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The Blame Game 

Fair Game

Bernie Sanders

Published October 1, 2008 at 5:31 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

In recent debates, Gov. Jim Douglas has implied that the improper use of public-relations positions pre-date his taking office.

He's done nothing wrong, he claims. He claims previous administrations have done the same.

As readers know, I've been tracking these PR positions to find out what they do, how much they get paid and if any of them end up working on the governor's reelection campaign. Personally, I think the press in Vermont is letting Douglas off easy on this one. Maybe it's because former colleagues in the media hold these coveted "communicator" slots.

Like Sen. John McCain calling The New York Times "partisan," the Douglas tribe argues that any Vermont reporter who deigns to ask difficult questions is friendly to the "opposition."

The gov's chief communicator, Jason Gibbs, intimated as much earlier this year after "Fair Game" compared the administration's heavy-handed tactics against two compost operations with the way it helped OMYA, a known polluter, navigate state regulations.

Back to the story at hand. Douglas spends about $400,000 of taxpayer dollars on six governor-appointed, state government positions, whose chief role is communications - internal and external. They crank out press releases and agency reports, cull questions from the media and the public, sit in on interviews, and serve as liaisons to Douglas' office and to the National Governors Association (of which Douglas is vice chairman).

We also found Douglas is using about $40,000 from the Agency of Transporta-tion to fund a communications staffer in the executive office. And, three of the governor's top executive-office staffers are now "on leave" to run his campaign.

So, did Gov. Howard Dean really have the same kind of press operation, as Douglas' defenders claim? Did staffers come and go from the Fifth Floor to the campaign?

Not that I can recall. But, rather than leave it to one jaded reporter's memory, I asked a few of Dean's former staffers about their boss' "PR" positions.

Kate O'Connor, a longtime Dean aide, said Douglas' PR positions were used, under Dean, to conduct policy research. Help with a press release once in a while? Maybe. But, by and large, it was all behind-the-scenes work. Attorneys, not former journalists, filled many of the positions.

"Other than [Dean's press secretary] no one's job was principally to communicate to the media," said O'Connor. "Even when he was thinking of running for president, we never added press staff. It was all Sue Allen."

Allen, a former Associated Press reporter, was a Dean press secretary (he had three over time). She is now the editor of the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus.

When Dean was NGA chairman, he used only one person on staff to help him work on national policy, O'Connor said. Douglas uses several "communicators" to track NGA policies.

Sure, you're thinking, O'Connor is just a partisan hack. But, after taking a breather following Dean's White House run, she re-entered Vermont politics in 2006 as a campaign advisor to Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rich Tarrant. (A couple of Tarrant campaign staffers now work for Douglas.)

O'Connor's parents, though prominent Ds, support Douglas. Her father - former House Speaker Timothy O'Connor - is one of two people to defeat Douglas. He did it in 1979 in the race for speaker. Sen. Patrick Leahy did it in the 1992 U.S. Senate race.

Kate O'Connor was also the only staffer to take leave from the former governor's office to run his gubernatorial campaigns. In all Dean's years as governor, only three campaign staffers ever went to work for him in state government. One of them, Richard Smith, is now deputy commissioner at the Department of Public Service.

In response, Gibbs complained via email that "Fair Game" has "unfairly singled out" the role of Douglas' communicators in his political operation. "Your missives are perpetuating the inaccuracy that this is the bulk of their responsibilities," wrote Gibbs.

Unfair? Douglas folks don't take criticism well.

Gibbs fails to note that I debunked the claim by Democrats that Douglas spends $1 million on his PR machine. The Dems inflated that figure; it includes positions not appointed by the governor, but rather union employees paid to keep the public informed.

In his note, Gibbs also chided me for not reporting that the administration cut $500,000 in "exempt" positions from the 2008 and 2009 budgets to "address this specific concern about the so-called 'PR' positions."

Consider it reported.

But none of those job cutswere associated with PR-related functions.

Moreover, when the Legislature voted last year to cut $400,000 in PR positions, Douglas balked. He offered to compromise by cutting exempt staff, but none of the PR slots.

Hey, someone had to be around to let us know why it was a bad idea to cut certain state jobs, and then blame Dean for creating them in the first place.

In the end, that's what bugs Kate O'Connor most. She has nothing against Douglas personally, but she's tired of seeing problems laid at the feet of the Dean team.

"It's been six years," said O'Connor. "You could play the blame game in 2002, but not in 2008."

What can a governor do in six years?

Try this: From 1992 to 1998, the Dean administration moved Vermont from 50th in terms of fiscal health to balancing the state budget and socking away millions for a rainy day. He also ushered in welfare reform (1994); campaign finance reform (1997); Act 60 (1998); and expanded health care for kids.

