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Political Bomb? 

Inside Track

Bernie Sanders

Published February 18, 2004 at 5:00 p.m.

Editor's Note: Peter Freyne's weekly column follows this report of Howard Dean's exit from the 2004 presidential race.

The amazing political ride came to a sad end Wednesday as Howard Dean went before the cameras one last time to say he's "no longer actively pursuing the presidency."

About 500 friends and supporters jammed the Sheraton ballroom, and Dr. Judy made an appearance, too. Funny, but after finally dipping her toes in the political stream, she looked like she was starting to enjoy it.

One of Ho-Ho's oldest Vermont friends, Attorney General Bill Sorrell, told yours truly before the speech began that he couldn't help but think of his mother and his aunt.

"My mom [Esther Sorrell] got Howard involved in politics," said Bill. "My aunt [Peg Hartigan] was his treasurer for every one of his campaigns until she died. I know they're looking down at today's event," he said wistfully. "If they were alive they'd be here in the front row."

Reflecting on the roller-coaster ride that was the Dean presidential campaign, Sorrell suggested Ho-Ho's quick rise to the top of the heap came at a price.

"All of a sudden, he got in the sights of the media and the Big Dems and the Big Rs," said Sorrell. "Had he never been taken seriously, they wouldn't have bothered. But he was a player and they had to take him down. And they did."

Yes, they did.

On Tuesday, Democratic voters in Wisconsin became the messenger for Howard Dean, and the message was, "You're not the guy."

For the 17th consecutive time, the former front runner finished behind the winner. The momentum that once propelled the Vermonter into the national media spotlight had vanished with stunning swiftness.

Indeed, Dean's homegrown critics are smiling today with an "I told you so" smugness. From the get-go, they'd said, Ho-Ho never had a chance. They claimed he had a nasty temper and a sharp tongue, and the combination of the two would do him in.

But it wasn't his tongue that did him in. Success, we'd argue, is what killed Howard Dean.

It was never Dean's plan to storm out of the gate and shoot to the lead before the clubhouse turn. Like any good horseplayer knows, in a long race like the Presidential Derby, it's better to rate in the back, save energy, then get in striking position by the top of the stretch. You only need to win by a nose.

Unfortunately, Ho-Ho's race developed differently than planned. He was all set to come out of the gate talking health care and fiscal responsibility -- his trademark strengths. But something unexpected happened. President George W. Bush decided to press ahead with what appeared to be long-held plans to depose Iraq ruler Saddam Hussein.

In the fall of 2002, Ho-Ho started to get noticed. It wasn't health care or his balanced budgets that did it. It was his questioning of Bush's march to war. "The president has to make a case for war," Dean told Iowans and the handful of reporters who were paying attention, "and he hasn't so far."

Many Vermonters were both surprised and proud to hear our former middle-of-the-road governor sounding a bit like Rep. Bernie Sanders.

But Dean was in uncharted waters. His resume included nothing in the way of foreign-policy experience. Returning to Vermont that October, five days after Congress overwhelmingly passed the infamous "blank check" Iraq Resolution, Dean was put on the spot.

Ho-Ho appeared at a Burlington press conference to endorse fellow Democrat Doug Racine for governor. (A lot of good it did Racine, eh?) Dean was asked how he would have voted on the resolution. The expected answer was that he, like the entire Vermont delegation, would have opposed it.

But Ho-Ho hesitated at what appeared an easy pitch to hit. Here's what we wrote back then:

Governor Dean, how would you have voted?

"I can't tell you," replied Ho-Ho, "because I haven't had a chance to read the resolution. I would have supported the Biden-Lugar resolution, which called for getting rid of Saddam's arms. The one that was passed. I have not had a chance to read the text and so, until I do that, I won't be able to say."

(The Biden-Lugar resolution never came to a vote, since the sponsors caved under White House pressure.)

Yours truly noted the vote in Congress was the top political news story in America last week -- the country you want to lead? -- and it was covered to death coast-to-coast.

"As you know," replied Dr. Dean, "I've been on the road for two weeks. I haven't read the resolution and, until I do, I'm not going to comment."

"When do you think you might read the resolution that passed?" we politely inquired.

"When I get around to it," answered Dr. Dean.

Busy guy, eh?

A red flag went up. It took Dr. Dean a few days to decide what his answer would be. Of course, he came out against the resolution. But it was the initial hesitation that gave us a scare. In hindsight, it was probably the most important policy decision he made in the entire campaign.

At a time when the polls showed 70 percent support for Bush's War, Dean bravely took the correct, but less popular position. And as events in Iraq unfolded, Dean looked better by the day.

