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The Unbearable Lightness of Being Jim Douglas 

Fair Game

Bernie Sanders

Published February 4, 2009 at 6:49 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Ever wonder what it’s like to be Gov. Jim Douglas, a conservative Republican in one of the most liberal states in America?

He ended his week with Democratic legislators ignoring most, if not all, of his money-saving proposals — laying off workers, cutting prescription drug programs, freezing school spending, etc. Why? The federal stimulus package is like pennies from heaven, and it makes tough choices a little less tough, if not avoidable. More on this later.

Then, over the weekend, the guv was summoned to the Oval Office to talk about said multibillion-dollar stimulus package, known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan. Douglas’ role? To sit beside Pres. Barack Obama and demonstrate there is GOP support for the prez’s plan to funnel billions of dollars into Medicaid, transportation and education, so that states can balance their budgets without making drastic cuts in services and staffing.

You know, like the cuts Douglas wants to make?

Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being explored the concept that we live in a world where actions have no consequences. It seems as though Gov. Douglas is living in just such a political world.

Sidling up to Obama probably will be remembered longer than any cuts Douglas has proposed, especially since Democrats aren’t going along with them. (And he is always good at taking credit for the legislature’s work.) What’s more, his Republican colleagues back home are likely to forgive Douglas’ Oval Office “transgression” — he’s their last hope of holding on to the governor’s office in Vermont.

While this “lightness of being” may not help Douglas advance his agenda, it certainly doesn’t hurt him. Despite being unbearable to about 40 percent of voters, he keeps getting reelected.


First, we like incumbents — no matter the party. And, regardless of how weak Gov. Douglas seems to some, defeating him is always easier said than done. Even in liberal Vermont.

The picture of a smiling Douglas in the Oval Office serves as an ample reminder.


The Democratic Bench — Recently, I’ve heard fewer folks in Montpelier talk about what’s next for Gov. Douglas and more talk about who will succeed him.

Usually, it’s the other way around: About now is when we begin hearing rumors that Douglas will take on Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy in 2010. Or that he’ll step down and become president of Middlebury College.

Not this time. A poll in early January conducted by Research 2000 for the national liberal blog DailyKos put the kibosh on a Douglas-Leahy rematch. In 1992, Leahy bested Douglas 54-43. In a hypothetical 2010 rematch, the incumbent senator prevails 58-36.

DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas titled his blog post “VT-Sen: Nothing to see here, move on . . .

For the record, Leahy is running for reelection. As evidence he’s in it to win, he’s signed up the sharp and savvy Carolyn Dwyer as campaign manager. She’s one of the best in the business — she ran Leahy’s 2004 winning campaign against businessman Jack McMullen, and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch’s last two successful bids for Congress.

So the plummiest federal office seems out of reach. Yet a reelection bid by Douglas almost certainly means he’ll face a Democrat more organized and better-funded than his opponents in past cycles.

Let’s recap the list of hopefuls:

Former Lt. Gov. Doug Racine, currently a Democratic senator from Chittenden County, is a definite candidate. And Secretary of State Deb Markowitz tells “Fair Game” she is “exploring.”

Both have quietly put campaign teams in place and begun reaching out to primary voters in an attempt to build early support; soon they’ll start raising money.

“I am not ready to make any announcements at this time,” said Markowitz. “My principal focus is on finding ways we can continue to provide the services Vermonters rely on while spending less, and to find ways to encourage economic development in our communities.”

That said, “Fair Game” has learned Markowitz hired Jason Powell, the former statewide director of the Obama campaign in Vermont.

Racine, like Markowitz, said his main focus is on legislative work.

“But I am talking to people, and a lot of people are talking to me,” he said, “and I’m working with a few folks to get things organized in such a way so I can accept contributions that are offered, and even try to raise a little money.”

Other names being tossed into the mix are former State Sen. Matt Dunne (D-Windsor), Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin (D-Windham), Democratic Treasurer Jeb Spaulding, Appropriations Chairwoman State Sen. Susan Bartlett (D-Lamoille), and Majority Leader Sen. John Campbell (D-Windsor).

If Markowitz makes the leap, who might step in to run for her post?

Former State Sen. Jim Condos, a Democrat from Chittenden County, is the name we most often hear. Condos was a big proponent of open and transparent government and campaign finance reform.


Where’s the Outrage? — If Democrats want to take on Douglas in 2010, don’t they have to show some spine and push back against repackaged Reaganomics budget proposals?

Guess what? They are. Some even joined hundreds of Vermonters at a series of statewide rallies Monday night held by the Save Our State coalition — a group calling on lawmakers not to go along with Douglas’ cuts to services.

They’ve already heard the outcry. In the Senate, two bills introduced by Racine would reverse cuts made to the budget by Douglas and the Joint Fiscal Committee. One would restore chiropractic care for Medicaid recipients, the other undo the layoffs of eight federally funded health department workers.

