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Meet Vermont's New Congressman

Inside Track


Published January 24, 2007 at 5:00 p.m.

He was just sworn in as our new congressman on January 4, but Peter Welch has been a familiar face in the trenches and on the stages of Vermont politics since the early 1980s.

Our current congressman is also a familiar face from the "ambulance-chaser" TV ads he ran in his nonpolitical 1990s - ads leading into the Ch.3 Six O'Clock local news that promoted his distinguished law firm.

Obviously, they didn't hurt.

Like our reigning Republican Gov. Jim Douglas, Democrat Peter Welch was Massachusetts-born. Unlike Douglas, he's a product of Catholic schools, and a 1969 graduate of Holy Cross. Gentleman Jim went to Middlebury.

And unlike Jim, after college Peter went to law school at the University of California at Berkeley. Afterwards, he backpacked the length of the Pan American Highway to Santiago, Chile, arriving just as President Salvador Allende was being overthrown.

After taking a freighter to Portugal, the young Welch returned to the States and settled in Vermont, where he began practicing law. In 1980 he ran for the Vermont State Senate from Windsor County and won the first of four consecutive terms. A rising star!

But things went a wee bit sour. Peter took a step up the ladder in 1988, seeking the Democratic congressional nomination for the open U.S. House seat. He lost a close one to State Rep. Paul Poirier of Barre in the Democratic Primary. Poirier then went on to finish third in November (18.9 percent) to Independent Burlington Mayor Bernie Sanders (37.5 percent) and the winner, Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Smith (41.2 percent).

Two years later, Welch, the delayed rising star, stepped up to run for the open governor's seat. Democrat Madeleine Kunin was not seeking a fourth term on the Fifth Floor in Montpeculiar. As fate would have it, Democratic Lt. Gov. Howard Dean, MD, chose to stay right where he was in 1990 and did not challenge Welch in a Democratic Primary.

But the former GOP bulldog Gov. Richard Snelling of Shelburne did come out of retirement. And King Richard (51.8 percent) didn't have too much trouble with Welch (46 percent).

The rest is history.

Now fast-forward to the present. Ho-Ho is a household name in America, and the former Vermont Lite-Gov who drove the little blue Japanese pickup truck to the Statehouse is now the successful chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Peter Welch is currently Vermont's representative in the U.S. House. Though a freshman, he already has a seat on the powerful House Rules Committee, plus another seat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. It's fair to say, Peter has hit the ground running.

Monday morning, Pedro officially opened his congressional office in Burlington. He's actually moving into the spot at 30 Main Street previously occupied by Jeezum Jim's people - the loyal troops of U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords, the Republican who was first to draw the line on George W. Bush back on May 24, 2001, when he switched to Independent.

Now, five years later, everyone knows Dubya's the worst president in U.S. history, eh?

In his remarks to the gathering, Rep. Welch promised his office will continue the long-standing tradition of "good community service" that's been displayed for decades by the offices of Jeffords, Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Bernie Sanders.

Welch also announced his office will launch a new outreach program called "Congress in the Community." The congressman said he and "some of my staff will be going out to grocery stores, to recycling centers, where we'll set up a table and basically open up the door so we can go to where the people are and start listening to what their concerns are."

Vermont's new congressman said he had discovered "in politics over the years that you learn what's going on in people's minds by going out to them, not waiting for them to come to you."

Smarty pants!

After his remarks, we were able to grab Welch for a quick little one-on-one. How's it been going in the first almost-three weeks?

"Well, it's been incredibly exciting," said Rep. Welch, "and I like the work. I have big questions about the lifestyle, flying back and forth, and I miss Vermont. That's the hardest part."

But there is an upside.

"The exciting part is that there really are the winds of change in Washington, and with the Democrats in control in the House and the Senate, we've been able to actually pass legislation!"

Welch rattled off the list: raising the minimum wage, rolling back the $14 billion tax cut for Big Oil, promoting stem-cell research and new ethics legislation in the Age of Greed. And he noted an average 68 Republicans have voted with House Democrats on those bills.

The former Vermont State-house denizen said that the senseless war in Iraq, will be a front-burner issue when he gets back to Washington.

"I've got to tell you," he told us, "it's important that we do everything we can in Congress to get the president to change his mind. What I'm seeing is that more and more Repub-licans agree with the Iraq Study Commission that we need to change the direction."

So you're sounding a hopeful note, Mr. Congressman? We've sensed a growing pessimistic view of tomorrow, fueled by things like global warming and endless wars. But you sense the tide turning?

"Well, I sense some pessimism, as well, and understand it," said Welch. "We've had 12 years of heading in the wrong direction. And what we tried to do with the 100 hours was just make a down payment. The purpose was twofold: one, to show that the institution can actually pass laws to make a difference to average people; and two, establish that we've got a direction that's different than what preceded us."

