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Meet Vermont’s “Godfather” 

Inside Track

Published August 2, 2000 at 7:57 p.m.

In Vermont’s insider political circles, he’s known simply by his first name — “Harlan.” He’s also known as the “Go-To Guy,” a “major player,” and “an invisible force you’d be well advised to be wary of.” And he’s always operated beneath the media’s radar net — until now. That’s because last week, the name of Harlan Sylvester popped up in a Washington Post story about Ed Flanagan, Democrat candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Who is Harlan Sylvester?

Glad you asked. Harlan is a 63-year-old St. Albans native who resides in Burlington’s swank Hill Section. He graduated from UVM back in 1959 and, as a young man, got involved in the brokerage business and politics. Today he’s a senior vice president at Salomon Smith Barney, the powerful brokerage house, working out of the firm’s South Burlington office building.

Harlan’s also a Democrat, unusual for a Wall Street type. He says he’s a “fiscal Conservative” and “moderate on social issues.” Sounds like a Blue Dog Democrat to me. In the public arena, Harlan’s the chairman of the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors and also chairman of the state racing commission. But Harlan Sylvester is much, much more.

You see, Mr. Sylvester has had the cocked ear of Vermont governors going all the way back to Tom Salmon in the 1970s. It’s said that former Republican Gov. Dick Snelling had Harlan’s phone number on his speed dial. And we’re told by reliable sources that Gov. Howard Dean, son of a Wall Street mover and shaker himself, regularly stops by Harlan’s top-floor office with the lake view.

Garrison Nelson, the legendary UVM political science professor, started watching Vermont politics 30 years ago. He described Harlan this way: “Harlan loves conservative Democrats,” said Nelson. “He wants to erase the gap between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. That’s why Howard Dean is his soul mate.”

Indeed, Ho-Ho’s clarion call for “fiscal conservatism” and for cutting Vermont’s “marginal tax rate” — the rate the millionaires pay — have mirrored Harlan the Stockbroker’s political playbook. Clearly, Harlan and Ho-Ho speak the same language and see things pretty eye-to-eye.

Surprisingly, our request on Monday to interview Gov. Dean about his close relationship with Mr. Sylvester was denied. For some reason, Ho-Ho simply doesn’t want to talk about it. Sue Allen, his press secretary, politely told us Tuesday afternoon the governor was “on the road.” She said he was making “a two-day swing” through Bennington and Windham counties and was unavailable. Guess all the phones must be out down south.

But, jeezum crow, wasn’t that Howard Dean making an unscheduled appearance on WKDR/WDEV’s “The Mark Johnson Show” Tuesday morning? Yes, indeed. Ho-Ho apparently heard a caller’s remark on Act 60 that he took exception to, so he got on the car phone pronto. But he’s too busy to speak to Seven Days. Sure.

One veteran Statehouse business lobbyist described Mr. Sylvester as “the Go-To Guy.” The lobbyist assured us, “Anyone thinking of running for statewide office and raising the money to do so goes to see Harlan.”

He’s right. Just ask Democrats Peter Shumlin and Elizabeth Ready and all the rest who’ve made that sacred pilgrimage from the left fringe of the Democrat party to an audience with Harlan in Salomon Smith Barney Land on Swift Street in South Burlington.

“Harlan likes to be in the background, but he’s definitely a major player,” said the lobbyist. In fact, added our source, “Harlan’s like the Godfather, but not in a negative way.”

That’s a relief, because we know he’s not pleased by all the well-deserved positive attention we’re giving him this week.

Another veteran political insider, also speaking on condition of anonymity, described Harlan as “one of those invisible forces you should be wary of.” This Statehouse regular said Harlan “doesn’t get involved much, but when he does, you know.”

In fact, under the Golden Dome, conversations quiet in an instant at the very mention of Harlan’s name. Political types have been known to try to boost their stature by dropping a line in hallway conversation about “having dinner with Harlan.” The name of “Harlan Sylvester,” said our source, “is the number one name to drop in Vermont political circles.” He joked that, “If everybody at the Statehouse who claims to have had dinner with Harlan actually had dinner with him, Harlan would weigh 400 pounds!”

Harlan doesn’t. We can attest to that. He’s slim and fighting trim and quick on his feet. When we spoke with him Tuesday, he was taking a heart-pounding stroll on the treadmill in his South Street basement.

Yes, he admitted with some pride, that over the years, he has given counsel and advice to several of Vermont’s chief executives. “If Madeleine or Dick or Howard call and ask for advice,” he told Seven Days, “of course I would respond.”

And it’s clear he’s solidly on the Howard Dean team in Ho-Ho’s moment of need. “Howard has a great record to run on,” said Harlan. “It’s too bad people are focusing on one issue” — a reference to the civil-unions controversy. “If the governor hadn’t signed the bill,” he argued, “the chances are very good that it would have gone back to the Supreme Court, and we’d have full-scale gay marriage next year.”

As usual, Harlan’s right once again.

And, oh yes, the article in the Washington Post, “Gay Official Aims to Shake up Senate,” was all about Ed Flanagan. Harlan the Democrat raised the only negative note. He was quoted on his prediction of the race’s outcome. Mr. Sylvester told the Post, “If the election were held today, it would be a blowout.” By that he meant Republican Jim Jeffords has it all locked up. “Most Vermonters feel pretty good about their Senate delegation,” he added.

Asked Tuesday why Harlan the Democrat was touting the Republican in the race, he replied, “I have no trouble with Jan Backus. In the primary, I’m supporting Jan. In the general election,” he added, “we’ll talk about that when the time comes.”