House Speaker Shap Smith said response to Douglas’ proposals has been muted for two reasons: the federal stimulus package, and the fact that the Dems are preparing to balance the budget differently.

“Why waste energy reacting to things that aren’t going to happen in the first place?” said Smith.

Good point.


Republicans Against Profit — A group of House Republicans took aim at Vermont nonprofits last week, calling on groups that receive at least half of their funding from the state to cut top executive pay by 5 percent.

Rep. Patricia O’Donnell (R-Vermont Yankee, er, Vernon) led the call, and even made it easy for reporters by handing out a six-page list of 34 nonprofits with the names and salaries of some of their top officers — some well into the six figures. Hey, who said there isn’t “profit” in being “not-for-profit”?

Funny thing is, several NFPs on O’Donnell’s list — such as Vermont Energy Investment Corp. (which runs Efficiency Vermont) and the Vermont Land Trust — don’t actually get much operating money from the state and thus wouldn’t be affected by her bill.

O’Donnell even took pains to point out that VEIC’s top eight people earn a combined $1 million annually. (The same could be said of Douglas’ top eight folks.)

What gives?

Oddly, the list includes agencies that have already taken state budget cuts and have complained publicly — affordable housing groups, mental health services, homeless shelters, etc. Missing from it? Regional economic development groups that receive plenty of public dough.

Must be they don’t pay their top folks so well.

O’Donnell isn’t the only one to complain about nonprofit salaries.

In his budget speech, Gov. Douglas opined, “A review of salaries for nonprofit executives reveals some with robust compensation packages well in excess of state or municipal employees managing like-sized or larger organizations.” However, Douglas refused to say if he will support O’Donnell’s bill.

After his budget address, and when pressed by reporters to name the nonprofits whose execs are overpaid, Douglas said his Secretary of Administration Neale Lunderville had reviewed a swatch of nonprofit budgets, including salary info, and put them into a report.

O’Donnell said she compiled her list after spending time on Guidestar (a nonprofit clearinghouse) reviewing IRS forms.

Hey, think those lists are one and the same?


Welch the Watchdog? — Congressman Welch is taking some heat in D.C., even though he’s returned $19,000 in campaign cash from the ethically challenged Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY).

Welch serves on the House Ethics Panel, which is investigating charges that Rangel failed to report rental income on a Dominican Republic villa, used congressional stationery to raise money for a pet charity, and more.

The New York Times’ editorial writers applauded Welch’s reimbursement move and chided two of his colleagues — Democrats G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina and Ben Chandler of Kentucky — for keeping Rangel’s donations.

The Times declared “Lawmakers laden with Mr. Rangel’s gifts should either recuse themselves from investigating him or return his money.”

One D.C. watchdog group — Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington — said members who took money should give the cash back and recuse themselves.

“If you have taken money from the guy, you shouldn’t be judging him. Even if you are objective, there’s a real appearance problem,” Melanie Sloan, CREW’s executive director, told The Hill.

Welch’s Chief of Staff Bob Rogan told “Fair Game” his boss exercised “an abundance of caution” in returning the campaign contributions.

“He takes this assignment very seriously,” said Rogan, “and, in the Vermont tradition, will call them as he sees them.”


Changing of the GuardJeff Weaver, the longtime aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders, has stepped down as chief of staff. Into the breach has stepped Huck Gutman — another longstanding political ally and coauthor of Sanders’ book Outsider in the House.

Weaver, a Franklin County native and former U.S. Marine, first worked with Sanders during his 1986 gubernatorial bid. He stuck with his man, and was at his side when Sanders won a seat in Congress. Weaver went to D.C. with the Rep, left to earn a law degree at Georgetown University, and signed back up with Sanders in 1999. He also ran Sanders’ victorious 2006 senatorial bid against Republican businessman Richard Tarrant.

Weaver, who remains on staff for now, is mum on his next steps. But we wish him the best.


W., We Hardly Knew Ya — If former Pres. George W. Bush had ever set foot in Vermont, it’s likely that Rodolphe M. “Skip” Vallee would have been at the head of the line to greet him.

Vallee surrendered his post as U.S. ambassador to Slovakia in December, a post he had held since 2005.

Before he left the country, Vallee delivered a speech titled “Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush: Leadership and Moral Clarity” to the Ronald Reagan Conservative Club. No foolin’. The Gipper’s got a fan club in Bratislava, Slovakia. Freed ’em from Communism or some such thing.

Vallee said Bush will have an enduring legacy, too.

“History is going to be a lot kinder [to Bush] than the editorial pages of The New York Times have,” said Vallee. “Even my liberal friends will agree that he kept us safe.”

Vallee said Pres. Obama will recognize that some of Bush’s efforts — the Department of Homeland Security and anti-terror measures — will help face down new threats.

“I believe his policies will become a lot closer to President Bush’s than his base wishes [they] were,” predicts Vallee.

Anyone want to believe in that kind of change?

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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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