Betrayed: Can Gun-Rights Activists 'Take Back Vermont'? | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice
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Betrayed: Can Gun-Rights Activists 'Take Back Vermont'? 

click to enlarge Robby Mazza - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Robby Mazza

Robby Mazza thought he could trust Phil Scott to protect his gun rights. So when Scott ran for governor in 2016, Mazza had his back. The Colchester man kept more than 150 yard signs at his home and distributed them at the Scott campaign's request. He even tacked them onto his excavation company's dump trucks.

Now Mazza feels betrayed.

"The sellout bastard," he said of the first-term Republican governor. "I will never forgive him."

Since Scott dropped his long-held opposition to new gun laws in February and called for an array of firearm regulations, he has faced a revolt from some of his most fervent supporters. The backlash threatens to fracture the Vermont Republican Party and divide Scott's base of moderates and conservatives — just as the governor prepares for his first reelection race.

"I think Scott and the Democrats have kicked the bear one too many times," said Ed Gallo, a retired engineer from Richmond. "In Vermont, you don't mess with the deer herd, and you don't mess with guns."

In the weeks since Scott signed a trio of gun-control bills into law, activists have picketed his public appearances in Newport and Brattleboro and staged rallies in St. Johnsbury and Montpelier. One called Scott a traitor as the governor stood in line at a St. Albans convenience store.

"I said, 'If you want to talk about the specifics, I'd be happy to talk to you about that,'" Scott recalled. "He just turned away and walked out."

Gun-rights activists plan to keep up the fight. They are seeking no-confidence votes against Scott at town and county GOP meetings, and they are beating the bushes for a credible opponent in the August primary and November general elections.

"He thinks it's going to blow over, but Vermonters can't stand liars, and he is a bald-faced liar," Gallo said. "He's gonna see protests in his face all summer long."

The intensity of the opposition calls to mind the Take Back Vermont movement, which roiled the state after the legalization of civil unions in April 2000. That fall, 13 of 14 House Republicans who voted for same-sex unions lost reelection races — and Democrats lost the House for the first time in 14 years.

Dick Wobby, one of Scott's closest friends and political advisers, recognizes the similarities and concedes that if conservatives revolt and moderates stay home, the governor could lose a primary challenge. But he's skeptical that gun-rights activists, whom he characterizes as "a bunch of radical, gun-toting individuals," are as potent a political force as they appear.

"They've got a base of what? One hundred people? One hundred fifty people?" Wobby said. "When you really look at it, their rallies and groups are not growing. They're diminishing rapidly."

In the general election, Wobby argues, Scott could win new support from independents and Democrats who favor gun regulations — particularly if the Vermont Democratic Party fails to field a well-known, well-funded challenger. In one ironic scenario, the governor's hand could even be strengthened if energized Republican legislative candidates defeat the very Democrats who supported Scott's gun proposals.

What nobody knows is whether the anger he has faced in recent weeks will build or subside as November approaches. Equally unclear is whether Vermont's grassroots gun activists can organize around a strategic approach to make electoral gains.

"Most of the people I'm hearing from are really pissed," said Sen. John Rodgers (D-Essex/Orleans), a conservative Democrat from the Northeast Kingdom who opposed the gun legislation and has toyed with a run for governor. "The question is, are they pissed and they get out to vote? Or are they pissed and stay home?"

Tribal Warfare

click to enlarge Gov. Phil Scott signing one of three gun bills in April - JOSH KUCKENS
  • Josh Kuckens
  • Gov. Phil Scott signing one of three gun bills in April

When Scott arrived at a bill-signing ceremony last month on the steps of the Statehouse, a mob of protesters wearing blaze orange greeted him with jeers and epithets.

The governor was there to sign three bills into law — the first major gun restrictions in Vermont history. One mandated criminal background checks prior to most firearm sales, raised the state purchasing age from 16 to 21, and banned high-capacity magazines and bump stocks. The other two gave authorities the power to seize guns from those cited for domestic violence or deemed an imminent threat to themselves or others.

