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Three and a half years after his near-fatal car crash is Sen. Ed Flanagan still up to the job?

Published May 20, 2009 at 9:43 a.m.

  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur

Senator Ed Flanagan gazed out the window of the chamber for a long time, seemingly lost in thought. Behind him, President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin gaveled the Vermont Senate back into session after a brief recess. Flanagan appeared not to notice.

With two days left in the regular legislative session, Shumlin had a stack of bills to get through before day’s end. Flanagan, who’s tall and thin and walks with an unsteady gait, returned to his desk slowly and thumbed through some papers.

As Shumlin read each bill, he called for a voice vote: “All in favor, signify by saying aye.” The senators answered in a chorus of perfunctory ayes — except Flanagan, who sat silently through the votes, never looking up.

Minutes later, Flanagan rose again and ambled back to the window, where he stared outside for another minute or two, then sat down in another senator’s empty chair and scribbled some notes to himself. Once again he stood up and returned to his own desk.

Only when Shumlin announced a pair of bills, H.443 and H.452, did Flanagan look up. As the senator responsible for reporting those bills out of the Government Operations Committee, he rose to his feet and, in a slow and deliberate voice, read the remarks he’d jotted earlier. Flanagan explained that the proposed legislation gives a green light to routine charter amendments for the City of South Burlington and the Village of Essex Junction, respectively. The Senate quickly voted on both bills. The whole process took five minutes. One senator remarked later that it was the most he’d seen Flanagan speak on the floor all session.

As Shumlin moved on to other business, Flanagan left the Senate chamber and shuffled up the circular staircase leading to the third-floor balcony. There, he removed his shoes and lay flat on his back for 45 minutes.

Such unorthodox behavior is not unusual at the end of a legislative session — the long hours are grueling for everyone. But many people who interacted regularly with Flanagan reported he’d been acting strangely since the legislature convened in January. Echoing other anonymous sources, one observer of Montpelier politics put it this way: “It’s patently obvious to anyone who pays attention to what’s going on in the Statehouse that something is wrong.”

Something certainly went horribly wrong on a November night in 2005, when Flanagan rolled his car on the way home from Montpelier on Interstate 89. The car descended into a ravine not far from the Richmond exit. Falling snow quickly obscured his tire tracks, and Flanagan’s car wasn’t found for another 18 hours. Suspended upside down from his seatbelt in subfreezing temperatures, he most likely would have died had he not been spotted by a teen scouting for deer. The young man called 911. Flanagan spent more than three weeks in a coma and six months in the hospital undergoing rehab and physical therapy.

Others might have resigned from their legislative post under similar circumstances, but Flanagan soldiered on and announced his return to the Statehouse in May 2006. According to all published accounts, his recovery from a traumatic brain injury was nothing short of miraculous, as it involved relearning how to walk, talk and swallow. Flanagan used his personal tragedy as a way to spotlight the silent epidemic of traumatic brain injuries in the United States; last year, he helped set up a statewide brain-injury support fund.

Flanagan’s physical and mental challenges didn’t stop him from seeking a second, then a third term in the Vermont Senate. But during his campaign last fall, Seven Days received an email from a Burlington-area businessman suggesting Flanagan wasn’t fit to hold public office. The timing of the allegation was problematic: Regardless of its merit, questioning Flanagan’s competence two weeks before the election would have amounted to political sabotage. This was particularly true since one of Flanagan’s competitors in that race, Progressive-Democrat Tim Ashe, is the live-in partner of Seven Days Publisher Paula Routly.

On November 4, Flanagan was one of the top vote-getters in Chittenden County. Out of a field of 14 candidates vying for six Senate seats, he placed second; only fellow Democrat Doug Racine garnered more votes. Whatever his perceived limitations, Flanagan, a Harvard-educated lawyer who served four terms as state auditor, proved once again that he could still woo voters.

In the months after his reelection, however, Statehouse lobbyists and staffers began sharing stories — invariably off the record — about Flanagan’s strange behavior: his tendency to wander the halls shoeless, to lie down and nap in unusual spots, to blurt out non sequiturs, and to appear inattentive during committee meetings. More troubling were the rumors that Flanagan sometimes seemed unsure which bills he was voting on — a claim that Seven Days could not verify.

Why were Flanagan’s detractors reluctant to speak on the record? Because lobbyists and their ilk are only as good as their access to legislators. To alienate a sitting senator would be, at best, undiplomatic — at worst, professional suicide.

Health-care consultant Jeanne Keller — of the Burlington firm Keller and Fuller, Inc. — was one of the few who would speak about Flanagan for attribution. “I think anyone in the Statehouse can see that he appears to struggle harder on some days than others,” she said of her dealings with Flanagan on his other committee: Senate Health and Welfare.

