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Buster Meets Douglas 

Inside Track

Published February 2, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

We thought we were just teeing it up for the Governor last Thursday -- handing the leader of Vermont a golden opportunity to hit one out of the park in the name of truth, justice and the Vermont way!

Boy, were we wrong!

The occasion was Gov. Jim Douglas' weekly press conference in his Statehouse ceremonial office -- you know, the one without the desk lamp with the naked female figurine?

And that very morning a big story had broken on the front page of The Burlington Free Press: Margaret Spellings, the brand new U.S. Secretary of Education, had in her first official act gotten PBS to yank a children's program because two Vermont lesbian couples appeared in the show with their children.


"Postcards from Buster," produced by WGBH in Boston, stars a cartoon rabbit who travels around the country meeting all kinds of families.

According to a WGBH spokesperson, the series is designed for children ages 6 to 8. "This is a show about kids learning from other kids. We've visited kids who are Muslim, Mormon, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostal, kids rurally, kids in cities, kids whose fathers and mothers are heterosexual, single parent, living with grandparents."

And now, living with two mommies!

Buster came to Vermont to go "sugaring." According to Buster's Blog, "While there, we visited Emma, David and James, who live with their two moms, Karen and Gillian. Karen and my mom used to work at the same newspaper together.

"I ate 'sugar on snow': hot maple syrup on snow. It's a real Vermont treat! It's cold and sweet. They serve it with a pickle and a doughnut. I like Vermont's way of thinking!

"We also visited Georgia and Sophie. Their family owns a farm with over 200 cows. Did you know that all cows are girls? They're the ones with udders. The boys are called bulls."

We figured Vermont's currently sitting Chief Bull -- Gov. James Douglas of Middlebury -- would grab this one by the horns and toss it over the fence.

"Apologies to Sec. Spellings," we imagined him saying, "but in Vermont we're proud of all of our families, including the families featured on 'Postcards from Buster.' Sec. Spellings is new to the Department of Education and that may explain her ignorance. I would hope she'd reconsider. In fact, I've invited her to Vermont to see firsthand our commitment to strong families and quality education. In Vermont we truly leave no child behind!"

But Gov. Scissorhands didn't say that. In fact, he didn't say anything close. Perhaps it was just too much to expect that our Republican governor would put state above party and personal bias. Instead, he tried to stay as far away from the Buster story as possible.

"I saw the story," said Douglas reluctantly. "I guess that's a matter between the education department and public television." Douglas noted his budget proposes more money for Vermont Public Television.

But we hadn't inquired about his budget proposal. We'd inquired about the homophobic, anti-Vermont censorship invoked by the nation's new secretary of education -- an education secretary without either a Master's degree or teaching experience. Might it be worth a mention in your official capacity as leader of Vermont, we asked?

"I certainly don't agree with censorship," replied our governor, "and hope that public television and PBS will make the right decisions. I expect if I have conversations with Sec. Spellings, it'll be about support for education and 'No Child Left Behind' and issues that are far more consequential to the state and its budget."

"Far more consequential" than defending two Vermont families from Bush administration bigotry?

Our current Sitting Bull said he had "no idea" how many civil unions have already been granted in the state he governs.

The correct answer is 7389, of which 1100 have been issued to Vermont residents.

Four years ago, a majority coalition of legislative Democrats, Republicans and Progressives passed civil-unions legislation. Gov. Howard Dean signed it (in private), and since July 1, 2000, it's been the law of the land in Vermont.

In fact, one of those Republican legislators was standing at the governor's arm during the press conference.

Four years ago, Bruce Hyde was a GOP state rep from the Mad River Valley. He'd bucked the conservatives in the House GOP caucus and stood with other brave Republicans to support equal rights for all Vermont couples. Today he serves as Commissioner of Travel and Tourism. And just minutes before the subject of Buster came up, Commissioner Hyde told the press corps that civil unions have been a big plus for Vermont tourism.

