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October Surprise 

Fair Game

Published October 31, 2012 at 11:43 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

At the close of his final debate against Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin last Wednesday, Republican gubernatorial candidate Randy Brock raised a curious subject.

“Governor Shumlin, I’m told the state has spent thousands of dollars on settlements or claims ranging from discrimination to wrongful termination to sexual harassment involving state employees and officials,” the Franklin County senator said, adding that he’d “been told that the state has attempted to hide this misconduct by improperly insisting on confidentiality agreements.”

The next morning, Brock delivered a heaping pile of public records requests to five state government offices demanding every last document pertaining to misconduct involving “any employee or official, elected or appointed” in the state.

Brock refused to say precisely what he was looking for, but his target came into focus Thursday afternoon when he said in a statement that he was calling on the governor to “disclose all of these settlements immediately, including any involving him or his staff.”

Brock, it became clear, was fishing for an October
Surprise. He was hoping like hell that whatever he netted in his massive records requests might be enough to rescue his moribund campaign.

With just eight business days remaining until Election Day, administration attorneys cautioned that it might take 10 — the maximum allowed for such requests — to fulfill it.

As those days passed, Brock hammered away at Shumlin for failing to immediately honor a records request he’d only just thought of — devoting his precious remaining resources to an argument of process, not substance.

Meanwhile, a storm was brewing.

As Hurricane Sandy blew closer to shore, it became clear that Vermont’s already sleepy campaign season would be robbed of precious remaining oxygen in its closing days.

An October Surprise was on its way, but it wasn’t the one Brock was courting.

As Sandy approached, Shumlin slid back into the role he relishes most: that of the storm-fighting governor. In a made-for-TV flashback to last August’s devastating Tropical Storm Irene, he directed the state’s response to Sandy and made the most of his time behind the podium at Waterbury’s Emergency Operations Center.

Brock, meanwhile, was relegated to a shortened appearance Monday on VPR’s “Vermont Edition,” during which he talked about the emergency generator he bought during the ice storm of 1998. And about his businesses in a box. And about his public records requests seeking the dirt on the governor and his staff.

When Vermonters awoke Tuesday morning, it was clear the state had escaped the worst of the storm — that Vermont had dodged a bullet, as Shumlin phrased it at a Waterbury press conference.

But as photos and videos of Atlantic City, Breezy Point and Staten Island flashed by, an exchange between the candidates at a gubernatorial debate a week earlier seemed newly precient.

Asked about his support for industrial wind, Shumlin said that the greatest challenge he’s faced as governor was coping with four major storms during his first nine months in office.

“These are climate change-induced storms. They’re a harbinger for what lies ahead,” he said, arguing that the state must quickly embrace renewable energy.

“My view is if your hair is on fire, you don’t call a moratorium to discuss how best to put the fire out,” the governor said, referring to Brock’s call for a moratorium on wind development. “And our hair is on fire.”

Brock was quick to pooh-pooh the seriousness of the situation.

“Well, the governor’s hair is on fire!” Brock said in a mocking tone of voice. “That’s an astounding statement.”

“I know we have floods and we had floods last year, but we’ve had floods — you go back and look at Vermont history — we’ve had serious floods from the 1770s forward,” he continued. “We’ve had tropical storms … We’ve had snowstorms. We’ve had tornadoes. And we’re going to have more.”

But, Brock argued, mountaintops are not replaceable, Vermont has plenty of electricity at its disposal and switching to renewables would be costly for the average Vermonter.

Moreover, Brock argued, Shumlin’s plan to generate 75 percent of the state’s electricity with renewable sources “would have reduced our carbon emissions by less than 3 percent. Less than 3 percent in a state with two tenths of 1 percent of the nation’s population. In a world in which China and India are adding coal-fired power plants weekly.”

“What we’re doing,” Brock said, “is a grain of sand in the Sahara Desert.”

Six days later, one of the biggest, costliest storms in the nation’s history touched down on the New Jersey coast. For a night, it seemed the nation’s hair was on fire.

On Tuesday morning in Vermont, as utility workers sought to restore power to the remaining homes without it, Brock got back to work, too. He released a brand- new attack ad, chock full of innuendo and exaggeration.

“Four months out of state traveling — living the good life, ignoring Vermont,” the ad’s narrator intones over a photo of Shumlin holding up a winning ticket at the 2011 Preakness horse race, an arm around two young women. (One, Alex MacLean, is his campaign manager; the other, Lis Smith, was serving at the time as spokeswoman for the Democratic Governors Association.)

“And when asked about thousands of taxpayer dollars spent to settle undisclosed discrimination and misconduct allegations,” the narrator says, before the video cuts to a clip of Shumlin at last Wednesday’s debate saying, “Debate this with my legal counsel.”

Having failed to quickly extract dirt on the governor and his staff with a belated records request, it seemed Brock was moving ahead anyway — facts be damned! After all, when the October Surprise you want doesn’t drop in your lap, sometimes you just have to make up your own.