What Dean decided to do was fill the enormous political vacuum in American democracy. For democracy to work as planned, there has to be an opposition to the regime in power. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party was in bed with Bush on this one, and too many others to name. It reminded us of the way Congress behaved during the Vietnam War slaughter. Like now, both parties in the 1960s locked arms to give the White House its every wish.

The following January, at the Linn County Democratic dinner in Iowa, Ho-Ho had his breakout moment. "What I want to know is what are the leaders of the Democratic Party doing supporting the president's unilateral policy in Iraq?"

You had to be watching C-Span that night to see it. But a new political species, to be later known as Deaniacs, posted the speech on the Web. It had legs, as they say.

Assisted by the Internet, Dean quickly filled the vacuum. The little guy from Vermont instantly became the leading national voice of opposition to the Bush war machine. That made Howard Dean a magnet. It also made him throw out his original race strategy.

Being antiwar turned Dean from long shot to front runner by late summer. He was the center of attention. Sure, he still got universal health care and balanced budgets in his stump speech, but it was the antiwar message that drew the throngs to hear the messenger.

We'll remember Dean's star reaching its pinnacle that hot August week when his mug graced the covers of Time and Newsweek. He was way out in front of the pack, in the polls and at the bank. The national press was calling Dean for America a "movement" rather than just a political campaign.

In the first Dean media wave the previous spring, the national press was pleasantly curious about his Vermont record. He certainly seemed to them a likable guy. A fresh face. Pretty darn smart, too. And, besides, everyone loves a long shot.

But by the time the leaves started falling, the mood changed. A new wave of national press attention began. The tone was different. The attitude was, "Let's find Howard Dean's Whitewater Scandal."

The first hit came in October. What was Dean hiding in those sealed boxes of gubernatorial records?

The next was one exposing Dean's ties to Enron. I'm not making this up.

Enron, you see, once had a captive insurance company registered in Vermont. So do 600 other corporations.

Then there was the one about Dean taking speaking fees from pharmaceutical companies.

Another about his skiing in Aspen after getting a draft deferment for a back problem.

Opposition researchers combed through Dean's past. Twenty seconds of tape from a four-year-old broadcast of "The Editors" was used to take his legs out from under him in Iowa. Ho-Ho had accurately remarked back then that the Iowa Caucuses are dominated by special interests, which they are.

In Iowa, it was played up as a personal insult to the inhabitants.

Becoming the front-runner so fast had put a bull's-eye on Ho-Ho's back. Politics is a nasty business. But the Dean campaign lacked one important ingredient -- a good media defense team. Good defenses win ball games.

Certainly, Dean for America was nothing short of brilliant on offense. They had the message and they had the messenger. There was no problem getting Dean exposure.

The problem with the incoming arose in the fall, and there was plenty of incoming. The assignment was to protect Dean from getting pecked to death by a flock of hungry media crows.

Imagine if the Dean campaign had been as good at handling a nasty hit as the Kerry Campaign recently demonstrated? The Kerry crowd masterfully defended the candidate from a below-the-belt attack from the Drudge Report. By the time it went mainstream, they had all their ducks, including the alleged young woman, lined up perfectly.

That's how you play defense in politics!

In Ho-Ho's case, all the hits drew blood. Though no single arrow on its own caused a fatal wound, the combination of them nearly bled the candidate to death.

The combination of hits also planted seeds of doubt in the very people who rallied behind the messenger early on because of his antiwar stand. After all, Ho-Ho was the new kid on the block. No one in America, outside Vermont, really new him or had a feel for him, whereas the other candidates were known actors on the political stage.

Doubt is a feeling experienced in the stomach. A gut uneasiness. Once it's there, there's no getting rid of it.

When the antiwar messenger lost the antiwar vote in Iowa, one knew the end would be near. The "I Have a Scream" speech was merely the epilogue.

Now fast-forward to the present day. An hour before Dean's address at the Sheraton, the national media was setting up. CNN's Candy Crowley was being interviewed by a documentary filmmaker in the hallway.

Crowley was making a surprisingly frank point about contemporary media coverage of politics.

"The camera changes things," said Crowley. "Once the cameras go on," she said, "you never see an honest moment."

The candidates, she said, "are so universally packaged with window dressing."

With all the TV cameras following them, she said, it's impossible "to get them to open up to you and get a peek at their soul."

How good a job did the media do on Dean?

"Was it perfect?" asked Crowley. "No," she answered, "but the media didn't destroy Howard Dean. Well before the scream, something was wrong" in Dean Land.

