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Freed Clams Up and Backs Down

Inside Track


Published April 4, 2001 at 2:39 p.m.

Statehouse veterans are grousing this week about the ominous signs of strain that leadership has brought the rookie Republican Speaker of the House, Walter Freed. Actions, after all, will always speak louder than words, and Mr. Freed’s recent actions have some of Walt’s staunchest defenders just shaking their heads in disbelief.

The call came to Seven Days last Tuesday afternoon from a Statehouse source. “Speaker Freed,” the voice told us, “just confiscated VPIRG’s video cameras and kicked them out of the House.”

“Yeah, sure,” yours truly replied with a touch of annoyance. “Look, I’m on deadline. Quit yanking my chain. It’s not a good time for joking around.”

“No joke,” said the voice.

We refused to believe it. “Look,” we told the caller, “Walter Freed isn’t that stupid!”

Well, everyone now knows, Speaker Freed actually ordered the Sergeant at Arms to physically seize the cameras. We stand corrected. Thanks a lot, Walt.

In fact, you can see the political drama unfold at the Web site of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group at Watch and listen as Speaker Freed lays down Freed’s Law to VPIRG director Dave Rapaport. Cringe in your seat as you see the Godzilla-sized image of Dave Janawicz, the Golden Dome’s one-person police force, conduct the camera seizure. Janawicz may get an Oscar nomination out of it. A terrific performance!

VPIRG, founded back in 1972 when Walter was attending Dartmouth, is a leading citizens’ watchdog and advocacy organization with 20,000 Vermont members. Concerned about the secrecy demonstrated by the new Freed regime, VPIRG stepped up its videotaping of the official, public activity of the House a few weeks back. That, apparently, got under Walter’s skin. The Speaker doesn’t like being watched. Even in his days as House minority leader, Rep. Freed would, on occasion, convene the Republican House caucus at a restaurant outside the Statehouse so his troops could speak freely and avoid the prying eyes of the press.

The squeaky-clean Dorset millionaire and successful petroleum marketer told the Associated Press he was concerned about how VPIRG would use the footage. The way to ease his concern, apparently, was to deny the organization any footage at all. The Speaker invoked House Rule 86, which states in part, “The taking of pictures on the floor of the House and the machine recording of the proceedings during a session thereof are prohibited except by previous permission of the presiding officer.”

The next day, Wednesday, the Squeaker, er, sorry, Speaker told the Rutland Herald, “VPIRG was looking to egg me into a confrontation.” What’s that old saying, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t following you?

The following day, Gov. Howard Dean joked at his weekly press conference that everyone present had “permission” to videotape him. Ho-Ho was clearly astounded by Freed’s dumb exercise of power. Dean said taping by the public should be allowed in the House, but noted the legislature runs the building so he could only give his opinion.

Afterward, yours truly went to the Speaker’s office to get Mr. Freed’s response for the story we were working on for Radio Vermont News. Mr. Freed was seated at the table with Rep. Judy Livingston (R-Manchester).

“Mr. Speaker, could we get a response from you to the governor’s remarks on the story of the day?”

Freed wiggled in his chair, then turned our way and said, “No comment.”

“But Ch. 5 was just here,” we noted.

“No comment,” repeated the Speaker.

“Something’s a little weird,” we suggested. “What’s up?”

Speaker Freed rose from the chair and started towards us, adjusting and re-adjusting his suit jacket nervously. He stopped about two feet away, still fiddling with his jacket, looked yours truly in the eye ever so quickly and, for the third time, said with a sheepish grin, “No comment.” Then the Speaker of the Vermont House swiftly retreated into his private executive bathroom.

Later we were told by members of the Republican caucus that the Speaker, disturbed by what he’s been reading under this byline, had decided to stop speaking to yours truly. Needless to say, we’re flattered. But the buzz around the Statehouse this week is all about how Walt Freed is having a very tough time handling life in the political fast lane.

Not even veteran business lobbyist David Wilson could make an argument to defend Freed’s boneheaded play. In his “Monday Briefing” at, David writes, “The option of videotaping legislative debates in their entirety is very much a part of the Vermont policy of openness. For the first time since January, VPIRG is looking pretty good, and Walt Freed is not.”

On Monday, Freed backed down. He sent Sergeant at Arms Kermit Spaulding a letter revising his closed-government policy. The Squeaker, er, Speaker wrote that henceforth “anyone” could videotape House proceedings from the press gallery in the balcony. As it is, however, the working press often sets up outside the press gallery as well, to get better camera angles. And still to be resolved is whether or not VPIRG will be barred from videotaping House committees at work.

Unfortunately, “open government” remains a concept Walter and the GOP are struggling with. Stay tuned.

President Smith Goes to Waterman? — Word came down the hill from Camp Catamount Tuesday afternoon that Joan Smith, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, has thrown her hat into the ring as a candidate for interim president at the University of Vermont. That from veteran political science professor Garrison Nelson. In fact, Nelson predicted two months ago that Smith had her sights set on the president’s job, though she denied it. According to Nelson, Dean Smith “engineered” the departure of Geoffrey Gambol, the UVM provost and “orchestrated” the recent resignation of President Judith Ramaley.

“Generally speaking,” said Nelson, “they tend not to crown people who lead the coup d’état.”

