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Why "Pete the Moose" Could Still Be Caught in the Crosshairs

Local Matters


Published June 16, 2010 at 9:36 a.m.


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Longmuir volunteers with the Vermont Festival of the Arts, and Hewison’s a DJ at community radio station WMRW 95.1 FM, where the couple got married on air in 2007.

Now Longmuir and Hewison are reluctantly putting the Sugartree Inn up for sale and preparing to move back to London. The couple’s visas expire in 2012, and they believe there’s zero chance of getting them extended. Since bed and breakfasts typically take up to two years to sell, the husband and wife are listing the business now rather than betting on the vagaries of the immigration system.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Longmuir says. “We love this country. We love Vermont. We put our hearts and souls into this business, and made so many good friends here in the valley.” She uses local shorthand to refer to their adopted home: the lush, recreation-rich Mad River Valley.

Newspapers and online forums offer plenty of stories about E-2 visa holders who sank big money into U.S. business ventures hoping to spend a decade or more here, only to be sent home when immigration officials deemed their businesses of “marginal” value. Some were employing U.S. workers and pumping money into local economies.

A well-liked British couple, Julie and Jonathan Pierce, purchased the Inn Victoria in Chester five years ago. Earlier this year, the U.S. government sent them packing after denying a visa extension because they didn’t have any employees.

Longmuir and Hewison have chosen to sell and split rather than risk winding up in similar straits.

“I’m 56 years old, and I’d quite like to have roots now,” Longmuir says. “I can’t take the chance that in November 2012, I’m told, ‘No renewal,’ and now I’m in a situation where you’ve got a place to sell and all your money’s tied up in it.”

Longmuir and Hewison knew when they applied for E-2 visas that their Vermont stay was temporary and could end at any time; they had to sign a form declaring they wouldn’t seek U.S. residency. But they held out hope of finding a path to green cards.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service approves more than 80 percent of E-2 extensions, says USCIS spokesman Bill Wright. Wright can’t comment directly on Longmuir and Hewison’s case, but says that when reviewing E-2 renewals, the USCIS considers money made and lost, future growth potential and the number of family members an investor is supporting.

Wright says the USCIS has “leeway and wiggle room” in determining whether a business is viable or “marginal,” and he admits that can be “somewhat subjective.” But he maintains officials look at hard numbers — business tax records, personal tax records — to evaluate an E-2 enterprise.

The numbers might be on their side, but Leslie Holman, a Burlington-based immigration attorney who represents Longmuir and Hewison, says the couple have good reason to worry about being denied visa extensions. The number of such extensions being approved is dropping — from 91 percent in 2008 to 82 percent today — and the U.S. embassy in London, where the innkeepers would have to apply, has become more selective over the last five years. Holman has represented dozens of E-2 petitioners from Vermont and New England over the years and has seen an increasing number encounter trouble.

“They have a very valid concern that when they go back, London is going to say, Well, you don’t have enough employees, you don’t have enough of this, and they actually could decide to deny it,” says Holman.

Longmuir and Hewison say the uncertainty around the E-2 program is forcing them to leave Vermont. It makes no sense, they argue, to lure foreign investors here only to send them — and their money — home two or four years later.

Holman and the owners maintain that the Sugartree Inn isn’t the least bit “marginal.” The couple purchased it for $500,000 and spent another $100,000 updating the guest rooms and converting a cobweb-infested garage into a spacious new dining room and industrial kitchen. Longmuir purchased a $12,000 Aga cooker, nicknamed “Mrs. Bridges” after a 1970s British sitcom character. She uses it to bake muffins and cakes for guests.

Though they don’t have employees, Longmuir and Hewison say they hire local contractors, shop locally and are self-sufficient.

“We’ve been told by more than one or two people that if we came here illegally, we’d probably be in a much more secure situation, because they have amnesties from time to time,” says Hewison, 53.

Longmuir and Hewison left high-pressure jobs in London to escape what they call “the corporate rat race.” In England, Longmuir was a sports marketer, hobnobbing with elite athletes as she promoted pro golf tournaments and soccer matches. Hewison is a rock musician who worked in the tourism sector.

In Vermont, they found a slower pace that better suited them. “Here, people work hard, but they play hard, too,” Hewison says. “They have a life.”

The Sugartree does a brisk business during ski and fall foliage seasons, the owners say. In summer, guests come for hiking, paddling and golf. The recession has taken a toll on Sugartree’s business, but the pair are still making enough to support themselves and take one vacation a year. More importantly, they say, they’re not asking anyone for a handout.

The couple have explored alternative paths to residency, without success. Their last hope may be a PR stunt Longmuir concocted involving their chocolate Labradoodle, Beckham. The dog is going to “write” to Bo Obama, the presidential pooch, and beg for amnesty.

“Beckham’s an American,” Longmuir jokes. “He was born in Virginia. He doesn’t want to live in London.”

Getting into General Dynamics is not easy. The building that houses Vermont’s largest for-profit recipient of federal dollars and the world’s fifth largest defense contractor was designed with security in mind. Access to the four-story brick building on Burlington’s Lakeside Avenue is normally restricted to employees and visitors on official business. Numerous peacenik protests over the years, aimed at the company’s war machinery, have only solidified its closed-door policy.

But access to the Innovation Center of Vermont, which is the official home of the Armament and Technical Products division of General Dynamics, got a little easier after the Charlotte, N.C.-based defense contractor announced in October that it was pulling up stakes in Burlington and relocating its 450 employees to the IBM campus in Williston. How else could a real estate broker find a potential buyer — or tenant — for a space that has been generating more than $650,000 in property and equipment taxes for the city of Burlington every year?

Like the 77,000-square-foot Vermont Catholic Diocese headquarters on North Avenue, the Innovation Center is huge, especially for Burlington: It encompasses more than 167,000 square feet of prime commercial real estate in the city’s South End. Another parallel to the diocese property, which is currently under contract: This is the first time in decades that either the public or the press has gotten a look inside the once-secretive site.

Yves Bradley of Pomerleau Real Estate is the agent for both properties. Last week he gave Seven Days a tour of the Innovation Center, which is on the market for $31 million. The current owner, Detroit-based Lewiston Investments, will also consider a leasing arrangement with upgrades for new tenants, since there probably won’t be just one.

“The stuff we have to do for tenants is mostly cosmetic — building walls, taking out walls, painting — pretty easy stuff,” Bradley said.

The building’s north side, which looks more like modern office space, currently hosts several smaller companies, including ITT Corp. and Pragmatic Technologies.

The space occupied by General Dynamics is a different story. Built in 1894, the building originally housed the Queen City Cotton Mill. Large windows and a massive heating and ventilation system made it a desirable place to work at the time. It’s now listed on the Vermont’s Register of Historic Places.

Since General Electric moved into the space in 1948, the facility has undergone numerous renovations. In the last decade, it was retrofitted with state-of-the-art energy systems, including geothermal cooling, that make it one of the most energy-efficient buildings in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The building also features a Department of Defense-approved security system, with magnetic locking doors, key cards and dozens of internal and external security cameras that can pan, zoom, record audio and video and be operated remotely.

Aesthetically, though, the General Dynamics side of the building appears unchanged since the Eisenhower era. If local filmmakers were scouting for a location to serve as the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency, they couldn’t find a more suitable site.

“It’s like IBM in the 1960s,” noted Bradley.

A friendly but no-nonsense uniformed guard checks cameras and recording gear at the front desk. Visitors also have to provide a photo ID and sign a three-paragraph visitor registration card before being buzzed inside.

“The views from up here are incredible!” Bradley said as we surveyed the 15,000-square-foot fourth floor, and its panoramic view of Lake Champlain, downtown Burlington and the ill-fated Pine Street barge canal.

