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Chain Reaction 

Fair Game

Bernie Sanders
Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

At first glance, there don’t appear to be too many similarities between our straightlaced Gov. Jim Douglas and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. The latter fought to keep federal stimulus dollars out of his state, then skulked off to Argentina to chase a more traditional form of stimulation.

No, Douglas is not holed up in another hemisphere with some National Governors Association aide, nursing wounds inflicted by an uppity legislature.

But he is out of state. That means Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie is the acting governor, or at least on stand-by, in case the guv’s staff can’t reach him by phone or Facebook. Right?

Nope. Dubie’s out of town, too. He’s in Kourou, French Guyana, watching a satellite missile launch that will help improve Internet access in Vermont. No foolin’. According to state statute, that means House Speaker Shap Smith — the guy some Dems would like to see become governor someday — is poised to take over. Right?

Not exactly. He’s out of town, too, on vacation with the family.

So, just who the hell is in charge?

It took some digging and consultation with both David Gibson, secretary of the Senate, and State Archivist Gregory Sanford (no relation to Mark) to sort out the succession plan.

Turns out: If no member of the Holy Trinity is able to carry out the duties of governor, the task falls first to the Senate president pro tem, then to the secretary of state and, finally, to the treasurer.

That means the man waiting in the wings to run our state government is none other than Sen. Peter Shumlin (D-Windham).

Reached by phone in his secure Putney location, Shumlin says he has no major plans for a silent coup — though it’s no secret that he’d like to be more than just a gubernatorial understudy. Nothing like a test drive, eh?

He does plan to hold a special session on the Fourth of July to reconsider the governor’s veto of the decommissioning bill. “As governor, I will urge the legislature to overturn my veto,” Shumlin joked.

Lawmakers this year sought to compel Entergy, the parent company of Vermont Yankee, to have enough cash on hand to properly dismantle the plant when it’s retired. That could happen as early as 2012 if the legislature doesn’t vote to extend its operating license.

Last week, roughly 125 people attended a Mad River Valley forum about VY’s future. They seemed to concur that it needs to be shut down in order to fuel renewable energy investment, save taxpayers money from cleaning up the plant, and for safety’s sake.

“At some point in a foolproof system, the fools are going to exceed the proofs,” warned nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen.

And who are fools in this equation, exactly?

Even the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission agrees the fund falls short of what is needed to decommission the aging reactor. They said so in a recent letter to Entergy and will follow up with — gasp! — a teleconference. That’ll show ’em!

“Let’s just say that the governor that is out of state has more confidence in the NRC than the governor in-state does,” noted Shumlin.

Sounds like Shumlin would like to be three for three when it comes to overriding vetoes.

There’s a historic precedent for constitutional underlings trying to exert their power as acting governor, Greg Sanford noted.

Republican Gov. Percival Clement (1919-21) opposed women’s suffrage, putting him at odds with the state GOP and his lieutenant governor. Lite Gov. Mason Stone informed Clement that if he ever left the state, Stone would call a special session to ratify the 19th amendment. And you thought same-sex marriage was controversial.

Clement did go to D.C. to consult on Warren Harding’s presidential campaign, but made it back in time before a special session was called. As a result, the Green Mountain State lost its chance to be the “decider” state on that crucial constitutional amendment. That honor went to Tennessee.

Shumlin has no plans to leave Vermont this week. He’s even forgoing his annual post-fireworks boat ride down the Connecticut River with his family. Why?

“As soon as I get out far enough into the river, I’d be in New Hampshire,” said Shumlin.

That would make Secretary of State Deb Markowitz — Shumlin’s competition — the governor-in-waiting. She also hopes to be the Dem that takes on Douglas in 2010.

Before Democrats start plotting, remember this is the Douglas administration we’re talking about. They always have a political contingency plan in place. You don’t get elected governor in a heavily Democratic state without one.

“At the hint of a coup, I’ve been instructed to deploy my best Al Haig impersonation and delay just long enough to zip the governor back from his secure, undisclosed location,” joked Neale Lunderville, Douglas’ secretary of administration and longtime aide.

Now we know who’s really “in charge.”

House Calls — Seeking office in 2010, or at least announcing that you’re thinking about it, seems to be swine-flu contagious — and, arguably, just as debilitating for voters trying to enjoy a relaxing summer.

But for political junkies such as myself, such news provides endless hours of fun.

The Vermont Republican Party is already out with two, three-question polls in key swing districts represented by first-term Democrats: one in Killington; the other in St. Johnsbury.

In Rep. Megan Smith’s district, which includes Killington and Mendon, pollsters are asking residents if they agreed with her votes to increase the gas tax and to override the governor’s budget veto. They also solicited opinions on her support to remove cost containment caps for pre-K enrollment, which would presumably have led to higher property taxes.

