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Ladies First at the Statehouse

Inside Track


Published December 11, 2002 at 5:00 p.m.

The next Speaker of the House will be, as usual, a guy. The choice is between Republican Walter Freed and Democrat John Tracy. But for the first time ever, the Big Dogs in the Vermont House, both the majority and minority leaders, won't be guys. They'll be be gals, er, women!

Over the weekend House Democrats chose an all-female team to lead them in the coming biennium. Gaye Symington of Jericho will replace Mr. Tracy as the caucus leader. Carolyn Partridge of South Windham will be the whip.

Republicans chose Rep. Connie Houston of Ferrisburgh to be their new leader. Rick Hube of South London-derry will be the whip.

It's not the first time a woman had led a House Caucus. On the Republican side, Susan Auld and Sara Gear have done it. But it is the first time, according to the Legislative Council's office, that both the majority leader and the minority leader have been female. And it's also the first time the top two leadership posts in a single caucus have been held by women.

About time, eh?

On the D-side, Symington and Partridge are new to the limelight. Symington won praise for her leadership in taking a big bite out of the Republican majority in the recent election. Partridge, a farmer and seamstress, has learned the game well from her wise old seatmate Michael Obuchowski, a former Speaker.

On the R-side, Houston, a realtor, is moving up from whip. She's a bundle of energy with a great sense of humor.

Hube shares that sense of humor. Very sharp dude. He manages 150 second homes down on Stratton Mountain. Apparently Act 60, which raised Stratton's property-tax rate from 10 cents to $1.10, didn't hurt business one bit.

"The real estate business is very strong down here," he said.

Governor Sanders? -- As everybody knows, Vermont's lone congressman has jumped into the middle of the $326-million Fletcher Allen Health Care debacle with both feet. Tuesday night, he held a congressional town meeting on the Mary Fanny mess.

Even in those revolutionary days when he was mayor of Burlap (1981-1987), Bernie had Hospital Hill in his sights. Mayor Sanders sent the nonprofit hospital's management a property tax bill. They had to go to court to prove it was a "charitable" institution and entitled to its tax-exempt status. Mayor Sanders always considered the joint to be run by an "elitist clique." The same clique that sat on the boards of the local banks and the universities. And it's a clique that sure isn't looking good these days.

Ol' Bernardo has also come out swinging at state government and the House of Dean. Asked if Gov. Howard Dean had "dropped the ball" on Fletcher Allen, Sanders enthusiastically replied, "Absolutely! No question."

In fact, said Mr. Sanders, Vermont's governor should have a seat on Fletcher Allen's board of trustees. "At least that way," he said, "someone would be held accountable."

(We raised Bernie's suggestion to Gov.-to-be Jim Douglas last week and he made it clear he's not interested.)

A few people have remarked that Bernie's sudden leap into the local health-care arena may signal an interest in leaving Washington and coming home. After all, there's another election for governor in 23 months. But when yours truly raised the possibility to our favorite socialist, he was none too pleased.

"You know," replied Ol' Bernardo with his trademark irritation showing, "I just came through an election. The real question you should be asking is not about me, but why other elected officials are not speaking out on this issue. Don't make everything political!"

God forbid.

Bridge Matters -- Gov. Howard Dean made his first trip to Israel last week. He got his picture taken with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and called for the removal of Yassir Arafat.

But sources say that when Ho-Ho called home, his concern wasn't Middle East politics, but rather the status of the proposed bicycle bridge at the mouth of the Winooski River.

Last Friday, bids were opened for the project. The low bid of $2.9 million came from Kubricky Construction of Glens Falls, New York. The high bid, $3.8 million, came from local boys S.D. Ireland.

On Saturday, when Gov. Dean arrived at the Statehouse to speak to the House Democratic caucus, his first order of business was to find Rep. Michael Obuchowski (D-Rockingham). Obie has publicly questioned the project, as has Rep. George Schiavone (R-Shelburne).

Dean found Obie, and the two spent 20 minutes alone together in the Senate Appropriations Committee discussing it.

You see, Howard Dean began his political career as a proponent of a bike path along Burlington's waterfront. It became reality. A bridge to Colchester would be icing on the cake.

Rep. Schiavone argues the bike bridge costs too much in tough economic times. Rep. Obuchowski questions the "process." Since the cost went from an original $1.6 million to almost $3 million, Obie says it needs the blessing of the Transportation Board or else the new legislature should take another look.

According to Secretary of Transportation Brian Searles, "the Burlington-Colchester Bike Bridge is a project of national significance because of the development of the trail from Burlington to Montreal and the trail that will eventually circumvent the entire lake."

Some people think, said Searles, the transportation agency shouldn't spend a nickel on anything but roads. But the fact is, he said, AOT does spend about 2 percent of its budget on bike trails.

