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Please Pass the Politics

Fair Game


Published November 25, 2009 at 12:06 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

It’s Thanksgiving and, at our house, the table talk is likely to turn to politics. In Vermont the big question is: Can the Republicans hang onto the governor’s seat in an increasingly liberal state?

Conventional wisdom would give the Democrats the upper hand next year. It’s been a tradition since the 1960s that the two parties alternate holding the governor’s seat.

Still, a growing number of pundits — from Vermont Business Magazine columnist Chris Graff to lobbyist Bob Sherman — say Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie could win next fall thanks, in large part, to the crowded Democratic primary.

How so? It’s a numbers game. In a five-way race, the primary winner will only need to garner between 12,000 and 20,000 votes, depending on the turnout.

If the primary stays in September, the winner will have just nine weeks to parlay that into nearly 130,000 votes to win the general election. In 2006, the year of the last nonpresidential election, Gov. Jim Douglas won with 148,000 votes over his Democratic challenger, Scudder Parker, who netted 108,000.

So far, it seems Dubie’s strategy is to wage a low-key general election campaign from now until November 2010 and dismiss requests to weigh in on the ongoing Dem debate because, well, he’s a Republican.

Case in point: Last week Dubie was invited, along with his Democratic rivals, to to a Burlington forum organized by the Vermont League of Conservation Voters to talk about Vermont’s environment. He declined due to a “scheduling conflict” — otherwise known as the annual meeting of the Republican Governors Association.

Um, don’t you have to be elected first to join the group?

Dubie told “Fair Game” he made the most of his trip, benefiting from one-on-one policy talks with Govs. Mitch Daniels (IN), Bobby Jindal (LA), Linda Lingle (HI) and Tim Pawlenty (WI). Dubie also spent time talking electoral strategies with the newly elected governors of New Jersey and Virginia — Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell.

“They told me to think about why I’m running, come up with a plan and stick to the plan,” said Dubie. That plan may need to be set in stone sooner rather than later.

Businessman Rodolphe M. “Skip” Vallee — owner of the Maplefield’s convenience store chain — said he is thinking about challenging Dubie. Former House Speaker Michael Bernhardt is also making noises about taking on the lite guv.

All of a sudden, Dubie is checking his right flank.

“I think they are sending a message to Dubie: ‘The approach that worked for you in the past — to run a low-key campaign, avoid press conferences and skip out on debates — is not going to work this time,’” said Eric Davis, a retired prof from Middlebury College.

Dubie said he and Vallee have spoken and claims the two agree on fiscal issues. “We think that the way to move our state forward is to lower taxes, and certainly not raise taxes now, with the huge fiscal challenges we face,” said Dubie.

He may have nothing to fear. Neither Bernhardt nor Vallee is an electoral powerhouse. Bernhardt ran statewide in 1988 for governor and in 1990 for lieutenant governor and lost both races, to Madeleine Kunin and Howard Dean, respectively.

In 2000, Vallee spent a record $134,000 in a losing bid for a Chittenden County Senate seat. Still, he insists on fresh flowers in the restrooms at every Maplefield’s.

Former Pres. George W. Bush appointed Vallee U.S. ambassador to Slovakia in 2005. He got the “job” by distinguishing himself as one Bush’s fundraising “Rangers” — he raised $200,000 for Dubya’s 2004 reelection bid. Vallee surrendered his overseas post last December.

Vallee will make a final decision by the first of the year, he told “Fair Game.” His potential candidacy is not a knock against Dubie, he said.

“Part of the thought process is how I can be most effective in next year’s election cycle,” Vallee said. “I like Brian, and Brian has shown he can win votes statewide, but elections are about ideas and I think it’s important for voters to have a sense of what else is out there,” said Vallee.

Democrats aren’t about to let Dubie off easy, either. They’ve created a political action committee called “Vermonters for a Democratic Governor.”

“While the Democrats will be debating the issues, we want to hear what Brian has to say,” said Burlington Democrat Sam Osborne, the PAC’s treasurer.Vermonters deserve to hear the other side before they make a choice.”