Yes, it was.

The colorful CNN political reporter said, "Dean didn't figure out how to take the Internet passion and transform it into a grassroots campaign."

As for the question everyone's been asking for a week, what will Ho-Ho do in the future? Bill Sorrell had the best answer.

"Who knows if a U.S. Senate seat might open in the future?" speculated Sorrell. "Is he going to be head of some big medical center complex or foundation? Or will President John Kerry or John Edwards want him in the cabinet? Who knows?"

Time will tell.

A number of the original Deaniacs were in attendance Wednesday. Sad faces. They exchanged long, slow hugs with one another. But Ol' Candy had some advice for the youngsters:

"Tell them that if this is the worst thing that's ever happened to them, they'll have a pretty good life."

Good advice, eh?

Political Bomb?

That's how WGOP, er, sorry, WCAX-TV hyped its exclusive story on the Six O'Clock News on Saturday.

"The Democrat running for governor," announced anchor Darren Perron, "today dropped a political bomb that could divide the Democratic Party."

We were on the edge of our seat as Perron handed the ball to ace crime reporter Brian Joyce "live in the newsroom." Mr. Joyce, in a deadly serious, Watergate-style tone, told the audience the shocking news -- Burling-ton Mayor Peter Clavelle was supporting the reelection of his longtime friend, Ward 3 City Councilor Phil Fiermonte.

"It was a bizarre bombshell," said Clavelle this week. He told Seven Days that a friend remarked on Monday that when he saw Ch. 3's lead he got scared, thinking Mayor Moonie had dropped out of the race.

Clavelle, as everyone knows, rejoined the Democratic Party a year ago before his seventh successful run for mayor. Democrat born-and-raised, Peter ran for the legislature back in 1980 as a Democrat. Fiermonte, who works for Congressman Bernie Sanders, is a member of the Progressive Party. Stop the presses!

"The potential division in Vermont's Democratic Party today became a reality," reported Joyce, "with an endorsement from Peter Clavelle. Burlington's longtime Progressive Mayor turned Democratic candidate for governor is creating controversy in the race for city council."

Our research indicates the controversy appears to be one stirred primarily by WCAX. Joyce was able to get Fiermonte's Democratic challenger, Lynn Mesick, on camera to express "shock" over Peter's support for Phil, but we're having a hard time finding anyone else in "shock."

Of course, there is Vermont GOP Chairman Jim Barnett, and we'll get to him in a minute.

In fact, it could be argued Peter Clavelle is the best thing to happen to the Democratic Party in Burlington in 23 years. After all, Clavelle is the city's first Democratic mayor since Gordie Paquette lost the 1981 election to the guy with a Brooklyn accent.

What's interesting here is WCAX's interpretation of what constitutes a "political bomb." It must connote a candidate of one party supporting a candidate of another. But is that so unusual?

We don't recall Ch. 3 using such incendiary "bomb" language to describe Democrat State Auditor Liz Ready's endorsement last year of Progressive City Council candidate Carina Driscoll.

And we don't recall the same treatment for Democrat Howard Dean's endorsement of Republican State Sen. Helen Riehle a few years back. Or his endorsement of Clavelle in 1997.

Or Independent Congressman Sanders' endorsement of Democrats Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Or Progressive Party state chair Martha Abbott's endorsement of the Democratic candidate for governor just one week ago.

In fact, this week Prog Carina Driscoll and her mom, Jane Sanders (wife of the guy with the Brooklyn accent), are both endorsing Democrat Cheryl Rivers' candidacy for lieutenant governor. This despite the fact that two Progs, Anthony Pollina and Rep. Steve Hingtgen, are publicly "thinking about" running.

Marsillyiss, please pass the smelling salts!

Interesting to note that the Democratic Party's state chair, Scudder Parker, doesn't appear to be shocked by Clavelle's support for his longtime friend like Ch. 3 is. To some, loyalty is actually a positive attribute, rarely witnessed in political circles.

"My preference would be," said Parker, "that [Clavelle] not endorse a Progressive. But Vermont is not a place of party purity."

Tell that to Mad Dog Jimmy Barnett, the sharp-toothed political snapper over at GOP headquarters. Barnett pounced on the WGOP, sorry, WCAX "political bomb" story like an RPG-packing Iraqi on a Humvee.

Bright and early Monday morning, the Vermont GOP sent out an email alert titled "Progressive Pete Disses Dems." It included a copy of Ch. 3's report under the subhead "Democrat Leadership Stands Idly By As Prog Mayor Undermines Their Candidate."