By no means is the game over. As Vermont's new congressman puts it, "We're on probation, and it remains to be seen if we'll be able to deliver in ways that are going to help middle-income working families. That's our challenge, and we have to do our best to meet it."

Good luck. A whole lot of folks counting on you.


Health-Care Reform? - Vermont's new Catamount Health Plan, designed to provide coverage for some of Vermont's uninsured, continues to sputter. After all the hope and promise Democrats waved in the air back in the 2004 election, we end up with Catamount? Though it hasn't quite arrived just yet.

Meanwhile this week, Vermont's primary-care doctors released a statewide survey that indicates serious problems. The survey was conducted by former Human Services Sec. Cornelius Hogan, single-payer advocate Deb Richter, MD, and Terry Doran, MD.

"Results were unequivocal. The level of dissatisfaction is disturbingly high. This widespread dissatisfaction is an aspect of Vermont's health-care system that has not been given adequate attention. In fact, it has been all but neglected."


They're drowning in paperwork and bugged and bothered by "outside managers."

Wrote one Vermont doc: "I have seen a rapid escalation in the paperwork in the past year. When I first started practicing in Vermont seven years ago, conditions were much more tolerable. I am seriously considering retiring after I get my children's education." - Family Doctor, 18 years.


Up a Notch - Vermont Democratic Party consultant Bill Lofy has expanded his Statehouse winter turf. The former aide to the late, great Minnesota U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone has been working as an advisor to House Speaker Gaye Symington's "Speaker's Circle," her political action committee.

"Inside Track" has learned he's also added a second Statehouse client this winter - Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin (D-Windham). Lofy said Shummy has set up a PAC called something like the "President Pro Tem's Circle."

What it is that Ol' Bill actually does?

He describes his role as "providing strategic advice" and "helping with the conversation." Lofy says he'll also provide advice to "individual legislators who have complex issues."

He declined to say how much he's being paid. Have to wait until he files financial disclosure with the Secretary of State's office.


Fat Bikes? - She's "48, pushing 49," lives in Fairfax and, she told us Monday, "I've been fat all my life." And one day last year, Joan Denizot had a brainstorm. "I decided I'm gonna find a bike!"

Most bikes, she learned quickly, don't say how much they can carry. Few, if any, were built for people who weigh more than 200 pounds.

"I'm not the only fat person who wants to ride a bike," she said.

So, her entrepreneurial spirit got the best of her and she decided to create and sell bicycles for fat people. After all, there is a market. The U.S. population is 65 percent obese or overweight.

Currently, Ms. Denizot is having bikes produced by three different companies, and her models include an "electric-assist" model.

Check them all out at


Media Notes - Vermont's new U.S. senator has had a couple national splashes lately. A week ago he was a featured speaker at the National Conference on Media Reform in Memphis, Tennessee.

As seen online, Ben Scott, policy director at a media-reform organization called Free Press, introduced the former mayor of Burlington, Vermont, as "a brilliant political tactician." He told the crowd in the hall and online, that "back in his home state of Vermont, Bernie is a cross between a rock star and a folk hero." Thanks, in part, to his leadership," said Scott, "media has become a political issue that no one can ignore."

Sanders followed with barrels blazing. The energy that man has continues to wear out the staffers, and his focus is crystal-clear.

"Four years ago," said the senator from Vermont, "George W. Bush told the American people that a third-rate country called Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and that they were about to attack the United States. That's what he told us.

"I can tell you I was there in the middle of that, in opposition to that, day after day. And those who opposed the war were holding national press conferences that you never saw!"

Sanders said so many Americans got so disgusted, they turned to the BBC and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for their daily news fixes.

"In terms of the war in Iraq," said Sen. Sanders, "the American media failed, and failed grotesquely, in exposing the dishonest and misleading assertions of the Bush Ad- ministration in the lead-up. They are as responsible as President Bush for the disaster that now befalls us."

He makes a good case, eh?

So were we really surprised by the hip and snarky profile of Bernie by Mark Leibovich in the Sunday New York Times Magazine?

Not really. Besides, any 5000-word profile of Bernie Sanders that doesn't have more than a one-sentence quote from UVM political science guru Garrison Nelson is highly suspect. Quite frankly, it was hard to even recognize this "Bernie":

Sanders' cheeks had turned a shade of dark pink with a strange hint of orange. It's a notable Sanders trait; his face seems to change color with the tenor of a conversation, like a mood ring. His complexion goes orangey-pink when he's impatient (often when someone else is speaking), purpley-pink when he's making a point or a softer shade of pink when at rest, "rest" being a relative term.

Or how about this one?

When I first met Sanders in person on Church Street, there were big streaks of dried mud on his shoes and dried blood on his neck from what looked to be a shaving mishap. His hair flew every which way in a gust of wind. At six feet tall, he is wiry, but he walks with shoulders hunched and elbows out, like a big, skulking bird. From a distance, he looked as if he could be homeless.

Homeless? Really, Mark?


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