What's Douglas done comparatively? Well, he too has balanced the books and kept money in the rainy-day fund. But he's fallen short on a couple of key initiatives, such as expanding broadband and cellphone coverage and luring high-paying jobs to Vermont. Last week the Lydall Corp. of St. Johnsbury said it will close its plant, laying off 190, to consolidate its operations in the South.

When Douglas talks about getting our economy moving, something tells me this isn't what he has in mind.


Trust Is a Four-Letter Word - If you thought Vermont Yankee, sexual predators, the financial crisis and crumbling bridges were the issues in the Vermont gubernatorial race, think again.

It's trust.

Independent Anthony Pollina sparked the issue in last week's Vermont Public Radio debate, touting new census figures that show Vermont has the highest rate of uninsured children in New England, topping out at 9.3 percent in 2007.

Why is that? Pollina asked Douglas.

Douglas didn't know. "First of all, I don't know if it's true," he replied. "The Census Bureau, although a government agency, isn't always reliable with its statistics."

Gee, if you can't trust the bean counters at the Census Bureau, whom can you trust? Maybe the hacks at the conservative nonprofit Tax Foundation who falsely claimed - and whom Douglas echoed - that Vermont is the most taxed state in the nation?

Moments later in the debate, Liberty Union candidate Peter Diamondstone turned the trust issue on Pollina, asking him why Vermonters should trust him, given that he "abandoned" the Progressive Party mid-campaign.

Pollina said he still has the party's active support, and that being independent gives him greater leeway to work with people of all parties.

Douglas raised the "trust" issue the day before the debate when he launched a TV ad attacking Democrat Gaye Symington for failing to release her complete tax returns.

But Douglas' ad stretches the facts plenty. While Symington's "pro forma" tax returns were made to look as if she files as an individual, she never tried to pass them off as real ones. Her campaign just didn't explain it very well.

Douglas folks say it's a matter of "trust." How can Vermonters trust Symington to make decisions that benefit everyone and not just her family's financial interests?

By that token, what are we to make of Douglas taking money from contractors that do business with, or are regulated by, the State of Vermont? Entergy, OMYA and Corrections Corporation of America come to mind.

CCA has given thousands to Douglas and the Vermont GOP over the years. They even sponsored Douglas' first gubernatorial ball. Entergy sponsored a ball, too, and its top official in Vermont, Brian Cosgrove, is a regular contributor, usually maxing out at $400 per election. OMYA execs have given Douglas thousands of dollars over the years from a variety of corporate entities linked to the parent firm.

Guess these companies simply trust the governor's leadership and economic policies, right?



Socialist Sidestep - No one runs a statewide campaign like Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, and other pols know it. So, they often seek his endorsement.

But, Sanders tells "Fair Game," he will not issue an endorsement for governor this year.

That's bad news for Symington, who has asked for Sanders' support. Her first TV ad did little to make her case. The ad ignored three key advertising standards: color, action and the candidate speaking into the camera. Odd, given that half of Vermont couldn't identify her in a police lineup.

Sanders' decision to refrain from an endorsement is also bad news for Pollina, who is modeling his effort after the senator's campaigns.

"I certainly share the view that Jim Douglas should not get another term as governor," Sanders told "Fair Game." "But I do not expect to be playing an active role in the Vermont governor's race."

The reason?

"I am currently focusing my energy on making sure that middle-class taxpayers are not saddled with a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street, and I am working as hard as I can to make sure Barack Obama is elected president," Sanders said.


A Savage End - After five years, a top aide to U.S. Rep. Peter Welch is taking wing and leaving the Hartland Democrat's political nest.

Andrew Savage's last day as the first-term congressman's communications director is October 20. He'll be taking over as the deputy communications director for, a policy group based in Tacoma Park, Maryland, that is pushing for strong federal action to reverse climate change.

Savage, 27, a Calais native and Middlebury College grad, has been working alongside Welch since 2003. He served as Welch's legislative aide when the latter was president pro tem, and in 2006 he was chief spokesman for Welch's congressional campaign.

"Peter's been an incredible mentor and friend to me, and it's been an honor to work with him all these years," said Savage.

Watch out, global warming foes. Maybe the planet does have a chance after all.

To Mr. Savage: Bonne chance!


Run, Ralph, Run - Speaking of needing luck, independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader will be in Vermont this Sunday.

The citizen crusader made a brief stop in April and returns to speak at the Big Picture Theater in Waitsfield from 4-6 p.m., and at the University of Vermont's Ira Allen Chapel at 7:30 p.m. He'll talk about why he's running for prez and the issues he hopes to bring to the debates. If he's ever invited, that is.

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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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