But, even with its 14-foot drop ceilings and tall windows, the GD interior feels dark and cloistered. The carpeted labyrinth of office suites, high-walled cubicles and beige filing cabinets was eerily quiet, despite all the employees working there.

The hallway walls were largely unadorned except for posters of GD products — Gatling guns, missile systems, antiaircraft ordnance and other lethal weapons, with gung-ho taglines such as “We all stand watch for the same reason,” and “Designed to fight, built to win.” There were also reminders to “shred unclassified documents,” “question security clearances,” “report coincidences” and “challenge strangers.” But no one said a word to us.

Downstairs, Bradley introduced Chip Myers of Gilbane Development Company, the building’s management company. He led us into a large, industrial-looking room with two huge black tanks that resemble brewing equipment, but are part of the geothermal cooling system.

About 300 feet below the steel plate we were standing on, a well pumps 53-degree water into these expansion tanks, chilling the building at little to no cost. According to Bradley, the building is rated 94.7 percent efficient. In the last five years, electricity usage has been cut by 32 percent; natural gas consumption by 60 percent.

Myers led the way to a control room to demonstrate how it’s done. On a computer screen, he digitally “walked” us through the building, showing how the software automatically opens and closes dampers to take advantage of the outside temperature and humidity, “like rolling down the windows in your car.”

Although the building has no other alternative-energy systems, it does have a 250-kilowatt backup generator that kicks on automatically if the system loses power. This feature is critical for maintaining General Dynamics’ impressive server room, which houses miles of computer cable.

Myers appeared upbeat about the changes. What does he think is the building’s greatest selling point. The in-house wellness center? The Lakeside Café? The 775 parking spaces? The Pentagon-approved security environment?

“The character,” he answered. “I mean, look at this place! It’s 115 years old. To have this here in Burlington is really a treasure, in my mind, and it should be occupied.”

Are endorsements from the state’s two largest unions an advantage in the five-way Democratic primary for governor?

That’s the question on the minds of many politicos after Democrat Doug Racine got backing this week from the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association and the AFL-CIO. They have a combined total of 21,500 local members.

“This is exciting news for me and a good recognition from them that I’ve been working on issues they care about. In Vermont, unions are not focused on just labor issues, but working people’s issues,” Racine told “Fair Game.”

“Labor has always been interested in issues that include worker’s compensation, minimum wage and health care,” he added.

The endorsements also supply three things necessary to win a contested primary: money, get-out-the-vote efforts and a strong volunteer base.

Racine could win the labor Triple Crown this month when the Vermont State Employees Association meets to decide who it will endorse, if anyone. The VSEA is the state’s third largest union with more than 7500 current and former state employees.

A VSEA win for Racine would almost certainly confirm his front-runner status in the primary. If another Democrat gets the nod, it would keep the full field of candidates in play.

The latter scenario is possible. Word is, Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin (D-Windham) is a contender for the VSEA’s backing.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — a member of the AFL-CIO — will meet later this month to decide if it will endorse a candidate.

Meanwhile, all the other gubernatorial wannabes are downplaying Racine’s big endorsements. Sen. Susan Bartlett (D-Lamoille) said Monday she never expected to get union support. Secretary of State Deb Markowitz contends that, while Racine has the support of union leadership, rank-and-file teachers support her.

Dunne thanked the VT-NEA for considering him second best.

What if Racine loses the primary?

Both unions were quick to say they’d support whichever Dem wins, even though they hope it’s Racine.

“We have had eight years of Republicans in charge and they have not been friendly to labor,” said Dennis Labounty, Vermont AFL-CIO’s political director. “We want to see that change.”

Association by Guilt

You can’t pick up the Burlington Free Press without reading about one Queen City scandal or another — dog-park fiascos, after-school program debacles, Burlington Telecom.

But should the actions — or inactions — of one administration cause the state’s largest daily to give short shrift to everything else going on in the city?

Kiplinger’s Personal Finance recently touted the Queen City as one of the 10 best U.S. cities for the next decade, lauding collaborations between government, colleges and private businesses and support for green and hi-tech businesses, renewable energy and local food.

City and business leaders hailed the ranking at a press event on Monday. Channel 17, WCAX, WPTZ and Seven Days were there, but the city’s paper of record didn’t show.


“It’s a little discouraging,” said Mayor Bob Kiss. “There seems to be some real selective reporting from the Free Press when it comes to Burlington.”

Neither outgoing Publisher Brad Robertson nor Executive Editor Mike Townsend responded to a request for comment on the Kiss dis.

What else has the Freeps missed?

Burlington was named one of 15 cities from around the world chosen to participate in Sir Richard Branson’s “Carbon War Room,” which could lure private capital to the Queen City for renewable-energy development.

Forbes rated Burlington among the prettiest cities in the United States. But looks aren’t everything. The magazine also declared B-town to be the second most likely location in the U.S. to find a job this spring.

Finally, the website The Daily Beast crowned Burlington as one of the Most Stoned Cities in the United States. And, no, they weren’t referring to Vermont granite.

Check and Imbalance

Dwindling public trust and support for Mayor Bob Kiss can largely be traced to the actions of his top aide: Chief Administrative Officer Jonathan Leopold. On Monday night, the Burlington City Council officially expressed its lack of confidence in Leopold. The council voted 10-4 against his reappointment.

The vote is merely symbolic, though. The council doesn’t have the authority to push Leopold out of a job.

Only councilors David Berezniak (D-Ward 2), Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1), Marrisa Caldwell (P-Ward 3) and Emma Mulvaney-Stanak (P-Ward 3) supported the mayor’s right-hand man.

Leopold is a target because he OK’d spending $17 million in city funds to prop up Burlington Telecom — a sum the utility can’t repay. Nor can BT make quarterly payments on its $33.5 million CitiCapital lease.

Leopold did have some “good” news on the BT front this week. Moody’s, the credit rating agency, reinstated the city’s bond rating to a stellar Aa3, which means it won’t cost taxpayers extra to borrow money. Still, Burlington remains on a credit watch.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Public Service expects to wrap up its financial probe of BT by the end of the month.

The DPS is no longer calling the BT probe a “forensic audit,” which implies embezzlement or fraud. Instead, it’s an “investigation” that will look closely at the source of BT’s borrowed funds and what it spent them on.

I’ve preordered a copy for summer beach reading.

You Can Quote Me?

The intrepid trio who pen “Capitol Beat,” the political column for the Rutland Herald and Times Argus, wanted to know if I had endorsed of Sen. Susan Bartlett. They found a “Fair Game” snippet on Bartlett’s website, talking up her positives. It’s titled “What People Say About Susan.”

Sure, I said it. Or, at least I wrote it, along with lots of nice things about other candidates. To be clear, though, it wasn’t an endorsement.

Several other people were equally surprised to find their glowing comments — and head shots — on Bartlett’s website. Comments from affordable-housing advocates Liz Curry and Chris Donnelly, as well as Ellen Kahler of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, were snagged from Bartlett’s Facebook page.

Comments from Donnelly and Kahler have since been scrubbed from the website.

Easier to ask forgiveness than permission, I guess.

Swimming Against Salmon

Democrat-turned-Republican Auditor Tom Salmon won’t have a challenge from within the GOP. Despite the urgings of many, former auditor Randy Brock, who is a current Republican state senator, decided not to run against Salmon in a primary. Brock lost his post to Salmon in 2006 when the latter was a Democrat.

“Given all of the changes taking place in the Senate, I think I can be most effective there,” said Brock, adding he won’t rule out a future run for auditor.

On the Democratic side, a primary is shaping up between State Sen. Ed Flanagan (D-Chittenden) and policy analyst Doug Hoffer. Flanagan was auditor from 1993 to 2001.