That’s another thing Harlan and Ho-Ho are in lockstep on — they both can’t stand Ed Flanagan.

Political Sign Wars

Unless you’re either legally blind or the governor of Vermont, you’ve noticed the “Ruth Dwyer for Governor” signs dotting the countryside. Funny, but Gov. Howard Dean appeared dumbfounded last week when we asked him about all the Dwyer signs out there. Despite his frequent travels to the four corners of the state, Ho-Ho said he hadn’t noticed the political lawn signs. We suggested that might be because his state police vehicle has tinted windows.

No, he insisted, while the tinting prevents prying eyes looking in, he’s perfectly capable of looking out. He said he had not seen all the Dwyer signs.

According to Ruthless Ruth’s campaign manager, Kathie Summers, 1850 Dwyer lawn signs have been distributed to supporters so far. Another 1000 are on order. But not all of them are parked on Vermont front lawns. Currently, 18 to 20 of them are sitting in an Agency of Transportation garage in Bennington.

Bob Grinold, owner of the Wilmington White House B&B, told Seven Days that seven Dwyer signs posted along Rt. 9 in Wilmington disappeared recently around the time Gov. Dean was in the area inspecting flood damage. He said he believed state workers from the transportation department took them.

He’s right.

The AOT’s District 1 administrator, Wayne Gammell, came clean Tuesday and told Seven Days he’s the culprit who personally snatched those Ruth Dwyer campaign signs. The reason, he said, was not political, but rather that they were placed too close to the right-of-way.

According to regulations, no signs of any kind can be placed within 24 feet, 9 inches of the highway center line. “It’s a safety issue,” said Gammell. And, yes, Mr. Gammell does get out the tape measure to be sure the signs are in violation before he takes them. The reason he’s only taken Ruth Dwyer campaign signs, he said, is because “they’re the only ones out there.” He told Seven Days the Dwyer signs were removed to the local highway garage, where they will be held for 90 days. If unclaimed, they will be tossed in the trash.

Down the line we expect more candidates to get their lawn signs out there. It’s going to be a very hot election season. It might be a good idea if the campaigns inform their dedicated supporters about the 24-foot, 9-inch rule. It would certainly reduce the level of political conspiracy theories in the Green Mountains.

For Katy

Yours truly first met Katy McGiff years ago when she took over the front desk at the late, great Vanguard Press in the 1980s. Katy came from a big Irish-American family on Philadelphia’s Main Line, but her upper-crust upbringing was smothered by her down-to-earth personality. She graduated from Middlebury College in the early ’80s and, soon after, headed for Burlington, the town she loved so well.

As those who knew her can attest, Katy McGiff could always be counted on to be a spark in the darkness. She brought to the table a passion for life, and she had the special trait of treating strangers like family. Katy was a talker and a questioner, a dreamer and a devil’s advocate. And she was someone who always told it like it was.

Katy was anything but a shy one. With two sisters and two brothers, there simply was no room for shyness. And she was a loyal fan of this column, God bless her. Passing her post at the Vanguard front desk, yours truly always counted on being called to task over this or that item in the latest “Inside Track.” And she’d do it with that beautiful, wide Irish smile that could melt the steel off an armored car. Katy could challenge you and inspire you all at once, and we were much the better for it.

After her Vanguard days, Ms. McGiff moved on to other, bigger and better venues. She later fell in love with and married Chris Burns, a wonderful fellow, and they bought an old frame house on lower North Avenue in Burlap. Two years ago, the two of them brought little Lena into the world.

Tuesday morning, as we were working on this week’s column, we got a phone call that brought the bad news. Katy just never woke up Monday morning. She died in her sleep. She was 40 years old.

Needless to say, the news made yours truly cease all the bother about the Vermont political landscape. About the little stink over campaign signs and the behind-the-scenes machinations of the high and mighty. Through warm tears on a rainy day, we recalled the spark in Katy McGiff’s eye, the bright glow of that smile on her lips, the lilt in her voice. And, I swear, I could almost hear that voice telling yours truly to quit the blubbering and get back to the damn computer and write the best goddamn column humanly possible, and don’t be late!

The only way to do that this week, to write the best goddamn column possible, is to tell you about Katy McGiff.

One of the things we shared was our love for the late, great Chicago columnist Mike Royko. In fact, Mike’s mug is forever over my desk. Royko knew moments like this one when sadness hits like a tidal wave. And he wrote about it.

Twenty-one years ago, in an unforgettable column that followed the sudden death of his wife from a brain hemorrhage, Mike thanked readers for their tender expressions of sorrow and love. And he wrote this line, which I’ve always cherished, a line that rises to the top like cream. It’s a reminder for the living left behind in sudden, tragic moments like this one, and wiser words you’ll never hear.

“If there’s someone you love,” wrote Royko, “but haven’t said so in a while, say it now. Always, always say it now.”

Amen, Mike.

If Katy’s soul is in a spot where souls keep an eye on the ones they left behind, she will definitely visit the Seven Days website and read this week’s installment aloud to the angels. And with that grin on her face, she’ll make some crack about how she had to bloody well drop dead to get her name in “Inside Track.”

Well yeah, Katy, and we even double-checked the spelling, too.

See what I mean? Even in passing, Ms. McGiff brightens a room. Turns tears of sadness into tears of laughter. I don’t believe she would have it any other way.

And, Katy, save me a spot, and will ya for gawdssakes ask them if they ever thought of starting a weekly newspaper up there? Kind of an alternative, heavenly weekly?

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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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