Flanagan’s Senate colleagues, including both his committee chairs, were more generous. While they acknowledged that Flanagan seems to grapple with physical discomfort resulting from his accident, mentally, they said, he’s as capable as ever. Sometimes it just takes him longer to gather his thoughts.

Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, noted that Flanagan, who serves on his board, is “certainly different than he was before. But just as one would be making a mistake in assuming that Senator Doyle, who’s now using a walker, isn’t still sharp as a tack, one would make a mistake in underestimating Senator Flanagan in this regard.”

It’s worth noting, though, that in the process of interviewing numerous sources for this story, no one tried to dissuade me from pursuing it. One veteran lobbyist summed up the dilemma from a uniquely journalistic perspective: “It’s a good story, if anyone will talk to you. I doubt they will.”

“The private life of public people is not really the public’s business,” Darren Allen advised me recently, “until it begins to affect their ability to do the public’s work.”

Allen, a former reporter with the Vermont Press Bureau, speaks from personal experience. Several years ago, while still working in journalism, he began hearing stories that Senator James Jeffords was ill and “not on his game.” At the time, Jeffords had not yet announced his retirement.

On July 16, 2006, the Times Argus/Rutland Herald published Allen’s article, “Jeffords: Who’s Running the Show?” In it, he revealed what was by then a widely known “secret” in Vermont’s political circles: that the 71-year-old junior senator from Vermont was suffering from an unspecified ailment that affected his memory. According to the article, Jeffords’ condition had deteriorated to the point where he was largely incapable of interacting with the public or the press without significant help from his staff.

When the story came out, Jeffords’ staff was outraged, decrying it as inaccurate and over the top; Allen claims some even tried to get him fired. But Allen’s editors stood by the story, and their reporter. To this day, some of Jeffords’ former staffers won’t even look at Allen. Nevertheless, he believes the story needed to be told.

“I contended then, and I contend now, that the central reason for doing that story was not to embarrass him but to inform the public,” Allen explains. “I’d like to say that I’m sorry if any feelings were hurt, but, as a reporter, my duty was to my readers. It’s never to the public official.”

Allen was not the first reporter to write about Jeffords’ lapses in memory; allegations had been published nationally before Allen’s local exposé. In Flanagan’s case, there was less to go on. One longtime Montpelier politico recounted a recent incident in which, she claimed, she “stood behind [Flanagan] in Shaw’s one night, where he spent 10 minutes trying to decide whether to buy a bag of popcorn.” Another time, she claimed to have run into Flanagan at a convenience store near Capitol Plaza, where he appeared to have trouble calculating change from a dollar.

A lobbyist who frequents one of Flanagan’s committees recalled an incident in which the senator allegedly dumped a whole jar of candies on the table during a hearing, played with them for a while, and then put them back in the jar.

Another lobbyist told of an acquaintance who got a phone call from Flanagan asking her to retrieve a personal item for him. When the woman delivered it, Flanagan purportedly didn’t remember having made the phone call.

The same lobbyist watched Flanagan “slide out of his chair, onto the floor and under the table in the middle of testimony.” She doesn’t “bother” lobbying Flanagan “because he doesn’t have much memory of our conversations, so there’s not much point.”

The word “detached” came up frequently in people’s off-the-record descriptions of Flanagan. “I haven’t engaged him much. The few times I’ve tried to engage him, he’s declined to talk to me,” said Matt Levin of Vermonters for a Clean Environment.

But appearing bored in committee, or brushing off a lobbyist, doesn’t qualify as evidence of mental impairment — quite the contrary, some would argue. In fact, others who worked closely with Flanagan this session defended his performance. Senator Jeannette White, the Windham County Democrat who chairs the Government Operations Committee, characterized her dealings with Flanagan as a “big-sister-little-brother relationship,” one in which they occasionally “fight like cats and dogs” but ultimately have a lot of respect for each other.

Flanagan has acquired some “quirky habits,” White noted, such as removing his shoes during committee meetings and getting up frequently to look out the window or leave the room. “I think some people are put off by that,” she conceded. “They may think he’s restless or not paying attention. But he’s listening.

“And he doesn’t speak as much as he did before the accident,” White added. “Sometimes it takes him longer to get his words and thoughts to match. But when we have witnesses here, he’s very clear about being able to ask them questions.”

Racine, who chairs the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, offered a similar assessment of Flanagan’s performance. He noticed that Flanagan looked “physically a little weaker this year than last year.” Flanagan’s back also bothers him, he added, which may explain why he lies down frequently; he’s often seen in the Statehouse carrying a lumbar pad for support. Flanagan also spoke less frequently in committee this year, Racine observed, and “still struggles with getting all the words out.”

Nonetheless, the Chittenden County Democrat expressed confidence in Flanagan’s abilities to contribute to his committee and the Senate as a whole.