Scott tried to tell the crowd that a threatened school shooting in Fair Haven two months earlier — and an actual shooting in Parkland, Fla., days before that — had prompted him to reconsider his long-held opposition to gun restrictions. But his voice was drowned out by protesters calling him a "liar," "traitor" and "backstabber."

Ross Sneyd, a former Statehouse reporter for the Associated Press, was struck by the spectacle.

"I have to tell you, it was eerily familiar," said Sneyd, who covered the Take Back Vermont movement. "That level of emotion took me right back to 2000."

Much like the fight over gay rights, the gun-control debate is a cultural one — pitting neighbors against one another over what it means to be a Vermonter. Opponents of both initiatives see an erosion of "traditional" Vermont values, foisted upon them by "flatlanders" who haven't taken the time to understand their adopted state.

"It's like people moving from Boston next to a farm because it's a beautiful place and then complaining because it smells like cow crap," said Ramel Kuney, who owns the Old Fishing Hole, a gun and tackle shop in Morrisville.

As he restocked shelves this month in the back of his store, Kuney noted that many Vermont legislators "aren't from here." He said he'd recently heard that Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman "was currently living in Massachusetts." (In fact, Zuckerman has lived in Vermont since 1989.)

The way Sen. Rodgers sees it, native Vermonters "are now the only people it's acceptable to discriminate against." They have bent over backward to accommodate newcomers, he argues, but now have their own rights taken away.

"I'm not a nativist," Rodgers said. "It's just that if you want to come to my house, don't take my shit."

At least some of the ire gun-rights activists feel toward Scott stems from their belief that he shared their values and background. A blue-collar boy from Barre, he grew up hunting and racing cars — and spent his adult life in the construction industry. He is a "traitor," in their eyes, because he sided with others over his own.

Of course, plenty of native Vermonters — and gun owners — support certain firearm restrictions. Though no public polling on the issue has been conducted in the state within the past two years, the now-defunct Castleton Polling Institute found in February 2016 that 89 percent of Vermonters supported universal background checks. Nearly 82 percent of gun owners did.

Days after Scott signed the gun bills into law, Vermont nativism reared its head at a Statehouse rally. Speaking to a crowd of gun-rights activists, Vermont Republican Party chair Deb Billado called for the ouster of Rep. Martin LaLonde (D-South Burlington), who authored the high-capacity magazine ban and advocated for even tougher restrictions.

"He's a California scoundrel to boot!" one audience member yelled.

LaLonde was born in California, but he was raised in Michigan, where he learned to hunt from his father and grandfather. He is a fourth-generation hunting camp member and the owner of eight firearms. Last year, he said, he bagged a buck with a bolt-action 7mm Remington Magnum rifle.

"I do reject this concept that I'm a flatlander trying to change the culture in Vermont," he said. "I'm a gun owner who thinks we can have some reasonable regulations to address some of the behavior we're seeing."

Round and Round

click to enlarge Protesters at the bill signing - JOSH KUCKENS
  • Josh Kuckens
  • Protesters at the bill signing

One by one last week, Mazza grabbed several firearms from the cab of his Ford F-150 FX4 and placed them on a plastic folding table he'd erected in a Colchester gravel pit. Operated by his company, All Seasons Excavating, the vast industrial space was populated by piles of rock and sand, sheds, trucks, and junked cars.

First came the Ruger 10/22, a featherlight rifle with a mounted scope. "This is probably one of the most famous little guns every kid in the world has," said Mazza, a stout man with a stern visage.

Then came the Colt AR-15, with a fixed stock and a pair of 20-round magazines that will soon be illegal to purchase. "Here it is!" he said with effect. "The dreaded black rifle!"

Finally, Mazza pulled out a 12-gauge Remington 1100 shotgun and set it down on the table.

"This is what everybody is afraid of," he growled, pointing to the AR. "This is what they should be afraid of," he said, gesturing toward the shotgun. "The carnage that can be caused with that 12-gauge shotgun versus that AR — it's fivefold."

