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A Marriage of Inconvenience 

Fair Game

Bernie Sanders

Published February 11, 2009 at 6:49 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Vermont has come a long way, baby.

What divided the state into bitter camps and led to the Democratic Party’s legislative implosion in 2000? Civil unions.

What is now unifying Democrats and has yet to cause a knee-jerk moral reaction within the GOP? Same-sex marriage.

Last week, a bill legalizing same-sex marriage was introduced by Rep. Mark Larson (D-Burlington) and Rep. David Zuckerman (P-Burlington). The duo was cheered by hundreds of people who came to the Statehouse Friday to take part in Vermont Freedom to Marry’s “Visibility Day.”

The bill’s 59 cosponsors — none of them Republicans — also got applauded. Democrats hold 95 seats in the House, and Progressives five, out of 150.

Larson said a lack of GOP cosponsors is not cause for concern. “While disappointing, what matters is that there will be tripartisan support when the vote occurs,” said Larson. “Cosponsors are great, but votes on the floor are what matter.”

To gain support, backers made one change in the bill from the version floated two years ago. Clergy would not be required to perform or host same-sex marriages, if doing so is in conflict with their religious beliefs.

Rep. Patti Komline (R-Dorset), the House Minority Leader, is not a cosponsor of the bill, but she’s supporting it publicly. She knows acting otherwise would only prove her party’s critics right and equate Vermont Republicans with the neoconservative Bible thumpers that have hijacked the national party.

Komline is trying to increase the Republican caucus in a state trending leftward, while not riling up the party’s more socially conservative elements. Doing so might motivate right-wingers to jump into primaries in hopes of knocking off their more moderate counterparts. That’s what happened post-civil unions. Within two election cycles, though, a group of Democrats had regained the House, and they’re now much more liberal than in the past.

By supporting the same-sex marriage measure, Komline is sending a clear signal that today’s Vermont GOP does not want to be associated with the bigotry that emerged during the debate over civil unions.

Maybe we’re seeing a return to the GOP of olden days, when guys like Gov. George Aiken and State Sen. George Little combined fiscal conservatism with a social agenda that was civic-minded and liberal. (Little was memorialized last week at St. Paul’s Cathedral.)

But if the party is shifting, Gov. Jim Douglas isn’t in the loop. Nor is one Queen City mayoral candidate, Republican Kurt Wright. Wright was the only candidate at last week’s Seven Days mayoral forum who balked at the yes-no question: “Do you support same-sex marriage?” The other three candidates, Progressive Bob Kiss, Democrat Andy Montroll and Independent Dan Smith, are all for it.

Like Wright, Douglas is no fan of same-sex marriage. During the fall campaign, he said Vermont was well served by civil unions. In other words, leave well enough alone.

On Friday, a group of about 100 same-sex-marriage supporters met with the guv in hopes of changing his mind.

“The meeting with the group was respectful, and the governor listened to the information and stories that they shared,” said the governor’s spokesman Stephen Wark.

One person who attended the private meeting said the governor was cordial, but talked more about the financial hardships facing the state than same-sex marriage. The media was not allowed in the room.

“While he listened, he just listened,” said Cheryl Lensky of White River Junction. “We all know it’s going to take an incredible amount of work still to get this passed.”

Lawmakers have a lot on their plates this session due to the recession, but Larson told supporters they can tackle budget issues and improve civil rights for many Vermonters.

Larson warned that without committed action, the ground earned in past battles is at risk of being lost.

“Progress can be taken away,” Larson said, referencing the recent Prop. 8 vote in California banning same-sex marriage. “Not only does our state need us to lead, but our country needs us.”


Pretty in Pink Slips — Adding an ominous aspect to the already nightmarish process of shedding 600 state jobs, the administration is asking managers to submit their paring plans by Friday the 13th.

No one knows how soon the powers will begin doling out pink slips, but the state wants these folks off the payroll by June 30.

Not every job is on the chopping block, however. Excluded are 24/7 staff such as state troopers, game wardens, correctional officers and hospital workers, as well as transportation personnel and folks at the Department of Labor.

Someone has to process those unemployment claims, right?

The governor’s office and the Agency of Administration (which is overseeing the position cuts) are both being held harmless. Typical.

Meanwhile, “Fair Game” has learned that about three-dozen politically appointed employees received bumps in pay since last April. That’s despite an edict handed down by then-Administration Secretary Mike Smith freezing all salaries for these “exempt” employees.

Nice to know Gov. Douglas is willing to give some workers a pat on the back and some extra padding in their wallets.

Of the 35 employees, all but eight received bonuses of less than five percent. The rest received bonuses of five percent or greater, which means the across-the-board pay cut issued last month (for exempts earning more than $60,000) didn’t hurt as much.

One such merit bonus went to William Noyes, deputy commissioner of economic development. Personnel Commissioner David Herlihy said Noyes earned a lump sum bonus of nearly $1800 because he stepped in to fill the commissioner’s post when it went vacant. However, his bonus came just as his $73,000 salary was cut by $3650.

“While there are 35 employees listed here, the total number of exempts who saw a pay decrease was 350,” said Herlihy. In other words, more lost ground than gained.

