A controversy has erupted in Enosburg, the home turf of the weekly County Courier newspaper. You see, the paper’s owner, publisher and chief reporter, Gregory Lamoureux, happens to be in a relationship with Felisha Leffler, the Republican challenger to Rep. Cindy Weed (P-Enosburg Falls). And Weed believes that Lamoureux has his thumb on the scale.
Weed cites articles published during the legislative session “bashing me on the issues." She said, "The articles align with [Leffler’s] positions.” Weed's chief complaint concerns stories about this year's debate over proposed gun laws, which Weed supported.
"The gun stories ran before my girlfriend was a candidate," Lamoureux contended. "I didn't know she was thinking about [running]."
Weed also complains of the paper’s restrictive policy on letters to the editor. The Courier almost never publishes letters from candidates or their close relatives during campaigns and has a limit of one letter per supporter per campaign.
Lamoureux says that the paper has had the same policy “for a decade or more,” and because Weed has run for the seat multiple times, “she's no stranger to our policies.” Weed argues that the policies haven't been as constant as Lamoureux describes; she says the Courier takes a harder line when she's the incumbent.
The district has been hotly contested in recent years, with Weed losing in 2008 and 2010, winning in 2012, losing in 2014 and winning again — by a mere 15 votes — in 2016.
Lamoureux does acknowledge one policy shift: "The Cindy Weed camp was sending letters that were clearly written by her but signed by her husband or others," he said, so he closed what he saw as a loophole by denying access to candidates' family members.
Lamoureux stirred further controversy, intended or not, when he recently floated the idea of paid letters to the editor. He proposed publishing candidates' letters for a fee of 30 cents per word. In a memo to local candidates, he argued that free publication would cost the paper sorely needed advertising revenue.
He's still mulling the idea. "We've got negative feedback from both sides," he said, "and positive feedback as well."
Generally speaking, newspapers encourage letters as a valuable community forum — and a source of free content. Weed compared the Courier unfavorably to the daily St. Albans Messenger, which regularly publishes her letters. In fact, she said, publisher "Emerson Lynn has encouraged me to write more."
Mike Donoghue, executive director of the Vermont Press Association, says that many papers set limits on letters, including on length, repetitive topics, potentially libelous content and submissions from outside the paper's market. On the subject of pay-for-publish, "Letters have been turned into ads elsewhere," Donoghue said. "The County Courier is not the only paper that suggests somebody buy an ad if a letter does not comply with its letter policy and the submitter still wants it in print."
Weed's fundamental argument is that the Courier is biased against her and is barring her from responding unless she pays for the privilege. And since the Courier is her district's hometown newspaper, it could have a substantial impact on what might be a close race.
Lamoureux acknowledged that he's treading on difficult terrain. “I not only have to make sure there is no bias,” he said, “but also that there is no perception of bias.”
That’s a toughie, given the fact that the Courier has only two full-time staffers (including Lamoureux), plus a handful of freelance writers. The paper runs a disclosure of Lamoureux's relationship with Leffler in every issue, but there’s only so much he can do to separate himself from covering the campaign. “It’d be great to hire another person, but I don’t have the resources,” he said.
The Courier isn't the only paper that deals with political romantic ties. Indeed, its disclosure cites a similar situation at Seven Days. Publisher and coeditor Paula Routly is the domestic partner of Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden). Seven Daysruns a disclosure when Ashe is the subject of a story. In addition, Routly is recused from editing the paper's coverage of the legislature and state politics.
Lamoureaux, as chief cook and bottle washer, doesn't have the capacity to create that degree of separation. But when the publisher’s girlfriend is running in the big local race, every slight is magnified. And it becomes almost impossible to avoid a perception of bias.