In Mazza's view, the only thing worse than gun laws are poorly crafted gun laws. Because those who advocate for the former rarely understand how firearms work, they often wind up with the latter, he argues.

Of all Vermont's new gun restrictions, Mazza takes particular exception to the limits on ammunition magazines. Starting in October, dealers will no longer be allowed to sell magazines with a capacity of greater than 10 rounds for long guns or 15 rounds for handguns. Shooters may continue to use equipment they already own.

The new rules will inconvenience marksmen, Mazza believes, but won't prevent mass shootings.

Balancing the AR on the table with his right hand, he inserted a 20-round magazine with his left. "That's in, ready to shoot. So if you want to stop this guy with this clip—" he said, deftly removing one magazine and replacing it with the other in no more than a second, "that's how long it takes to reload. So you're gonna limit him to a 10-round clip? If he's out there to cause carnage, who's gonna stop him? That's my point."

John Nagle, a friend of Mazza's who had joined him for the shoot, jumped in. "You should get a picture of that," he said, pointing to the safety selector on the side of the gun. "Fire and safety," he said, reading the two settings. "There's no auto."

According to Nagle, those opposed to gun rights routinely doctor photographs of the switch to make it appear as if semiautomatic AR-15s also have an automatic setting. "There's just this constant lie," he said.

The two men see plenty of dark forces at work. "Maybe [Michael] Bloomberg paid [Scott] a lot of money," Mazza suggested, referring to the billionaire former New York City mayor, who has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to gun-control efforts. It's a common claim among gun-rights activists, though none has offered a shred of proof.

"I think [Scott] has been bought off, bribed or blackmailed by Bloomberg," said Eddie Garcia, a St. Johnsbury resident and founder of the Vermont Citizens Defense League. "You don't have that kind of change of heart overnight. It just doesn't happen."

In Mazza's view, conservatives are an oppressed class, while "liberals can yell and scream and spit in your face" with no consequences.

"The left continues to get what they want by wrecking storefronts, burning cars on highways," he said. "Look at the stuff they got away with in Ferguson, Mo.!"

Like many gun-rights activists, Mazza was friendly with Scott for years, though he now refers to the governor as "Ding Dong." His uncle, Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), is one of Scott's closest allies in the legislature. While the senator opposed the governor's gun laws, he continues to support Scott — and called his nephew's remarks "unfortunate" and "upsetting."

At the gravel pit, Robby Mazza set a hand-drawn bull's-eye on a nearby sand pile and then took turns with a reporter firing the .22. "Like I said, Fish & Wildlife supplies those guns to teach kids," he said. "But you take that gun and change the stock and put a long clip on it and, oh my God, there's an assault weapon!"

"It's all perception," said Nagle, who plans to run this year for a Colchester seat in the Vermont House — inspired, in part, by the gun debate.

After firing the AR, Mazza inspected the target. "See, just noisier and a tiny bit bigger hole because there's more powder. That's all," he said. "So the same little gun that the kids are brought up on, painted black and given a name."

"Just a lot more velocity," Nagle added.

Mazza's demonstration concluded with a single blast of the 12-gauge shotgun. Though slow to reload, it packed plenty of punch. "That's the absolute carnage you just caused," he said, surveying the spray of pellets around the bull's-eye. "Look at what one round can cause. But [the shotgun is] not black, so nobody's afraid of it."

As Mazza packed up his guns, he gestured toward the AR. "You saw how quick it takes to load, so trying to cut somebody down to a 10-round clip isn't gonna do jack crap," he snapped. "Nothing! If a guy's intention is to cause harm and to kill people, no one's gonna stop him anyways."

He paused.

"It's just a sad thing."

