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Crisis Politics 

Fair Game

Published September 14, 2011 at 11:33 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Gov. Peter Shumlin’s appointment of a top GOP operative to oversee the initial recovery actions in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene was cronyism and political genius.

Last week, Shumlin appointed Neale Lunderville, an executive at Green Mountain Power and former top aide to Republican Gov. Jim Douglas, as the state’s “chief recovery officer.”

The gov made the announcement, noting that Lunderville was taking a four-month leave of absence from his post at GMP to coordinate disaster relief and recovery efforts among federal, state and local governments as well as private and nonprofit sectors.

Shumlin said Lunderville will get a salary comparable to what other secretaries and commissioners in his administration make — likely in the low six figures. Nice work if you can get it.

Under Douglas, Lunderville served as secretary of the Agency of Transportation, the Agency of Administration, and Civil and Military Affairs. He ran the gov’s 2002 reelection campaign.

Lunderville is also a close ally of Harlan Sylvester, one of Vermont’s most powerful political power brokers.

Sylvester backed former Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie in the 2010 gubernatorial election and for years supported Douglas, despite being a self-proclaimed Democrat. Sylvester now chairs Shumlin’s Council of Economic Advisors — a post Sylvester has held under every governor since Gov. Madeleine Kunin.

One of Lunderville’s key roles at GMP was to orchestrate the power company’s merger with Central Vermont Public Service and to make sure it had political support. The merger was announced in mid-June and garnered immediate support from Shumlin.

Emails obtained from the governor’s office reveal that Rutland lawmakers — including Republican State Sen. Kevin Mullin — posed a problem. They worried the deal would cost jobs in the region. Lunderville was dispatched to calm his GOP brethren.

“Don’t be fooled by the governor jumping on board with GMP. My cynical side tells me that one merely has to look at who was in charge of the inaugural ball to figure out who has his ear,” Mullin wrote to local lawmakers and business leaders on June 23. GMP CEO Mary Powell chaired Shumlin’s inaugural committee.

On June 27, Lunderville forwarded a copy of Mullin’s email to Bill Lofy, Shumlin’s chief of staff. “Mullin is stirring up Republicans in Rutland … We’re meeting with Mullin and other local leaders on a Rutland swing tomorrow. I’ll keep you posted.”

Lunderville and Lofy swapped a few emails over the tentative merger — in June, when GMP’s offer was publicly announced, and in July, when the merger was approved by CVPS. Lunderville shared early drafts of official news releases. In return, Lofy shared an early draft of Shumlin’s statement supporting the deal.

The governor told Fair Game he asked Lofy to reach out to Lunderville about coming to work for Team Shumlin. After all, the two are email buds.

GMP and Team Shumlin share lots of other common interests: Two key members of the gov’s transition team — Elizabeth Bankowski and Steve Terry — are directly connected to GMP: Bankowski is on the board of directors; Terry is a former senior exec and is consulting on the Lowell wind project. Terry also helped write Shumlin’s telecommunications plan, which, in part, relies on the expansion of the so-called utility “smart grid” to help deploy cell service to all corners of Vermont.

At this rate, Team Shumlin may be the next wholly owned subsidiary of GMP.

Why didn’t Shumlin choose a “recovery czar” from his own talented team?

“The challenge from the governor’s perspective is this: My team has its hands full trying to wire the state by 2013, reform health care, making us an education state and managing a tough budget,” said Shumlin. “We can’t ask the people who are working so hard for me to do everything I just mentioned and oversee this massive recovery effort. I’m looking to Neale to harvest the opportunities given us by Irene to build a better infrastructure as we move forward.”

For his part, Lunderville gave a perfectly sane and technocratic answer for accepting the job: “I am honored to come in and do my small part to get Vermont working again and build this state up better than before.”

Build up the state better than before? Wait. Wasn’t he in charge before?

This appointment is about one thing and one thing only: Shumlin’s reelection and the political power that GMP wields in Vermont.

Shumlin dismissed questions along those lines. Worried about criticism that his administration is already too close to GMP? “No,” the gov patly replied.

He then added, “This is not about politics. Irene and the damage it inflicted knows no party and no partisanship, and we’re facing a monumental task to rebuild.”

Not about politics? Puhleez.

With one shrewd, calculated appointment, Shumlin took away the opportunity for an opponent to say that a Democrat mucked up Vermont’s disaster recovery efforts.

