It's August, the time when many Vermonters pack up and hit the road to enjoy what's left of summer.
Undaunted by a tanking economy and near $4-per-gallon gas, my family headed to Acadia National Park for a weeklong camping trip. Early August on Mount Desert Island usually means sun, and lots of it. But the coast of Maine has been hit with the same rainy weather that Vermont has. Still, we managed to soak up a few rays between the raindrops.
In between drying off after hiking, tide-pool exploring and hanging out at the island's sandy beach, I had a chance to catch up on my summer reading.
I plowed through Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, a quick read about how our sense of "good food" has been corrupted by scientists and nutritionists. I followed up with Kurt Vonnegut's Armageddon in Retrospect, a posthumous collection of essays on war and peace based on Vonnegut's own experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II. Vonnegut thought the invasion of Iraq was a big mistake and it weighed on him mightily, according to the book's introduction by his son, Mark Vonnegut.
I also had a chance to dart through Neil Gaiman's eerie and peculiar children's tale Coraline. I've been a Gaiman fan since his Sandman days, and he's always good for an unnerving read.
I forgot to pack my summertime favorite, VALIS by Philip K. Dick, which I usually read every year. But with the rain continuing to fall, something tells me I'll still have time to get to it.
But, hey, enough about me. What'd I miss when I was away?
Vermont Yankee - Apparently, nothing broke down at the state's lone nuclear power plant last week, which is itself news these days. And the legislative oversight panel empowered to make sure the plant is reliable to operate another 20 years is no closer to doing its job, thanks to Gov. Jim Douglas' Department of Public Service.
Kind of like suiting up for the game and being seated in the bleachers.
Governor's Race - House Speaker and Democrat gubernatorial candidate Gaye Symington released a radio ad! OK, not such a big deal.
Progressive-turned-Independent Anthony Pollina is still in the race, which is news given his dismal fundraising, the hobbling Vermont Milk Company he abandoned and the general malaise he's imparted upon the old "unite the left" brigade.
Douglas managed to avoid any major criticism, although the judiciary hearing focusing on his Corrections Department's decision to let Michael Jacques - the man accused of kidnapping 12-year-old Brooke Bennett, later found dead - off probation made clear the case represents a combined failure of tragic proportions.
More Layers in Winooski - I told you it would be a long, hot summer in Winooski.
Three City Council members (the other two refused to go into a closed-door executive session) voted to launch an investigation of City Manager Joshua Handverger, who only a week earlier had barely hung onto his job by a 3-2 council vote. The councilors believe Handverger may be creating a hostile work environment for some city employees.
The embattled manager recently overruled a suspension of Police Detective Jason Nokes, a union steward who testified against his boss, Chief Steve McQueen, during public hearings held earlier this year. In emails with Nokes, Handverger disparaged McQueen (shocking!). McQueen took similar actions against a police officer who raised complaints about the chief back in 2003. The officer ended up filing two unfair labor practice claims against Winooski.
So much for this tiresome flap going away. Instead, Winooski appears doomed to repeat the past.
Full Disclosure - Politics never takes a holiday, but the good thing for politicians is that much of the public does, on occasion.
News that can cripple a campaign in the fall tends to get less attention in the summer. Still, campaigns like to take every opportunity to see what will stick against an opponent.
Enter the tiny matter of Vermont's gubernatorial candidates releasing their personal financial information, including shared assets and tax returns.
Republican incumbent Douglas listed about $2 million in assets he shares with his wife - cars, houses, retirement accounts, etc. - while Independent Pollina listed $656,000 in shared assets. Both reported six-figure investment and retirement accounts, and both reported receiving federal tax refunds in 2007. Pollina got back more than $2500, while Douglas netted $614.
Neither gave to the presidential election fund. (Funny, I thought Pollina supported the public financing of elections.)
Symington's release has confounded her opponents and the media. She released "pro forma" tax returns (that is, returns that merely looked like real ones), along with a cover sheet that shows her share of various assets at $373,222.
Absent from the documents were the assets of her husband, Chuck Lacy, a former president and CEO at Ben & Jerry's. Lacy is now the president of the $5-plus million Barred Rock Fund, a nonprofit venture firm he and Ben Cohen started. According to the fund's 990 tax forms from 2002-04, Lacy took in roughly $100K a year as the organization's president.
Lacy moved his family to Vermont to run Cohen and Jerry Greenfield's legendary ice cream company, earning a six-figure salary (about $150,000, since they capped their top executive pay at the time), and plenty of stock options. Lacy led the company when it was privately held and raking in $150 million a year.
