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Who's Milking Whom? 

Fair Game

Bernie Sanders

Published August 6, 2008 at 5:31 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

A note to readers: I'm off this week on vacation to the Maine coast. Any late-breaking news will be dealt with next week - if it's still news.

The news couldn't have come at a worse time for gubernatorial candidate Anthony Pollina. Late last week the Vermont Milk Company, Pollina's business start-up, laid off two of its seven employees in an effort to stay afloat.

Just a week earlier, Pollina called together a group of stalwart supporters to announce he was dropping his bid as a Progressive and was instead going to run as an Independent. The move, he claimed, was to better reflect the political diversity of his supporters and to woo those who just can't bear to vote for a Progressive.

Vermont Milk Company's woes are likely to hurt Pollina's chances in an already difficult governor's race. Supporters want the company to succeed, of course, while critics hope voters will see the struggling business as evidence of Pollina's shortcomings as a manager.

Pollina critics will revel in the fact that VMC's board of directors hired a Republican consultant four months ago to help Vermont Milk Company get on firm financial footing. Years ago, Dennis Myrick worked for the state GOP, and this fall he's on the ballot in a three-way primary to represent St. Johnsbury in the Vermont House.

"I know some people want it to fail or succeed because of politics," Myrick said, "and that means I'm fighting a lot of battles."

Myrick, who has been working to trim production costs, streamline VMC's product offerings and increase sales to distributors, has winnowed the company's five-figure monthly losses of earlier this year down to a $9000 loss in June.

Myrick said the company's true fixed costs were difficult to assess when he first came on board, but by monitoring VMC's cash flow on a daily basis, he thinks he has a better handle on those numbers now.

If the company can't boost its bottom line it may have to make additional staffing cuts or reduce production.

"We need a cash injection, and we need to monitor our costs, and we need to keep producing," said Myrick. "If any one of these things interfere with where we are, that will affect where we're going."

As with any startup, VMC has had its struggles. When the company launched in 2006, it was paying farmers no less than $15 per hundredweight for their milk; other processors were paying roughly $11 per hundredweight.

VMC was also picking up the cost of trucking the milk to its processing plant in Hardwick, which added anywhere from $1 to $3 per hundredweight to the company's costs.

Then came higher-than-expected milk prices and skyrocketing fuel prices.

As VMC's troubles have mounted, Pollina has distanced himself from the company. His campaign website originally claimed that the candidate had "run" VMC. But when word got out that he had to seek six-figure investments to keep the company afloat - he had to pay back farmers tens of thousands of dollars - his website was changed to simply say he had been "on the board."

Meanwhile, Pollina the candidate was claiming he had solicited $100,000 in donations and pledges for his gubernatorial campaign.

When news of the VMC layoffs hit last week, Pollina issued a statement through his campaign. He said that while he hasn't "been up there for a long time," he wasn't surprised to hear of the company's "restructuring." The layoffs, he said, reinforce "the need to do everything possible to support local businesses and find new ways to help them lower costs and access capital."

"The Vermont Milk Company is a work in progress," Pollina said. "These farmers are trying to do a difficult thing - regain control of their milk and rebuild a local dairy industry that has been taken over by a few big corporations . . . Reality is businesses are going under from left to right."

In March, when the Caledonian-Record reported on VMC's problems, the company brushed it off as a "regrouping."

Farmers owed money by the company were eventually made whole. Not so for other vendors - yet.

"We got paid in full here," said Mark Barrett, a Sutton farmer who was owed thousands by the company. "It wasn't too long after the directors of the company took over and changed some of the management."

Barrett hopes the Vermont Milk Company can make a go of it - for his sake and the sake of others. "I wish there were more Vermont Milk Companies to help farmers find a home for their milk," he said.

To date, several Vermont investors have stepped up to support the company and are now on VMC's board: Chris Lloyd, of Woodstock, who has backed a number of Vermont-based startups; Mike Moseley, a Newport pediatrician and beef farmer; and John Rupert Thouron, a Stowe businessman.

Another major backer who is not on the board: Crea Lintalhac of Shelburne.

Earlier this summer Lintalhac told "Fair Game" that she would be backing both Pollina and Symington this fall. She made good on that promise - giving $2000 each to Pollina and Symington, according to campaign finance reports.

Lintalhac would not tell "Fair Game" how much she has put into the Vermont Milk Company, although she did express the hope that the business succeeds - not for Pollina's political sake, but for the sake of Vermont agriculture.

"It's an important effort that continues to need our support," she said, "and I'm hopeful that a new governor will make a difference in encouraging diverse farming in the state."


