Column | A Lot of Galbraith: The Windham County Senator Won't Take "Shush" for an Answer | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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A Lot of Galbraith: The Windham County Senator Won't Take "Shush" for an Answer 

Fair Game

Bernie Sanders

Published April 24, 2013 at 10:51 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Sen. Peter Galbraith (D-Windham) just couldn’t help himself.

Two years into his quest to rid Vermont politics of direct corporate and union contributions to candidates, the former ambassador was on the verge of victory last Wednesday.

Though many of his fellow senators loathed the idea of ending the flow of easy campaign cash, they seemed to have boxed themselves in. During a late-night session weeks before, 21 of the 30 had voted to amend a broader campaign-finance bill to do just that — with the expectation that the legislation would never see the light of day.

But the larger bill unexpectedly came back to life and cleared a preliminary Senate vote by a lopsided, 24-3 margin.

Now all Galbraith had to do Wednesday was savor the hard-fought victory and watch the Senate voice its final approval. Then the battle would move to the House.

“In 30 seconds, everybody would have voted yes and it would’ve been on its way,” says Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), who authored the broader campaign-finance bill.

Instead, Galbraith did what he always does: He stood up on the Senate floor, proposed two additional amendments and irritated the hell out of his colleagues.

“I said, ‘Just let it go,’” recounts Sen. David Zuckerman (P/D-Chittenden), adding that he and fellow supporters of the corporate donation ban had “tried to coach” Galbraith to refrain from further meddling. “Given that it was a very contentious issue, when you’ve gotten the 95 percent victory, it’s important to let the 5 percent go. Take the A; don’t go for the A+.”

But the Harvard-, Oxford- and Georgetown-educated son of famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith isn’t one to settle for an A. And that’s the problem.

Critics — and there’s no shortage of them in the clubby world of the Senate — say that in his bid to debate and amend every last piece of legislation that crosses his desk, Galbraith holds up the work of the Senate, alienates his colleagues and undermines his own agenda.

“It’s like whatever the issue is, he has to do it better,” White complains. “I think he feels he has a better understanding of it than us local yokels.”

“He’s a very bright guy. I’ll give him that,” says Sen. Peg Flory (R-Rutland). “But you can be the smartest one in the whole group and if you can’t play well with others, it doesn’t work.”

Sure enough, no sooner had Galbraith offered his latest amendments to the campaign-finance bill than opponents of the corporate and union donation ban seized the opportunity to revisit the issue.

One by one, Sens. Alice Nitka (D-Windsor), Ann Cummings (D-Washington) and John Rodgers (D-Essex/Orleans) stood up and claimed they had been confused by Galbraith’s original proposal. They asked to delay consideration of the bill and by Thursday had cobbled together an amendment stripping out the corporate and union contribution ban.

Their amendment passed 19-11 after a dozen senators switched sides and voted against a ban they’d previously supported. Having snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, Galbraith called the broader campaign-finance bill “a sham” and cast the lone vote against it.

Galbraith concedes that his decision to revisit the issue last Wednesday “was probably a tactical mistake.” But he doesn’t apologize for his propensity to speak his mind — on everything.

“Look, I was elected by the people of Windham County to represent them on all issues, not to trim my sails on some,” he says. “If you just shut up and go along, you don’t get anything done.”

He adds with a laugh, “I have many more ideas than I offer. I promise I’m selective.”

Galbraith’s colleagues might be surprised — and alarmed — to hear that. One senator recently timed how long it took to get through a series of last-minute Galbraith amendments (44 minutes and 47 seconds).

Another, Sen. Mark MacDonald (D-Orange), described an imaginary pie chart illustrating how the Senate spends its time on the floor. Half, he said, would go toward debating bills and amendments drafted by committees; most of the other half would be spent on all things Galbraith.

MacDonald says he understands the Windham County Democrat’s desire to represent his constituents on every issue, “but if we all had that view, we’d be here ’til Christmas. There’s been a tradition of picking your priorities and showing some courtesy.”

But on nearly every hot-button issue, from ridgeline wind to fracking to physician-assisted suicide, Galbraith’s ready to take a stand — and to voice a succinct sound bite to a waiting reporter, such as yours truly.

On physician-assisted suicide, Galbraith refrained from picking a side until the final moment, ensuring continued attention from lobbyists, lawmakers and the media. Then he offered up an amendment eviscerating the original “death with dignity” bill, while freely admitting he didn’t care about the issue.

That rankled heath-care activist and Brattleboro Reformer columnist Richard Davis, a Guilford resident and constituent of Galbraith’s.

“Nobody who understands the issue would’ve done what he did,” says Davis, who ran unsuccessfully for state representative in 2010. “It was a political disgrace. The substance of the bill took a backseat to the political process.”

Fairly or not, critics of Galbraith’s campaign-finance proposals are quick to note that his own campaigns have been largely self-financed. It’s no secret that Galbraith is independently wealthy, owing in part to a controversial deal he brokered between a Norwegian oil company and the government of Kurdistan.