Hoffer worked for Flanagan when he was auditor, and has worked for other left-leaning pols, including Mayors Bernie Sanders and Peter Clavelle.

Hoffer is perhaps best known as author of the Job Gap Study series published by the Peace & Justice Center, which introduced the concept of a “livable wage” to Vermont policymakers.

FYI, the auditor’s job pays roughly $90,000 a year — a livable wage by anyone’s standard.

Got the Blues

As “Fair Game” hit the streets last week, Banking, Insurance, Securities and Health Care Administration Commissioner Paulette Thabault ordered the state’s largest health care insurer — Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont — to repay consumers nearly half of the $6.3 million retirement package it doled out to its former chief executive officer.

In 2009, “Fair Game” broke the news that BCBS gave $6.3 million to retiring CEO William Milnes Jr. That was on top of more than $1 million in compensation and bonuses.

BISHCA estimates BCBS overpaid Milnes at least $1.4 million during his last eight years of employment. As a result, his retirement package was inflated by $1.6 million. Milnes retired at the end of 2008 and now lives in Florida.

BCBS has agreed to return $3 million to subscribers in the form of lower, or lower-than-expected, premiums.

Don’t expect Milnes to pitch in a penny, though. BCBS asked him several times to repay some of the millions and he refused.

I guess you can take it with you.

Campaign Updates

It’s official: Anthony Pollina will run for state senate in Washington County … as a Democrat. He’s also hoping to pick up support from the Progressives and the nascent Working Families Party.

Pollina, a perennial Progressive candidate, actually ran for U.S. Congress in 1984 as a Democrat against Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Jim Jeffords.

“Folks in Washington County have a good idea of who I am and where I stand and were very supportive in 2008,” said Pollina. “They gave me more votes than Jim Douglas in several communities, and I finished first or second in every town but one.”

The Washington County Democratic primary will be a lively one, with incumbent Democrat Ann Cummings in the race along with former State Rep. Donny Osman and lawyer Kim Cheney.

Also, former Rep. Sally Fox, an Essex Democrat, announced this week she’s running in the crowded Chittenden County Democratic primary for state senate. Fox served 14 years in the House, where she alternately chaired the House Appropriations, Judiciary and Joint Fiscal committees. She left in 2000.

“But I never really left politics, and I think I still have a lot to offer,” said Fox.

Got a news tip? Email Shay at [email protected]

Click here to follow Shay on Twitter.

Chef Michel Mahe probably owns more restaurants than anybody else in Vermont. But his oldest, Black Sheep Bistro, is still his baby: “It is my little bistro and I love it,” he says. “It’s probably the closest to my heart.”

The child of French immigrants (a chef and a waitress), Mahe hung out in eateries from an early age and has worked at renowned spots in New York City and San Francisco. But when he moved to Vermont in 1999 for a stint as a partner in Starry Night Café, he found his home. Now, his three restaurants and one bar sate hundreds of Vermonters and tourists each week.

Because he has talented teams running The Bearded Frog and Bobcat Café & Brewery, Mahe can devote most of his time to Black Sheep, where he prepares what he calls simple fare. “It’s about a fair meal for a fair price,” he says of his flagship. “I’m not trying to be an artist; I’m just trying to give you good food.”

But the entrepreneurial chef — who has a degree from Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration — is never far from his next project. Right now, he and some of his young staffers are pondering the concept of a restaurant called Local, which would use “100 percent local [products], within reason,” Mahe says. He’s been “poking around” Middlebury in search of a place for the new eatery but hasn’t settled on one, he says, despite rumors to the contrary. “I guess if I stand in front of an empty space long enough, people think I’m opening a restaurant there.”

We’re fascinated by Vermont’s own Napoléon of the restaurant scene, so we decided to grill him…

How did your family eat when you were growing up?

My parents lived in Manhattan. They would stay at an apartment above the restaurant. [When we were 12 and 10], my brother and I would stay at our house. They’d come home on Sunday night and bring us filet mignon, roasted duck, sauces and scallops, and we’d take care of ourselves [during the week].

[When I was even younger], sometimes my father would bring home the special of the day between shifts — everybody worked doubles then. He’d come home at four with things like scallop scampi and duck confit. He’d say, “Put it in the pan, and when you smell it, it’s ready.”

So I’d put on the flame, and I could see the fire — but I was 6, and I was too short to see inside the pan. I would just stir and stir until I could smell it.

It’s almost child abuse these days, but then it was another time, and I loved it. My brother and I were eating specials from a great NYC restaurant for dinner!

Sounds like you grew up with a varied palate. Is there anything you don’t eat?

I’m lactose intolerant, which limits my ability to eat cheeses and cream. When I was a kid, I’d put my spoon and my glass and my chocolate in the fridge because I liked things cold, and then I’d drink a big glass of chocolate milk and have cramps so bad I had to roll on the floor. It was like a ritual.

My parents didn’t know [about lactose intolerance]. When we talked about it in my first class at Cornell in biology, I thought, That sounds like me, and I pulled away from [eating so much dairy].

It’s very hard. I love food, and [even if it has dairy in it], I will cook it and I will taste it and I will eat it.

What’s your favorite food?

I’m a steak frites kind of guy. Give me a good steak and good French fries and I’m a very happy man. Some of my happiest meals have been that: no sauce, no frills, just a straightforward meal. I hate to say that, but it’s a fact.

What’s your favorite beverage?

Well, I don’t drink [alcohol] anymore, so I would say my favorite beverage is water when I’m cooking, right out of the tap, like drinking from a river.

Black Sheep’s kitchen goes up to 135 degrees in the summer. You go on as long as you can ... but you’re literally dehydrating, and you know it. Then the rush is suddenly over, and you need water — it’s not pleasure; it’s need. You run the tap until it’s really cold, let it run over your hands, put your hat in the water ... and then put your mouth down to it. It’s a beautiful moment. When you satisfy that need, it’s orgasmic.

What’s the last thing you ate?

You’re going to hate me for this, but I had duck for breakfast. We cooked it last night, and I ate it with salt and pepper, and coffee.

I don’t understand the cereal thing; I’d rather have protein. I’ll turn on the grill at 6 a.m., and people are like, “What the hell are you doing?”

What foods are always in your pantry?

My restaurants are my pantry: We have cases and cases of food all the time. Whatever I feel like having, I have. But it’s a mix. We have a little kid who is 7 years old, so we have frozen pizza and filet mignon. There’s bologna for him, and duck and pork chops.

Are you raising your son to be a foodie?

The little boy likes to eat what he likes to eat, and he wants pizza like his friends have. I’m not going to push my chef’s values onto my son. He’s a good little boy. He likes his Popsicles; [the other day] he ate duck with a Popsicle in his hand.

If you limit people, they become obsessed with things. He has everything a normal boy should have.

If you could have any chef in the world prepare a meal for you, who would it be?

Anthony Bourdain. When I was a chef in New York, my favorite restaurant was Les Halles — when Bourdain was there, no matter how crazy he was, it was the perfect steak frites kind of place.

I used to go there twice a week and loved it. My girlfriend at the time was a vegetarian, and she just had to deal.

Describe your best meal ever.

My grandmother cooked a hare that my grandfather caught in a snare. It was a goodbye dinner [for my family]. She cooked the stew in a big pot on the fireplace and just threw in more water and more butter — it went on for hours. Everything was mush, but the flavors were incredible.

You’re trying to impress somebody with your culinary prowess. What do you make?

There’s something about boeuf bourguignon with a good piece of crusty bread. If I invited you to my house for dinner in winter, that’s what I’d make.