Rep. Robert South’s St. J district residents got the same first two questions. Rather than pre-K funding, however, the pollsters asked South’s neighbors if they supported his vote against taking a 5 percent legislative pay cut.

The GOP is using the same polling outfit that took the public’s pulse in a series of legislative surveys during the same-sex-marriage debate. In that case, the interrogators asked voters if they thought lawmakers should support, oppose or wait to take up the issue.

“The goals are pretty straightforward,” Vermont GOP chair Rob Roper says of the current poll. “We want voters to know how their representatives are voting on key issues, and we want to know if the voters agree or disagree with the way their rep voted.”

Someone has to keep these folks accountable, right?

An interesting House race may be shaping up in Brattleboro, too — this one between Democrats and Progressives: Rep. Sarah Edwards — the first Progressive elected to the legislature outside of Burlington — may face a challenge from recent UVM grad Scott McCarty, a Brattleboro native.

While at UVM, the poli sci major was very politically active, working on everything from Democratic City Councilor Ed Adrian’s campaign in Ward 1 to Republican Rich Tarrant’s quixotic U.S. Senate bid against then-Rep. Bernie Sanders.

He also worked on Rep. Kesha Ram’s campaign last fall, Sen. Hinda Miller’s failed bid for mayor in 2006 and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in Vermont.

No Progressive vs. Democratic animosity in any of those races, eh?

McCarty said it’s too early to say if he is officially running. “You don’t announce until the session is over,” he said like an old hand. “For legislative races you don’t need that much time. Right now, I’m just talking to local leaders.”

If he does run, McCarty doesn’t predict a bitter Dem vs. Prog battle like the ones we’re used to seeing up north.

“I wouldn’t be putting party first,” said McCarty. “Party doesn’t come into play in Brattleboro as it does in Burlington.”

Maybe Brattleboro really is more “hip” than Burlington.

No Walk in the Park — Before the Burlington parks department got all riled up about disc golf, there was the odd case of Adam Cate: After being investigated for months, the city’s waterfront manager was fired last June. Then he was rehired and put on probation in November. In April, he was fired again — this time, for good.

The city put Cate on paid leave last summer and fall while officials looked into claims that he improperly read emails and ordered subordinates to hide city property from police.

Next week Judge Dennis Pearson will release most of the documents related to the ongoing fracas involving Cate, the city’s Parks & Recreation Commission, Parks & Recreation Director Wayne Gross, Mayor Bob Kiss, Chief Administrative Officer Jonathan Leopold and his assistant Ben Pacy.

William Rasch, a union steward in the parks department, took the city to court earlier this year after the city denied him access to some documents related to the Cate investigation. Leaked versions of the commission’s investigation found their way into the Burlington Free Press. They appeared to clear Cate and place the blame on the Kiss administration.

The judge’s ruling should clear the air.

“The bits and pieces that have already been ‘leaked’ to the press or public simply confuse the issues, lead to innuendo rather than knowledge, and detract from a fuller public understanding of the matters raised,” Pearson wrote in his ruling.

The city is reviewing Judge Pearson’s decision and has not yet determined if it will appeal, said Joe Reinert, assistant to the mayor.

Pearson twice noted in his write-up that Kiss’ decision not to reappoint Gross as director had raised questions about how the city is being governed. The public’s right to know trumps the protection to privacy afforded to Cate and the parks commission.

“There is significant public interest of the citizens of the City in gaining further information about and insight into the administration of City business regarding supervisory policies and practices; the issue of adequate controls over City monies; and adequate controls over City personal property including cell- phones and laptop computers issued to City employees,” Pearson wrote.

Too bad it took a court order to make the disclosure happen.

Movin’ on Up — Sen. Bernie Sanders and his wife Jane O’Meara Sanders have moved across North Avenue to a place on Van Patten Parkway.

The couple moved out of their longtime modest home on Killarney Drive and into new digs previously owned by their son, David J.B. Driscoll. They’re keeping it all in the family.

The move takes the couple out of Ward 4 and puts them smack in Ward 7. That means, aside from new neighbors, they now have different city and state reps. Republican Rep. Kurt Wright no longer speaks for the duo in the Statehouse; it’s Democratic Rep. Mark Larson.

Hopefully, they’ll maintain their lawn better than Sanders keeps his hair. Just sayin’.

Going Forth — I’ll be heading to Bristol’s grassy green this weekend to watch my favorite Fourth of July parade in Vermont — and, of course, the town’s annual Outhouse Race.

My mother passed away on July 4 nearly four years ago. The day gets a bit easier to manage each year, but there are still reflective moments that sneak up on me when I least expect them.

I’m actually looking forward to this year’s “moment.”

Until then, here’s wishing a Happy Fourth to you and yours, and, in the words of my mom à la Mick Jagger: “You can’t always get what you want … but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”


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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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