"There's a number of businesses," said Hyde, "that have focused on civil unions and have been very, very successful financially. So it certainly has had an impact."

Have there been any negative effects on Vermont's tourism industry resulting from the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples?

"We have not seen any negatives," replied the commissioner.

Civil-unions opponents who waved their Bibles in our faces back in 2000, forecasting the destruction of Vermont as we know it, have all been proven wrong. And even before civil unions arrived, Vermont showed the nation what excellent adoptive parents gay citizens make.

Reality -- what a concept!

We simply had to give Gov. Douglas a second chance. Maybe he was having a bad day and had forgotten he was the governor of all Vermonters, not just the ones like him and wife Dorothy.

Maybe our governor had forgotten the eloquent words of fellow Republican Jeff Amestoy, the former attorney general and chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court. It was Amestoy who wrote that extending marriage rights to same-sex couples "is simply, when all is said and done, a recognition of our common humanity."

Surely "common humanity" outweighs political partisanship in our governor's mind? This Bush ban on Buster was, after all, about Washington vs. Vermont, not Republican vs. Democrat, and once he realized that, surely our Guv would take Vermont's side, right?

"I don't believe in censorship at all," replied Douglas. "Broadcasters, whether public or private, should be able to show whatever they want within reasonable standards of decency."

Is this not censorship?

"It appears to be," replied our Guv.

Then why wouldn't you mention it to Sec. Spellings?

"I think I'll have a lot more important matters to discuss with her if I have an opportunity," replied Douglas.

Wrong answer, Guv. You see, there's a very simple lesson to be learned here, and the lesson is that Vermonters do not tolerate expressions of bigotry by public officials. Never have. From slavery to civil unions, Vermont's always considered bigotry and intolerance "important" issues. Very "consequential" issues.

Gov. Douglas may not see the importance of what Spellings did to two Vermont families, but, fortunately, we have no shortage of public officials who do.

State Sen. Don Collins, chair of the Senate Education Committee, told Seven Days he "would hope that the new U.S. Secretary of Education has more urgent responsibilities than to interfere in what PBS can and can not broadcast. I believe," said Collins, "she is overreacting to a situation that is best left to parents to decide: what is appropriate viewing for their children," said Collins.

House Education Committee Chair George Cross told Seven Days, "American families come in many varieties. While many might desire that all families are alike, that is not the case. What is truly important is that each child have a loving family, one that cares for the child and raises the child to live in a diverse world."

Don't you wish our governor could have expressed such a sentiment?

Attorney General Bill Sorrell, whose office fought against same-sex marriage before the Vermont Supreme Court, told us, "I, for one, certainly will sleep better knowing that a member of the Bush Cabinet is protecting Americans from Vermonters. So much for fostering living in a multicultural society!"

Funny guy, that attorney general, eh?

P.S. Gov. Douglas may be ducking this one, but Sec. Spellings will be hearing directly from Vermont leaders, nonetheless.

According to House Judiciary Committee Chair Bill Lippert, he and House Speaker Gaye Symington and Senate President pro tem Peter Welch have drafted a letter to Sec. Spellings decrying her "outrageous" intervention into children's television.

Lippert said the legislative leaders are also sending a letter to Vermont Public Television, praising the station's decision to air the Buster episode despite Sec. Spelling's objections.

As for Gov. Douglas, it's not too late. Civil unions are the law of our land. Middlebury Jim could wake up tomorrow and realize he's the governor of every Vermont family.

Media Notes -- Interesting to see how the Buster story played in the local press. It was front-page news in The Burlington Free Press, though the paper neglected to mention that one of the lesbian couples used to work at the Freeps. Karen Pike, in fact, was the newspaper's talented chief photographer for many years.

WGOP, er, sorry, WCAX- TV appears to have let this Vermont censorship story slide. Unfortunately, important news at Ch. 3 appears to exclude all news that reflects poorly on the Douglas administration. Perhaps you've noticed, too?