It’s the hardest thing to do, because you can overcook it and it’s dead, or you can undercook it. It’s all about when you put things in and how you put things in, and the temperature. When the final thing comes out, the meat should be perfectly cooked and soft, but the carrots should be al dente.

When I’m doing it, two out of three times I get it right. The third time, I was watching TV with my kid and forgot about it.

Name a local restaurant that you patronize.

There are so many that I like. If I’m shopping on Church Street, I’ll go to Leunig’s. If it’s dark and wintry and we just want to go out, we’ll go to Trattoria Delia. My favorite room is Hen of the Wood — it’s a spectacular space. I wish I’d known about it before Eric [Warnstedt] took it, because I would have. The Kitchen Table Bistro is good.

When I want lunch, I’ll go to 3 Squares [Café in Vergennes]. It’s a good restaurant, well run. I’m impressed with how [chef-owner Matt Birong] approaches it and the quality that’s coming out of there.

What do you think other Vermont restaurants could do better?

I think the hard part in Vermont is staffing your restaurant, whether the kitchen or the front of the house. It’s very difficult; there’s a small market [of workers].

Writing menus and service are difficult. You’re trying to satisfy locals — who are who they are — and some of the richest people in the world, who have houses on the lake. The best server knows when to say, “How you doing?” versus “Good evening.” When you see somebody who is obviously vacationing from Basin Harbor [Club] and is used to a more classic service, then [you] treat them that way.

What kind of music do you like to listen to in the kitchen?

I’m known as the “no-noise chef.” If the music isn’t off within two minutes of me walking in, I throw the radio out the back door. I’ve probably thrown 20 radios — it’s a very funny thing. There are kitchens where I don’t notice the music when I walk in, because it’s low, and after a few minutes I start getting angry. When the music goes off, I’m fine.

I can’t do two things at the same time. When I’m cooking, there’s this noise in my head that I love, and I can’t do anything else. It’s Zen cooking: Be the food.

What’s the hardest thing about being a chef?

Missing those special moments with my family. I never cared before [now], because everybody I dated or was friends with was in the restaurant business, and I was raised in a family that was part of that world.

What’s your favorite junk food?

Give me a Kit Kat and I’m happy. New York chefs are trained and paid to be very intense assholes — I’m more mellow now. One day in New York I was being an asshole, and my chefs all threw Kit Kats at me, and I started laughing. It brought me down.

If you could choose your last meal, what would it be?

I would make myself a boeuf bourguignon, and I’d cook it all day and eat it all by myself.

Farah Oberlender is a city girl. She talks quickly and excitedly about how in her native Tehran, Iran, “we didn’t take taxi or anything; we’d just go out and there’s bank, grocery, pharmacy — everything was around.”

Life in Cambridge, Vt., has been a bit of an adjustment. “When I came here — oh, my god … 25 minutes drive to grocery? What is that?” she says, laughing.

Luckily, Oberlender doesn’t have to go far for her native cuisine. In May, she opened Farah’s Middle Eastern Foods on Main Street in Johnson. There she shares the indigenous comfort food she learned to make under the tutelage of her mother and five older sisters. It’s not quite what you’d expect to find in a New England village too small for a traffic light, but Lamoille County seems happy to soak in the saffron scent emanating from the take-out spot.

For many Americans, Persian cuisine has romantic associations — and, as it happens, a love story first brought Oberlender to the U.S. In 2003, her cousin Farah Steiner, who was working at IBM in Essex at the time, contacted her in Iran to ask if she would be interested in meeting an American. The man, who Steiner thought might be a perfect match for her Iranian cousin, was a technician at the Essex offices named Jeff Oberlender. After a whirlwind courtship consisting of exchanged photos and emails, Jeff and Farah, née Akhoundi, agreed to meet.

Since Jeff feared that, just two years after 9/11, he’d be “a sitting duck” for anti-American violence in Iran, the couple scheduled what Jeff calls a “blind date” in Istanbul. They hit it off and quickly married so they could share a hotel room without breaking religious law. The Muslim clerics conducting the marriage held a phone up to the proceedings so the bride’s family in Iran could hear the ceremony. The couple later renewed their vows at home in Vermont, then in a Canadian mosque. “I have lots of documents for weddings!” Farah Oberlender says.

Before Oberlender left Tehran for good, her sisters filled a suitcase with a carefully bubble-wrapped wedding present: a gold-plated samovar. Today it sits in a place of honor at Farah’s, where she dispenses dark Sri Lankan tea to guests. Above the samovar hangs one of several heirloom rugs sent by Oberlender’s family as birthday and Christmas gifts for her 3-and-a-half-year-old son, Kevin.

The Persian tea ceremony, says Oberlender, dates back thousands of years. Growing up, her family sipped from elegant cups paired with spreads of cookies and fruit every day at 5 p.m. Farah’s offers a similarly civilized experience at any time of day. It’s best matched with a dessert such as ranginak, a high-calorie indulgence of pitted dates stuffed with walnuts and topped with cinnamon and saffron-infused halwa.

In Iran, Oberlender worked as an insurance clerk but was always a passionate cook, accustomed to preparing in bulk for her family of 10. In Vermont, she devoted her time to raising Kevin, but in 2008 she decided to try her hand at sharing her native foods with her new neighbors. The result was a catering company called JFK Creations, under whose umbrella Oberlender soon started selling Farah’s Middle Eastern Foods to farmers market customers. Beginning with the Milton market, within two years she expanded to offer her delicacies to eaters in Johnson, Morrisville, Jericho, Hardwick and Highgate. This year, Waterbury will also get a taste, though Milton will not.

Oberlender never worried about not having formal training in the kitchen; “In Iran, everyone can cook,” she says. But she admits that in her first year of business, she had a lot to learn. “Between me and my five sisters, I was the worst cook. The food wasn’t 100 percent perfect,” she says. “With work, I got better and better.”

Each market where she plies her trade has its own favorites, Oberlender says. Jericho customers love luleh kebabs, lightly seasoned lamb sausages with Technicolor-green lettuce and a lightly citrusy cucumber-and-tomato salsa. They’re stuffed into pitas baked fresh each day at Hardwick’s Magic Spoon Bakery. In Hardwick itself, Oberlender says, all of her crisp falafel sandwiches sell out in 40 minutes, no matter how many trays she brings.

Not that Oberlender herself is usually the one lugging those trays these days. She’s hired a prep cook, and at the Johnson take-out business, which she opened to satisfy rabid fans in need of a Farah’s fix year round, she gets help doling out everything from rice dishes to sandwiches. Her landlord, Jack Slagle, is one of her biggest aides. He and his wife, Roo, used to own now-defunct Roo’s Natural Foods, which occupied Farah’s current space.

The former grocery is now dominated by a china cabinet and a long table stocked with Iranian delights. At 3 p.m. on a Friday, several groups of customers line up at the buffet table. Though Farah’s does a bang-up business in quick takeout for college kids, this line consists mainly of middle-aged locals. Oberlender says that a surprising number of her clients, many of whom are artists associated with the Vermont Studio Center just down the road, have traveled to Iran and compare her offerings favorably with those they’ve tried abroad. For many others, it’s the novelty of the flavors that draws them.

The first thing customers see from the doorway is a plate of baklava. Unlike the Greek iteration of the dish with which most Americans are familiar, the Persian version gets most of its flavor from saffron, pistachios and rosewater, though it is lightly sweetened with honey. “Two dollars might seem like a lot for a piece of baklava, but I use very expensive ingredients,” Oberlender says.

Forget the ethnic eateries that settle for cheap produce. Oberlender gets everything she can from local farms, a fringe benefit of spending so much time with producers at farmers markets. Her lamb dishes are made from animals raised at Morrisville’s Winding Brook Farm, which is known for its openness to halal slaughtering practices. Beef, which she mixes with lamb in many recipes, originates at Bill Hill Farm in East Hardwick.

