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On the Right Side of History 

Fair Game

Published March 25, 2009 at 7:22 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Vermont’s on the “right side of history.” That was the phrase heard most often under the Golden Dome in anticipation of Monday’s historic 26-4 Senate vote in favor of same-sex marriage.

Nine years ago, throngs of vocal opponents swamped the statehouse email server and crowded its hallways. Monday only a handful of opponents sat somberly in the Senate chamber.

Nine years ago, the Burlington Free Press opposed same-sex marriage. Last week the paper reversed course and called it the right thing to do. Publisher Brad Robertson said reader response to the March 18 editorial has been generally positive.

One such reader was the paper’s former editorial writer, Stephen Kiernan, who wrote the 1999 editorial opposing same-sex marriage — a position he called “my enduring shame.”

“When it comes to matters of social justice, I did the worst thing possible: I compromised,” Kiernan noted in a “My Turn” piece published in the Freeps on Tuesday.

“If I may share the perspective of a person who spent a decade knowing his compromising was wrong,” added Kiernan, “I would offer the governor just three words: Stand for something.”

Easier said than done.

Gov. Jim Douglas does, in fact, stand for something. He doesn’t support same-sex marriage and would rather the Leg not take up the bill. That way he doesn’t have to take a stand. That’s something, eh?

The House Judiciary Committee began taking testimony Tuesday. Floor debate will occur next Thursday and Friday.

The Senate’s 26-4 margin can withstand a gubernatorial veto, but the House is a different story. There, 100 favorable votes amongst 150 members constitute a veto-proof margin. Many Dems in conservative districts are leaning against the legislation, though a number of House Republicans support the measure, including Rep. Patti Komline (R-Dorset), the GOP minority leader. Komline knows that coming down on the wrong side of history will only prolong the GOP’s exile in Vermont.

So, what will Douglas do? When the bill comes to his desk, he has three options: Veto it, let it become law without his signature, or sign it into law. Most folks think he’ll opt for number 2 as the most expedient political choice.

Three future Democratic gubernatorial contenders took a stand Monday — all in favor. They were Sen. Susan Bartlett (D-Lamoille), Sen. Doug Racine (D-Chittenden) and President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin (D-Windham).

A fourth potential Douglas challenger, Democratic Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, tells “Fair Game” she supports same-sex marriage. For her, it’s a civil-rights issue and a personal one: Her sister, stepsister and husband’s sister are lesbians.

No matter which way Douglas plays the issue, it could come back to haunt him when he runs again in 2010. Ditto for lawmakers.

Rev. Craig Benson, founder of Take It to the People and Let Vermont Vote, opposes same-sex marriage and was lobbying for a statewide vote. He predicts voter anger may play out in 2010 as it did in 2000. That year dozens of House members — Republicans and Democrats alike — were tossed out of office for supporting civil unions. “I think they will be faced with a lot of upset people,” said Benson. “And, this time around, people will have an extra year to get ready.” He notes the “Take Back Vermont” movement didn’t take hold until May 2000, just four months before the election.

But Monday’s Senate vote suggests lawmakers face a much different populace today than in 2000. Partisan divide is not so much in play.

“The bipartisan nature of today’s vote means that we can move away from this issue being a Republican-versus-Democrat debate,” said Beth Robinson of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, the organization behind the campaign. Robinson commended Sen. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland) for his support of the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Mullin did try to amend the bill and send the entire measure out to a statewide referendum. That failed in the Senate, 11-19.

About 50 onlookers, most of whom were supporters, crowded into the Senate Chamber, listening quietly as senators urged their colleagues to support the bill.

Randy Brock (R-Franklin) and Hull Maynard (R-Rutland) were the only two senators who stood up to oppose the measure. Brock argued that civil unions afforded gays and lesbians equal treatment under the law. Maynard said he voted against the bill as a voice for those who believed the issue had not yet been fully debated. Sens. Robert Starr (D-Essex/Orleans) and Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans) quietly voted against the bill. Always thinking of those Kingdom constituents.

Sen. John Campbell (D-Windsor), the lead sponsor of the Senate bill, tossed aside eight pages of notes to “speak from the heart.”

Marriage needs to be inclusive, he said, and to bring into its fold people who are committed to upholding its rights and responsibilities.

He took offense at opponents who labeled gays and lesbians “those people.”

“You know who ‘those people’ are?” asked Campbell. “They are our children, our sisters, our brothers. They are human beings and, as such, and as it’s said in this bill, they should be treated equally.”

Shumlin reminded colleagues that civil unions were created as a response to the outrage to same-sex marriage nine years ago, and the issue has been debated and reviewed carefully since then.

When the majority confers rights to the minority, it’s easy to say the process is moving too quickly and more testimony is needed, added Shumlin.

“It’s never too speedy to confer rights to those who simply want to say, ‘I love you and I want to spend the rest of my life with you,’” said Shumlin.

His simple summation of the bill’s essence brought tears to the eyes of several onlookers in the visitors’ balcony.

Moments later, the Senate took its vote. And the rest, as they say, is history.