A Broken Promise

click to enlarge Brien Lemois confronting Gov. Phil Scott at the East Side Restaurant & Pub in Newport - COURTESY OF NEWPORT DISPATCH
  • Courtesy Of newport Dispatch
  • Brien Lemois confronting Gov. Phil Scott at the East Side Restaurant & Pub in Newport

A handful of protesters, some armed with bullhorns, lined the road outside Newport's East Side Restaurant & Pub last month as the governor arrived for a North Country Chamber of Commerce luncheon. Jeff Dunn, who owns a local construction company, stood with his two young daughters and held up a sign featuring photographs of Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong and Phil Scott.

"The experts agree," it read. "Gun control works."

Once Scott had taken a seat inside the restaurant, Brien Lemois approached the governor to press him on the new gun laws. "I'm not here to give you more crap, but your actions have caused 45 percent of my business to go away," he recalled saying.

The Irasburg man, who runs Green Mountain Sporting Goods with his wife, Trish Jones, told the governor that some wholesalers had halted gun shipments to Vermont as they adjusted to the state's new regulations. Others refused to ship firearms that remained legal but came standard with magazines that did not. According to Lemois, 80 such guns are no longer available to Vermont retailers. The couple's online sales have also taken a dive as customers seek out dealers in states with fewer restrictions.

"Why did you do this?" Lemois said he demanded of Scott. Photos of the confrontation, which show the tall, beefy gunsmith looming over the comparatively slight governor, appeared in several Northeast Kingdom newspapers the next week.

Scott has grown accustomed to such encounters. While he continues to hold public events, he told Seven Days last month that he would scale back his parade and fair appearances this summer — and perhaps even sit out the season at Barre's Thunder Road SpeedBowl — to avoid provoking protests.

When he does venture out these days, the governor brings copies of a double-sided fact sheet wherever he goes. It explains what the new gun laws do and, more importantly, what they don't do.

click to enlarge Brien Lemois - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Brien Lemois

"S.55 DOES NOT require anyone to turn over any type of firearm or magazine," it reads. "S.55 DOES NOT ban, or make illegal, any specific type of firearm."

When confronted, Scott often hands out the fact sheet — and a copy of an affidavit describing the threatened Fair Haven school shooting. "I believe a lot of their concerns are based on misinformation," he said of his critics. "I want them to see it in black and white."

At the East Side Restaurant, according to Scott, he promised Lemois that a staffer would assist him. "I want to be sure that, again, we can be helpful in any way we can," he recalled saying.

That's not enough for Lemois.

"As my wholesalers say, the only thing that's going to fix it is to repeal S.55," he said, referring to the legislation that included the most far-reaching gun restrictions.

Standing behind the counter the following week at Green Mountain Sporting Goods, Lemois and Jones patiently explained to customers why the new laws were holding up orders.

The store, which doubles as Nancy's Video, features racks of rifles and rows of DVDs, along with seven deer heads mounted above the new release section. Movie posters advertising Captain Underpants and Boss Baby cover a storefront window, right above a smaller sign that reads, "BIG GAME REPORTING STATION."

Early that afternoon, Irasburg's three town listers dropped by the store on government business. When they had completed their work, town lister Bill Roya changed the subject.

"Smith & Wesson 15 sporter: Can you get 'em?" he asked Lemois. "Because I can't." Roya was referring to an AR-style rifle that comes standard with a 30-round magazine.

"Hit and miss," Lemois told Roya. "We've had a lot of issues since S.55 passed." Lemois explained that he had recently pressed the governor on the matter, but to no avail.

"It is so ridiculous, Brien," the lister responded. "It is just complete stupidity, as far as I'm concerned. How are they gonna enforce it?"

"I don't think they can," Lemois said. "I understand why they wanted to do something. The Fair Haven incident scared them. But don't do it on emotion. We've got to slow down."

After the listers left, Lemois said that he had always "tried to stay out of politics." But since lawmakers had threatened his livelihood, he had given new consideration to running for the legislature, or even lieutenant governor. If he did run, he said, he would put a premium on being honest and consistent.

Lemois recalled meeting Scott two years earlier during a campaign stop at a Newport auction house. The future governor told him then that he would oppose any new gun legislation. When Scott reversed course in February, Lemois said, "I was disappointed and outraged."