Seeking Senate Seats

No one expects Democrats to lose their lopsided majorities in the legislature next week, but all three parties are fighting hard to protect the seats they hold — and win a few more.

In the Senate, where Democrats currently outnumber Republicans 22 to eight, all the action’s in the north.

With both Brock and his Democratic seatmate, Sen. Sara Kitell (D-Franklin), stepping down, two Republican House members — Reps. Dustin Degree (R-St. Albans City) and Norm McAllister (R-Franklin) — are hoping to add a Franklin County seat to the Republican column. In their way are Democrats Don Collins, who held the seat for three terms before he was defeated in 2008, and 22-year-old Caroline Bright, a recent graduate of St. Michael’s College.

Next door in the two-member Essex/Orleans district, Democratic Sen. Bobby Starr is favored to win reelection, while two former House members — Republican Robert “Bubba” Lewis and Democrat John Rodgers — are fighting to replace Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans), who is running for state auditor.

In Caledonia County, both members of the district’s split delegation — Republican Sen. Joe Benning and Democratic Sen. Jane Kitchel — are trying to keep their seats. They face challenges from Republican David Dill, a former secretary of transportation, and Stephen Amos, who runs the county’s Democratic committee.

Republicans also hope Sharon real estate appraiser Dick Tracy might knock off one of three incumbent Democrats in Windsor County — Sens. John Campbell, Dick McCormack and Alice Nitka — but that district is tougher for the GOP.

“A two-seat gain for Republicans would be absolutely huge, because what essentially that would mean is that the ‘blue dogs’ would run the Senate,” said Sen. Peg Flory (R-Rutland), referring to centrist politicians.

Less crucial to the senate’s balance of power is Chittenden County’s massive, six-member district, where incumbents tend to easily win reelection. This year, those include Democratic Sens. Tim Ashe, Phil Baruth, Sally Fox and Ginny Lyons, as well as Republican Sen. Diane Snelling. Ashe also won the Progressive nomination.

The real question is which of the remaining two Democratic nominees — Williston selectboard member Debbie Ingram or former representative David Zuckerman of Hinesburg — will take the seat made available by Democratic Sen. Hinda Miller’s retirement.

Thanks to his seven terms representing Burlington in the House, Zuckerman is probably better known — and came in ahead of Baruth and Ingram in the Democratic primary. But Ingram has been campaigning hard and enjoys the support of Campbell, the Senate president pro tem, who leads his party’s reelection efforts.

“All I care about, whoever wins between the two of them, is that they’re ready and willing to work — and that means with the entire Senate, not just one or two people,” Campbell says in a veiled jab at Zuckerman, with whom he has clashed over the latter’s decision to principally identify himself as a Progressive.

The biggest question? How many votes will former Burlington mayor Bob Kiss get?

House Cleaning?

In the House, where Democrats hold 94 seats, Republicans 48 and Progressives 5, most of the contested races are in Rutland, Windsor and Franklin counties. None of the parties expect huge gains or losses, though Republicans appear to be at a disadvantage thanks to the retirement of 10 members and candidate-recruitment struggles.

Nevertheless, the Dems are playing defense in Rutland City, where strong Republican challengers want their three seats. Nearby, they’re hoping to pick off Rep. Jim Eckhardt (R-Chittenden) and defend a seat being vacated by Rep. Ernie Shand (D-Weathersfield). Both parties are fighting over a newly created seat pitting two incumbents against one another: Rep. Eldred French (D-Cuttingsville) and Rep. Dennis Devereux (R-Belmont).

“That’s probably the most interesting race this year,” says Nick Charyk, who runs the Vermont Democratic House Campaign.

In the Upper Valley, Republican Alex Defelice is taking a second shot at a two-member district that lost its top Democratic vote-getter, Rep. Chuck Bohi (D-White River Jct.), to retirement. And former two-term House member David Ainsworth of South Royalton is hoping to reclaim the seat he lost by a single vote to Rep. Sarah Buxton (D-Tunbridge) in 2010.

“David has worked extremely hard — done a lot of good things,” says Rep. Don Turner (R-Milton), the House minority leader.

In Franklin County, Democrats are hoping to win a second seat in the two-member St. Albans district currently represented by Rep. Kathleen Keenan (D-St. Albans) and Degree, who’s vacating the seat to run for Senate.

Meanwhile, Turner says two Progressive candidates have Republicans worried up north: Cindy Weed, who is challenging Rep. Peter Perley (R-Enosburg Falls), and Katherine Sims, who is challenging Rep. Mark Higley (R-Lowell).

The only real Prog-on-Dem fight this year is in Burlington’s Old North End, where Progressives Gene Bergman and Kit Andrews are hoping to snatch away two seats last won by Democrats: retiring Rep. Jason Lorber and former representative Rachel Weston, who resigned her seat in January. Democrats are fielding Rep. Jill Krowinski, who was appointed to fill Weston’s seat, and former Rutland House member Curt McCormack.

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About The Author

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz was part of the Seven Days news team from 2012 to 2020. He served as political editor and wrote the "Fair Game" political column before becoming a staff writer.


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