Vow of Poverty … Not! — Plenty of outrage on Main Street last week as a result of our “Fair Game” column about the gold-plated retirement parachute handed over to William Milnes Jr., the outgoing president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont.

Milnes was given $6.3 million by BCBS as a parting gift. Watches are so passé.

Not only is it a lot of money, but BCBS spokesman Kevin Goddard said the company paid all state and federal taxes before handing the cash over to Milnes.

Better than winning the lottery! Even the lucky Vermonter who scored $600,000 last week in Arlington has to pay taxes on the loot.

So, what next? BCBS has a stellar reputation and lawmakers are reluctant to take the company on. They are, as one observer put it, “untouchable.”

Regulators can’t set compensation plans, noted Paulette Thabault, commissioner of the state’s Banking, Insurance, Securities and Health Care Administration. But they are paying attention to the top execs at BCBS.

As a result of questions raised two years ago about salary and bonus plans for its highest paid employees, BCBS must supply quarterly reports to the state proving their execs are earning their keep, said Thabault.

As we noted in last week’s column, nine top BCBS execs earned $770,000 in bonuses, based on salaries totaling $1.25 million. And that’s just 2008. The group earned comparable amounts in 2007 and 2006. Boy, they must be doing a bang-up job.

You can’t blame the BCBS board for approving these plans. For their hard work, and grueling every-other-month meeting schedule last year, the 12-member panel was paid $334,000.

The board’s roster reads like a who’s who of noteworthy, and mostly Democratic, Vermonters: It includes former banker and anti-sprawl advocate John Ewing, the board’s vice chair; Democratic National Committeewoman Billi Gosh; Air America Media chief Charlie Kireker; UVM vice prez Karen Nystrom-Myer; consultant Deb Granquist; and Mary Powell, the CEO at Green Mountain Power.

Like the execs it purportedly oversees, BCBS’ board members are rewarded handsomely for their “service.”

In 2008, board chairman Guy Boyer, a Massachusetts banker, was paid a whopping $44,000. Most other board members received between $25,000 to $30,000. A few got less than $20,000; the lowest-paid member took home $12,000.

How do they get by? Oh, yeah, most of them have six-figure jobs already. Silly me.

Here’s what those of us in the real world live on: In 2007, the median Vermont salary was roughly $30,000. I’m guessing those Vermonters go to work more than six times a year — many of them without health care.

*See Clarification below


Kiss Outspent — The campaign spending reports are in for Burlington’s mayoral race, and frugal Progressive incumbent Bob Kiss spent way less than any of his challengers.

Kiss’ campaign expenses came to just shy of $20,000, while his opponents spent a combined total of more than $100,000.

Kiss said he raised and spent about $20,000 when he first ran for mayor in 2006. He believed that was all he needed to win three years later — despite having three well-financed candidates nipping at his heels.

At the head of the fundraising pack was Independent Dan Smith: He put $51,193 into his campaign. In the end, Smith earned 1306 first-place votes in Burlington’s instant-runoff system, which works out to roughly $39 per vote. Democrat Hinda Miller spent about $60,000 in 2006.

The Republican contender from Ward 4, City Council President Kurt Wright, spent around $34,000.

Democrat Andy Montroll noted approximately $21,000 in campaign expenditures, according to a report filed 10 days before the election. He has yet to file a post-election report, which was due March 13, suggesting the total could grow.

Bottom line: It’s still advantageous to be the incumbent.

The Race for Prez — As the Burlington City Council wraps up its work for the session and says goodbye to five members, including prez Kurt Wright, there’s increasing talk about who will inherit the gavel come April.

Councilor Clarence Davis (P-Ward 3) announced to existing and new members of the council that he will seek the post.

Councilor Bill Keogh (D-Ward 5) is also considering a bid for the seat, but only if Democrats have an eight-member caucus, constituting an outright majority on the 14-member council. That outcome will be decided by Tuesday’s Ward 7 runoff election between Democrat Eli Lesser-Goldsmith and Republican Vince Dober.

Davis said he made his decision after consulting with many of the current councilors, as well as past presidents. Outgoing president Wright has encouraged Davis, saying he’d be a good leader.

Tensions are high on the council right now, in part because Wright called police to a March 12 meeting when he felt that two Democrat councilors, Ed Adrian and Dave Berezniak, were on the verge of “disrupting” the meeting.

Davis said he would work to avoid these tensions by dealing fairly with all councilors of all parties and knowing the “rules that govern our body and, when needed, to enforce those rules even in difficult circumstances.”

Democratic Ward 1 Councilor Adrian is also rumored to be interested in the post.

“Once this council is over, my efforts will be focused on the next,” Adrian said. “I think it’s a little early for people to be throwing their names in the ring when they don’t know the makeup of the next city council.”

* CLARIFICATION: Blue Cross Blue Shield withheld state and federal taxes on the $6.3 million retirement package paid to outgoing President & CEO William Milnes. An item in this week's "Fair Game" left the impression that the $6.3 million was the net amount received by Milnes.

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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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