Others recounted similar experiences. Kuney, the owner of the Old Fishing Hole, recalled hearing the same pledge during a 2016 fundraiser at the Welch Farm Round Barn in Morrisville. "He stood in my grandfather's barn and lied to my face," Kuney said of the future governor.

click to enlarge Bert Saldi looking on as Gov. Phil Scott signs a gun-rights letter in February 2017 - COURTESY OF DEVON CRAIG
  • Courtesy Of Devon Craig
  • Bert Saldi looking on as Gov. Phil Scott signs a gun-rights letter in February 2017

One event in particular has assumed mythic proportions among gun-rights activists. During the Barre Fish & Game Club's February 2017 gun show, Bert Saldi of the Vermont Traditions Coalition was collecting signatures for a form letter addressed to state legislators. When he saw the governor making his way through the booths, Saldi asked him to sign a copy.

"As a citizen of the state of Vermont, I ask you to oppose all legislation that in any way restricts my lawful firearms rights as affirmed in Vermont's Constitution under Article 16," it begins. The signed letter, which was retained by gun-rights activists, features Scott's signature and Berlin address.

"I shook his hand. I voted for him and supported him," Saldi said. "But not anymore."

Scott does not dispute that he broke his promise, but he rejects the premise that he intentionally deceived voters. "To get into a debate about whether I lied or not doesn't change the facts. The fact is that my position changed," he said. "I regret disappointing so many, but I still feel it was the right decision to make."

Taking Aim

click to enlarge Ramel Kuney at the Old Fishing Hole in Morrisville - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Ramel Kuney at the Old Fishing Hole in Morrisville

Jay Shepard sees at least some upside to the turmoil Scott has generated within his own party.

"It's really activated the Republican base," said the Essex Junction consultant and Republican National Committee member. "We're seeing more interest in running for office than we've seen in my time being involved."

But that base — and even the Vermont Republican Party leadership — appears ambivalent about its sole statewide officeholder. State Republicans seem torn between being the party of Scott and the party of President Donald Trump.

On the very day Scott signed the gun bills into law, the state GOP sent a fundraising solicitation to its email list with the Trumpian slogan "Make Vermont Great Again" written in blaze orange. "In recent years, our state has been co-opted by the liberal elite," the email read. "Out-of-touch politicians have been hell bent on stripping away every right and freedom that Vermonters hold dear." No matter that Scott was one of the biggest Trump critics in the state and, arguably, one of the politicians "hell bent on stripping away" at least one "right and freedom."

At the rally in Montpelier days later, an audience member shouted, "We're not supporting Phil Scott!" Billado, the party chair, responded, "It's everyone's choice to take that to the polls. I don't pick winners or losers. I work for the Republican Party. I work for you."

Brady Toensing, the GOP vice chair, has been more explicit. Even before Scott signed the bills into law, he wrote on Twitter, "A sad day in Vermont. Repub Gov breaks repeated pledge; will sign bill taking rights from law-abiding citizens with no increase in safety." A week after the signing, the Charlotte attorney sued to overturn the new laws on behalf of several gun clubs and stores.

According to Toensing, who chaired Trump's 2016 Vermont campaign, Scott has chosen a "fully calculated, purely political path."

"He is pursuing a tactical gambit of triangulation," Toensing said. "He has gone out of his way to criticize President Trump. He supported legalization of recreational marijuana. And he supported the symbolic, ineffective magazine ban."

At the same time, Scott has tacked to the right on fiscal issues — provoking a budget standoff during the closing weeks of this year's legislative session, perhaps in order to get his base back on board.

It's unclear how the party will navigate an election season in which its down-ballot candidates are most exercised about the actions of the man at the top of the ticket. Billado and the party's newly hired executive director, Jack Moulton, refused repeated requests to discuss the question.

Vermont's gun groups, at least, appear to have their message straight — as far as Scott's concerned.

"There's no way in hell we're going to support Gov. Scott," said Gun Owners of Vermont president Ed Cutler. "We stand by the people who stand with us."