How does Vermont meat measure up to Iran’s? Our lamb isn’t as good, Oberlender says, but beef here is better than what she ate growing up. Overall, she’s enthusiastic about Vermont produce and loves that so much of what she purchases is not only local but organic. It makes it easier to “make everything perfect like I cook for my family. Everything is healthy and nothing is frozen,” says Oberlender.

With the exception of the baklava, her highly refined dishes are far from pricey. A more-than-fist-sized beef-and-lamb meatball called koofteh retails for $2.50. The tender meat, mixed with split peas and rice, melts in the mouth. The mildly spicy tomato-based sauce in which it lolls gets its dominant flavors from tarragon and mint rather than the red fruit.

A plate-filling portion of tah chin is $4.50. The dish is a rice casserole rich with saffron and topped with barberries — an exotic fruit to Americans. Fresh, it looks like something your mother would tell you was poisonous. Dry, the ruby-red morsels resemble smaller, sourer cranberries. They rest like jewels atop the aromatic yellow rice, which is crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, and filled with chicken, eggs and yogurt.

The dolmas ($1) at Farah’s contain split peas, a Persian staple, rather than the ground meat you’d find in the Mediterranean version. The mellow filling is beautifully complemented by a brash lemon sauce, which soaks into the grape-leaf wrappings.

The contents of veggie “samosehs” would look familiar to any fan of Indian food, with potatoes and peas dominating the veggie mix. However, Oberlender’s Iranian take on the dish is more heartily spiced than the lightly curried samosas of Indian cuisine. Her version is speckled with chile flakes for a bite that remains on the lips after a taste. Oberlender offers the samosehs with a spoonful of minty, tzatziki-like yogurt-and-cucumber sauce she calls “mast-o khiar” in Farsi.

When conversing in her native tongue, Oberlender peppers her sentences with French, also commonly spoken by the Iranian upper classes. The cultural interchange between the Mediterranean and the Middle East displays itself in her food as well.

Her specialties include four different types of lasagna she offers on her ever-growing and -changing menu. Hearty moussaka and tall pans of buttery spanakopita fill chafing dishes at the long table from which dishes at Farah’s are doled out and packed up.

Oberlender doesn’t want to stop with takeout. She says she hopes that by fall her various businesses will have earned her enough to furnish and staff a full-service, sit-down eatery. One day, she says, she’d like to have at least 20 different meals available at once. For now, about a dozen seems like plenty.

She’d also like to make more of her products in-house. In Iran, her eldest sister, whom Oberlender calls the family’s best cook, taught her to make pickles, jams, and even tomato paste and vinegar from scratch.

Another ambition: to find a way to import Persian rice to Vermont. Oberlender currently uses Indian basmati, but there’s lust in her voice as she describes the room-filling aromas of the Iranian grain: “Our rice is perfect, number one in the world.”

It’s fair to say Oberlender’s Persian cooking is number one in its class in Vermont. But the new American has loftier goals for her elegant eats. “My big wish is to one day have an order from Mr. President,” she says with a hearty laugh. “I love Obama.”

In the Chinese lunar calendar, 2009 was the year of the ox, but in Southeast Asia it was the year of the buffalo. Water buffalo are essential to the agrarian economies of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, acting as tractors to plow rice paddies and hitched to carts that haul goods to market. Vermont painter Barbara Wagner visited that corner of the world last year and returned with a wealth of visual information. It generated an exhibit of 17 paintings at Shelburne’s Furchgott Sourdiffe Gallery titled “In the Year of the Buffalo,” which explores the colors, textures and rhythms Wagner discovered on her travels. Wagner has exhibited widely for many years as a bold abstract expressionist. This new body of work, however, includes more concrete images directly drawn from her Asian experiences.

“In the Year of the Buffalo — Elephant Wall, Angkor Wat” is a 30-by-36-inch oil that refers to the 12th-century Hindu temple complex in Cambodia. In the painting, hulking pachyderm forms appear as subtle, ghostly shapes in the lowest tier. Wagner’s palette resembles that of masonry.

The artist has organized most of her works into shallow-spaced, tiered compositions, evoking walls or screens, and the number five is a recurring motif. Wagner’s artist statement explains its significance: “Because the number five is so important in this culture, all the paintings incorporate five divisions as part of their structure.”

Just below the top tier of “In the Year of the Buffalo — Women of Sa Pa,” seven whimsical geometric figures look like fragile paper dolls. The 36-by-36-inch oil shows examples of colorful native dress in the delicate little figures. Sa Pa is a picturesque village in northwest Vietnam’s Lao Cai province, a mountainous area with an idyllic climate.

“In the Year of the Buffalo — Floating Village #1” restates the colorful canopies of the floating villages of Halong Bay in southern Vietnam. It’s only 12 inches square, but the mixed-media oil on handmade paper and canvas is lively and memorable. Wagner’s brushwork dances over the surface, forming fine vertical lines between the patches of scarlet, blue, ocher, gray and green.

“In the Year of the Buffalo #7,” another 12-inch-square oil, has some of the most engaging textures found in the show. Wagner painted the abstraction on linen and embellished its surface with Cambodian silk, bamboo and handmade paper. The picture plane is deeper here, and the composition departs from the five-band theme found in many of the other works. Dark patches of crimson and red inhabit the lower right corner of the piece, anchoring the boxy shapes built up at left. Passages of fine silk mesh are collaged over the surface, while the vertically oriented bamboo shreds lie buried in the paint. Wagner’s background colors are yellow and gold; deep indigo rounds out the small painting’s sophisticated harmony of hues.

Western painters have been attracted to exotic lands at least since Eugène Delacroix captured the colors of North Africa in the 1830s. The art inspired by Wagner’s journey to Southeast Asia fits that tradition, at least conceptually. As the world becomes a smaller and smaller place, Asian and African artists may seek out the “exotic” in Europe and America in their turn. But, for artists entranced with the character of bamboo and silk, the traffic will continue to flow west to east for quite some time.

Director Gaen Murphree and actor Neil Flint Worden knew they were on to something during their informal kitchen-table rehearsal of Charles Dickens reading Charles Dickens: The guy spackling the walls around them burst into applause.

Now, they’re hoping for a similarly enthusiastic reception at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater this weekend, when Worden will embody the popular 19th-century author for the evening in The Very Dickens! The one-man show includes scenes from Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield performed in much the way Dickens himself did during the last 12 years of his life.

“People went bananas over his readings,” Murphree says. “It was almost like he created some completely different theatrical genre. He literally became all the characters.”

Murphree began looking into this lesser-known part of Dickens’ life while working on a production of A Christmas Carol at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco several years ago. She was fascinated by the reviews, which raved about the author’s captivating stage presence.

Fame came quickly to Dickens. He was only in his mid-twenties when the publication of The Pickwick Papers made him a star, Murphree says. But he had always loved the theater, and very nearly became an actor.

“He had an audition set at one of the theaters in London,” she notes. “And it just so happened that he had a cold that day, and he didn’t go, and then Pickwick went crazy and he became an overnight success, so he never reinvestigated that other career.”

Working from Dickens’ original manuscripts, which she found at the New York Public Library annotated and edited by the author himself, Murphree has adapted the works to appeal to a 21st-century audience. For example, she has given more of a voice to Emily, the “ruined woman” in David Copperfield.

“What she actually says would fill about one page, and it’s, like, an 800-page novel,” Murphree says. “So, to give her any kind of voice at all, I had to go on this major sleuthing effort. Unlike the Victorian era, we’re not going to be so happy with a major female character who doesn’t speak.”