Galbraith spent an exorbitant $56,000 on his 2010 campaign — $45,000 of which came from a personal loan. He spent just $740 during his 2012 reelection campaign and says he hopes to raise enough political cash one day to repay the personal loan.

Galbraith’s unique circumstances played into the hands of Cummings and other opponents of the ban. Last week they argued that if candidates can no longer raise money from corporations and unions, only wealthy self-funders will be able to compete in Vermont elections. Ahem!

Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) went so far as to offer an amendment restricting family members from giving unlimited contributions to candidates, though Sears claims he wasn’t targeting Galbraith. In an ironic twist, Galbraith himself stood up and said he supported the amendment. It passed on a voice vote.

But Galbraith doesn’t think much of Cummings’ argument. He rightly notes that the vast majority of corporate contributions go to incumbents — not challengers.

“So the notion that they somehow level the playing field is baloney,” he says. “They don’t.”

Was Galbraith — the radioactive, over-amending self-funder — a poor choice to lead the charge to ban corporate and union contributions?

“Frankly, if I hadn’t been espousing it for three years, it wouldn’t have come up,” he says. “You can say I wasn’t the perfect person to be doing it, but if I hadn’t, it wouldn’t have come up.”

He’s right.

Without Galbraith stubbornly fighting to improve the campaign-finance bill, the Vermont Senate would never have voted to ban corporate campaign cash.

And without Galbraith stubbornly fighting to further improve the campaign-finance bill, the Senate might never have changed its mind.

Dueling Govs

He’s a popular, tough-talking governor from a northeastern state where polls show support for tougher gun laws.

After the U.S. Senate shot down federal gun-control legislation last week, he outlined his own state-based plan to expand background checks, crack down on firearms trafficking and make it easier to forcibly commit dangerous mentally ill people.

No, silly. We’re not talking about Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, who staunchly opposes any new state gun laws. We’re talking about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a — gasp! — Republican, who’s got one eye on his 2013 reelection campaign and one eye on a 2016 presidential bid.

As Christie prepared last Thursday to unveil his long-awaited proposal to address Garden State gun violence, Shumlin had just returned to Vermont from a quick, mid-week jaunt to the nation’s capital. There, he’d hung out with Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) shortly before they found themselves on the losing side of a series of climactic Senate votes on federal gun-control measures.

Asked for his reaction as he strode the halls of the Statehouse, Shumlin said of the Senate votes: “I join Vermonters in being extraordinarily disappointed that on the first round they didn’t pass a sensible background-check bill.”

Was he equally disappointed that the Senate also failed to pass proposed bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition?

“I don’t think that our delegation expected those to pass,” Shummy said, ducking the question. “I think they expected sensible background checks to pass. You know, I don’t think they’ll give up.”

Riiiiiight. But was he disappointed that those bans failed to clear the Senate?

“I never really read through the legislation on that because I didn’t think it was gonna happen,” he said.

Nice dodge from a politician who repeatedly calls for a “50-state solution” to address gun violence but who will never quite say what that solution should include.

Shummy’s shiftiness didn’t stop the national political organization he chairs, the Democratic Governors Association, from attacking Christie for not taking a strong stand on the issue.

“[Christie’s] trying to play both sides here, but he’s ineffective in doing it,” DGA spokesman Danny Kanner told BuzzFeed’s Ruby Cramer while attacking the New Jersey gov’s gun plan. “He’s siding [with] the National Rifle Association while attempting to appease New Jerseyans, who overwhelmingly want gun safety reform. He knew he would have been punished, which is why he put forth this cosmetic proposal that substantively does very little.”

Wait a second. An organization run by Shumlin — who opposes any new state gun laws, won’t say where he stands on federal firearms legislation and won an A-rating last year from the NRA — is criticizing a guy who actually put forward a plan to combat gun violence?

Pot, allow me to introduce you to kettle.

Comings & Goings

After two years as Congressman Peter Welch’s D.C.-based communications director, Killington native Scott Coriell said Wednesday he’s leaving Capitol Hill to pursue opportunities in international relations and development.

Welch’s new spokesman is Ryan Nickel, a Montana native who previously worked for Reps. Norm Dicks (D-WA) and David Obey (D-WI), both of whom have since retired.

While Nickel may not hail from the Green Mountains, he must know a thing or two about the local dialect. The job description Welch’s office posted on Democratic listservs in D.C. last month stressed that candidates “should know how to pronounce the Vermont towns of Charlotte, Calais and Vergennes, as well as how many teats are on a cow.”

No wonder Jack McMullen didn’t get a second interview.

Disclaimer: I held the same job before Coriell, and I still can’t pronounce “Bomoseen.”

Media Note

The Burlington Free Press on Tuesday named Adam Silverman its next associate editor — the paper’s second-highest-ranking newsroom position. Silverman, a 13-year Freeps veteran, replaces Mike Killian, who left the paper in February to head a Maryland paper also owned by Gannett.

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About The Author

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz was part of the Seven Days news team from 2012 to 2020. He served as political editor and wrote the "Fair Game" political column before becoming a staff writer.


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