But the state's gun lobby is hardly a monolith. In addition to Cutler's group, there's the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, the Vermont Traditions Coalition, the Vermont Citizens Defense League, the Hunters Anglers Trappers Association of Vermont, and dozens of local hunting and fishing clubs.

Each of these groups has a different mission and political bent — and few of them have the resources or bandwidth to invest in political campaigns. Those that do may have unrealistic expectations of what they can accomplish.

In addition to Scott, Cutler hopes to take on House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero), Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden), Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden), Rep. Maxine Grad (D-Moretown) and Rep. LaLonde. "You know, the usual players," he said, acknowledging that many of his targets live in liberal districts, whose voters may be disinclined to oust their incumbents.

Cutler and his allies don't have much time to recruit candidates. The filing deadline to appear on the primary election ballot is May 31.

Former governor Howard Dean, who signed the civil unions bill into law 18 years ago, is skeptical that Scott will face the consequences gun groups are promising.

"Oh, I think he's going to endure a lot of protest, but I don't think it's going to affect his vote very much," Dean said, noting that even at the height of the Take Back Vermont movement, he had defeated its putative leader, Republican nominee Ruth Dwyer, by more than 12 percentage points. "I really think there's a silent majority in the Republican Party that is kind of on board with moderate gun reform."

Sneyd, the former AP reporter, agrees, but he cautions that the gun movement "is the sort of thing that can build on itself."

"There's a lot of time between here and November for this to get pretty juiced up," he said.

Trigger Warning

click to enlarge Keith Stern (left) talking with Thomas Hood at St. Michael's Defense in St. Johnsbury - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Keith Stern (left) talking with Thomas Hood at St. Michael's Defense in St. Johnsbury

Conor Casey, the executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party, hopes that this fall's elections look less like the aftermath of the 2000 vote for civil unions and more like the election following Vermont's 2009 legalization of gay marriage. Having learned a lesson from the Take Back Vermont movement, gay marriage advocates did a better job in the 2010 election of protecting their allies in the legislature.

"Not one incumbent who voted for that lost as a result," Casey noted.

He said it's anybody's guess how gun rights will play in November, particularly in rural districts where incumbent Democrats supported Scott's legislation.

"I don't know that I have a great assessment of how organized the opposition is," Casey said. "They're very loud. But, electorally, I don't think we've ever seen this issue put to the test."

One House district to watch is Caledonia-2, which includes Hardwick, Stannard and Walden. In the past two elections, Lawrence Hamel, a Merlin-bearded hunter safety instructor, has come within a few dozen votes of unseating Rep. Chip Troiano (D-Stannard).

Hamel is apoplectic about Vermont's new gun laws. "My honest opinion: It was a knee-jerk reaction to something that obviously wasn't even a crime," he said, referring to the foiled Fair Haven plot. Lawmakers, he added, "just needed to do something. That's all they did: something."

Troiano voted for each of the gun bills and the amendments that strengthened them, including universal background checks and the ban on high-capacity magazines. "He votes 100 percent party line," Hamel scoffed.

Leading up to the March vote, according to Troiano, constituents who contacted him were roughly split on the matter. Ultimately, he made up his mind based on his own experience.

From November 1966 to November 1967, Troiano served as an infantry rifleman and then a helicopter door gunner in Vietnam. "This debate triggered some PTSD issues for me, as far as death by firearms. It really sent me into a tailspin," he said.

"When you see people die from gunshot wounds — when you are put in a position where you have to take someone else's life and view the pile of bodies lying where they fell and knowing that they fell at the end of your machine gun fire — it's just burned into your memory forever," he said, choking up as he spoke.

Driving home to Hardwick each night, Troiano couldn't shake visions of high school students running for their lives from semiautomatic rifle fire.

"The vote came from the heart," Troiano said. "It was the right thing to do. It wasn't an option for me to vote to save my seat."

