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Until Death Do Us Part 

Fair Game

Published March 31, 2010 at 8:50 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Next week, it’ll be one year since Vermont made history by becoming the first legislature to enact same-sex marriage without the prompt of a court ruling.

On April 7, 2009, the Vermont House voted 100-49 to override Gov. Jim Douglas’ veto of a bill that passed with just 94 votes a day earlier. The override vote was never in question in the Senate, where it passed 25-5.

In the House, predicting the outcome was more difficult.

“This will be the smallest needle I have ever threaded,” House Speaker Shap Smith said before the vote. He needed 100 votes to override, and that’s what he got.

Smith and his leadership team pulled it off with the help of six Republicans and three Democrats in conservative-leaning districts who switched their votes in the final tally, including Rep. Bob South, a freshman Democrat from St. Johnsbury.

What has the legalization of same-sex marriage wrought?

No major plagues or locusts descended upon the Green Mountain State, unless you count the political free-for-all that ensued after Gov. Douglas announced last August that he would not seek reelection.

There was no rush to the altar on September 1, the first day of legalized marriage, unlike what transpired a decade earlier following the passage of civil unions.

“I think both within Vermont and beyond it created exactly the kind of environment we had hoped,” said Beth Robinson of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force — the key strategist behind the bill’s passage. “People both gay and straight were, and are, moved by the transformation that took place. Whether it’s the high school kid that takes for granted that he is treated as an equal in this state, or it’s that kid’s mom who is just pleased as punch that she lives in a place where her kid could feel that way.”

Will there be negative political repercussions this fall for lawmakers who supported the override? Robinson and the task force are making good on promises to stand by legislators who voted yes, regardless of their party affiliations. They’ve already held outreach meetings in Barre, Charlotte, Colchester, Rutland and St. Johnsbury.

South’s vote resulted in excommunication from the church where his father-in-law preaches — a relationship he fears may be irreparable. He’s hoping the same isn’t true of voters in his district, most of whom are now less hostile to him and his family.

“There remains some animosity, and there is no doubt my vote will be an issue this fall,” said South. “I’m hoping that some of my other votes last year and this year will offset it.” Specifically, South hopes his successful effort to keep the St. Johnsbury prison open will prove his worth to constituents.

Dr. Craig Bensen, president of the groups Take It to the People and Let Vermont Vote, remains convinced that same-sex marriage will, over time, devalue the institution of marriage and lead teens of same-sex couples to engage in “risky” behavior.

In the short term, he suspects it will help fuel a “throw the bums out” movement this fall.

“The marriage issue will play in the background of the 2010 Vermont elections as part of a larger theme based on the, quote, elitism, quote, out-of-touch mindsets and sheer disdain [that] our current legislative leaders continue to evidence toward the majority of the citizenry,” said Bensen.

Robinson agrees that incumbents will face tough reelection bids this fall, and not solely because of same-sex marriage. In 2000, backlash against civil unions was fierce, and many lawmakers were tossed out. Control of the House consequently swung over to Republicans.

At the top of the GOP’s statewide ticket in 2000 was Ruth Dwyer. She, along with her lite-guv “running mate,” led the “Take Back Vermont” battle cry against civil unions and Act 60, the education-funding law. They lost to well-known incumbents, but were instrumental in delivering the message.

That lite-guv candidate? A little-known pilot and school board member from Essex: Brian Dubie.

Nuclear Secrets

Last week, Entergy announced with great fanfare that its tritium leaks are plugged and, ostensibly, under control.

Oh, frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

In place of tritium, Entergy is now pumping out promotional ads acknowledging that it misled Vermonters and, well, it’s sorry. Really sorry. No, like, for real.

Nothing like the time they forgot to monitor dry casks for radiation, or when everything was hunky-dory with the cooling-tower inspection program, or VY’s program to check for corroding pipes, or … oh, never mind.

It also appears as if the public may be getting closer to having access to the internal review conducted by the “independent” law firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius — the firm that Entergy has hired to relicense its nuke plant in New York. The report’s findings led Entergy to reprimand several top VY officials and put a few more on leave.