“You can see that he’s still recovering,” Racine said. “But when you get out of the usual, frenetic pace of the Statehouse and just listen to him, his mind is working very clearly. It’s just the body that’s working slower than it normally would.”

It’s not surprising that Flanagan’s fellow Democrats support him. But what about his Republican colleagues? Randy Brock, a first-term senator from St. Albans, also serves with Flanagan on Government Ops. “We occasionally agree, although it’s rare,” Brock joked. Nonetheless, he described Flanagan as someone who’s “very bright” with “a good mind.”

When asked about the stories reported by lobbyists and other Statehouse regulars, Brock said he didn’t know anything about them.

“We’re a small enough place where word gets around pretty quickly if someone is not up to par,” he said. “It’s the job of the voters to make that decision.”

Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie, who presides over the Senate, voiced equal confidence in Flanagan’s abilities. “Any senator is evaluated on a couple of things — contributions on committee and contributions on the floor, specifically their voting record,” Dubie said. “Some senators choose to participate in the debate and some don’t... This session, Ed’s done his thing, and I think he’s done a good job.”

In that regard, Flanagan’s voting record doesn’t reveal much that’s out of the ordinary. According to the Vermont Legislature website, Flanagan missed just six of 52 roll-call votes this session, including the one to override the governor’s veto of the same-sex marriage bill. Seven of his 29 colleagues missed more votes than he did.

Ashe, who sits next to Flanagan in the Senate, noted that his seatmate was absent for the override vote because he was stuck in an airport that day. “It’s pretty inspirational to see Ed’s physical comeback,” he said. “He’s clearly in a lot of pain. And yet his return, in itself, is truly remarkable.”

“The threshold question is, how is he doing representing the people of Chittenden County?” said longtime friend and fellow former state auditor Elizabeth Ready. “And there, I think you have to say he’s 100 percent. There’s no doubt about the quality of his votes or what guides his votes.”

Ashe added, “There is no more determined and eloquent advocate for real reform of Vermont’s health-care system.”

A traumatic brain injury, or TBI, is unlike other disabilities. It’s often said that if you’ve seen one TBI, well, you’ve seen one TBI. The effects can be physical, behavioral, cognitive or a combination of all three, and they can interact in synergy. Unlike dementia, a TBI is not degenerative, although it may change over time.

According to the Brain Injury Association of Vermont, the symptoms of a TBI can vary depending on the time of day, the injured person’s workload and stress level, and environmental conditions such as noise, light and temperature. Sometimes, symptoms are difficult for others to notice. Other times, odd behavior can reflect the person’s coping mechanisms as he or she adjusts to the brain’s new way of functioning.

Flanagan behaved normally in a post-session interview in his downtown Burlington apartment, on the seventh floor of the former Vermont Hotel at the corner of Main and St. Paul streets. Greeting me at the door was Judith, a woman who, I learned later, helped Flanagan during his extended hospitalization. Flanagan’s partner of 14 years, Isaac Lustgarten, who works for the International Monetary Fund, splits his time among Burlington, New York and Washington, D.C.

The modern, two-bedroom apartment is sparsely furnished and brightly lit. It has a spectacular view of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks, and offers a revealing glimpse of a man whose entire life has been defined by politics and public service.

The walls are decorated with various photos, including one of Flanagan with former President Bill Clinton. On another wall hangs a letter dated January 14, 1963, on White House stationery. It’s from President John Kennedy to Flanagan’s father, Bernard, wishing him a speedy recovery from an illness. On the kitchen counter sits a statue of a bulldog, presumably a tribute to Flanagan’s doggedness as state auditor from 1993 to 2001.

Flanagan appeared in a pressed white shirt, tie-less, and khakis. We spoke at his living room table, where he sat, back straight and arms folded, for 45 minutes without getting up once. Later, he revealed that the most difficult part of the interview was sitting still.

If Flanagan suffers from memory loss, he didn’t show it. He shared stories of growing up in Washington, D.C. — his parents moved there the year before Ed was born, when his father got a job working for Republican U.S. Senator George Aiken. Flanagan’s earliest political memory dates back to the age of 5, when he saw President Dwight D. Eisenhower ride by his father’s office, waving his hat to a cheering crowd.

From childhood, Flanagan was schooled at the knees of noted statesmen. Every summer for years, he worked in Aiken’s office; later, on the Senate floor. “I was surrounded by people who were, to me, heroes,” he said. “I used to just watch them in awe.”

But it wasn’t an entirely idyllic upbringing. “My father was a tragic, violent alcoholic,” Flanagan recalled. “I grew up with the whole family contending with his alcoholism and occasional violence. It really screwed me up.”

