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Vermont's Pet Rock? 

Inside Track

Bernie Sanders

Published March 24, 2004 at 5:00 p.m.

In 1975, Howard Dean was in medical school in the South Bronx. Gary Dahl was in California trying to make a go of it in advertising. One evening, over a few cocktails with his pals, he came up with the idea for marketing the perfect pet -- a Pet Rock.

At $3.95, Dahl's rocks made great stocking stuffers. They also made Gary Dahl a millionaire, and a forgotten one at that, despite all the national press and appearances on "The Tonight Show." It was a one-year phenomenon for Mr. Dahl.

Howard Dean's shooting-star candidacy for president of the United States is all behind him now. The horde of TV cameras and reporters, too. And his current political challenge is to prevent himself from becoming the Pet Rock of 2003.

To that end, Ho-Ho is protecting the privacy of his Internet mailing list while attempting to morf "Dean for America" into "Democracy for America." The list, said Dean, "will not be sold, rented nor lent to anybody." He obviously intends to make as much as he can out of his star status while it lasts.

Just having Ho-Ho on the speaker's list turned last Friday's Democratic Party fundraiser into an overflow affair. Biggest Democrat fundraiser in memory.

Before the dinner, Dean met with the local press at his enormously empty campaign headquarters in South Burlington. Ho-Ho was a bit testy -- perfectly understandable after the media gauntlet he's had to run through. He even suggested that if yours truly ever decided to leave Vermont, The New York Post would be a perfect landing spot.

It was a little like the old days. Dean also got snippy over WCAX reporter Kristin Carlson's non-threatening questions. One exchange went like this:

Carlson: Gov. Dean, can you stay relevant? When you were in Seattle during the campaign, 10,000 people came to hear you. This week, 500 people came out.

Ho-Ho: "It was cold. Next?"

Kristin: "I don't think you answered my question, Governor."

Ho-Ho: "That's right. I didn't."

The one question on our minds was how does Dr. Pet Rock explain the phenomenon Vermonters witnessed in 2003? Overnight we all witnessed Ho-Ho change from a soft-spoken passionate centrist into the nation's leading Progressive voice.

Dean first reminded us of the attention he got back in 1994 for accusing House Speaker Newt Gingrich of "smoking opium in the speaker's office."

And he explained the difference between the roles of presidential candidate and governor.

"Putting something into action and managing it is a lot different than going out and campaigning on it," said Dean. "It requires different skills."

And an ability to scream in public, eh?

As for suddenly appearing to sound like the echo of Rep. Bernie Sanders, Dean said he didn't "think it's a big leap for a centrist Democrat in Vermont to become a Progressive by American Democratic Party standards. When we started the race, the Democratic Party had essentially abdicated the role it had taken on since Franklin Roosevelt, which was to stand up for people who needed the protections working people and middle class people needed in a capitalist society."

Still, close your eyes and it sure sounds like Bernie, eh?

Ho-Ho made a big splash at Friday's dinner. Loose as a goose, he had the crowd rolling in their seats. And he also unleashed a passionate endorsement of Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle for governor.

You might recall that in 2002, Dean didn't get around to endorsing Doug Racine for governor until late October.


Landslide Jim? -- It's fair to say that Statehouse regulars and veteran journalists agree Jim Douglas will be easily reelected in November.

The common refrain heard during our unscientific research is, "Jim Douglas is so likable. He hasn't pissed anyone off."

But when pressed on what percentage of the vote Douglas will get against Peter Clavelle, the estimates are surprisingly low -- in the 52-55 percent range.

Remember that in 2002's three-way affair, Likable Jim won with just 44.9 percent of the votes cast. That may explain Douglas' heavier-than-Dean travel schedule around the state.

"At first," said Mayor Clavelle, "people were saying it's nice to have the governor in town. But now they're saying, ‘Doesn't he have something better to do?' He'll show at the ribbon-cutting for affordable housing projects, but does his budget reflect a commitment to affordable housing?"

Interesting to note that GOP state chair Jim Barnett is already dishing out regular attack press releases trashing Clavelle. It's the same role Mad Dog played in the 2002 Douglas campaign, only now the state party rather than the Douglas campaign pays for his services.