To date, the report has remained a secret in Vermont regulatory circles, despite Entergy’s January promise to share it with the Public Service Board, the Department of Public Service and a legislative oversight panel. Only Attorney General Bill Sorrell, who is conducting a criminal investigation into Entergy’s lies, has seen the report. Because he signed a confidentiality agreement, Sorrell is not at liberty to discuss the report.

He made the deal “in return for not fighting us on turning over documents and making potential witnesses available,” Sorrell told “Fair Game.”

He’s received 15,000 pages of documents from Entergy, so far, and has requested more.

Last week Entergy surprised everyone by announcing it would voluntarily make the contents of the mysterious report public.

But as Entergy experiments with transparency, its regulators are taking the opposite tack.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission this week fessed up to planning a daylong, secret meeting at a country club in Keene, N.H., to talk “openly” about Vermont Yankee and the tritium leak with elected officials from communities within 10 miles of the nuke plant.

Word of the April 14 meeting first surfaced on the liberal blog Green Mountain Daily, which noted that New Hampshire’s open-meeting laws are not as strict as Vermont’s.

The NRC confirmed the meeting to “Fair Game,” noting such private meetings work to “educate” elected officials.

“The participating officials have told us they have found them to be of value in enhancing their knowledge of plant issues and our oversight activities,” said Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for NRC’s Region 1 office. “Further, there are times when security-related information is discussed during these meetings. With the meeting closed, it allows for the discussion of topics in this area.”

Sheehan said Entergy is not taking part in the secret briefing.

Instead, Entergy officials will take part in an NRC-sponsored public briefing about the tritium leak on April 12 from 1 to 8 p.m. in Brattleboro’s Ramada Inn. There, the NRC “will listen to and respond to concerns from the public concerning the tritium issue at Vermont Yankee.” Entergy officials will show how they found, and stopped, the leak.

Good timing, because on Monday the Vermont Department of Health found tritium in a monitoring well that had previously had none.

Beware the Tritiumwocky!

Mr. Secretary

He hasn’t exactly kept it a secret, but this week former State Sen. Jim Condos makes it official: He is running for secretary of state.

Condos, the director of government affairs for Vermont Gas, now lives in Montpelier. He has been eyeing the job ever since Secretary of State Deb Markowitz announced her bid for governor.

Condos will face Charles Merriman, a Montpelier attorney with Tarrant, Gillies, Merriman & Richardson, in the Democratic primary.

On the GOP side, Williston Republican Chris Roy, an attorney with Downs Rachlin Martin, has been on the county GOP circuit for months. Last week, he picked up the endorsement of U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), aka Sarah Palin’s 2008 presidential running mate. Maverick-y.

Another possible GOP candidate is Jason Gibbs, former spokesman for Gov. Jim Douglas and currently commissioner of forest, parks and recreation. He’ll make a decision after the legislative session.

Labor of Love

On Thursday night in Barre’s Old Labor Hall, all five Democratic candidates for governor will take part in the first live debate that will be televised statewide.

Vermont Public Television will also host a webcast on featuring a live chat moderated by myself and Anne Galloway of

The moderator of the “Working Vermont’s Democratic Primary Debate”? None other than Marselis Parsons, former news director at WCAX-TV. The 90-minute forum is being sponsored by the Working Vermont coalition — a group of the state’s largest labor unions — and underwritten by the Vermont NEA.

The debate should be a lively one: The five Democratic gubernatorial candidates are starting to put their sharp elbows to use in order to challenge each other during debates.

At a February debate in the same venue, Sens. Doug Racine (D-Chittenden) and Peter Shumlin (D-Windham) emerged the clear winners, with former State Sen.Matt Dunne a close third. Markowitz and Sen. Susan Bartlett (D-Lamoille) didn’t seem to get a lot of traction with the pro-labor crowd.

Will the outcomes be different this time? Tune in. The fun begins at 7:30 p.m.

Media Notes

Vermont Daily News — an online daily news site — is shuttered this month due to a lack of advertising. Publisher Alden Pellett said he hopes to restart April 1.

“I’m looking at a lot of options, from forging ahead with more risk through much bigger financing, to pairing with an existing media outlet in some way,” said Pellett, who launched VDN last July.

For a full report, check out Blurt!

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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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