Remarkable hand-in-glove teamwork, eh? Barnett could write headlines for Ch. 3, or vice-versa.

To report as a "political bombshell" that "you're supporting a close friend of 20 years doesn't make sense," said Clavelle. "Obviously," he added, "the Republican strategy is to drive a wedge between Democrats and Progressives. The GOP's effort, he said, "is being aided and abetted by Ch. 3."

P.S. Don't expect to hear it from the lips of TV anchors Marselis Parsons and Sera Congi any time soon, but the Vermont Republican Party has already unveiled its red-baiting strategy for the fall extravaganza.

A January 30 fundraising pitch put out by Barnett claims Democrats are so "lacking in leadership" they're turning their party over to a "socialist."

The GOP letter cites a 1989 New York Times article titled "Socialists Retain Majority in Burlington, VT" as proof.

Nice work, James. J. Edgar Hoover would blush with pride. Clavelle's Vermont or Castro's Cuba. Same difference, eh?

Now, Mad Dog, go find those weapons of mass destruction our Republican president warned us about, will ya?

As of Tuesday, 544 American soldiers have died protecting us from them.

Charge of the Gov-Lite Brigade -- In addition to Ma Rivers and the two aforementioned "thinking about it" Progs, Democrat Jan Backus has her sights set on dethroning Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, too.

By the way, poor Jan of Arc took a nasty tumble on the ice the other day and broke two bones in her foot. She told Seven Days she was en route to the bank in Winooski to deposit campaign contributions at the the time. She'll require surgery, but expects to be back for the kickoff of spring marching season. Best wishes!

But back to the big picture. Surely news of the Prog interest is music to Doobie-Doo's ears?

Twice Dubie's gotten 41 percent of the vote. In a one-on-one with Democrat Doug Racine in 2000, 41 percent simply didn't cut it.

But in 2002, with Pollina in the mix, 41 percent was enough to beat Democrat Peter Shumlin's 32 percent. Anthony garnered 25 percent.

Hingtgen and Pollina aren't in, yet. As it is, the leadership accepts not having a Prog Party gubernatorial candidate. But without some sort of statewide standard-bearer, how can the fledgling third party save face?

Jane Sanders told Seven Days she had personally let Pollina know she would be supporting Ma Rivers this time. Lady Jane said she thinks Anthony is "perfectly positioned" where he is now, doing his talk show on WDEV and working for family farmers.

"I'd love to see him run for a Washington County state senate seat," said Sanders.

Democrat Rivers, meanwhile, says she wears her "progressive-with-a-small-p" credentials proudly. She acknowledged the likelihood of a Prog candidate running.

"There are going to be some kamikazes who are on a mission," said Rivers. But she noted there are many Progressives with a big P who have already signed on as supporters.

The End Is Near? -- As Seven Days goes to press Tuesday evening, our favorite presidential hopeful is due back in Burlington. Wisconsin Democrats are expected to deny Howard Dean what Democrats in every other primary state have denied him -- a victory.

For the latest on the post-Wisconsin Primary fallout, check Seven Days' Internet edition Wednesday afternoon at 4 p.m.

Freed's Law -- It's a rare occurrence indeed when the mighty Speaker of the Vermont House steps down from the throne to take the witness chair before a measly, lower-tier House committee. But that's what Dorset's gift to the Golden Dome did last Thursday.

What issue of grave statewide importance made Speaker Walter Freed come out of his closed-door cave and take a public stand?

Tax reform? Health-care re-form? Homeland security? The dairy crisis?

Would you believe H. 475, the Burlington Charter Change bill?

In a state where Republican Party chairman James Barnett describes Burlington's Democratic Mayor Peter Clavelle as an "angry socialist," it's not surprising that a Republican Speaker would lead the charge against anything Clavelle-related.

Last year, Burlington voters overwhelmingly approved the charter changes. Landlords would have to give tenants 90 days' notice in cases of evictions for no cause. It's currently 60 days. Same with rent increases. The required notice would go from 60 to 90 days.

In return, Burlington's renter class would be required to give landlords longer notice when they decide to move: 60 days instead of the current 30 days.

Pretty radical, socialist stuff, eh, Fidel?

It's rare indeed when the clear and distinct wishes of the voters of any Vermont hamlet, town or city are blocked by the High and Mighty under the Golden Dome. Rare for a House Speaker to speak so ill in public of local control. But, if anything, the Freedmeis- ter's trademark has always been his commitment to partisanship. For Walter, politics is war.