The Numbers Are In - Speaking of finances, several top candidates for governor filed campaign finance reports July 31.

Liberty Union candidate Peter Diamondstone - who was arrested at the recent gubernatorial debate for refusing to leave an event he wasn't invited to - did not file a campaign finance report because he has yet to raise or spend $500.

Incumbent Gov. Jim Douglas led the pack, raising $737,596 from 4908 Vermonters and Vermont businesses. He only rolled over about $55,000 from his 2006 campaign coffers. To date, Douglas has spent $387,764. That gives him $349,832 in cash on hand. Ninety-five percent of his contributions have come from Vermont.

Since announcing her candidacy May 12, Democrat Gaye Symington has raised $205,309 from nearly 1000 contributors. Her campaign claimed this was a "record pace of fundraising per day at this stage of the campaign compared to recent Democratic candidates for governor."

Ninety-one percent of Symington's donations came from within Vermont. The filing also shows expenditures of $70,914 and total cash on hand at $134,394.

Still, she's going to have to raise a lot more money to really take on Douglas.

As noted above, Pollina said back in late January that he had raised $100,000. Last week, his campaign reported $153,541 in contributions from more than 1084 Vermonters - meaning he's raised less than $55,000 in the last six months. Nearly $17,000 of Pollina's total has come from his family. He also reported in-kind contributions of more than $12,000. To date, Pollina has spent $130,660, leaving his campaign with just $22,856 in cash on hand, which isn't much at this stage of the campaign.

No wonder he dropped the Progressive Party label - it's not doing squat for his fundraising.

The next filing deadline is August 25. Think Pollina will make it that far?


Sanders: To the Right of Obama - Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the most liberal of them all? According to The National Journal, that would be Barack Obama. Why, he's even further to the left than Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders! And Sanders is a . . . socialist!

Isn't it eerie how the conservative Journal's rankings always seem to place the Democratic presidential nominee as "the most liberal" of all? John Kerry earned that ranking in 2004. I mean, what are the odds? Next thing we'll hear is that Obama wears Birkenstocks and drinks lattes - or worse, drives a Volvo.

Not surprisingly, Obama's opponent, Republican John McCain, had something to say about the Journal rankings. Here's a snippet of an interview he gave to the Kansas City Star just after they were issued:

KC STAR: You talked a little bit about Senator Obama today. You said he was the most extreme member of the Senate -

McCAIN: Yeah, that's his voting record.

KC STAR: Extreme? You really think he's an extremist? I mean, he's clearly liberal -

McCAIN: That's his voting record. All I said was his voting record, and that is more to the left than the announced socialist in the United States Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, so -

KC STAR: You think he's a socialist, Barack Obama?

McCAIN: Oh, I don't know. All I know is his voting record and that's what people usually judge their elected representatives by.

To Sanders' team, that sounded a bit desperate.

"Senator McCain lashed out because he has been unable to unshackle himself from the worst and least popular president in modern American history. As McCain becomes more and more desperate, expect him to resort to more sleazy attacks in the future," said Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs.

In fact, Briggs points out that Sanders and McCain voted alike on roughly one-third of all votes taken during the 110th Congress.

Additionally, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and Sanders voted the same way more than 40 percent of the time this year, and almost 36 percent of the time in 2007.

Wonder what McConnell's constituents would think about that?


Savage-ly Good Looking - This has already gotten some notice in the Vermont press and blogosphere, but it's just too funny to pass up.

The Hill, the congressional daily of insider dope, recently ranked the top 50 most beautiful people working on Capitol Hill.

Making the 2008 list was Andrew Savage, a Calais native and communications director for Democratic Rep. Peter Welch. Savage, who looks 15 but is actually 27, has worked for Welch since the congressman's days in the Vermont Senate.

John Odum at Green Mountain Daily made light of Savage's age by noting that the suit he's wearing in the photo that adorned the Hill story made it look like he was auditioning for "Miami Vice." I think he'd fit better in a movie version of "The West Wing." He could play Josh.

The Hill reporter, Kris Kitto, marveled over Savage's athletic and artistic interests - cross country skiing, biking, furniture making, photography - and then sprung the most pressing question of the day: Are you dating anyone?

Yes, he is, and said girlfriend happened to get back into town just days after the piece hit the streets. Probably a good thing.

Kitto also wondered what would happen if Savage ever ran for office. A D.C. blogger answered that question after claiming the Hill piece found Savage perfect in every way: "Uhm, basically, he'd be the white Barack Obama, and we'd be calling his supporters Savagebots and Harold Ickes' testicles would shrivel to the size of pine nuts."

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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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