"I could see this coming," said Mayor Moonie. "Throughout this campaign, they're going to attempt to paint me as the big taxer and spender, living on the political fringe."

Addressing Mad Dog Barnett by name, Clavelle said, "It's not going to wash, Jim, because I've got 14 years as mayor and seven years before that working in the trenches of economic development in this city. This bull about being the big spender and anti-business doesn't wash."

Yours truly disagrees with my fellow pundits on this one. With expected record turnout in November, Douglas vs. Clavelle is a toss-up. And we bet Jim Douglas knows it.

Ticketgate Update -- Looks like a few Montpeculiar pols have been scrambling for their checkbooks since the news hit last week about the complimentary b-ball tickets for Vermont VIPs.

But one VIP, David Awbrey, stood apart. That's because Dave is not a politician. He's the editorial page editor of The Burlington Free Press.

In the Freeps' story, Awbrey said he had been "naive" in accepting the two center-court ducats.

As we pointed out here last week, most newspapers have ethical guidelines that prohibit journalists from accepting free gifts from people and institutions they cover.

We asked Freeps Executive Editor Mike Townsend this week if accepting free tickets is also prohibited by Gannett's Code of Ethics. (A copy is posted on the Freeps' website.)

"Let me put it this way," replied Mr. Townsend, "I wouldn't have done it."

Pressed on whether the Gannett ethics code specifically bans gifts like Awbrey's tickets, Townsend described the ethics code as a list of "guidelines." He pointed to one guideline under the heading "Maintaining Independence" that states reporters should keep an "arms-length relationship" with the people and institutions they write about.

"Clearly, as a general rule," said Townsend. "You're not supposed to accept gifts."

Asked if any disciplinary action will be taken against the editorial page editor, Townsend said such internal matters are generally not made public.

"It's between me and him," said the executive editor.

Funny, but Mr. Awbrey sees things differently.

"It's not in the Gannett ethics code," Awbrey insisted in a Seven Days interview. "There's nothing on this," he said, referring to his two tickets to the big game.

Technically, Awbrey's right. Unlike other ethics codes, Gannett's doesn't specifically say "don't accept gifts from the folks you cover."

In fact, Gannett's code of ethics reads like a Boy Scout handbook. It's very broad-brush and overloaded with platitudes like, "We will obey the law" and "We will always try to do the right thing."

Right for whom?

Awbrey, 55, a career journalist, recounted his earlier days back in 1977 as an AP reporter covering the Pennsylvania legislature. He vividly remembered the December day he strolled into the state capital press room and witnessed reporters carrying out cases of liquor. The tradition in Pennsylvania, he said, was to distribute the year's haul of seized booze to Statehouse pols and press just before Christmas.

Nice tradition, eh?

Later as a Kansas journalist, Awbrey said he recalled sitting next to the chancellor of the university at a couple games. No big deal.

The current little tempest over his free UVM tickets, said Awbrey, "is all about appearance. The rule today is: if it appears to be wrong, it's wrong."

Awbrey told Seven Days this week that he's "paid the price" for breaking that rule. As Naive Dave put it, "Never underestimate your own stupidity. I live in one of the bigger glass houses around."

Poor guy. He's starting to sound like a Ticketgate victim.

P.S. For many locals, the expression "Gannett ethics" is an oxymoron. Last week we mentioned that 10 years ago Freeps reporter Paul Teetor got in trouble for using his press ID to gain free admission to a UVM basketball game. It was one of the incidents cited by management when he was fired.

But Teetor sued. And we'll never forget the day Freeps Assistant Managing Editor Juli Metzger admitted under cross-examination she had repeatedly lied in her sworn deposition. The lies bolstered the paper's case. She toed the company line.

As a result of Metzger's stunning admission on the stand, Gannett's lawyer quickly upped his offer to Mr. Teetor and the case was settled out of court with a six-figure payoff to the fired reporter.

Gannett just as quickly rewarded Metzger for lying under oath with a promotion to the managing-editor position at one of its Ohio papers. In 2000, the year Gannett came out with its "Code of Ethics," Metzger was named Gannett's "Editor of the Year."