Blame It on Enron

Many Vermonters are still scratching their heads about State Auditor Tom Salmon’s press conference Friday, at which he delivered what can only be described as a rambling, half-hour monologue.

The stated purpose of the event was to answer any questions about his recent DUI arrest before December 3, the date Salmon will face the drunk-driving charge in court. He told reporters he plans to plead guilty; he believes he had five drinks that night — two scotches before dinner, two glasses of red wine with dinner and a Kahlua coffee drink after dinner.

He also wanted to explain more about why he ran into financial difficulty while living in Los Angeles. There, he racked up about $30,000 in debt and defaulted. The credit union and credit card company sued him, and he paid off his debts as of early 2007. The repayment occurred just a month after he was sworn into his $95,000-a-year job as auditor.

>Salmon presented an IRS form that showed heavy losses in Enron as a precipitating factor. According to the IRS form, the largest purchase of Enron stock came on November 15, 2001 — a $102,345 purchase that sold six days later for $58,421, for a loss of $43,924.

One has to wonder how he, or his financial advisor, missed the warning signs that the Houston-based energy company going down the toilet — in a hurry.

According to a Washington Post timeline that details Enron’s collapse, Salmon’s stock purchases occurred more than a month after Enron reported a $618 million quarterly loss, and announced a formal probe by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. Its stock was in freefall by mid- to late November.

As detailed in Salmon’s IRS form, he continued to purchase Enron stock — albeit in smaller amounts — on four separate occasions.

Three of those purchases came after Enron filed for bankruptcy on December 2.

Go figure.

It’s Raining Dems

Last week, the five Democrat candidates for governor spoke to a packed house of environmental supporters at a Burlington forum organized by the Vermont League of Conservation Voters.

On policy, all five sounded about the same. As guv, each would: clean up our waterways, make Act 250 stronger, and fund housing and conservation. All believe Vermont Yankee is not part of the state’s energy future. Rather, they want the state to focus on purchasing more energy from local, or regional, renewable sources, as well as to invest more in energy-efficiency programs.

Only Secretary of State Deb Markowitz mentioned their likely GOP challenger by name — a good move given that every statewide media outlet was on hand to record the event.

It’s always important to remember to speak to the people outside of the room. Markowitz and Sen. Peter Shumlin appear to be the most adept at that; Shumlin continues to prove he’s the best communicator of the quintet.

Sen. Doug Racine continues to rely heavily on his past accolades and achievements as a senator and lieutenant governor. While that may stir up fond memories for some supporters, Racine doesn’t seem to be catching fire with voters.

Former Sen. Matt Dunne arrived just minutes before the event. He had driven in from New York City, and it showed. He did offer an amusing anecdote about his son stripping naked at a wedding and jumping into Lake Champlain. Presumably, it was part of his argument for better wastewater treatment plants.

Sen. Susan Bartlett (Lamoille) continues to benefit from being the only candidate who has not run for statewide office. Expectations are low, and Bartlett exceeds them every time, placing among the forum’s top three perceived “winners.”

She also delivered one of the better lines of the night: “As governor,” she said, “I would dare to do something different.”

A Bigger Table

Last week, Public Service Commissioner David O’Brien piped up about Burlington Telecom, this time urging the city to take a go-slow approach when it comes to “fixing” BT.

O’Brien said a refinancing of BT’s debt, or a change in its governance structure, could cause concern with his department as it litigates BT’s two separate Certificate of Public Good (CPG) violations before the Public Service Board.

Department of Public Service (DPS) deputy commish Steve Wark, a former Queen City deputy police chief, said the state respects the city’s desire to move ahead, but it can’t act on its own now that DPS is involved.

“Our department also has a responsibility to the people of Burlington — and we will not abdicate our responsibilities in this matter,” said Wark. “Our investigation will continue, and we are confident that we can work together to reach a realistic resolution that will not place Burlingtonians in further financial peril.”

In his letter, O’Brien asked for the council and administration to not only keep the state in the loop but to sit down and meet to talk things through.

Obviously, he’s never watched a city council meeting. He should take in a few reruns on cable, then schedule a teleconference.

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