For example, Deputy Environmental Commissioner Justin Johnson got a lump sum $1000 boost in July, but by year’s end his $80,000 salary had been trimmed by $4000.

The largest merit award went to William Talbott, acting education commissioner. He was given a lump sum bonus of $7753 on January 29, on top of a $92,000 annual salary.

Another top bonus award went to Timothy Noonan, executive director of the state Labor Relations Board. He received two merit bonuses totaling $3960. Noonan earns more than $78,000 a year.

The rest of the employees on the list are mostly staff attorneys, said Herlihy, and are paid according to a special pay plan.

Very special, indeed.


Hey, What About Howard?! — Leave it to the supporters of former Gov. Howard Dean to challenge political conventional wisdom.

Hours after Sen. Tom Daschle withdrew his name as the nominee to head the Agency of Health and Human Services — and serve as the White House’s health czar — Deaniacs were organized.

Several Facebook groups had sprouted up, including one founded by former Burlingtonian Ilya Sheyman that boasted 5000 supporters within 96 hours. Members of this group immediately began lobbying the White House and their respective congressional delegations. Sheyman also launched a website.

By week’s end, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) had announced his support —the most prominent member of Congress to do so. Harkin told The Huffington Post that Dean “brings all the background and experience. He’s very strong on prevention and wellness, which I’m very strong on.”

Three House members have since joined Dean’s cause, including fellow Democrat and Vermonter Rep. Peter Welch.

Over the weekend, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) urged President Barack Obama to pick Dean. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) is also supporting Dean.

Along with these politicos, others in the progressive blogosphere are talking up Dean’s credentials, hoping Obama will overlook the grudge some say his Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has against Dean.

Don’t expect miracles, though. The name heard loudest in the hallowed halls of Congress seems to be that of Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas.


Bernie v. Howard — Neither are on the March ballot, but Queen City residents Sanders and Dean have both weighed in on Burlington’s mayoral race.

Sanders, who served as mayor in the 1980s, is endorsing Kiss, noting he’s running the city in “an effective and efficient manner” and “putting the needs of taxpayers first.”

Dean is backing fellow Democrat Montroll, for his “proven leadership, extraordinary commitment to the citizens of our community and vision of a better Burlington is exactly what we need in these trying times.”

Will Douglas do his part? If so, would he endorse Wright or Smith? Hmmm.


So Long, Spaulding — Democratic State Treasurer Jeb Spaulding has taken himself out of the running for governor in 2010.

Spaulding told supporters, “Many of you know how enthusiastic I am about serving as state treasurer with all of you. In these difficult economic times, the job is especially challenging and rewarding. I can serve Vermonters best at this time by paying close attention to the financial affairs of our state with as few distractions as possible.”

Spaulding was one of several prominent Democrats considering a gubernatorial bid to challenge Republican Gov. Douglas, who has yet to say if he’ll seek reelection.

The others include Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, former Lt. Gov. Doug Racine (who is currently a state senator from Chittenden County), former State Sen. Matt Dunne (D-Windsor), Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin (D-Windham), Appropriations Chairwoman State Sen. Susan Bartlett (D-Lamoille), and Majority Leader Sen. John Campbell (D-Windsor).

On Friday, Markowitz filed paperwork to set up an official exploratory committee. She also hired Jason Powell, who ran Barack Obama’s campaign in Vermont, to run her nascent campaign.


A Victory for Climate Change — A Burlington attorney was at the center of a landmark settlement reached last week. The deal was struck in a six-year effort to force two U.S. agencies to take responsibility for the impact of their overseas activities on global warming.

“The settlement reached today will help ensure that the federal government takes a close look at its contributions to climate change and that the courts are available if the government fails in this critical obligation,” said Ron Shems, of the Burlington-based law firm Shems Dunkiel Kassel & Saunders.

Under the settlement, the Export-Import Bank will take carbon dioxide emissions into account when evaluating fossil fuel projects and create an organization-wide carbon policy. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation will establish procedures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with its projects by 20 percent over the next 10 years. Both agencies promised to put more money into renewable energy.

Shems represented Greenpeace; Friends of the Earth; Monica, Oakland and Arcata — all cities in California — and Boulder, Colorado.



Media Notes — At a time when all we hear is bad news about the media and its future, there’s some good news this week.

Vermont Woman, the monthly newspaper based in South Burlington, took home top honors from the New England Press Association last week. The newspaper was named “Newspaper of the Year” in the biweekly/monthly category.

Vermont Woman also nabbed second place in “General Excellence” and first place for feature photo. First place went to The Commons, a nonprofit community monthly based in Windham County, in both general excellence and news reporting categories.

Also snagging first-place awards were Lee Kahrs at The Reporter in Brandon for general news reporting, Michael Corcoran of the Waterbury Record for history reporting, Glenn Callahan of the Stowe Reporter for a photo series, Tom Kearney of the Stowe Reporter for serious columnist, Leon Thompson of the St. Albans Messenger for a social-issues feature story, and Jesse Roman of the Stowe Reporter for both a sports story and a piece on transportation and commuting. Seven Days is not a member of the association.

Check out the NEPA’s website for a full list of this year’s winners, which includes about a dozen or more Vermont reporters and weeklies. Only the St. Albans Messenger won a prize for Vermont’s dailies.

Long live print!

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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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