The company cited her leadership on a year-long feature project, entitled "Moment of Truth," at the chain's Marion, Ohio, paper.

That's right: Lying journalist wins award for truth series!

You can't make this stuff up.

Kidney Politics -- Osama bin Laden, the world's most wanted criminal, may be anywhere. But it's certain he's not hiding out in the woods of Vermont's Orleans County. That's because Osama requires regular kidney dialysis to survive. He'd never tolerate the four-hour round-trip drives to Burlington four times a week to undergo four hours of blood cleaning.

The Orleans County locals are seeking about $500,000 from the legislature to help get a nine-bed dialysis unit built. Ron Holland M.D., an emergency room physician at North Country Hospital, is leading the charge. But it doesn't look to be a priority for the Republican-controlled House.

That's surprising given the area's strong Republican representation in the House. Four years ago, in the civil-unions backlash election of 2000, the area sent a vaunted "Six Pack" to the Statehouse to save Vermont from Sodom and Gomorrah.

But the homosexual hordes never came, and civil unions have proven to be both a good step for the state of Vermont and a shining example for the nation. Let freedom ring!

Five "Sex Packers" survived the 2002 election: Reps. Nancy Sheltra, Duncan Kilmartin, John Hall, David Bolduc and Loren Shaw.

At its essence, Statehouse politics is about bringing home the bacon. There's been a lot of chatter in the building lately about the apparent ineptness of the God Squad to do that for the kidney patients back home.


Vermont Connection -- The newest and hottest public-policy institute on Capitol Hill is called the Center for American Progress. Former Clinton chief-of-staff (an ex-Patrick Leahy aide) John Podesta is the front guy.

But the Center's punch comes from its sizzling website -- -- with its daily dose of inside Washington info that leaves one wondering, "Why didn't the Washington Post or CBS News get that first?"

The Center's stories provide all the facts --and we mean all the facts -- including internal documents available for downloading.

Leading the Center's pack of investigative journalists is David Sirota, former press secretary for Rep. Bernie Sanders.

Small world, eh?

On Monday, Sirota & Co. shredded public pronouncements on counter-terrorism from the likes of National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

The documentation's all there with the links and sources to back it up, from Rice's lies about never imagining that hijacked planes could be used as terrorist weapons, to Ashcroft's pre-9/11 realignment of the Justice Department.

His predecessor Janet Reno had made counter-terrorism her number-one priority. Ashcroft, however, switched course. He wanted to turn the Justice Department into a kind of Gestapo-like domestic police force. Illegal drugs, rather than terrorism, was on his most-wanted list on September 10, 2001.

So when you hear Dubya braying about his commitment to fight terrorism, folks, don't forget it's a tune that's only recently been added to his repertoire.

Grassroots Heroine-- Quite the big Vermont Democratic Party love fest in Burlap Friday night. The Wyndham Hotel ballroom was packed so tight, they had to set up tables in the hallway for the overflow.

No doubt, Vermont's Pet Rock, Howard Dean, was the big draw.

But the second biggest was Margaret Lucenti, a recipient of the David Curtis Award. Margaret, 82-years-young, works at the Statehouse as clerk for the Senate Judiciary Committee. She's an inspiration to all who know her. That explains why two Republican senators attended Friday's Democratic bash, too. Sens. Vince Illuzzi and Bill Doyle were there for Margaret.

Lucenti actually gave the best speech of the evening. Her institutional memory of Democratic politics goes way back to the days before Howard Dean moved here.

She spoke of her Irish immigrant grandma who worked in the mills. Margaret's parents worked in a shoe factory and were Democratic Party activists. "They fought for a minimum wage instead of piecework. There was no overtime, or paid vacation, no health care and very unsafe working conditions."

Margaret remembered the Depression firsthand, and the upheaval in the 1960s and the war in Vietnam.

"It's sounds like deja vu all over again with the War in Iraq," Margaret told the audience.

"Some people have said over the years that I was on the fringe," said Great Grandma Lucenti. "Maybe that makes me more of a Progressive, but the Democratic Party is the party that represents my ideals."

Howard Dean's ideals, too. Ah, it's great to see the children of mill workers and the children of mill owners together at last!

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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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