Unlike his predecessors in the corner office, Speaker Freed employs a distinctive closed-door style, both figuratively and literally. Communicating with the Democrat opposition appears to give him an upset stomach. He's much more comfortable lunching with the business lobbyists who are required to worship him.

History will record that Freed's ascension to Speaker in 2001 was won with the scalps of more than a dozen courageous legislators taken down in the civil-unions backlash election of 2000.

Not surprisingly, Wally's backlash majority melted away in the 2002 election. Vermonters realized civil unions cause no harm after all. With just 74 GOP seats, Freed held onto the gavel by paying off a handful of Independents and moderate Democrats with choice committee assignments.

Still, despite the close division in the House, Freed rules with a iron fist. You'd think Oliver Cromwell was his mentor. Not one of the 14 committee chairmanships Freed hands out went to a Democrat. Not one.

Those who heard Freed's testimony before the Local Govern-ment Committee say he argued that Burlington's new landlord-tenant rules would exacerbate the Queen City's housing shortage and "drive landlords out of Burlington!"

Freed claimed the taxpayers of the rest of the state would have to bail out the city.

Pretty wild stuff, eh?

Burlington, as everyone who's ever lived there knows, has been a landlord's paradise for years. It's all about supply and demand. Nothing in Vermont matches the low vacancy rate and high rents in beautiful Burlap. Thank you, University of Vermont!

But, as with apples, there are good landlords and bad landlords. Good landlords who maintain their properties and play by the rules have thrived in the People's Republic.

Only twice before can we recall Speaker Freed stepping up to the plate on an issue that meant so much to him.

Once was in 2001. With homophobia ruling the roost in the Republican-controlled Vermont House, a bill repealing civil unions legislation quickly made its way to the House floor.

But not all Republicans wanted to revisit civil unions, even some who had previously opposed them. It was a time in Vermont for healing. Time to move on.

Walter Cromwell, er, Freedwell didn't think so.

The floor vote was tight. Very tight. In fact it ended in a tie vote. Under House rules, that prompts one of those rare moments when the Speaker must provide the Vaseline to move things forward and cast his vote.

Sir Walter, the fuel oil millionaire, could have redefined himself that day as a political leader who would put Vermont first and party second. He could have shown the people of the state that he preferred to move forward, not backward.

Unfortunately, it's not Wally's style. Speaker Freed cast his vote to repeal civil unions, even though he knew the bill had no chance whatsoever in the Democratic Senate.

But it was a matter of principle for Walter. It was also a defining moment of his speakership.

The second time Walter Freed stood tall was when he played Marlboro Man on the cigarette- tax increase. Freed's a smoker -- nothing wrong with that. It's a free country, eh?

But, more importantly, Freed's the successful proprietor of a "cash cow" parked on the New York-Vermont border.

In West Pawlet, just 200 yards from the New York line, Freed has long owned and operated a couple gas pumps and a rundown wooden shack that dispenses smokes by the carton to cost-conscious New Yorkers from near and far.

Funny, but when it became clear that the New York ciggy tax would continue to exceed the Vermont ciggy tax, Speaker Tobacco dropped his opposition to the increase. It was all about price differential. Vermont's still cheaper and Walt's tobacco shop still thrives.

Who says Walter Freed's never done anything to promote the Vermont economy?

Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle says Freed's dire warnings about a landlord exodus and increased state subsidy "are simply not true." Rising revenues from Burlington's sales tax and rooms-and-meals taxes are going to Montpelier, noted Clavelle. And the 31,000 jobs in Burlington, 600 new ones in the last year, boasted Mayor Moonie, mean truckloads of income-tax dollars going to Montpeculiar, too.

Clavelle expressed surprise that Freed, a leader in the party that makes "local control" a mantra, "is doing everything he can to stuff local control for the citizens of Burlington."

"Tell Walter," said Peter, "landlords are doing fine in Burlington."

Hey, Walter, you listening?

Speaking of Lobbyists -- Get- well wishes this week for Allison Crowley Demag. Allison represents an impressive client list that includes everything from Budweiser to Viagra. Ten days ago, while reaching into the back seat for her briefcase, Allison's right arm popped out of its shoulder socket. It hurts just to write about it.

The daughter of political legend Tom Crowley, former Democratic state senator and now Chittenden County Assistant Judge, is one tough cookie. She was quickly back on deck at the Statehouse last week wearing a strapped-on contraption that makes her look like a one-armed Italian organ grinder without the monkey.

Most of us would happily take a few weeks off under similar circumstances. But most of us don't love our jobs as much as Allison Crowley Demag does.

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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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