Hamel, who hasn't yet decided whether he'll mount a third challenge to Troiano, said one obstacle remains for the gun-rights movement: "The problem is, and the problem always has been, getting conservatives off their asses and out to vote," he said.

'The Lesser of Two Evils'

click to enlarge Keith Stern campaign manager Rebecca Bailey's truck in St. Johnsbury - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Keith Stern campaign manager Rebecca Bailey's truck in St. Johnsbury

Keith Stern looked nervous as Kix 105.5 FM morning host Shawn Knight introduced him to listeners of the St. Johnsbury country music station.

"How we doing today, Keith?" the gregarious radio personality asked.

"Good," Stern said, holding a microphone near his chest.

Knight grabbed the mic and shoved it in the Republican gubernatorial candidate's face. "Oop, put that right up to your mouth there," he instructed.

"Ooh-kay," Stern said.

The two men were standing side by side in a mobile radio booth outside St. Michael's Defense, a St. Johnsbury gun shop on the banks of the Passumpsic River. The store was celebrating its second anniversary, and Stern was hoping to meet its clientele. The smell of moose burgers wafted across the parking lot. Customers milled about, inspecting a collection of taxidermied bears, foxes and deer arrayed on the lawn.

"Tell me, what is your platform?" Knight asked. "What are we running for, and why is it that being here today at St. Michael's Defense is important?"

The candidate, whose green Keith Stern for Governor T-shirt was tucked into a pair of blue jeans, contemplated the question as if he were about to deliver a book report.

"Uh, OK. I'm running for governor," he began. "Um. First of all, I support the Constitution — both the U.S. and Vermont. And I believe we gotta make sure all our rights are protected."

Knight, himself an avowed gun-rights supporter, tried another softball. "And so, Phil Scott, because of him turning, is that something you wanted to talk about for a moment?" he asked. "Is that why you're so adamant now about running for governor?"

"No, I was running before that," Stern replied. "When I first started, gun rights, or our constitutional rights, were not even an issue. It just became an issue well after I announced."

Realizing he wasn't getting anywhere, Knight thanked the candidate for showing up and changed the subject to the moose burgers.

Stern, a grocer from North Springfield, has found himself in the right place at the right time. In his three runs for Congress, the Tea Party veteran cracked the double digits just once, when he came in third in the 2010 Republican primary for the U.S. House. But these days, he's the only conservative alternative to Scott.

"He's lost his base — his entire base," Stern said in an interview. "How do you vote for somebody that intentionally lies to you?"

Stern is not the most studied of candidates. Asked what he thought of each of the three gun bills Scott had signed, Stern confessed that he wasn't "up to speed" on two of them.

"I just haven't had an opportunity to really look at those others," he said.

Many gun-rights activists hope they'll coax another candidate into the ring, but their options are limited. Rodgers, the Democratic Northeast Kingdom senator, says he's still considering the prospect, though his interest has waned. "I'm not going to run to be a sacrificial lamb," he said.

Former lieutenant governor Brian Dubie said he has "no plans to run for governor," while 2016 Republican candidate Bruce Lisman declined to comment.

Scott Milne, who won the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2014 and nearly defeated Democratic incumbent Peter Shumlin, wouldn't say whether he's pondering a challenge. But he criticized Scott's reversal and said "the jury's out as to whether I'll be supporting him next time around.

"Phil's got a problem, because you shouldn't make promises you can't keep," Milne added.

At the St. Michael's Defense party, gun-rights activists sounded deflated about their options. Arthur Wood, the president of the Caledonia Forest and Stream Club, said he'd "lost a lot of respect for [Scott], especially for going against his word." But he was equally uninterested in voting for Christine Hallquist, a Democratic candidate who has called for an assault weapons ban.

"It's a tough situation being a gun owner," Wood said. "I mean, you gotta take the lesser of two evils. But, boy, does that sum up our election."

Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly.

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Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

Bio:
Paul Heintz is a staff writer and political editor for Seven Days. He wrote the "Fair Game" political column from May 2012 through December 2016.

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