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It's All Uphill From Here

Fair Game


Published August 27, 2008 at 5:46 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

With the Democratic National Convention underway, and the Republicans gearing up for Minneapolis next week, local political races are increasingly on Vermonters' minds.

That explains the persistent questions I've been getting from readers: Will the Progressives fade as a party? Does Gaye Symington really know how to run a statewide campaign? What the hell is Anthony Pollina thinking?

I know, I know - leave Pollina alone. But, look, it's not my job to prop up his failing campaign. I can't help it if Democrats and Progressives can't get it together to beat Gov. Jim Douglas. I call 'em as I see 'em.

The Douglas folks didn't like it when I wrote about Vermont Yankee or the politics of compost. (By the way, his administration reversed course and won't shut down Vermont Compost. No word on whether the Intervale will fare as well).

Symington's folks didn't like it when I wrote about the key Dems' lukewarm response to her candidacy and their decision to back Pollina. Or when I criticized her decision to keep some of her family's finances a secret.

But face it: Neither Symington nor Pollina has been able to crack the Douglas armor or provide voters with a good reason to send the incumbent packing. They need more than a "better" economic or energy plan, folks.

Douglas is not the most charismatic candidate or boldest leader. But he's been getting elected to office since the 1970s, so he must be doing something right in the eyes of Vermonters. Or, at least nothing terribly wrong. If nothing else, he appears to be a safe choice.

It was 1962 when an incumbent governor was last ousted at the polls. That year Republican Ray Keyser was defeated by Democrat Phil Hoff - the first time a Democrat was ever elected to the post. Hoff at one point said Dems should back Pollina in the absence of a "viable candidate."

Now, many people are questioning Pollina's "viability," especially since his campaign is nearly broke and he may have to give back roughly $27,000 in campaign donations.

A quick history of Vermont campaign law: The latest iteration (passed in 1998) was among the strictest in the nation in terms of donation limits - $400 per election cycle for statewide candidates. In 2006, after the Vermont GOP and the Vermont Right to Life Committee challenged the law, the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional.

Given that it was an election year, the major parties agreed to abide by pre-1998 limits that allowed a candidate to raise $1000 per election (primary and general) from any single contributor, or $2000 total. This ensured at least some limits were in place.

Fast forward to 2008, when Pollina initially ran with the intention of being a Progressive and therefore could collect $2000. However, since he never filed a petition to run in the primary and instead ran as an Independent (and they don't have primaries), it's the opinion of Secretary of State Deb Markowitz that he can only collect $1000 per contributor.

Pollina maintains that because he took in contributions from people who thought he was going to run as a Prog, he broke no rules and should be able to keep the money.

Pollina wants a sit-down with Markowitz to iron this out, but it may be moot. To date, three people have complained to the attorney general's office about Pollina's actions, and the investigation is underway. Markowitz will wait to see what Attorney General Bill Sorrell's office has to say before meeting with Pollina.

Pollina's predicament is raising an interesting question in some political circles: Do we have any limits on the books?

There are two theories at work.

Theory one: After the '98 law, which repealed all previous language related to donation limits, was struck down, lawmakers tried to put in new donation limits. But Gov. Douglas vetoed that bill this year. Ergo, we have no limits.

Theory two: Sorrell believes the pre-1998 limits are in effect due to the "doctrine of revival." That means in certain instances if a law is struck down, the preceding law is revived. He believes the Legislature was trying to improve the law in 1998, not eviscerate it. In other words, we have limits.

Neither theory has been tested in court yet.

Speaking of campaign finances, here's the tally from Monday's filings: Douglas raised $89,000 since July 31 and has $827,000 in cash on hand; Symington raised $62,427, giving her $133,365; Pollina raised $10,000 and now has just $9600 in cash (not counting the $27,000 he may have to return).

Douglas continues to look strong, and Symington needs to show more life. If she wants to win, she needs to put Douglas on the defensive. And get some ads on the air - soon.

Meanwhile, Pollina keeps hanging on. Gotta give him credit - although what he probably needs is a credit card.

Putting the "P" Back in Party - When Pollina balked at running as a Progressive, it seemed the party was in jeopardy. State rules say a candidate must poll 5 percent in a statewide race for a "major party" to keep its status, and Pollina was the only Prog running for statewide office.

Until Monday, that is, when the party announced a slate of write-in candidates for all six statewide races - including governor!

Here's the Prog slate: lieutenant governor: Richard Kemp; secretary of state: Marjorie Power; attorney general: Charlotte Dennett; treasurer: Don Schramm; and auditor of accounts: Martha Abbott.

