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Bernie Sanders

Don't Shoot the Messenger

Fair Game


Published September 1, 2010 at 8:38 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Regular columnist Shay Totten is on a well-deserved vacation. He’ll be back next week.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, the GOP’s candidate for governor, has been touring Vermont for the past nine months, collecting “wisdom” from struggling business owners and ordinary workers for what would become his big jobs plan.

Before a throng of reporters and VIPs Monday, the lite gov finally unveiled his long-awaited blueprint for jump-starting Vermont’s stuck economy. For his stage, Dubie chose the humongous manufacturing hangar at Northern Power Systems, a homegrown company in Barre that makes industrial wind turbines that end up all over the world.

The setting was a pointed reminder of Dubie’s support for wind power — a position that sets him apart from the anti-renewable-energy policies of Gov. Jim Douglas, the man Dubie hopes to replace.

The differences pretty much ended there.

Dubie’s economic vision — his first major policy proposal since entering the race last fall — sounded less like an innovative plan for 21st-century Vermont and more like the usual Republican fare: lower taxes and less government regulation. He even threw in a tax cut for the wealthiest Vermonters, while he proposed holding government spending at levels certain to give the poor and their advocates stomach ulcers.

The crux of Dubie’s “Pure Vermont” plan is this: Hold the state budget to 2 percent inflationary growth after fiscal year 2012, as compared this year’s 3.5 percent increase.

Based on projected tax revenues for the next five years, 2 percent growth would save taxpayers $240 million, which Dubie wants to give back to Vermonters in the form of income tax cuts, corporate tax cuts and lower property taxes.

Dubie wants to drop income tax rates for all Vermonters — and slash the tax rate from 9 percent to 6 or 7 percent for the wealthiest residents — after fiscal year 2012. He also calls for “streamlining” permitting and regulation — a laudable goal, but one that eluded Douglas over the past eight years despite his best efforts.

Dubie blamed the Democrat-controlled legislature for most of the ills he identified, and managed to evade questions from reporters about whether Douglas deserves blame for unemployment and a sputtering state economy.

If Dubie’s plan sounds a little like “Douglas Reloaded,” don’t blame the lieutenant governor. He’s just the messenger, he says, delivering the worries and ideas of hundreds of Vermonters he met on his jobs tour.

Like the cheese maker in Bennington who told him, “If my taxes were lower, I could hire more employees. I could buy more Vermont milk from Vermont farmers and I could make more cheese — and people would buy it.”

Or the Burlington restaurant owner who shared with Dubie, “In this economy, my business revenues are where they were five years ago, but my property taxes have tripled. With that kind of burden, I can’t think about expanding and hiring. I can only think about surviving.”

“This is my vision drawn from your wisdom,” Dubie told the crowd in the hangar.

Hours after its release, three of Dubie’s would-be Democratic challengers savaged that vision. Peter Shumlin, Doug Racine and Deb Markowitz summoned reporters to in Burlington Monday to take a whack at Dubie’s first major policy proposal.

The Democrats’ soundbite: Dubie equals Dubya.

“It shouldn’t surprise us that after Brian flew across the lake to have dinner with George W. Bush, he comes out with an economic plan that’s very similar to the plan that bankrupted America: deficits, unending deficits, tax cuts for the wealthiest Vermonters and budgets that don’t balance,” said Shumlin, the Dems’ candidate, referring to Dubie’s recent visit with the former president in New York.

Racine, who lost to Shumlin by 197 votes and has initiated a recount that will likely drag the primary out another two weeks, laid into Dubie, too.

“This is make-believe, the numbers don’t add up, and it shows a real lack of understanding of how state government operates,” Racine said.

Beat the Press

Dubie’s jobs plan was nine months in the making, but he gave reporters just 12 minutes to question him about it on Monday.

The press corps was just starting to focus on Dubie’s long-awaited blueprint when he was whisked away to another campaign event.

It didn’t make a good impression.

“It might be a good thing to remember in the future, when you kick off something as important as your jobs [plan], that you spend more than 12 minutes with the press,” one veteran reporter advised Dubie. “Twelve minutes doesn’t convey the importance to the press of what this means for Vermonters.”

“We’ve been waiting all summer for this,” another reporter reminded the lite guv.

Dubie deferred to his spokeswoman, Kate Duffy, herself a former reporter for WCAX, telling her, “You’re the boss in this regard.”

