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Phil in the Blanks 

Fair Game

Published January 23, 2013 at 1:55 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Now we know who “Phil Baruth” is.

This hitherto unheard-of politician emerged last summer on lawn signs throughout Chittenden County. He was apparently running for reelection to the Vermont State Senate — though the only incumbent sharing the surname was a freshman Democrat who’d always gone by “Philip.”

The latter, Sen. Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden), made a name for himself in these parts as Burlington’s favorite intellectual leftist — the type of guy who would propose an assault weapons ban in gun-loving Vermont, as Baruth did last week.

A novelist and University of Vermont English professor by day, this “Philip” guy moonlighted for years as a Vermont Public Radio commentator and sole writer for Vermont Daily Briefing, a political blog in which he routinely satirized the Bush and Douglas administrations.

In 2011, “Philip” took his act to the Vermont Senate, where he immediately cultivated a reputation as one of the chamber’s enfants terribles — the voluble freshmen who routinely annoyed the old bulls of the Senate by questioning the way business was done. And, frankly, for talking too damn much.

Even among his ideological brethren, Baruth was quietly criticized for being a bit of a show pony — ever in search of a reporter’s tape recorder. Like when he got himself arrested in Brattleboro last March protesting the continued operation of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.

In one memorable exchange last April, Baruth’s new and old worlds collided. Referring to a bill providing police warrantless access to the Vermont Prescription Monitoring System, Senator Philip snarkily wrote on the liberal blog Green Mountain Daily that he wouldn’t “burn in the everlasting fires for encouraging this particular privacy-invading mess.”

A week later, Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) — the bill’s sponsor and the most irascible old bull in the Senate — eviscerated Baruth on the Senate floor for the blog post, suggesting the Burlington Dem was responsible for sinking the Senate’s “level of collegiality” to “new lows.”

Over the summer, as Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor) sought to ward off a challenge to his leadership, the imperiled prez was quick to cast blame for perceived Senate dysfunction on Baruth and his fellow troublemakers.

In an interview in June with Seven Days, Senator Philip pushed right back. “I think what John was confronting is that the left wing of the Democratic Party is growing stronger,” Baruth said. “When you hear him say ‘freshmen,’ what you’re really hearing is ‘wild-eyed lefties.’”

Asked if he would vote against Campbell for pro tem, Senator Philip said, “I definitely want changes and I plan to vote for someone who’s offering changes from what we had last time.”

Two months later, “Phil” Baruth was born.

In a strangely public rebranding, Baruth swapped out his vaguely European-sounding first name on campaign lawn signs for the far more American — and politically palatable — “Phil.” You might sip a glass of Cabernet Blanc at L’Amante with Philip Baruth, but you’d surely shotgun a can of Bud Light at Thunder Road with Phil.

Soon after Baruth won a second term in November, his tune changed on Senate leadership as well. Rather than vote against Campbell for pro tem, Senator Phil was the first to stand up to nominate his former adversary. A month later, after others dropped out of consideration, Baruth found himself running for and winning the position of majority leader — essentially becoming Campbell’s right-hand man.

In an interview with Seven Days at the time, Baruth acknowledged that the role would force him to become subservient to the goals of the 23-member Democratic caucus, saying, “If you’re looking to move your own legislation or your own agenda, you don’t get into this job.”

Unlike Senator Philip, Senator Phil was pledging to go with the flow — and to quit throwing spitballs from the back of the Senate chamber. To gain a modicum of power — or at least a fancy new title — Baruth was willing to shelve his own priorities in deference to the old boys’ club he was joining.

Talk about a profile in courage!

The switch to go-along-to-get-along Phil-dom may have been jarring to Baruth, as just last Tuesday he had a brief relapse into Philip-ery. Touching the supposed third rail of Vermont politics, he introduced legislation that would ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition, as well as mandate child safety locks.

“I, honest to God, believe this is the time to do this,” Baruth told VPR’s Kirk Carapezza, adding that, “in my way of thinking, nobody needs an AR-15 or a Bushmaster or an AK-47 to kill a deer.”

The relapse didn’t last long. Just five days later, Senator Phil emailed a three-paragraph statement to reporters Sunday night explaining that he planned to withdraw the bill.

Why? For the first time in the six years I’ve known him, Baruth was at a loss for words, refusing to elaborate on his decision either on or off the record. In his carefully crafted statement, he explained that “it is painfully clear to me now that little support exists in the Vermont Statehouse for this sort of bill.”

No kidding, Senator Phil! But that never stopped you before!