"It's very important for us and for future generations," said Sec. Searles.

Bert Moffat, executive secretary of the Transportation Board, told Seven Days it's on the agenda for next week's meeting.


Legal Marijuana? -- On arraignment day last week down at the Palace of Justice on Cherry Street, marijuana beat out Budweiser for top billing.

Seven citizens on the docket sheet faced "possession of marijuana" charges. Only six were in court for drunk driving. Hooray for the War on Drugs, eh?

Meanwhile, down in Mont-peculiar last week the official Legislative Study Committee on medical marijuana approved its draft report. The committee is pretty diverse. There's a cop, a judge, a prosecutor and two doctors, as well as folks who work with the sick and dying.

Winooski Police Chief Steve McQueen, the vice-chair, told Seven Days the members agreed unanimously that "There's clearly medical benefit to some critically ill patients from use of the drug medical marijuana. It's also a unanimous conclusion of the committee," added McQueen, "that the federal government needs to reconsider how it's classified. The committee believes it's improperly classified as Schedule 1."

Yes, indeed, that's always been one of the absurdities about America's war on pot smokers. Marijuana, in Big Brother's eyes, is the equivalent of the hardest of hard drugs: heroin and cocaine.

Some suggest the battle lines were drawn back in the '60s when "pot-smoking" anti-Vietnam War protesters revolted against an older generation personified by President Richard Milhous Nixon, unindicted Watergate co-conspirator, and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger, an unindicted war criminal.

And as proof that history repeats itself, Kissinger is suddenly back on the public stage. President George W. Bush has tapped him to chair the panel investigating September 11.

Hey, maybe the Viet Cong did it?

While there appears to be plenty of support for medical marijuana legislation in the coming session, it will face a large roadblock in the form of Republican Gov. Jim Douglas.

During the campaign, Jim preached from the War on Drugs Bible. And he swore he had never, ever even tried the most popular recreational drug of his generation. Never inhaled. Not even once!

Mink Update -- Portland Pirates center Graham Mink of Stowe had a good night Sunday in St. John's, Newfoundland, where he scored two goals to lead his AHL team past the St. John's Maple Leafs.

Tuesday morning, his attorney R. Jeffrey Behm found the skating a bit tougher at Vermont District Court in Burlington. Behm's attempt to get Mink's aggravated assault trial moved out of Chittenden County was cross-checked by Margaret Vincent, the deputy state's attorney.

Mr. Mink was arrested more than a year ago and charged with aggravated assault following a Friday night brawl on Buell Street in the heart of our student quarter. He has pled not guilty and has, so far, refused to plea-bargain.

The incident caused him to be kicked off the UVM team, and he quickly turned pro. The matter has not affected his employment with the Portland Pirates.

Behm told the head referee, Judge James Crucitti, that the Minkster can't get a fair trial in Burlington because some local media coverage of his little legal problem has linked him to the infamous UVM Hockey Hazing Scandal of 1999-2000. That will make potential jurors, said Behm, put Mr. Mink in the same category as the "dishonest" and "immoral" hazers.

Jimmy the Judge pointed out he's previously had "high-profile" cases in Burlington and "had no problem drawing an impartial jury." And he questioned if "everyday people" who read the local daily over breakfast will even remember Mr. Mink.

Prosecutor Vincent said she had read the same stories as Behm and doesn't think there will be a problem. No doubt, she said, the jury will hear that Mink was a UVM hockey player, but the case is not about hockey, she said.

What the jury will hear, said Margaret the Prosecutor, "is that Graham Mink was at a party. He hit a young man and when he was down and out, [Mink] was kicking him. It has nothing to do with the hazing scandal."

Referee Crucitti took the matter "under advisement." We'll be surprised if he moves the case out of the county. As Ms. Vincent pointed out, Ch. 3 and The Burlington Free Press are read and seen statewide.

Meanwhile, Mink will be back in action Friday night in Providence against the Bruins. Former UVM All-American goalie Tim Thomas plays for Providence.

Small world. eh?

DeanWatch 2004 -- Author and New Yorker political writer Joe Klein gave our favorite presidential hopeful a mighty dissing last week on CNN's "NewsNight with Aaron Brown." Klein and Brown were discussing the presidential candidate field when Brown asked, "What about Howard Dean?"

"There's always room in the Democratic Party for a maverick candidate," replied Klein. "Usually, they're more fun when they have a sense of humor. My experience with Dean, which is limited, is he doesn't seem to have one."


Fresh from his trip to Israel Saturday, we asked Ho-Ho about Klein's barbed remark.

"I've never met him," said Ho-Ho.

And Klein has not responded to our request for an interview. Maybe Mr. Klein, the "anonymous" author of Primary Colors, is just better at fiction?


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