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Bernie Sanders

No "IRISH" Need Apply

Inside Track


Published January 24, 2001 at 8:40 p.m.

In Vermont, we've come a long, long way on the road to freedom. In the Republic of Vermont, slavery was abolished from the get-go. You no longer have to own land and be of the male gender to vote, like in the old days. And as of July 1, 2000, folks of the same gender can legally "tie the knot" in the state of Vermont.

Yep. We've come a long way, baby! But sometimes it feels that for every single giant step we take forward, we slip backwards somewhere else. Prime example: the Irish Question.

Across the Atlantic, there are news reports this week that Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants in British-controlled Northern Ireland are about to cut a deal on IRA disarmament and the formation of a new "diverse" police force. Hope is in the air. Say a little prayer, would ya?

But closer to home, hope is not in the wintry air. Over at Washington County Superior Court in Montpeculiar, a Wallingford woman is playing David against a Goliath called the State of Vermont. And it's all about the Irish Question.

Our story begins last June when the state refused to issue Carol Ann Martin of Wallingford an "IRISH" Vermont vanity license plate for her 1998 Subaru wagon. The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) said such a license plate would be "offensive and confusing to the general public" under the provisions of Title 23 of Vermont State Statutes. I'm not making this up.

Martin was floored by the denial. You might say it got her "Irish" up. In a letter to DMV Commissioner Bonnie Rutledge, she wrote, "I do not believe my request is either offensive or confusing. My pride in my Irish heritage is not an ‘offense' to anyone else. I am not implying that any other nationality or race is inferior to mine or that we are superior or unique in any way."

She's got a point.

"My great-grandfather," wrote Martin, "Andrew McDonald was born in County Roscommon, Ireland, which it states on his headstone in St. Jerome's Cemetery in East Dorset. His daughter, Anna, married my grandfather, Michael Martin, who had emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland. This is a simple fact of who I am, Irish. I believe my plate celebrates the diverse fabric of Vermont's ethnic heritage."

In fact, in the past, noted Martin, she had a legal "IRISH" license plate on her truck as well as car plates "Irish1" and "Irish2." In fact, she claimed she was well-known around the Rutland area because of her "Irish1" plate. And when she'd go back to visit her old neighborhood in Massachusetts, people would "drool" over the plate. That's because in the land of the Kennedys, all Irish-related license plates, like political hack jobs, are gobbled up quickly.

Three years ago Martin had a Vermont conservation plate, "Irish1." But, according to court records, in 1999 the Martins ran into some financial hardship. She dropped the très chic peregrine falcon tag as "an unnecessary expense."

By the time Martin reapplied for an "Irish" plate last June, the rules had changed. That month, brand new "administrative rules" went into effect relating to vanity plates. Under the new rules, all new applications "will be issued only when it has been established within reasonable means that the requested combination of letters, numerals, and spaces do not read, suggest, or cannot be construed to read, or suggest anything that might be offensive or confusing to the general public."

So far so good.

But then the new rules get very specific. In addition to barring slang, plates that refer "to any race, religion, color, deity, ethnic heritage, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, or political affiliation" are also banned from the Green Mountains.

According to Commissioner Rutledge, Martin's "IRISH" plate was shot down because it refers to "ethnic heritage"; a dicey topic these days, indeed.

For purposes of full disclosure, yours truly admits to being in personal possession of an Irish heritage, too. As a person of such ethnicity, I learned at dear old daddy's knee how some people view the Irish. As an immigrant in Depression-era New York City he saw with his own eyes the "No Irish Need Apply" signs.

Hey, rules are rules, and my, oh, my, how the rules keep changing.

The Irish have been tagged with many of the usual ethnic slurs like "lazy" and "stupid." And, Irishness has also attracted a host of unique slurs like "a bunch of drunks," "Micks," "Papists," "Bog-trotters" and, my favorite, "a complex mechanism that transforms Guinness into urine."

But with 40 million ethnic Irish in America, there's another side to that coin, especially when a Kennedy half-dollar is used for the pregame coin toss at a Notre Dame football game.

Martin appealed the DMV rejection, but the appeal was denied. In a four-page decision, Kathryn Allen, the hearing officer, wrote, "Although you and others you have encountered to date may not find the term IRISH offensive or confusing, others in the general public might."

Now Martin has coughed up the $150 filing fee to put the matter before the courts.

The Bonnie Commish told Seven Days that "in the past," vanity-plate denials had more to do with "slang terms." The one that slipped through the cracks and got everyone's attention, said Rutledge, was a plate that read "SHTHPNS." The state "bought" a few vowels on that one and read it to be "SHIT HAPPENS."

That case, said Rutledge, is also under appeal.

As for the Irish Question, Rutledge noted she has a little Irish heritage herself. However, that cannot stand in the way of enforcing state law. Recently, she said, DMV denied a request for an "ABENAKI" vanity plate. More "ethnic heritage" trouble.

"If you make them happy and give them the plate," said the Bonnie Commish, "you make other people unhappy."

Yes, indeed, just imagine all the people who would be offended by the sight of an "IRISH" license plate: Oliver Cromwell, Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth? We've come a long way, baby!

Oh, by the way, promise you won't tell Big Brother, but Carol Martin lives on a road that, in the state's view, probably offends and confuses people, too. It's called "Irish Lane."

What's next? A ban on "French" dressing?

The Ashcroft Massacre: In each and every biennium, there's that one defining moment at the Statehouse when the opposing armies crash head-to-head in a floor vote. An up-or-down roll call vote on an item of little substance but great symbolism. A test of strength.

Last Thursday's Republican-backed resolution urging the U.S. Senate to confirm as America's attorney general a man Congressman Bernie Sanders calls "an extreme right-winger" was such a defining moment.