The performance in Middlebury will be pretty bare bones: just Worden on stage in a tux. Margo Whitcomb, who teaches theater at Johnson State College, will lead a discussion after the show. Murphree is calling it a workshop, because she and Worden intend to take it on the road around New England next fall, à la actor Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight! touring show.

“We’re hoping it brings out not just the people who already love Dickens, but people who are just discovering him,” Murphree says.

(Self-released, CD, digital download)

On their debut album, Accentuate Your Face, The Feverbreakers demonstrate that weirdness, if you’ve really, really got it, always counts for something. At their best, the Burlington-based quartet unites quirk with swagger, recalling early Kings of Leon. Spare, skeletal riffs provide the bone structure for a nimble rhythm section composed of bassist Elliot Siegel and drummer Julian Douglas. Meanwhile, vocalist Ryan Headley vexes and howls quasi-sensible lyrics. It’s the kind of unhinged sound you associate with dank basement parties gone awry: where slinky bass lines and stinging slide guitar licks — courtesy of lead guitarist Erik Fosse — spackle your eardrums like the condensation on the walls. Where something like the aroma of BO and keg beer that emerges when you open the cellar door permeates your senses. Good rock ’n’ roll should sound, and smell, this way.

The Feverbreakers shine when they’re at their weirdest. This is immediately evident on opener “Rodney Funhouse,” an album standout. The song’s circus (or fun-house) groove sounds as though the band decided to open up Les Claypool’s brain and have a look inside, as Fosse lays down some creepy slide licks. Next is the equally great “Waiting in Line,” in which Headley makes like Tom Waits and raps lines such as, “I’m a bad wolf blowin’ dollhouse today.” Behind him, the band puts down a smooth groove against which Headley’s voice grates like sandpaper on cheddar cheese. His indelible rasp would leave most front men pleading for some Robitussin.

The band displays impressive songwriting range. “Bootlegger’s Drum” successfully melds psychedelia to a Celtic drinking anthem. “When I Go Walking,” a slow waltz featuring mandolin, psychotic guitar licks and great, three-part harmonies, weaves an enrapturing sonic quilt. “Dog Gawn Train” is a jerky funk jam in which Headley brings back the rasp and Fosse again freaks out on the bottleneck.

On album closer “Whippoorwill,” The Feverbreakers prove that a badass riff will always prevail, no matter what. And here it does just that, aided by Headley, who simply screams his fucking balls off. It’s rather effective.

The album is a bit long, at 15 songs and a 50-minute run time. Tunes such as “In Vermont” and “WFUV” sound linear and poppy when stacked up against the best stuff here. Trimming some of the fat would have resulted in a taut, rollicking first outing, filled to the brim with delectable weirdness. Still, Accentuate Your Face demonstrates that The Feverbreakers have an ace of strangeness up their sleeves. Here’s hoping they continue to flaunt it.

Accentuate Your Face is available at thefeverbreakers.bandcamp.com.

(Rodeoactive Records, CD)

The world needs geeks. They are responsible for some of the greatest contributions to modern society, from computers to airplanes to Star Wars episodes IV, V and VI — ignoring, of course, the abominations that were episodes I, II and III. As it turns out, the hopelessly awkward, sci-fi obsessed and typically dateless among us are valuable on a local level as well. Exhibit A: Vs. Sharktopus, the terrific debut album from the Burlington-based trio and self-described geeks Torpedo Rodeo.

“Baby Grey” introduces both the record and the band’s clear affinity for Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker/David Lowery. FYI, geeks love Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker and David Lowery. Max Krauss unfurls a jangly, rudimentary guitar line that makes you want to find some skinheads and take them bowling. “The baby’s in the car, she’s following me / Blowing them kisses but she kisses with her teeth. / Looking like a queen in her underwear, / Lady, you’re the world, you don’t even care,” he sings, just as bassist Nick Sherman and drummer Jeremiah Johnson jump in with lean and ragged enthusiasm.

Breezy, contrapuntal vocal harmonies disguise the searing guitar attack leading into “A Shot in the Dark.” Torpedo Rodeo also boast a healthy affection for the fringes of early Brit pop. This cleverly crafted pop nugget recalls The Kinks’ Ray Davies in his more fancifully subversive moments.

“Starlust” gets this critic’s nod for the most subtly funny song of the year. Over a pleasant and lithe guitar riff, Krauss intones, “It was a bit of a stretch but we made it. Yeah we made it. / And the crowd just stood there shouting, “‘Freebird!’ ‘Freebird!’” And then he concludes, “They got what they wanted, but we got the last word, just like we planned / It sure is great being in a cover band.” Clearly, some geeks have good senses of humor. Torpedo Rodeo’s is evident throughout the album, but especially on Irish reggae-rocker “Dublin” and the jam pastiche “Oscar Man.”

Torpedo Rodeo often bill themselves as a surf-punk band. But not until “Don’t Give That Guy Whiskey” do they indulge either genre. That’s too bad, because they are readily equipped to mine either the more traditional surf-rock purveyed by Dick Dale or the genre’s spacier (and geekier) latter-day iterations proffered by the likes of Man or Astroman. Both are acknowledged and obvious influences.

The record lags slightly near the end, but not enough to diminish what is, by and large, a thoroughly enjoyable, unpredictable and surprisingly nuanced debut. Indeed, the geek shall inherit the Earth. Or at least The Monkey House this Saturday, when Torpedo Rodeo celebrate the release of Vs. Sharktopus with Human Heads.

In China, it’s the Year of the Tiger. In Vermont? The GOP is counting on the Year of the Elephant.

Unlike Tea Party candidates in other parts of the country, Vermont’s Republicans are reverting to their roots — social moderation and fiscal conservatism — to maintain relevancy in the post-Gov. Jim Douglas era.

“We’re confident about the fall election,” said Erik Mason, the Vermont GOP’s executive director. “We’re feeling pretty good about recruitment.”

Good thing, because since 2002, when Douglas was first elected, the GOP has seen its House and Senate numbers drop precipitously, to 49 out of 150 in the House and seven out of 30 in the Senate. During that time, it also lost control of two statewide offices: treasurer and auditor.

Sen. Phil Scott (R-Washington) and businessman Mark Snelling, both social moderates and fiscal conservatives, are vying for the lite-gov post, and each has a strong shot: Snelling comes from a famous political family; Scott, who races stock cars, can count on the Thunder Road crowd.

In the contest for Secretary of State, the GOP has Chris Roy, a longtime party volunteer and elected official in Williston, versus Jason Gibbs, a former spokesman for Gov. Douglas and most recently commissioner of Forest, Parks and Recreation. Either will make a strong candidate in the general election.

Auditor Tom Salmon, who won as a Democrat in 2006 and then again in 2008, switched parties last year. But his propensity to self-destruct may make his reelection iffy.

Former Middlebury College professor Eric Davis says Democrats Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch are safe bets for reelection. Republicans haven’t managed to field any challengers that could attract national money.

In the U.S. House race, three Republicans are vying to lose to, er, oppose Welch: businessman Keith Stern, retired businessman John Mitchell and former radio host Paul Beaudry.

Of all the GOP candidates running for statewide office, Beaudry is the most aligned with the so-called “Tea Party” movement.

“It’ll be interesting to see how he does in the primary,” said Davis. “Certainly, as a popular conservative radio host, he has the best name recognition of the three.”

In the U.S. Senate race, former Woodstock businessman Len Britton is the lone GOP voice against popular incumbent Sen. Leahy. Britton is pro-choice, but a fiscal conservative.

