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Meet the New Grinch 

Bernie Sanders

Published December 13, 2000 at 1:00 a.m.

Christian churches are gearing up for Christmas. It’s the highlight of the liturgical year. Before shopping malls and mail-order catalogues there was a Baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger. But not all Christian congregations appear to have the Christmas spirit.

One that stands apart from the rest is the Williston congregation led by Rev. David Stertzbach, he of the extreme right-wing political agenda. In fact, this is one bully in a pulpit who sounds more and more like a mean-spirited Grinch.

Rev. Sleazebag jumped into the political fray this year to vilify supporters of equal rights for gays and lesbians. Stertzbach had one of the loudest mouths on the Abomination Squad. He took to direct mail and the radio airwaves to vilify good and decent people like Barbara Snelling and Peter Brownell, accusing them of being “anti-family” and citing their support for civil unions as the smoking gun.

The Rev. Trashtalker runs the Trinity Baptist Church in Williston. According to information posted on its Web site, it’s a congregation that requires its members to believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. For example, when the good book says the guy with the long white beard high up in the clouds created Earth in six days, it means six days — exactly 144 hours. Hey, no Act 250 back then to slow down development.

The Rev. Trashtalker has a voice familiar to radio listeners in Chittenden County. It’s part Southern twang, part righteous indignation and part reach-for-the-checkbook. He knows what he’s doing. After all, from the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart to Rev. Jim Bakker, he’s had role models to follow. This year Stertzbach led the charge against pro-civil-union pols and proudly claimed the political scalp of Republican State Sen. Peter Brownell in the September primary.

But Rev. Sleazebag’s slate of pro-God candidates didn’t do too well in November. At the top of the ticket, gubernatorial candidate Ruth Dwyer got squashed. And his cast of five holy rollers entered in the Chittenden County State Senate race were all shot down.

Not to worry. Life goes on. See, Rev. Sleazebag has his own political action committee — the Vermont Defense of Marriage Committee. (A call placed there Tuesday was not returned.) It was under the letterhead of his PAC that Stertzbach recently wrote Walter Freed, the Dorset Republian who is about to become the new speaker of the House.

In the letter, Stertzbach selfishly claims credit for the Republican victory in the House. “Only a total repeal of civil union,” he writes, “will honor the voters’ intent and may give us the opportunity to confront the activist Supreme Court. A confrontation with the court may be what is needed to restore the foundations of a free Vermont Republic.”

Fanatics! Don’t you just love them?

In his letter to Mr. Freed, Rev. Sleazebag lays out his strategy. His goal is to get the repeal of civil unions out of committee and onto the House floor for an up-or-down vote.

“Each and every vote opposing total repeal,” writes Stertzbach, “will be viewed for what it is — a sell-out.”

And Rev. Sleazebag suggests that even though the pro-civil union Democrats retain control of the State Senate, “It is not a given that anti-repeal senators fearing for their political lives in 2002 will stand their ground under grassroots pressure. The governor may even see the light when he feels the heat, though I admit this is not likely.”

In closing, Stertzbach makes it perfectly clear to Mr. Freed that he means business.

“Any compromise on total repeal will be seen as another betrayal of the family. Should anyone question my resolve on this matter,” he warns, “I only remind him or her that I ceased support of Republican candidate Skip Vallee when he ceased fighting for the family.”

Real tough guy, huh?

Gasoline Vallee finished in eighth place in the race for six senate seats. He topped all of Rev. Sleazebag’s holy rollers but fell short, in large part, because of his lavish campaign spending — over $100,000. Actually, Mr. Vallee never did cease fighting for the family. He supported repealing civil unions, but he also spoke out against the Rev’s sleazy campaign tactics, particularly his nasty, low-life, negative bashing of Republican heroes.

Gasoline Vallee, when asked Tuesday about Rev. Stertzbach’s condemnation, replied, “I consider it a badge of honor.”


Freed was not available for comment. The message on his voice mail indicated he would be away until Friday.

Cover Boys? — Well, they didn’t quite make the cover, but two handsome Vermont politicos are enjoying national publicity this holiday season with glowing exposure in national magazines.

U.S. Sen. Jeezum Jim Jeffords is one of the lucky ones in George magazine’s “10 Powerhouses Who Really Rule Today’s Divided America.” I’m not making this up. George credits our Jeezum Jim with being a “powerful moderate” who gets things done. (We can almost hear them gagging over in Congressman Bernie Sanders’ office.) As George accurately points out, “no GOP senator voted more with the Clinton White House than Jeffords, who in 1999 supported his party’s positions on key issues only 44 percent of the time.”

Congratulations, Jeezum! He’d sure make a great governor, wouldn’t he?

Also on newsstands coast-to-coast this December is Rep. Bill Lippert of Hinesburg. Billy the Lip made the top-10 list in Genre, a slick gay men’s fashion magazine. Kind of like a Cosmopolitan for guys. Nattily attired in his conservative state legislator outfit, Lippert is featured as one of the “Top Ten Men We Love.” Accompanying a full-page photo of Bill are these kind words from Rep. Barney Frank: “The respect that Bill has won from his colleagues was a major asset in our winning our biggest legislative victory.”


Media Notes — Attention, all fans of the editorial page of Vermont’s largest daily newspaper. Editor Stephen Kiernan is moving on after nine years directing the editorial voice of The Burlington Free Press. In addition to editorials, Mr. Kiernan writes a weekly column in the Sunday edition.

No doubt in some circles, especially in UVM land, this news will be cause for celebration. From the Waterman administration building to Gutterson Field House, folks still vividly remember how heavy-handedly the Freeps editorial page stuck it to the university during Le Hockey Hazing Spectacle. Kiernan & Co. didn’t let up a bit, even after the star whistle-blower was exposed as a greedy little liar who’d sold out his teammates for 30 pieces of silver.