Look, since Election Day, the Republicans have been reading in the papers over and over about how they won the majority in the Vermont House for the first time in 14 years. And what's the sense of being the majority if you can't shove your viewpoint down the throats of the minority? Time to Take Back Vermont, right?

Led by the holier-than-thou divorcée from Derby, Rep. Nancy Sheltra, the new GOP brigade marched confidently into the House chamber determined to crush the lefties and win one for God and country. Sheltra's resolution supporting John Ashcroft had 20 co-sponsors. And with 83 seats in the 150-member body, victory seemed assured.

But the minority Democrats decided, minority be damned, they were not going to give up without a fight. Guerrilla warfare.

Wednesday evening, a group of Ds were dining at A Single Pebble on the Barre-Montpelier Road when the subject of the Ashcroft resolution was raised by Rep. Carolyn Partridge of Windham. What to do?

The House crew turned to Lt. Gov. Doug Racine for advice. Mr. Racine has seen it all in his Statehouse years. He's a warrior on the quiet side, perhaps, but a warrior nonetheless. Since the gavel fell and Walter Freed and the Rs took power in the House, the Ds have been walking around with their heads hanging. Mopey. Defeated. Over dessert that evening, Coach Racine gave them his version of a Knute Rockne pep talk. And it worked.

The rebels departed A Single Pebble that night on a mission. They tracked down their caucus leader, Rep. John Tracy, at the Thrush Tavern. The rebels told John-John they wanted to engage the Redcoats on the Ashcroft resolution. They may be the "minority," they told him, but they were not going down without a fight. A plan was hatched.

The next day, the great floor debate ensued. But the majority Redcoats were caught in an awkward position when General Sheltra couldn't handle rebel questions on Ashcroft's position on important matters to Vermont, like the Northeast Dairy Compact and the price of prescription drugs. The fight over Nancy's shove-it-down-their-ungodly-throats resolution turned into a Republican Saratoga.

In the end, even three Republican committee chairs voted against it: Allen Palmer (General) David Brown (Wet & Wild) and Ruth Towne (Agriculture). Two more, Tom Koch (Health) and Peg Flory (Judiciary) were missing in action.

Asked later how she would have voted, Flory replied, "I'm not going to go there."

When the dust settled, the Redcoats were defeated 75-61. It was the first floor fight presided over by the rookie Speaker, and a certifiable disaster for the majority Republicans. Asked Tuesday if he was "having any fun yet," Speaker Freed replied, "I never imagined it would be fun."

But Walt the Salt tells Seven Days he did have fun at the Bush Inaugural. He attended with his wife and daughters. And guess what? Of the four tickets, said Freed, two came from Sen. Jim Jeffords and two from Congressman Bernie Sanders. That's truly bipartisan beyond a doubt.

"Freed the Fair" Update Last week we mentioned how absurd some of the comments by the state's largest newspapers have been concerning the hatchet job performed by the new Republican House Speaker Walter Freed. The Duke of Dorset stuck it to the Democrats with his "fair" committee assignments. The Burlington Free Press and the Rutland Herald must have been smoking from the same bong on that one. Of course, Gov. Howard Dean, a "Democrat," was no help, note the vanquished Ds. Ho-Ho publicly salted the wound when he pronounced Freed's picks "fair."

Like Cinderella, folks, that's a fairy tale.

There are 14 committees in the House, filled by 83 Republicans, 62 Democrats, 4 Progressives and 1 Independent. Freed the Fair appointed just 2 Democrat chairs and 2 Democrat vice-chairs.

A Seven Days review of House committee assignments going back to 1973 indicates Speaker Freed is actually one mean and partisan son of a bitch. For example:

In 1973, when there were only 56 Democrats, Republican Speaker Peanut Kennedy named 3 Democrat chairs and 6 vice-chairs.

In 1981, there were 64 Democrats. Republican Speaker Steve Morse appointed 5 Democrat chairs and 3 vice-chairs.

In 1985, there were 72 Democrats, but Ralph Wright, a Democrat, won the Speaker's job. Wright appointed 6 Republican chairs and 3 vice-chairs.

Even in 1993, his last term wielding the gavel, King Ralph the Liberal still gave the enemy more leadership positions than Walt the Salt. That year the Democrats held a larger majority than today's well-publicized Republican one. There were 86 Democrats and just 57 Republicans. But Republicans got 2 chairs and 5 vice-chairs from Ralph.

Y'all may recall how, back then, the mainstream press, especially the Rutland Herald, condemned Speaker Wright as a mean and nasty, partisan, arm-twisting son of a bitch. The press moaned and groaned over Ralph's straightforward, abrasive style, ignoring his substantial accomplishments in the name of Mrs. Murphy and Vermont's have-nots.

But this year, when the new Republican Speaker assigns the enemy the fewest leadership seats at the table in more than 25 years, the dailies and the Democrat Guv call it "fair."

Asked Tuesday if he really meant that, Ho-Ho replied, "Other than the fact that I didn't think there were enough Democratic chairs, I think Freed did a pretty good job."

That's a little like saying, "Other than the little problem with the iceberg, I think the Titanic had a pretty smooth sail."

Burlington Arts Alert: Hot tip for all you folks out in the hills about a one-of-a-kind gem. If you're visiting in the Big Bad B-Town in the next couple weeks, don't leave without stopping in at the friendly Firehouse Gallery next to City Hall on Church Street. There you will feast on an extra-special, multi-media, magnum opus inspired by the demise of the giant Vermont Transit bus barns in the Old North End. "The Bus Barns Project" is the creation of one of Burlap's artistic geniuses, the inimitable Hannah Dennison, and many talented local folks answered her call to put it all together. Words don't do it justice. You've got to see it, read it and watch it and touch it for yourself. Bravo!


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