In the state Senate, the GOP could pick up two seats: In Chittenden County, Charlie Smith is running; in Lamoille, Rich Westman has thrown his hat in the ring. Smith was a state rep in the late 1970s and, more recently, served as executive director of the Snelling Center for Government. Westman was in the House for 27 years. He’s resigning from his job as tax commissioner in order to run. Both men are well liked by Republicans and Democrats.

The real focus is on GOP gubernatorial hopeful Brian Dubie, who does not fit the “Vermont Republican” mold; his conservative views will make him harder to elect than was Douglas.

Dubie first emerged on the statewide political scene in 2000 as a lite-gov candidate during the “Take Back Vermont” insurgency — our homebrewed “Tea Party” movement of a decade ago fueled by anger over civil unions and Act 60, the statewide education funding law. Dubie opposed both.

He lost that year to incumbent Democrat Lt. Gov. Doug Racine, but he’s run — and won — four times since.

“The GOP’s highest priority is to elect Brian Dubie, hold onto the open lieutenant governor’s seat and gain some seats in the legislature,” Davis concludes.

Sounds simple, right?

Deficit Spending

Republican Len Britton believes the country’s anti-incumbent mood could assist him in unseating U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy.

Britton has been stumping for months and this week will host a series of “Downsizing the Deficit” forums around Vermont.

He’s got a clever campaign ad on that subject running on WCAX-TV, which, even before it aired, got 30,000 views on YouTube. A former Hollywood screenwriter, Britton wrote the ad himself, according to campaign manager Jeff Bartley.

The ad is a spoof of the old Publishers Clearing House shtik in which an unsuspecting winner receives an oversized, multimillion-dollar check. In Britton’s ad, a group of dark-suited men holding balloons pull up to a house inhabited by a family expecting a big check. It turns out be an invoice for $168,000 — one family’s share of the national debt.

“That’s a lot of money, mister,” says a boy.

“Better get a paper route, Billy,” responds a dark-suited G-Man.

Britton himself later comes on screen and blames Leahy and his ilk in D.C. for “creating deficits we may never be able to repay.”

If this candidate thing doesn’t work out, maybe Britton has a future writing 90-second ads for other pols?

You need a good sense of humor to take on a well-financed incumbent like Leahy — especially since Britton has promised not to take any special-interest or political-action-committee money.

Britton’s April campaign finance report indicates he raised a mere $43,000 in the last quarter and racked up more than $70,000 in debt. About a third of the latter is owed to his former campaign manager, Dan Riley.

Meanwhile, Leahy has more than $3 million on hand — and no debts.

Despite the lackluster fundraising, Bartley notes, he expects things to pick up this summer. “We’ve been able to stay on budget. All vendors are in good standing.”

That was news to Riley.

“Mr. Bartley and Mr. Britton are well aware that [the] Castle Group has tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid consulting invoices,” said Riley. “However, we are very optimistic these invoices will be paid in light of the fact that the campaign now has enough funds to run expensive TV ads.”

Fine and Dandy

Scooped! VTDigger.org reported last week that the Vermont Democratic Party paid a $2500 fine to the Federal Election Commission in April for violating campaign-finance reporting rules.

As “Fair Game” noted last fall, an internal investigation requested by Lamoille County Democrats found the party had filed incorrect reports with the FEC for nearly two years. The party corrected the mistakes, and hired professional staff to ensure it wouldn’t happen again.

“We hadn’t had the resources invested before to do it right, and we got what we paid for, ultimately,” said Vermont Democratic Party Executive Director Robert Dempsey. “We’ve now fixed it, and we’re moving on.”

Holy Breakneck Speed, Batman!

The Hill ranks U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy among the 25 “hardest-working lawmakers” in Congress.

“The breakneck pace at which the Senate Judiciary Committee moves is due to the legislative direction of its chairman, Leahy,” writes the D.C. paper. “He deftly moved the nominations of Attorney General Eric Holder and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor through the panel. Both attracted bipartisan support on the Senate floor. Next up for Leahy: the high-court nomination of Elena Kagan.”

What a Long, Strange Trippi It’s Been

Can campaign consultant Joe Trippi do it for Doug Racine? News of his hiring came as a surprise, because Trippi tends to back centrist-left Democrats who aren’t afraid to knock a few heads in the primary. That’s not what comes to mind when you think of Racine.

In his official announcement, the Vermont gubernatorial candidate noted Trippi’s role in the presidential campaign of former Gov. Howard Dean. Trippi is credited with the strategy that made Dean a household name.

But Racine failed to note that when he ran for governor in 2002, he hired Trippi’s former firm — Trippi, McMahon & Squier — to handle his ads.

Trippi didn’t personally handle Racine’s media buys. That job fell to Steve McMahon, who worked with Dean and Racine throughout the 1990s.

Another alum from Dean’s presidential team is involved in the Democratic race for gov: Kate O’Connor is Sen. Peter Shumlin’s campaign treasurer.

Small world, eh?

Progressive Discipline

Democrat, Progressive — no, wait! Democrat Anthony Pollina may have a harder time securing a seat in the Vermont Senate than some political observers initially thought.

For starters, he may not be welcome in the party he has often called GOP-lite. Worse, in 2008, he got more votes than Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gaye Symington. That hurt.

Pollina will have to best several longtime Washington County Democrats in a five-way primary for three seats: incumbent Sen. Ann Cummings, former State Rep. Donny Osman, attorney Kim Cheney and environmental scientist Laura Moore.

Pollina may have competition on the Prog ticket, too: Michael Colby, an activist and horse logger who lives in Worcester, is running as a Progressive.

All the News?

Burlington Free Press associate editor Pat Garrity wasn’t happy with last week’s “Fair Game,” in which we took the state’s largest daily to task for ignoring a press conference prompted by published praise from Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, along with other awards bestowed upon the Queen City.

We weren’t the only ones to notice the paper’s absence. A reader posed a similar question on the Freeps’ website.

“We felt the news was worthy of reporting when we became aware of it. We didn’t feel it was necessary to report it all over again,” Garrity replied to the online reader.

As a result, the Freeps missed some good exchanges between the media, Mayor Bob Kiss and Chief Administrative Officer Jonathan Leopold about Burlington Telecom’s finances.

In response to “Fair Game,” Garrity sent a cut-and-pasted May “story” about the Kiplinger’s award, a six-paragraph brief buried in its business section.

A rewritten press release shows exactly how much the Freeps cares about its namesake city.

Got a news tip? Email Shay at [email protected]

Click here to follow Shay on Twitter.

Vermont and its largest city, Burlington, enjoy top billing on nearly every U.S. quality-of-life ranking — best outdoor town, fittest city, healthiest state. But one category attracts surprisingly few accolades: bicycle friendliness.

In the 2010 appraisal of Bicycle Friendly States, recently released by the League of American Bicyclists, Vermont ranked just 34 out of 50. That’s down from 21 in 2009 and 17 in 2008. The state is now ranked behind states such as Kentucky, Mississippi and South Carolina — none of which is known for being progressive.

Despite new legislation passed this year aimed at making the streets safer for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists, Vermont still falls far short of expectations. Nancy Schulz, executive director of the Vermont Bicycle & Pedestrian Coalition, says Burlington saw progress in accommodating bicycles during Peter Clavelle’s mayoral terms, and the state also made strides during the Dean administration — but not much legislative change has happened since.

“There’s been a lot of backslide,” Schulz says. “I hope this shocks people into recognizing what we’ve been saying for years — we can’t just rest on our laurels from the ’70s.”

The number of bicycle-related road accidents in Vermont has increased, according to Chapin Spencer, executive director of Local Motion, the Chittenden County bicycle-and-pedestrian advocacy group. That’s why Local Motion has been working with the city council and the Burlington Police Department to change and enforce local bicycle ordinances. One revision the team is considering is the addition of a “3-foot rule,” which has long been the standard preferred by safe-streets advocates.