Everyone knows that he - along with other top execs at Ben & Jerry's who left after Unilever took over - walked away with cold cash and a lifetime supply of ice cream.
But instead of his business acumen or the wealth he's probably shared with Symington and their kids, the current story has become all about Lacy's absence, and his money, from the asset-reporting picture.
On Monday, Douglas' campaign manager Dennise Casey called on Symington to pledge not to use her family's undisclosed wealth to finance her campaign until she, well, discloses it. "Speaker Symington has chosen to hide information about her assets and financial dealings using made-up tax documents meant to deceive Vermonters," Casey said in a statement. "Until she comes clean with a complete financial disclosure, she should pledge not to use that money to fund her campaign."
Casey's got one thing right - the documents Symington released are a joke. They raise more questions than they answer, and she should clear the air sooner rather than later. She's constantly said she's the one running for public office, not her husband. True enough. She could have released a joint statement of assets and not released the tax documents to protect Lacy's privacy. As it is, it's never good in politics when you look as if you're hiding something.
It's amusing to see a big deal being made out of Lacy's perceived wealth. Quite frankly, if the guy's done that well, he may be a good influence on her in terms of jump-starting the economy.
The GOP may want to be careful with this meme, though. In 2006, Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie flatly refused to divulge his finances. Democratic challenger Matt Dunne urged Dubie to follow the Douglas standard, and he would do the same. No dice. That same year, Rich Tarrant, the GOP's candidate in the 2006 U.S. Senate race, so the story went, embodied the entrepreneurial spirit needed in politics, rather than the stale beliefs of a lifelong politician who had never held a "real" job, as symbolized by then Rep. Bernie Sanders.
So, which of the candidates running for governor has been suckling at the public teat for 30-plus years and has never held a private-sector job or had to make payroll?
Answer: the incumbent.
Douglas: The Most Vulnerable Republican - Human Events touts itself as former Pres. Ronald Reagan's "favorite newspaper" (we're guessing they mean when the Gipper was alive and cogent). The conservative rag also believes the gubernatorial race in Vermont is among the nation's most exciting.
In a recent rundown of the tight races around the country, here's what Human Events had to say about Vermont: "Gov. Jim Douglas (R) may have been the Republican rooting hardest for Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) in the presidential primaries. This liberal-filled state will likely see record-high turnout this November thanks to Obama's presence on the ballot. This will help State House Speaker Gaye Symington (D)."
Dubbing the race "Leaning Republican Retention," the mag noted how Pollina's entrance into the race would benefit Douglas, but still felt compelled to call him "perhaps the most vulnerable incumbent governor in 2008."
Only leaning? Yikes. Maybe they've seen poll numbers we haven't.
No one's leaked any poll numbers yet, but according to what we've heard through the grapevine, a poll earlier this summer had Pollina in the single digits; Symington in the high 30s (holding the Democratic base, but not too well known beyond that); and Douglas in the 50s, but vulnerable on some key issues.
Of course, being vulnerable on key Democratic issues has never stopped Douglas from getting re-elected. What he does right is not make mistakes -not big ones and not the little ones that can snowball. It's hard to catch his crew fucking up in the way that loses voter trust.
Still, Douglas takes few risks and doesn't lead from the head of the pack. Symington hopes to capitalize on that weakness, and a flagging economy, to bring home the Democratic and independent flocks that roosted with Douglas after Dean fled the coop.
Pollina can rouse a crowd, but it's mostly the Kool-Aid drinkers and a few converts. Let's face it, he's no Bernie - though he aspires to be a Bernie when he grows up. Well, if he grows up.
And, Bernie is now very much part of the Democratic establishment, stumping for the party's presidential candidate and speaking at award dinners. How times have changed for the man who bounced Burlington Democrats out of City Hall and helped usher in the era of Progressive politics.
Who's Least Like Bush? - Speaking of Sen. Sanders, CQ issued its annual rankings on which members of Congress most voted with Pres. George W. Bush. It should come as no surprise that Vermont's delegation ranked pretty low overall.
Out of 97 votes in the Senate in which the president took a position, Sanders only voted with Bush 33 percent of the time - right near the bottom (or top, if you prefer) of his class. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, voted with Bush 35 percent of the time, while Rep. Peter Welch voted with the president just 5 percent of the time.
The presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), voted with Bush 40 percent of the time in 2007, down from 49 percent in 2006. So much for Sen. John McCain's claim that Obama votes to the left of Sanders.
As for McCain, according to CQ, the Republican from Arizona voted with Bush 95 percent of the time in 2007 - up from 89 percent in 2006.
What a maverick.