The revolving door between Vermont's small worlds of press and politics has spun again.
Speaking at his weekly press conference Thursday, Gov. Peter Shumlin named former Vermont Press Bureau chief Louis Porter as his next secretary of civil and military affairs. Porter, who most recently served as "Lake Champlain lakekeeper" for the Conservation Law Foundation, will be charged with implementing Shumlin's agenda in the legislature.
Or, as Shumlin put it, "ensuring that the legislators do everything we want and should do."
With Porter's former colleagues gathered around a conference table in the governor's office, Shumlin said, "He's someone whose integrity and extraordinary intelligence and commitment to what's best about Vermont has always impressed me."
The Calais native worked in journalism for 10 years — his last five in the Press Bureau, which provides Statehouse news coverage for the Rutland Herald and the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. At the CLF, Porter has been an outspoken advocate for Vermont's rivers and lakes — particularly in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene.
He was highly critical of the Shumlin administration's failure to enforce environmental laws after Irene, telling Seven Days in June, "To tell you the truth, I think both ANR’s actions after Irene and the statements from the governor both contributed to bad work in the river. Both had a hand in that."
Asked after the press conference whether such criticism made him hesitant to take the job, Porter said, "Obviously it didn't. If that had been a factor for me, I wouldn't have taken the job. The roles are different, the positions are different and the obligations and goals are different in each of the two jobs, as they were in my previous job as a reporter. So I know that and look forward to that."
In a statement released shortly after the announcement, CLF Vermont director Christopher Kilian said the organization is "proud" and "not at all surprised that the governor should want such a talented and well-respected Vermonter leading in this influential role."
Porter is currently on leave from the CLF and plans to formally depart the organization later this week; he'll begin his new job, which pays $71,000, December 31. Porter replaces longtime Shumlin aide Alex MacLean in the secretary position and as the administration's chief lobbyist — but he won't assume MacLean's title of deputy chief of staff. And he said it's too soon to say whether he'd play a similar role as MacLean did leading the governor's political campaigns.
Porter is the latest in a long line of Vermont reporters who have moved from journalism to politics — and sometimes back. Joining him at the press conference, for instance, was Shumlin spokeswoman Sue Allen, who worked for years at the Associated Press before serving as press secretary for former governor Howard Dean. After that, Allen went back to journalism — first to the Burlington Free Press and then to the Times Argus — before finally landing back in the Shumlin administration.
(At far left is Porter's former Press Bureau colleague, Peter Hirschfeld, grilling the new secretary, second from right.)
As former Seven Days political columnist Shay Totten exhaustively documented in the Vermont Guardian in 2006, the Press Bureau in particular has sent a number of former reporters into public service. That list includes former VPB scribes Diane Derby (who went to work for former senator Jim Jeffords and now works for Sen. Patrick Leahy), Tracy Schmaler (Leahy and now the U.S. Department of Justice), David Mace (former governor Jim Douglas and now FEMA), John Zicconi (Douglas), Darren Allen (Douglas and now the Vermont National Education Association), and many more.
The revolving door, of course, isn't restricted to the Press Bureau. As he noted in his 2006 piece, Totten himself went to the dark side — working for former state auditor Liz Ready between jobs at the Burlington Free Press and the Guardian. And then, ahem, there's me (disclosure time!). After reporting for the Brattleboro Reformer, I worked for Congressman Peter Welch for two and a half years, before eventually landing at Seven Days. While I was at the Reformer, my boss, Sabina Haskell, went to work for the Douglas administration. She now serves as a spokeswoman for FairPoint Communications.
For Porter, the decision to join the Shumlin administration wasn't a hard one.
"Obviously, if you're interested in what I'm interested in and care about the broad range of issues the state's facing, you have to think long and hard about a chance like this," he said. "When you have the opp to be involved in a little way in almost every piece of state policy and legislative policy, that's pretty appealing when you're interested in Vermont and its direction."