Only after he left home did Flanagan get his life together. After a postgraduate year at prep school, he attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he played football; he was eventually named an all-conference defensive end. “It wasn’t Penn State,” he said, “but we took it seriously.” After college, Flanagan went straight to Harvard Law, “basically, because I didn’t know what else to do.”

Having spent many family vacations in St. Albans, Flanagan knew he’d eventually move to Vermont for good, which he did in 1988. Within a month of his arrival, Flanagan ran for elected office, as attorney general. “The press crucified me, and rightly so,” Flanagan remembered. “But it was a way to get my name out there, even if I was demolished.”

In November 1992, Flanagan ran for state auditor; this time he won. Before his stint, the post was largely nonpolitical and noncontroversial. But Flanagan believed the office could do far more to critique government and be the taxpayers’ watchdog.

Thus began his infamously rocky relationship with then-Gov. Howard Dean. Flanagan, a more progressive Democrat than Dean, often challenged the administration’s political dealings and issued critical reports on them. “At first, everyone was shocked,” Flanagan said, “but for me it was just fun ... It’s my auditor’s gene. I always question what other people just accept.”

Flanagan came out in 1995. When he was reelected the following year, he became the first openly gay person ever elected to statewide office in the United States. But despite his achievements, Flanagan never attained higher office. In 2000, he was trounced in his bid to unseat Jeffords for his U.S. Senate seat. To some, Flanagan’s bare-knuckled campaigning style was off-putting. In 2004, he was elected to the state Senate, where he’s served ever since — except for his absence in early 2006.

Flanagan remembers almost nothing of that accident, except what he’s pieced together retrospectively.

“The first thing I remember was being in a hospital bed, and people were looking down, and me thinking, Uh-oh. Something isn’t right here,” he said. “I was like a vegetable ... Day by day, hour by hour, I put my life back together again.”

Asked about the enduring mental effects of his accident, Flanagan focused exclusively on how it’s changed his outlook on life. “It’s the same old me, which I guess is a huge accomplishment,” he said. “I’m a little more attentive. I used to be so rash and defiant. Now, I’m a little more careful.”

What about the odd behavior some have observed in the Statehouse? Is that a cause for public concern?

“I don’t think so,” Flanagan said flatly. “I’ve had a lot of feedback that says in some ways I’ve got better perspective than I used to ... If anything, I feel improved.”

Lustgarten agreed. Contacted by phone in New York, he brushed aside the suggestion that Flanagan isn’t up to the job of serving in public office.

“I don’t think it’s something for the voters to be concerned about,” Lustgarten said. “Ed retains his IQ, he retains his sense of humor, and he retains his vision of what things should be like ... I feel pretty comfortable that he’s in command of the issues.”

Asked if he thinks Flanagan should run for office again, Lustgarten didn’t hesitate: “Yes, definitely,” he said. “It would be good for his constituents for him to run, for anything. He really is devoted to this kind of work.”

Though Flanagan himself hasn’t decided yet whether he’ll run again, he said he’s considering it. As he put it, “Government is my whole life.”

Is Ed Flanagan fit to serve in public office? If he runs again and wins, he’ll represent not only his Chittenden County constituents, but the estimated 8000 other Vermonters who also suffer from the long-term effects of a traumatic brain injury. Experts say that number is probably many times higher. And, as Flanagan himself pointed out, as many as 1800 Vermont National Guardsmen are scheduled to be deployed overseas later this year. If their experiences reflect the military-wide trend, it’s almost inevitable that some of them will return with TBIs.

Ultimately, who decides whether any Vermont lawmaker is up to the job? Vermont State Archivist Gregory Sanford couldn’t think of a single example of a state legislator being removed from office for reasons of mental incompetence. That’s understandable, given the brevity of Vermont’s legislative terms. Moreover, Chapter II, Section 14 of the Vermont Constitution states that no legislator may be expelled from office for causes known to his or her constituents prior to the election. It’s worth noting that Flanagan’s constituents have reelected him not once but twice since his accident.

Lieutenant Governor Dubie said that if there were grounds for concern, party leadership would have the responsibility of saying something to the legislator. Jeanne Keller suggested that Flanagan is “the only one who can judge if he’s up to the job or not.” Other lawmakers offered a more democratic conclusion: Let the voters decide.

But if the voters’ proxy representative — the press — doesn’t ask the question, who will? Flanagan, a man who’s spent much of his political career fighting for more openness and transparency in government, shouldn’t object to such scrutiny. No doubt, his own “auditor gene” would settle for nothing less.

** In the original version of the story, Seven Days miscalculated the time since Sen. Flanagan's accident. We apologize for the error, which has been corrected on the web.

Want to learn more?

See Ken discuss this story on “inside Seven Days,” Thursday at 8 p.m. on RETN, Channel 16. Click here to watch “Inside Seven Days” online.

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.


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