Political Landscape

Tropical Storm Irene not only shifted roads, bridges and streambeds; she altered Vermont’s political landscape.

Republicans had expected former Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie to clarify his political future shortly after Labor Day. Recovery efforts have postponed that by almost a month, said Tayt Brooks, the Vermont GOP’s executive director.

Dubie told Fair Game that right now is a “time to work together. All Vermonters are united. I have encouraged the governor and offered my support at this historically difficult time.”

If Dubie balks at a rematch with Gov. Peter Shumlin, either State Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin) or state Auditor Tom Salmon will likely take him on.

Kiss Off

Progressive Mayor Bob Kiss stoically faced down another crowd of critics at the city council meeting on Monday, September 12. This time, they weren’t angry New North End “naysayers,” but nearly two dozen … Progressives.

Progressives are upset that Kiss vetoed a “community standards” resolution designed to ensure Burlington maintains progressive cred when it partners with private businesses. The standards were proposed in the wake of Kiss’ willingness to work with Lockheed Martin, one of the world’s largest weapons makers, to fight climate change. Lockheed recently pulled out of the deal.

Kiss and Burlington City Council President Bill Keogh (D-Ward 5) requested police presence for Monday night’s meeting, and the “public forum” was limited to just 30 minutes.

Ah, democracy.

Kiss’ actions have undermined the Progressive Party, noted Meg Brook, who sits on the party’s statewide coordinating committee. The party endorsed the standards at its annual meeting in August.

The Progressive backlash is contributing to speculation that Kiss would be abandoned by his own party if he were to run for reelection.

Assistant housing director Brian Pine, a former Progressive city councilor, tells Fair Game he’s giving a mayoral run “serious thought” and is reaching out to both Progressives and Democrats.

State Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) is also mulling a run for the job. He represented Ward 3 on the Burlington City Council from 2004 to 2007.

The question they must be asking themselves: Can you run as a Progressive in Burlington in 2012?

Three’s a Crowd?

On Tuesday, airport commissioner Miro Weinberger increased the number of Democrats running for mayor — to three. And it’s only September.

He told an enthusiastic crowd of more than 75 supporters that Burlington is ready to make a “clean break” from the current administration.

Weinberger said his administration would be guided by three principles: communication, collaboration and a culture of accountability.

“When I’m mayor the buck will stop with me, not my appointees,” said Weinberger.

Former mayoral candidate Dan Smith was in the crowd and liked what he heard. He’s endorsing Weinberger. Smith ran as an independent in 2009 and finished fourth.

“I’m excited,” said Smith. “I think he brings a real mix of principles and realism to the race.”

Other key faces in the crowd were City Councilor Joan Shannon (D-Ward 5) and former City Councilor Barbara Perry (I-Ward 6).

Supporters from throughout Burlington were on hand — Weinberger will need a big crowd to win the Democratic caucus.

Who’s he up against? Since announcing his candidacy in July, Rep. Jason Lorber (D-Chittenden) has held 15 “Backyard Brainstorms” to meet business owners and residents. He’s also raised $10,000 and hired a campaign manager.

Ward 2 Councilman Bram Kranichfeld was going to announce his bid for the nomination Monday, but delayed in deference to Weinberger. He’ll make his formal announcement in the next few weeks.

“I think we should take our cue from last year’s gubernatorial primary,” said Kranichfeld. “In the end, we all want to elect a Democrat the next mayor.”

Cozy Comminglers

State Sen. Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden), a University of Vermont prof, cast the sole dissenting vote against allocating taxpayer money to his employer’s endowment.

Last Thursday the higher education subcommittee of the Vermont PreK-16 Council — charged with handing out money to UVM, Vermont State Colleges (VSC) and the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC) from Vermont’s Higher Education Trust Fund — voted to give each of these entities $180,000.

Baruth and fellow lawmaker Rep. Peter Peltz (D-Woodbury) asked the group to break up UVM’s allotment so it could be voted on separately — which would amount to a protest vote against the university’s executive pay packages. The question failed, and only Baruth voted against distributing money to all three organizations.

Baruth said he would continue to raise such questions if pay disparities at UVM are not addressed.

It should be noted that VSC Chancellor Tim Donovan, UVM interim president John Bramley and VSAC chief executive officer Don Vickers sit on the eight-member board. How cozy: allowing the organizations that receive money from the fund to vote on how to distribute it.

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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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