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Small Digs: Election Season Means It's Time for 'Oppo Research'


Published February 24, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated October 5, 2017 at 10:03 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sue Minter - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sue Minter

During the month of February, the Vermont Agency of Transportation fulfilled two public-records requests for information about its former leader. Sue Minter left her cabinet-level job last fall to run for governor as a Democrat.

The first request came not from a Republican operative but from her Democratic opponent, Matt Dunne. Actually, Dunne appears to have paid professionals from out of state to ask for records of all non-salary payments made to Minter while she served as deputy secretary and secretary of transportation.

"We're doing research on all the candidates in the race, including ours," says Nick Charyk, Dunne's campaign manager, who says the inquiry includes prospective candidates, too. "I don't expect a bombshell."

Upon learning she was the subject of "oppo research," Minter's campaign "followed up with our own request," according to campaign manager Molly Ritner — not on Dunne, but on Minter — "in order to be prepared for potential attacks in the future." Like Dunne, Minter also hired an out-of-state firm to seek the info.

AOT responded with a list of routine mileage and meal reimbursements, and a few out-of-state expenditures between 2011 and 2015. The only payment that stood out was a $4,438 trip to Colorado. Ritner says it was to repay Minter for plane tickets the secretary bought herself and two other AOT staffers.

Before she was head of AOT, Minter was the state officer in charge of fixing the damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene. "When Colorado had a natural disaster similar to Irene, Sue was dispatched to immediately travel to Colorado to help assist them in their own recovery," Ritner says.

Charyk characterizes such research as standard procedure. Others with experience in Vermont campaigns say that's not necessarily so.

Last year, Bruce Lisman, who is running in the Republican primary against Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, said he did a preemptive background check on himself. But the opposition researcher wound up making inquiries about Scott, and Lisman said he fired him for it, claiming he never authorized any oppo action.

More recently, a Democrat has been investigating the lieutenant governor. Last month, Scott received a public records request — one of the few he's ever gotten during his years in office.

Brattleboro lawyer James Valente says he was working with the Vermont Democratic Party when he asked for all correspondence involving Scott's comments on Syrian refugees; his excavation business, Dubois Construction; and his political campaign.

The result: 939 pages of emails that show a few mildly interesting exchanges — but no blistering revelations.

As the media reported, Scott did initially support banning Syrian refugees and later concluded the screening process was sound.

The records contained no evidence that Scott discussed Dubois business with any state officials.

Finally, the request revealed that many people — particularly the news media — routinely direct campaign-related questions to Scott's official lieutenant governor's office, which chief of staff Rachel Feldman forwards to the campaign. Scott appears to have slipped up once by handling a campaign-related email exchange on his lieutenant governor email account, which is a no-no. From that exchange, we learn that Minter asked Scott to take part in a candidate broomball game, but Scott's longtime friend and adviser Dick Wobby nixed the idea.

"There really is no upside," Wobby responded to Scott's email. But he added, "The image of Bruce or Matt skidding across the ice, well that might be worth it."

Jason Gibbs, a former aide to governor Jim Douglas who is volunteering for Scott's campaign, followed up with Scott's campaign staffer, Brittney Wilson: "Just tell her unfortunately we have a full day on the 29th. But it's a creative idea."

The dodge was apparently too innocent to register with Valente. "I haven't found anything of interest yet," reports the researcher. He believes that some records may have been overlooked because Scott's office didn't include first names when searching email files for particular people Valente had inquired about. Feldman says she consulted with the state Attorney General's Office for advice on how to respond to the request.

Valente also filed a campaign finance complaint against Scott for a video his campaign produced. He alleged that Scott failed to include information about who paid for the video and that the footage included images of Scott in his Statehouse office, which Valente claimed was against the law.

Scott counters that nothing in state law prevents him from showing his office in a campaign video. Valente now concedes Scott is probably right about that.

Scott says omitting the paid-for line on the video was a mistake that has been fixed. Washington County State's Attorney Scott Williams agreed. In a letter to Valente, the prosecutor indicated he wouldn't be pursuing the matter.

It's election season, and the digging has begun.

Weed Indeed

When the Vermont Senate votes this week on whether to legalize marijuana, observers expect it to pass by a slim margin. What happens after that is less certain.

Advocates have argued that when House members see the actual bill, they'll warm to it on account of numerous Vermont-style precautions: No edible products would be allowed; home growing would not be legal; retail sales wouldn't begin until 2018; and state revenues would go to drug treatment and police.

