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Church and State 

Jeffords accidentally calls Sanders senator at a hearing on IBM pensions.

Bernie Sanders

Published September 22, 1999 at 1:00 a.m.

Everybody makes mistakes, right? But not everybody owns up to them. It takes a lot of guts. Recently a leading member of the Burlington community demonstrated such courage and owned up to a very public mistake.

We're talking about the infamous case of Progressive City Councilor Tom Smith and the Bosnian bail-jumper. As everybody knows, Tom the Kindhearted "stood up to the plate" over at district court last spring and signed an $18,000 appearance bond to spring a domestic abuser from jail. Mr. Smith agreed to supervise Eldin Cengic. The court permitted Cengic to move out of the Gray Bar Hotel and into the Smiths' Old North End residence under a 24-hour curfew.

And, as everyone knows, Cengic flew the coop a month later when the Smiths left town for a planned long weekend. He hasn't been seen or heard from since.

Deputy State's Attorney Phil Danielson requested that Mr. Smith be held accountable for the bail-jumper. Judge Howard Van Benthuysen agreed. But in the process Tom the Kindhearted tried to weasel out of his commitment by making ludicrous arguments of “The dog ate my homework” caliber.

And, as everyone also knows, Tom walked into the Palace of Justice on Cherry Street last month and dumped $18,000 in cash on the counter. He’d raised the moolah with a little help from his friends, including three prominent members of Burlap’s religious and political establishment who sent out a controversial fundraising letter on his behalf.

Progressive Mayor Peter Clavelle, Rabbi Joshua Chasan of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue and Rev. Gary Kowalski of the Unitarian Church urged folks to contribute to Tom Smith's cause. The letter stirred quite the controversy with many people, who noted the trio — along with Smith — had displayed an enormous blind spot when it came to their consideration of Cengic's battered victim.

Now, Seven Days has learned that one of the distinguished signatories of the Smith fundraising letter has had second thoughts.

In a recent two-page letter to members of the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue, Rabbi Chasan bared his heart and soul as he told members of his congregation he had made “a mistake.”

“Clearly,” wrote the rabbi, “our letter touched a raw nerve.” And then, criticizing some of the local press coverage, Chasan wrote, “Unfortunately, the Free Press has done less to report the news than to stir things, so I write,” he explained, “to be in touch with you directly.”

Rabbi Chasan told his congregation he had long admired Smith’s sense of community service.

“He impressed me,” wrote Chasan, “as someone who was available to the most vulnerable amongst us. Russian Jews whom the Jewish community has helped to resettle spoke highly of his efforts on their behalf. And I’ve always remembered Tom’s role in the controversy about making Bethlehem a sister city of Burlington.”

Rabbi Chasan offered to help Smith in his time of need and Smith took him up on it.

"Tom asked if I would get together with Rev. Kowalski to write a letter. Mayor Clavelle's name appeared on the letter when I actually signed it. I was glad to see it, not thinking at all about politics..."

But, Chasan admitted, he also wasn't thinking about the woman Eldin Cengic had viciously beaten.

"I knew," he wrote, "that being on the front lines in responding to our neighbors who are at risk, I myself am capable of making a mistake, even a bad one. I just made one," he confessed, "signing the letter in question."

Rabbi Chasan told Seven Days that he quickly realized that "sending the letter on behalf of Tom and not on behalf of the one who had been abused had offended a lot of my friends.” He said that even before he wrote out a check for Tom (he declined to indicate the amount), he wrote a check of the same amount for Women Helping Battered Women. "I called WHBW and told them I was sorry," he said.

It sure takes courage to own up to a mistake like that.

Mayor Peter Clavelle, however, had a slightly different take on the matter when interviewed at the Ramada Inn Tuesday.

"I hesitate to even comment about this," said Clavelle, "since I think there's been much to-do made about this."

"Much to-do about nothing?" we asked.

"Well, it's not about nothing," he replied, "but I continue to believe that the letter was an effort to support a friend who was in trouble. I think it's possible to do that without linking that to the victim and the assailant," said da' mayor.

"Having said that," continued Clavelle, "it would have been wise from the onset to issue that plea both for the initial victim as well as for Tom Smith. End of story.”

Apparently, Mayor Moonie considers Tom Smith a victim — of what, we’re not sure. Mayor Moonie noted “historically” he’s supported WHBW. He told Seven Days he intends to write a check (for an undisclosed amount) to WHBW on behalf of Cengic’s battered ex-girlfriend.

Awful generous of him, don’t you think?

The third signatory to the Smith fundraising letter, Rev. Gary Kowalski of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Burlington, did not respond Tuesday to requests for an interview left for him both at the church and at his Pleasant Avenue home. That’s okay. No rush.

As Sandy Baird, a respected advocate for women’s rights, put it, “It’s about time these men understood domestic violence. I just don’t think they get it.”

Good point, eh?

Thank you, Senator? — It was the biggest Freudian slip captured on C-span in some time. After Independent Congressman Bernie Sanders of Vermont concluded his testimony on the pension rip-off issue Tuesday, the chairman of the senate committee — none other than Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont — replied, “Thank you, senator.”

The audience cracked up because the possibility of the congressman challenging the senator in next year's senate race is one of the worst-kept secrets on Capitol Hill. Jeezum Jim is unquestionably a man of many talents, but clairvoyance, too? The grimace on Jim's face reflected a lot more than just back pain.

Jeffords' slip of the tongue contradicted the view of a Sanders challenge he expressed last week on Vermont Public Television, when Chris Graff asked if he expected Ol’ Bernardo to take him on.

"I think that's a good prospect," replied Jeezum Jim. "Certainly Bernie is anxious to move on, I'm sure. But you know, I had that opportunity early on when I was in the House and things looked pretty favorable. It was the year of the Republican sweep [1980]. But you know [former Sen.] Bob Stafford called me and said, `You know, Jim, I understand how you feel and you could probably do well, but it's not good for Vermont, for a small state, for the delegation to run against each other. I'm not a young man, so you ought to wait awhile.'"

Jeffords did wait. Eight more years. Now if he can only persuade Sanders to do the same.

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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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