The rule would require Burlington motorists to give cyclists a 3-foot buffer when passing them. States that ranked high on the list of Bicycle Friendly States all had a 3-foot law in place, including Florida and Tennessee, which both spiked in the ratings this year. Advocates in Vermont proposed a statewide 3-foot law two years ago, but were told by legislators it would never pass, Schulz says. Instead, advocates settled for a “Safe Passing” law.

That new law requires cyclists to use flashing red lights on the backs of their bikes when it’s dark out. It allows them to signal right- and left-hand turns with either hand, and to ride in the left lane when turning left. Finally, the law prohibits motorists from throwing anything at cyclists.

This provision was added after an avid cyclist — who happened to be a Northfield police officer — was targeted by a passing motorist. He tracked down the offender, but because of the relative weakness of laws regarding cycling safety, could only cite the driver for littering.

The Safe Passing law, which takes effect July 1, is a “good first step,” says Spencer. But it does little to help cyclists like Derek McIntire. Recently, says McIntire, he and his girlfriend were biking on North Winooski Avenue when a car began laying on its horn behind them, and the driver screamed at the couple to “get out of the road.” At the time, McIntire had a camera attached to his helmet and recorded the altercation.

After more words were exchanged, the passenger threw a glass bottle at the pair; it shattered on McIntire’s girlfriend’s bike. McIntire called the police. The officer who arrived told them he could do nothing, even though McIntire had the license plate number and a description of the vehicle.

“He was completely disinterested,” McIntire says of the police officer. “The first thing he asked was, ‘Could he get around you?’”

After viewing the video, Spencer and others from Local Motion met with Burlington Police Chief Mike Schirling. The matter is currently being investigated.

McIntire’s incident is only one of many reported in recent months. Glenn Eames, owner of the Old Spokes Home bike shop, says he was clipped from his bike after a teenager with a learner’s permit cut him off while he was riding in the bike lane on Riverside Avenue. The driver was issued a ticket for driving without a license, but not for hitting Eames.

Morganne Rascoe, a student at the Community College of Vermont, was pedaling up the bike lane on North Union Street when a truck allegedly drove into her. She was knocked from her bike and sustained a broken shoulder and a torn rotator cuff. The truck drove off.

The time has come for serious change, says Spencer. After nearly half a century of declining figures, the numbers of people walking and cycling for recreation and transportation are now increasing, according to the U.S. Census. In Chittenden County, bike-shop owners report big increases in bicycle sales, and Eames says bicycle commuters account for the greater part of his shop’s business.

“I think [the number of bicycle commuters] would be bigger if people really felt safe, and if they had an issue, that there was something that could be done about it,” says Eames, who estimates Burlington’s cycling population has tripled since his shop opened 15 years ago.

Bicycle advocates such as Schulz and Spencer say they hope to see bike and pedestrian safety standards institutionalized soon, ideally by responsive police who have learned the new rules of the road at the police academy. Also, says Spencer, the more people report bicycle-car accidents, the stronger the advocates’ case for reform.

“In a lot of ways, the rules haven’t been laid out clearly, and cyclists and pedestrians lose out,” Spencer says. “Motorists are the ones police understand the best.”

Eleventh-hour language slipped quietly into the state budget bill is being hailed as saving the life of “Pete the Moose” — a celebrity cervid whose active group of 5000-plus Facebook “friends” overwhelmed state officials with emails, phone calls and letters urging them to spare his life.

In reality, the legislation may do little to save him from a hunter’s bullet, or to save about a dozen other moose and roughly 200 whitetail deer that belong to Doug Nelson, who runs a 700-acre game farm in Irasburg. There Nelson raises elk, but over the years deer and moose have found their way past his farm’s fences in search of food and love.

The legislation grants ownership of these native animals to Nelson and puts his operation under the sole authority of the Agency of Agriculture, rather than the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The DFW had planned to cull the trespassers to ensure that a “mad cow”-like disease called chronic wasting disease would not spread between nonnative and native herds. A CWD outbreak in 2005 at a similar game farm in New York motivated Vermont officials to put in place stronger rules aimed at preventing such an incident here.

Pete was one of the animals marked for probable death. The moose was allegedly injured as a calf, found and rehabilitated by a long-bearded, hermit-like mountain man named David Lawrence. Lawrence, a former big-game hunter who claims to be redeeming himself by nurturing injured wildlife, plopped Pete inside Nelson’s game farm late last year. At that time, state fish and game laws would have prohibited Nelson from profiting off native species found on his land.

Now, because of the legislation that “saved” Pete, Nelson will be able to keep the animals and potentially charge hunters to kill them. Agency of Agriculture officials say they are not yet sure if Nelson will be able to charge for the hunts of native moose and whitetail deer on his property. He currently charges about $4000 to “hunt” elk.

National and in-state hunting groups, along with state wildlife officials, are urging lawmakers to overturn the measure. Some opponents say they may challenge the law in court.

The law may be ripe for a challenge, notes Pamela Vesilind, a Vermont Law School professor who specializes in animal law and has closely followed Pete’s saga.

“The Vermont constitution, Supreme Court and laws all support the 'public trust doctrine,' the idea that state citizens 'own' wild animals and the legislature can only limit that for the common good of the citizens. That’s not what’s happening here,” wrote Vesilind in an email. “I understand the legislators’ good intentions, but they’ve turned wildlife law on its head.”

The legislation was a shock to Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Wayne LaRoche and the state Fish and Wildlife Board. They say neither the legislature nor other members of the Douglas administration sought their input as the law was drafted.

“We were all taken aback,” says Brian Ames, chairman of the state Fish and Wildlife Board, which writes state fish and game laws. “This is completely new territory, and nowhere else have we ever allowed a herd of wild animals to exist basically for personal profit.”

The legislation gives Nelson until August 1 to submit a strategy to thin the native herds, and until October 1 to install new fences. Culling is still required to halt the possible spread of CWD.

“Ironically, although Mr. Nelson didn’t have a legal right to shoot Pete or any other moose on the property, the new law gives him that right. In theory, he could also sell moose-hunting access to anyone who visits his facility,” notes Vesilind. “The elk, moose, and deer on this property aren’t afraid of humans anymore. You may as well shoot a goat at a kid’s petting zoo.”

Most folks concur that it would be a public relations disaster to kill Pete the Moose, or his progeny: As the session wound down, it was revealed that Pete’s “girlfriend” is pregnant. What’s next — “Save Pete Jr.”? Sen. Susan Bartlett, chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, defended the deal, which was crafted by attorneys at the Agency of Agriculture and shepherded through the legislature by Sen. Robert Starr (D-Essex/Orleans) and Rep. Duncan Kilmartin (R-Newport).

“We were compelled to make a decision because of the way that Fish and Wildlife was acting,” says Bartlett. “This herd has been a captive herd for nine to 10 years, and Fish and Wildlife’s solution was to go up and shoot all the moose and deer. As you can imagine, that didn’t sit too well with a number of folks.”

LaRoche disagrees. He was not interested in eliminating all the native animals in one swift kill, he says, but rather over a period of years. Nelson, however, would never agree to terms, because the farmer didn’t believe the state had the authority to govern the hunts on his property, says LaRoche. Instead of having to abide by fish and wildlife laws, which have real teeth, Nelson now only needs to run his plans by the Agency of Agriculture.

“I think the legislature was blinded by the ‘Pete the Moose’ story,” says Ames, “when it wasn’t really about Pete the Moose.”

As for Nelson, he’s saying very little these days now that the attention on Pete has subsided. Multiple messages left with farmhands and assistants were not returned. They said Nelson was busy, feeding his elk.

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