(In fact, with the faculty about to announce an election to certify their union as an officially recognized bargaining unit, Kiernan’s departure arrives like a Christmas present for the folks in Waterman.)

Born into a prominent Albany, New York, banking family, Kiernan, 40, graduated Middlebury College. He’s been at the Freeps 11 years. He told Seven Days Tuesday he’s departing “to give more time to my creative impulse.”

The Charlotte resident and daily commuter on the new Champlain Flyer recently released his own CD of acoustic guitar compositions titled Water From the Moon. He also has a novel completed which is currently being looked at “by its 29th publisher.” They all seem to “like” it, he said. But none so far have “loved” it.

Mr. Kiernan was unable to provide us with a date-certain for his departure. Sources tell us he’ll be out by March 1. He would only say he’d leave at some point “in the next few months.”

Editorial page writer Molly Walsh, a leader in the fight against graffiti, told Seven Days, “I’ve enjoyed working with Steve. I’m going to miss him.” Good Golly Ms. Molly said she will not be seeking a promotion to replace Kiernan. While sources told us Molly was heading down the road, too, she told us Tuesday she has no definite plans to leave the paper at this time.

Some see the position of editorial page editor at the Freeps as one of the most powerful positions around when it comes to affecting public policy. Mr. Kiernan is among them. As Stephen put it, “I can call anybody in this state and they call me back.”

However, years ago we learned it just ain’t so. Remember, this is the editorial page that arrogantly brushed off Burlington Mayor Bernie Sanders as a one-term commie-pinko fluke. For years, the editorial page grudgingly refused to acknowledge Ol’ Bernardo’s many accomplishments.

This is the editorial page that once endorsed Jack Long for Congress over Sanders.

This is the editorial page that told voters to write in Brian Dubie for State Senate, even though he was running for lieutenant governor.

This is the editorial page that has ducked the biggest public policy issue of the day — civil unions. And on and on.

Kiernan said he has no definite plans for the future. No job lined up. And, he added, leaving the editor’s post “does not necessarily mean I’m leaving the Free Press.”

Boy, it’ll sure be interesting to see who Publisher Jim Carey slides into Kiernan’s seat. Someone with a little local knowledge would be a plus. Hey, how about Sam Hemingway?

911 Update — Word is State Rep. Susan Wheeler is on the mend this week, undergoing rehabilitation at Fanny Allen. A full recovery is expected. Wheeler suffered a mild stroke at her Burlington home the night before Thanksgiving Day. She was immobilized and home alone until the following Monday. She told rescue personnel and Seven Days she had called 911 on her telephone and got no response.

Evelyn Bailey, director of the E-911 board, tells Seven Days she has completed an investigation of the matter and found no evidence of a 911 call from Wheeler’s residence. According to Ms. Bailey, the enhanced 911 system “automatically logs all calls,” including hang-up calls and abandoned calls. “I am relieved to know that her horrible ordeal was not caused by a problem with the 911 system,” said Bailey.

Madame le Directeur told Seven Days she’s asked the phone company, Verizon, to contact Rep. Wheeler for permission to review all activity on her line. Perhaps, said Bailey, “she dialed some other number thinking it was 911.”

Meanwhile, bet you didn’t know Vermont’s new enhanced 911 system has received national recognition? The news was missed in the hoopla over the September primary. That’s when the National Emergency Number Association recognized Vermont for having the best statewide enhanced 911 program in the nation. Fact is, Vermont led the nation in designing and operating the first fully digital statewide system.


Speaking of Being First — The medical marijuana issue is currently on the front burner by virtue of a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Besides Al Gore and George W. Bush, the nine Supremes are pondering the right of suffering citizens to avail themselves of the healing benefits of good old Mary Jane. National press reports, like one in the Washington Post, point out that in the last four years, eight states have passed medical marijuana laws — California, Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Colorado.

What few are aware of, however, is that Vermont led the way on medical marijuana almost 20 years ago when a group of courageous lawmakers, including a prominent local surgeon, led the way.

The year was 1981. The Burlington surgeon on the political firing line was State Sen. Douglas McSweeney. Tuesday, fresh from a Spanish holiday, Doc McSweeney told Seven Days, “We had a medical marijuana law on the books way before any of the other states were crowing about it.”

Sure enough, the law is still right there in state statutes — Title 18 sec. 4471. It legalizes the establishment of the “Cannabis therapeutic research program” within the state health department. They thought at the time, said Doc McSweeney, it would pave the way for Vermont physicians to prescribe the popular, smokable plant for cancer patients. McSweeney vividly recalled moving testimony from one courageous doctor who was prescribing marijuana for kids with cancer. If smoking was a problem, the doctor turned to suppositories or even brownies. According to the legislative testimony, recalled McSweeney, there simply was nothing like it to combat the nausea of chemotherapy.

But the devil is always in the details, and this was no exception. You see, according to the wording of the statute, it’s up to the commissioner of health to “promulgate rules and regulations necessary to enable physicians… to prescribe cannabis.”

It’s been almost 20 years, folks, and no health commissioner in this state has ever taken that step. Health commissioners, you see, serve at the pleasure of governors. And in the past 20 years no Ver-mont governor has had the cohones needed to stand up to the law-and-order lobby that champions our nation’s ridiculous drug policy.

There simply are no rules or regulations to implement Ver-mont’s medical marijuana law. Legislative intent clearly got snuffed out on this one, and cancer patients in Vermont have been the victims.

“It’s a damn shame,” said Doc McSweeney.

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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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