And who do the Progs hope will secure the write-in candidacy against Douglas, Symington, Liberty Union-ite Peter Diamondstone and several Independents (including Pollina)?

Why, Pollina, of course.

No foolin'.

Two for No. 2 - There is a contested race among Democrats for the right to take on incumbent Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie this fall.

Northfield's Nate Freeman, a small-business owner who blogs on Green Mountain Daily, is facing off against Brattleboro's Tom Costello, a lawyer and former state lawmaker.

The 40-year-old Freeman owns an upholstery shop and a natural kitty-litter business in Northfield. Bringing "creative leadership" to the lieutenant governor's office is his motto.

"Brian Dubie's legacy as lieutenant governor will be 'What are the minimum requirements to be lieutenant governor?'" Freeman said.

Vermonters, he adds, want someone who can offer more than just a constitutional definition of the office, but provide leadership on the economy.

Freeman is reaching out to Dems as well as Progressives and believes only an "insurgent" and "outside-the-box" candidate such as himself can defeat a well-entrenched incumbent like Dubie. He argues for the creation of an "energy department" to deal with everything from public transportation to energy efficiency.

Tom Costello isn't exactly a party insider, but he's got a political resume. He has twice served in the Legislature, where he was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Costello is even more pointed in his criticism of Douglas and Dubie than is Freeman. He served under three governors: Richard Snelling, Madeleine Kunin and Howard Dean.

"They were all great leaders," said Costello, 63. "We don't have that quality of leadership today - someone who could bring everyone around a table, roll up their sleeves and solve problems. Today it's all about politics."

More needs to be done to help older Vermonters pay their property taxes so they can afford food and fuel, Costello said. For retirees in need, the state should cover their property taxes, treat the subsidy like a lien and collect it back when the property is sold.

The lite-gov primary has the attention of Eric Davis, a retired Middlebury College professor and longtime observer of Vermont's elections. "I wouldn't write [Freeman] off by any means," Davis says. "He can do a lot in this primary just by word of mouth and grassroots outreach."

It'll be a tough row to hoe, post-primary, for anyone. Dubie recently helped a Little League team get home from Cuba after they were stranded by bad weather, and he's also announced he will likely lead another agricultural trade mission to the island nation this fall.

Che Dubie?

Putting the Go! in GOP - Dubie and Douglas will lead Vermont Republicans to the heartland for the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, which starts September 1.

The 30-person delegation includes Suzanne Butterfield, the party's Windsor County chair who has been to several conventions, and Susie Hudson, who was elected national committeewoman to fill out the term of Sara Gear Boyd, who died in June. Boyd was the Republican National Committee's secretary, and Hudson has some big shoes to fill.

No word on whether Douglas or Dubie will address delegates, or if the GOP will have embedded bloggers along for the ride.

On the Hot Seat - Administration secretary and longtime Douglas aide Mike Smith said goodbye to public service on August 22, his 55th birthday.

Also happened to be the day the Douglas administration announced it was cutting $32 million from the state budget and laying off more workers. What a way to retire!

Smith was on a different hot seat recently as coworkers, former Navy SEALs and Sen. Susan Bartlett, who chairs the joint fiscal panel, roasted him in the National Life cafeteria in Montpelier.

Smith will ride off into the sunset, literally. He's taking a month-long motorcycle tour of Canada on his 1300 cc Honda VTX Cruiser.

(Cue Steppenwolf.)

Gannett's Black Hole - Oh, Magic Eight Ball, will there be more layoffs at The Burlington Free Press? Signs point to yes.

Word last week that longtime sports writer and editor Ted Ryan was "retiring" certainly raised some eyebrows. No official word on whether Ryan took a buyout or decided to exit on his own terms.

Ed Shamy, the editor-turned-columnist, was let go days after his 50th birthday. Jane Milizia, who had been with the Freeps since 1964, much of it as a proofreader, was let go the day after her 79th birthday.

Aside from the newsroom and the proofreader (Lord knows the Free Press doesn't need a proofreader, right?), sources tell me people were also let go in accounting and circulation.

The six Free Press layoffs were part of a Gannett-wide reduction of 1000 jobs. Of those, about 600 are coming in the form of layoffs, and another 400 or so by cutting unfilled positions.

Free Press publisher Brad Robertson was mum on whether the paper was done with the layoffs, would trim unfilled jobs from its payroll, or if any more changes are in the works to boost revenue and cut costs.

"We are in the final stages of our communication plan on this, so I would rather not comment at this time," Robertson told "Fair Game" in an email. "I hope you can understand that it is important to me that I am communicating clearly with our employees."

Shouldn't a "communication plan" be in place before you announce layoffs?

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