it was called both in the letter that went out to prospective donors. With the first Republican Speaker of the House in 16 years, it’s “make hay while the sun shines time” for Vermont Republicans. And Gorgeous George McNeil of Danby, the whiz-bang head honcho of the GOP’s legislative political action committee, has wasted no time in organizing the earliest campaign fundraiser in memory. It was scheduled to be held Tuesday night in two parts, kind of a double-header.

The first part was a $100-a-head liquid part at Montpelier’s legendary Thrush Tavern, the watering hole that features the closest beer taps to the Statehouse. The second part was a chow-down across the street at the Capitol Plaza Hotel. For $150 you get cocktails and dinner. The headliners were Walter Freed and State Sen. John Bloomer, the Rutland Rocket. Wow!

“For those who wish to help sponsor these events there are 3 Sponsorship levels: Patron Circle, $500, Leadership Circle, $1000, and Speakers Circle, $2000. Sponsorship levels include the Cocktail Party and a seat with the Republican Majority Leaders and the Speaker.”

Election 2002 is just around the corner. In a political campaign, one can never have too much cash on hand.

Casualty Report — Rep. Susan Wheeler (D-Burlington) continues her recovery from a Thanksgiving Eve stroke. Susan was sworn in by House Clerk Don Milne in her Mary Fanny hospital room over a week ago. She’s currently undergoing rehab at the Burlington Convalescent Center on Pearl Street. Wheeler plans on returning to her seat on the House Education Committee this session. Asked Tuesday how she was doing, Wheeler replied, “I’m better than yesterday, but not as good as I will be tomorrow.”

One tough cookie!

Also on the casualty list is the president of the Vermont Senate, Sen. Peter Shumlin of Windham County. Shummy blew out his knee cross-country skiing. Surgery is expected soon. Shummy sure is quick on his crutches, though.

Giants Fever in Vermont — Officially, the largest city in the state of Vermont does not have a professional football franchise. Perfectly understandable. More people were in the stands at Giants Stadium Sunday then there are people in Burlington, Vermont.

But make no mistake — Burlington is Giants Country. It all goes back to the late 1950s when the New York Giants held their preseason training camp at St. Michael’s College. Stories abound of those glory days when the big stars of the gridiron walked Church Street and quaffed brewskies at Julie’s Old Mill in Winooski — legends like Sam Huff, Frank Gifford and Charlie Connerly.

The Giants, as we know, creamed, obliterated and destroyed the mighty Minnesota Vikings Sunday to win the NFC championship and a berth in the Super Bowl. Yours truly spent a few years in the “Land of Ishy Pooh” back in the 1970s. Like the Boston Red Sox, the Minnesota Vikings always found a way to crush the hearts of their fans. No team has lost more Super Bowls than the Vikings. The heartache in Minnesota over the Vikings runs so deep that one Minneapolis columnist implored the Almighty Sunday morning that, if the Vikings were going to lose one more game this season, better they lose to the Giants than lose in the Super Bowl in two weeks.

His prayer was answered.

Meanwhile, Burlington, Vermont, is going to the Super Bowl. Go Giants!

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About The Author

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne

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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