House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) isn't so sure. "We'll take it up in the House," he says, adding ominously: "I think it has some significant challenges."

The bill has won the support of state Attorney General Bill Sorrell and two of his predecessors, Jerry Diamond and Kim Cheney. But the person best positioned to be the next attorney general is not as keen. And theoretically, he'd be the one in charge of enforcing a new law.

"I'm not endorsing the bill," says T.J. Donovan, Chittenden County state's attorney, who is the only registered candidate for attorney general. Like Smith, Donovan cited highway safety as a key concern. Currently, there's no roadside test to determine whether motorists are under the influence of marijuana.

"I think it's 'go slow.' I think the driving issue is a big one," Donovan says, though he describes legalization as inevitable — eventually.

Another challenge facing the legalization bill: House members say they aren't hearing from constituents that it's a priority, says House Majority Leader Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford). Though a Vermont Public Radio poll this week indicated that 55 percent of Vermont respondents support legalization, those people aren't making a lot of noise about it, she says.

That's not a fair assessement, argues Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), a legalization supporter, noting most Vermonters are afraid to admit they use an illegal drug.

The bill stands a better chance without Sen. Norm McAllister (R-Franklin) — and it's the second of two recent legislative initiatives on which he might have swayed the results. McAllister, who is awaiting trial on sexual assault charges, was suspended in January.

With McAllister absent, supporters of legalization need just 15 votes to pass the pot bill, rather than 16. Earlier this month, a measure to exempt very small businesses from having to provide paid sick leave failed by one vote.

Reached at home in Highgate, McAllister said he would have voted against both measures. "I got an idea that's probably why some people didn't want me there."

By the Numbers

A VPR poll released Monday brought bad news for all four declared candidates for governor. Pollsters asked 895 Vermonters of varying political persuasions who they would support.

Lisman barely registered when pollsters asked about Republican candidates. Only 4 percent of those polled said they'd vote for the retired Wall Street executive. Lieutenant governor Scott got 42 percent, but another 40 percent said they didn't know which candidate they'd pick. Thirteen percent said neither was appealing.

Those polled weren't any more enthused about the Democratic side. When respondents considered the two options, Dunne won 19 percent; Minter, 11 percent. A whopping 51 percent of people said they didn't know, and 18 percent didn't like either option.

That's good news for anyone still thinking about joining the race. Indeed, the Democratic field of candidates is likely to grow. Former Democratic state senator Peter Galbraith of Townshend and former Democratic state representative John Moran of Wardsboro are both considering bids. House Speaker Smith, who suspended his campaign in November after his wife was diagnosed with cancer, could still get back in.

While the poll numbers were strong for Scott, his problem is presidential candidate Donald Trump, who leads the GOP field with support from 33 percent of likely Republican primary voters. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich each polled 14 percent.

That so many Vermonters like in-your-face Trump suggests a shift away from the state's tradition of rejecting negative campaigns. And it's bad news for any "establishment" candidate, especially if he's a Republican.

Middle Men

Last Saturday, Scott took the stage at Colchester High School to introduce — but not endorse — Kasich, the most moderate of the Republican presidential wannabes.

With just a week to go before the primary, Scott hasn't picked a candidate for president.

"I'm narrowing it down," Scott says. It's a dicey proposition for a Vermont Republican who will need Democrats, Republicans and independents to get elected.

Scott's Republican opponent for governor, Lisman, is also uncommitted.

"I'm not sure I'll find my ideal person," Lisman says. "I'm still watching and hoping they start talking about real policy and real issues."

Scott says he will not back Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz or retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson even if one of them becomes his party's nominee. Scott concedes he's gotten heat from Vermonters for dismissing Trump — and VPR's poll showing Trump as the leading candidate among Republicans in Vermont explains why.

But he'd also likely be getting heat from moderate voters for not dismissing Trump.

That leaves Scott with Kasich and Rubio as possible choices, and both men are more conservative than most Vermont Republicans. Democrats will hammer Scott for picking either, though Kasich probably offers the safer option. But then what happens if he has to drop out after next week's Super Tuesday primaries?

More daunting, though, is the prospect that Trump or Cruz could be the Republican nominee. What does a Vermont Republican politician do when asked: Are you voting for Trump or former secretary of state Hillary Clinton? Cruz or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)?

How to explain to Vermont's middle-of-the-road ticket-splitting voters that he or she is not that kind of Republican?

"It is concerning," says House Minority Leader Don Turner. The Milton Republican also has yet to pick a candidate.

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