Attempts to reach Dean Smith for comment Tuesday afternoon were unsuccessful. She was “in a meeting.”

GovWatch 2000 Update — State Treasurer and GOP gubernatorial hopeful James Douglas e-mailed us after last week’s Seven Days hit the street to inform us he had fallen behind in checking his e-mail. Busy guy and all, with the big run for governor taking up his attention. Slim Jim, however, did not answer the question we posed to five distinguished members of the current crop of gubernatorial wannabes: Doug Racine, Peter Shumlin, Con Hogan, Anthony Pollina and Slim Jim. We asked each for their position on the recent controversial seizure of two flocks of Vermont sheep by the USDA. (The sheep have since gone to Sheep Heaven.)

We informed Mr. Douglas that his failure to check his e-mail in a timely fashion meant he’d have seven whole days to craft a fitting answer to the sheep question. Guess what?

Jim Douglas is one very sheepish critter. He continues his Twilight Zone policy of not commenting on policy. But his campaign for governor is in full swing. In a recent “Jim Douglas for Governor 2002” fundraising letter, Slim Jim claims he has “a vision for Vermont’s future.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Douglas won’t say what it is. Maybe it’s time we had a sheepish governor?

Not taking a public position on issues, however, does have its advantages. Just look at what happened to Anthony Pollina of the Progressive Party. We reported here that Tony the Prog told us he doesn’t trust the USDA, but supported the sheep seizure. “We have to err on the side of safety,” said Mr. Pollina.

The ink was barely dry when Gov. Howard Dean’s aide, Kate O’Connor, excitedly pointed out Mr. Pollina had “flip-flopped” on the sheep issue and we had failed to make note of it. Indeed, Tony the Prog had told us he had gone “back and forth” on the sheep issue, but he supported the seizure when we spoke to him last week.

Next we received inquiries from two Rural Vermont staffers who sounded incredulous. Pollina was a founder of the organization. The two sounded in shock, as if they’d just learned there is no Santa Claus. In their voice mails they indicated they wanted to be sure Tony the Prog had said what he’d said about supporting the arrest and execution of the sheep.

Next, we heard from Michael Colby of Food & Water, who also noted Mr. Pollina had flip-flopped on the sheep issue. Colby said Pollina had told him that yours truly had misquoted him, but he wasn’t going to bother to ask for a correction.

So we e-mailed Anthony to find out what was up.

“Over the months,” replied Mr. Pollina, “I did disagree with (oppose) the taking of the sheep, because I saw no need for it. But, I don’t think I made any public statements about it, either. Once the court ruled it would happen, I called for agreement on a testing protocol to resolve the issue — whether or not they were actually taken. So, I didn’t actively oppose the ‘seizure’ when it happened,” wrote Anthony. “Which is why I wouldn’t take great issue with your summary (or interpretation) of what I said.”

Got that? It’s a very delicate balancing act, and sounds as if Mr. Pollina has managed to be on both sides of the issue simultaneously. Bravo!

The fact is, a lot of people are keeping an eye on Anthony. It sure looks like he will be in the 2002 race, with or without the public financing. Jim Douglas is certainly hoping he is.

Last November, with just under 10 percent of the popular vote, Anthony came within a whisker of keeping Ho-Ho under 50 percent and tossing the election into the legislature, where Republicans currently hold 97 of the 180 seats. It takes 91 votes to win.

After taking a couple months off, Tony the Prog appears to be back on the campaign trail. The sure sign came a couple weeks ago when Anthony finally got a haircut. He hadn’t been to the barber since last November’s election, and he was starting to look his old shaggy, sloppy rebel self rather than the clean-cut man of common-sense ideas who impressed so many last fall.

Lately, there have been regular Tony the Prog sightings at the Statehouse. Mr. Pollina has also been out on the road meeting with small groups of supporters from St. Johnsbury to Rutland.

Media Notes — The new reporter at the Statehouse is David Mace of the Vermont Press Bureau. He replaces Fred Bever, who departed for a public radio gig in Maine. Mr. Mace has been working the “cops and courts” beat for the Barre- Montpelier Times Argus for the last few years. The street smarts should help.

Meanwhile, no call back yet from Burlington Free Press Publisher Jim Carey about the vacancy on the editorial page. However, a colleague sent along a copy of the want ad posted in the current edition of Editor & Publisher. The Gannett-owned Freeps is seeking an editorial page editor “with strong writing and reporting skills and a passion for the First Amendment.” The ad states the paper’s editorial page “focuses on local issues.”

Maybe that’s why The Burlington Free Press never wrote one editorial on civil unions last year? Jim Carey didn’t consider it a “local issue.”

Strange paper.

Correction — Yours truly blew the name of star photographer David Seaver of Charlotte in last week’s column. Mea culpa. Mr. Seaver took the cover shot for the current edition of Vermont Life magazine. But it’s one of the pictures on his Web page — — that’s drawn legislative attention. There’s a link to it on the Vermont Life site and it’s been getting a few more hits in the past week.

In fact, last Thursday we stumbled upon Rep. Richard Westman (R-Cambridge) checking out Seaver’s work, along with Rep. Tom McGrath (R-Vergennes), from a computer terminal in the General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee room. Despite what you may have heard elsewhere, Republicans love sex. They really, really do!

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