“The boss” decided Dubie couldn’t spare the extra time, and minutes later Dubie’s handlers drove him away in a silver minivan. His campaign manager, Corry Bliss, promised to make Dubie available for further questioning, but left without confirming a date.

Was Dubie dodging the press? Maybe not, but he was getting hard-hitting questions from reporters hungry for specifics.

What jobs or services would he cut to achieve only 2 percent growth in state government? What kind of income tax cut would the middle class see? Will Medicaid and state employee benefits get slashed? Douglas couldn’t get permit reform done — are you admitting he was a failure?

Dubie wouldn’t get specific.

“Working with the General Assembly, we’ll establish priorities, making sure that commitments are honored, the most vulnerable are protected in our society, and we’ll just have to do what working families are doing,” Dubie said. “Families are [cutting back], small businesses are doing it — government can do it.”

Dubie’s schedulers apparently forgot the first rule of campaign media relations: Feed the beast. Leave the press corps hungry for more and they get grumpy fast — and start digging through your garbage.

Who knows what they’ll find in there?

Dubie = Dean?

While talking up his jobs plan, Dubie repeatedly invoked the name of one Vermont governor who held a firm line on state spending — proving that it can be done.

Was it Jim Douglas? Dick Snelling? No and no.

It was Howard Dean, a Democrat. Dubie said that Dean pushed through three zero-increase budgets in the 1990s.

“Governor Dean proposed something much more difficult” than I am, Dubie told reporters Monday. “I’m proposing to grow state government, but at a disciplined rate.”

How does Dean feel about becoming a poster boy for Dubie’s budget-cutting crusade? “Fair Game” caught up with the ex-governor by phone to ask him.

“Brian Dubie, with all due respect, has no experience writing a budget and never cast a budget vote,” Dean said. “We went through a very difficult time. We did balance the budget 11 times, but we had enormous experience writing budgets on our team. We had previous chiefs of staff of former governors.”

The Final Recountdown

When Doug Racine announced that he would seek a recount in last week’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, it came with some good news for antsy Democrats. The retallying, Racine told reporters, could take as little as one week to complete.

No, make that two weeks. No, make it three.

Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, the state’s chief elections official, clarified this week that the recount will start — and finish — much later than Racine had first thought.

County clerks will get sealed ballot bags this Friday, and Judge Geoffrey Crawford has scheduled a hearing for 10 a.m. that morning in Washington County Superior Court. But with government offices closed Monday for Labor Day, the recount isn’t likely to begin until next Tuesday, September 7, and it could be September 18 before the Democratic nominee can claim undisputed victory.

Vermont’s most memorable recount — the 2006 auditor’s race between Randy Brock and Tom Salmon, which resulted in an overturned result — took six weeks. But that’s because it was a general election, not a primary, with more votes to count, and every one had to be recounted by hand. A new state law lets optical-scan machines do the work of retabulating.

That’s good news for towns that use voting machines. But Vermont’s hand-count towns — which account for almost a third of votes cast on August 24 — use different ballots that aren’t scannable, so they’ll have to be recounted by hand.

Racine’s done everything he can to speed the process along. He submitted his formal recount petition before the vote was even certified, and waived a mandatory five-day waiting period to let the counting start sooner. But there’s not much more to do than wait.

Could be an opportunity to reconsider the benefits of instant-runoff voting.

Or not.

Bernie Has a Cow

How do you make a Vermont senator mad?

Compare Social Security to a “milk cow with 310 million tits.”

That’s what Alan Simpson, cochairman of President Barack Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, wrote in a recent email to the director of the Older Women’s League. Sen. Bernie Sanders is fuming about the insult and last week wrote Obama a letter calling for Simpson’s head.

“Yes, I’ve made some plenty smart cracks about people on Social Security who milk it to the last degree,” Simpson, a former senator from Wyoming, wrote in the email. “It’s the same with any system in America. We’ve reached a point now where it’s like a milk cow with 310 million tits!”

Sanders and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) fired off a letter to Obama last week calling Simpson’s “tit” comment “really quite beyond comprehension.”

“It is false and demeaning to say that these people, the vast majority of whom have worked their entire lives and contributed into the Social Security system, are somehow ‘milking’ the system,” Sanders and DeFazio wrote.

Just how many cow tits does Vermont have? Funny you should ask. An astute Seven Days reader pointed out that, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, there were 139,719 milk cows in Vermont. At four tits per cow, that would put us at 558,876.

Suck on that, Chairman Simpson!

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