According to Ch. 3's posted news scripts, Buster was mentioned Thursday morning but didn't get a peep on the big evening newscasts. Gov. Douglas' comments were ignored.

The Buster story, however, has gone national. There have been editorials in newspapers from Maine to Iowa. The Rutland Herald took a stand on Monday, but Burlington's Gannett-chain daily has yet to mention it on its editorial page.

We're not holding our breath.

As everyone knows, the issue of equal rights for all Vermonters, including gay Vermonters, is one that does not sit well with Burlington Free Press Publisher and President James Carey. In one of Vermont journalism's most embarrassing moments, Publisher Carey kept the editorial page of Vermont's largest daily silent as the civil-unions debate percolated through the legislature in 2000. The silence spoke volumes.

Let's be clear, folks, homophobia is not specifically a Gannett-owned product. Rather, we'd suggest it's a Publisher Carey-owned product.

For example, the editorial page of the Des Moines Register, also a Gannett-chain paper, came to Vermont's defense the other day and hit the Buster nail right on the head.

"The world is full of all kinds of people," read the Iowa editorial. "People who live on farms and in trailer parks. People who speak different languages. People with lots of money, and people with none. And people who are gay. Buster meets them. His creators know that learning about differences is part of getting an education. Too bad the country's education secretary doesn't realize that, too."

And too bad neither Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, nor Burlington Free Press Publisher Jim Carey realize it, either.

Lessons Learned? -- Nobody's perfect, folks. Everybody makes mistakes. In politics, learning from those mistakes is a priceless skill that appears to be sorely lacking in the current administration.

When it comes to transportation, no bigger mistake stands out on the Vermont stage than the one Gov. Jim Douglas made last year. Douglas refused to give opponents of the Chittenden County Circumferential Highway the courtesy of a meeting. They even agreed to let Segments A and B get built without legal challenge if only Gov. Scissorhands would discuss alternatives to the final Colchester leg.

Not a chance. Instead, Douglas signed construction contracts and moved full speed ahead last winter. It was as if the federal lawsuit did not exist!

As everyone knows, the Douglas administration took it both on the chin and between the legs courtesy of the court. Our governor's team was found to be breaking long-standing federal environmental law. How embarrassing that it took private citizens and organizations to get the governor of Vermont to respect the law.

This week, the Vermont Smart Growth Collaborative went public with a professional traffic-engineering study showing two alternatives to the current Circ plan that could save taxpayers $10 to $30 million off the bottom line while making traffic flow much faster in the Rte. 2A corridor.

God forbid, right?

In fact, check it out for yourself at http://www.vtsmartgrowth.org. Roundabouts are the key. Very interesting, cutting-edge stuff.

So was the reaction from local and state highway officials.

The Freeps reported Vermont's new Transportation Secretary Dawn Terrill immediately accused the collaborative of trying to "circumvent" the highway planning process by going public with its ideas.

The new Dawn at AOT told yours truly she would have liked to have had a conversation with the Circ opponents before they went to the press.

But Seven Days has learned that the critics have been trying to meet with the Douglas administration since December. Attorney Brian Dunkiel, a member of the brilliant legal team that won last May, said they contacted Administration Secretary Mike Smith's office in December in hopes of a meeting. Dunkiel said they expected their finding -- that more efficient alternatives could save tens of millions in project costs -- would be of interest during state budget preparations.

They expected wrong.

The chairmen of House and Senate Transportation committees, however, have met with the collaborative, said Dunkiel. So have IBM officials in Essex Junction. But both the Douglas administration and the pro- Circ Metropolitan Planning Organization have rebuffed their advances.

Yes, indeed, nothing like learning from one's mistakes, eh?

By the Way -- The City of Burlington wasn't the only Chittenden County community to vote "no" on the pro-Circ 2025 Metropolitan Transportation Plan last week. According to Bill Knight, executive director of the CCMPO, Hinesburg did, too.

Four other communities did not vote either way.


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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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