Baruth went on to write that “focusing the debate on the banning of a certain class of weapons may already be overshadowing measures with greater consensus.” More tellingly, he wrote, “as incoming Majority Leader, I owe it to my caucus to remove an issue that seems increasingly likely to complicate our shared agenda this biennium.”

Translation: Oh snap. I totes forgot I’m not supposed to embarrass my bros by forcing them to take a stand on a politically volatile issue.

The sigh of relief in Democratic ranks was palpable.

“I think it’s probably the best thing for the caucus, but I understand it was probably a difficult decision for him,” said Sears, Baruth’s old foe. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the ardent gun-rights supporter would have had jurisdiction over Baruth’s legislation.

Was Baruth big-footed into scrapping his bill? After all, neither Campbell nor Gov. Peter Shumlin nor House Speaker Shap Smith is particularly eager to get behind new state gun laws.

“If there’s one person I know who does not succumb to pressure, it’s Philip,” Campbell said. “I think this shows true leadership. It’s an issue that’s really important to him, but he’s willing to set it aside to let someone else take a lead on it.”

Someone else? Like who? I’m hearing crickets.

Only in the halls of the Statehouse could dropping a controversial bill to avoid debate constitute “true leadership.”

Baruth’s move frees up Sears to cancel a public hearing he scheduled for February — an event that surely would have turned up the volume of debate. It allows the judiciary committee to take up less controversial gun legislation, such as a cracking down on the guns-for-drugs trade. And it lets Campbell move forward with a proposed “task force” to study the issue.

Surely that will result in prompt action!

Why the timidity? As one gun-control advocate in the legislature put it, “There’s a thunderous silence on this” as Vermont politicians try to figure out where their districts stand — and whether they’ll actually be forced to stake out a position. Many are hoping the issue will just go away.

The same legislator, who wouldn’t speak on the record, called Baruth’s bill “poorly conceived” and chided him for failing to bring on board a single cosponsor.

True, Senator Philip may have done his cause more harm than good by taking such a confrontational approach from the get-go. But at least the guy was forcing a long overdue conversation about Vermont’s gun laws, which are the among the most lax in the country.

That’s more than can be said of Senator Phil, who’s turning out to be just another back-slapping politician, eager to protect his friends and unwilling to rock the boat.

Back to the Future

When Progressive Jane Knodell and Republican Kurt Wright served together on the Burlington City Council in 2009, the bipartisan duo cohosted a show on Channel 17 called “Setting the Record Straight.”

Now that both are eyeing council comebacks, is it time to bring back the show for another season?

On Sunday, Knodell confirmed she’ll be seeking the Old North End council seat being vacated by Councilor Bram Kranichfeld (D-Ward 2). Her decision follows the Democrat’s announcement last week that he’ll be stepping down in March when his term ends, thanks to a new state job and a baby on the way.

“I think I’ve got a lot of experience and also some new ideas to help us move forward,” says Knodell, who served 14 years on the council before becoming provost of the University of Vermont, a position she held for three years.

Knodell’s the only candidate in the race thus far, though the Dems will surely field a candidate as they play defense on the seven seats they hold on the 14-member council.

They could face another threat in the New North End, where rumors abound that Councilor Dave Hartnett (D-Ward 4) is planning to withdraw from the race shortly before nomination petitions are due next Monday in an attempt to clear the field for Wright. Though nominally a Democrat, Hartnett often sides with the council’s two Republicans. He’s close friends with Wright and managed the Republican’s unsuccessful mayoral campaign last year.

“I would say the likelihood at this point is that I would be interested in running if Dave wasn’t,” says Wright, though he says he’s not encouraging Hartnett to bow out and would never run against him.

Hartnett, who raised the prospect of a midterm resignation last spring, says, “I have every intention of running for the seat.”

Even if Wright doesn’t run, Burlington Republicans will have another tough race on their hands, in a neighboring ward. With incumbent councilor Vince Dober (R-Ward 7) retiring in March, Democrat Tom Ayres will be going up against Republican newcomer Jim Robert for the New North End seat. Ayres narrowly lost a race in that ward last March to incumbent councilor Paul Decelles (R-Ward 7).

One final contested race in the city will feature 25-year veteran councilor Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1), who often votes with the Progressives, and Democratic newcomer Tom Derenthal.

Hartnett, who says he doesn’t plan to campaign for anyone else, does plan to go to bat for Bushor, who’s earned a reputation for asking a lot of questions at council meetings.

“I think Sharon is the hardest-working councilor,” Hartnett says. “That being said, I wish she’d shut up on Monday nights a little bit

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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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