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The Heat is On

Fair Game


Published June 11, 2008 at 5:54 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Just when it looked as if spring was going to last as long as the Democratic presidential primary, someone turned up the heat - and in more ways than one.

As we went to press last week, it appeared Sen. Hillary Clinton might challenge Sen. Barack Obama all the way to the Democratic National Convention in Denver. No such luck. Cooler heads prevailed, and Clinton ended her campaign Saturday and endorsed Obama.

The big winner from the long primary was former Gov. Howard Dean, whose failed presidential bid in 2004 propelled him into the post of chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Dean then succeeded in his strategy to build party organizations in all 50 states. Despite criticism from Clinton loyalists, including Paul Begala and James Carville, Dean stayed the course and the party made tremendous mid-term gains in 2006; more recently, Dems picked up two more House seats in special elections. Begala once said Dean's effort was nothing more than "hiring a bunch of staff people to wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose." Guess where they picked up those former GOP House seats? Louisiana and Mississippi.

Obama is not exercising his prerogative to replace Dean as party chairman. Rather, he's working in tandem with Dean to show that in order to win elections, you have to do more than duke it out in a few battleground states.

As Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton told Talking Points Memo: "Sen. Obama appreciates the hard work that Chairman Dean has done to grow our party at the grassroots level and looks forward to working with him as the chairman of the Democratic Party as we go forward." Obama strategist Paul Tewes was quickly installed at the DNC to coordinate efforts.

While Dean probably won't be considered as a vice-presidential running mate, speculation is mounting about what role he might play in an Obama administration. Could the doctor end up being Secretary of Human Services?


Democrats Endorse . . . Pollina? In Vermont, we have our own Obama v. Clinton battle going - between Democrat Gaye Symington and Progressive Anthony Pollina.

Last Thursday, Pollina announced his support for Obama. He's doing all he can to ride the nominee's coattails here in Vermont, where Obama bested Clinton by a nearly two-to-one margin.

Two days before a major Democratic state committee meeting, several Lamoille County Dems announced a write-in campaign to help get Pollina the Democratic nomination in the September primary. Pollina was flattered, but is staying a pure, unadulterated Progressive - at least for now. Meanwhile, writer, logger and activist Michael Colby has decided not to challenge Pollina in a Progressive primary. Maybe a run for Congress?

Symington - who was Clinton's campaign co-chair in Vermont - is simply ignoring Pollina, focusing instead on incumbent Republican Gov. Jim Douglas. The outgoing House Speaker recently sided with President George Bush's anemic Environmental Protection Agency in faulting the governor for his administration's failure to clean up Lake Champlain.


Most Democrats Endorse . . . Symington! Saturday's Democratic state committee meeting garnered little press, but the party issued a press release Saturday afternoon exclaiming that the Vermont Democratic State Committee endorsed - drumroll, please - Symington for governor! OK, no shocker, but there was something missing: the word "unanimous." That's because Symington received 34 yeas and two nays, with one abstention during the secret-ballot vote. The committee also left open the chance for Pollina to address the group, rejecting a carefully worded motion to grant such privileges only to Democrats seeking the nomination for governor.

One inside observer said Symington may be the first Democrat candidate for governor who didn't receive the unanimous support of the state committee.

Despite the lack of unanimity, Symington's campaign manager Jill Krowinski said money is coming in steadily, as are the offers to host house parties for the candidate. In addition, the campaign is ditching its temporary website and unveiling a more dynamic one this week, along with a racecar at "the nation's site of excitement," Thunder Road in Barre. The car? Lucky No. 9.

Symington also has a new campaign staffer. Michael Carrese has joined her as communications director. Most recently from Albany, Carrese is a 1987 graduate of St. Michael's College and is married to Tricia Coates, the Vermont field director for Democratic Rep. Peter Welch. She's also an '87 SMC grad.

According to several people familiar with his background, Carrese has solid skills in communications and is well known in the Albany area for his Capitol Steps-esque comedy troupe, Only in New York (OiNk), specializing in parodies of New York lawmakers. He is also a former TV host at WMHT in Albany, a PBS affiliate.


Nuclear Hot Potato - Douglas is no Eliot Spitzer, but his ongoing love affair with Entergy might qualify him for Carrese's parody. As "Fair Game" went to press last week, Symington and Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin (D-Windham) were chiding Douglas for the way he's handling the cost of cleaning up Vermont Yankee once the plant is decommissioned.

At issue is a response by Douglas' Department of Public Service to Entergy's massive corporate restructuring plan. Entergy wants to sell its six Northeast nuclear power plants to a new company, Enexus, LLC, which would be owned by Entergy shareholders but remain a stand-alone company. The Douglas administration wants a "keep well" provision from Entergy in case Enexus, which will take on $4.5 billion in debt, gets into financial trouble. Douglas has also asked Entergy to lower its asking price so Enexus can keep more cash on hand.

After Entergy announced the restructuring plan earlier this year, lawmakers pushed through a bill requiring the Louisiana company to top off the decommissioning fund with an additional $400 million. But Douglas vetoed it after the session, claiming the additional costs levied by the legislature could result in higher electricity rates for Vermonters. Um, Governor, wouldn't lowering the sale price as you suggest do the same thing?

Shumlin and Symington are crying foul, claiming Douglas is ignoring the potential negative effects restructuring could have on the decommissioning fund, which, as of March 31, contained $427 million. They're concerned that Entergy is trying to pocket that money to cover spent-fuel storage costs, and will try to absolve itself of any responsibility to clean up Vermont Yankee, a task that could cost $800 million. They've asked the Public Service Board to consider the risks posed to ratepayers by Entergy's plan.

You might recall that, after it bought Vermont Yankee in 2001, Entergy told the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission the liability for decommissioning the plant, "as well as related decommissioning trust funds of approximately $280 million," would become Entergy's. Back then, when it looked like there was going to be a surplus in the fund, Entergy not only claimed it as their own, but tried to keep the former owners (including several Vermont utilities) from sharing in the spoils. Now that it looks like the decommissioning fund may fall short of what is needed to clean up Vermont Yankee, Entergy is trying to absolve itself of responsibility for it.

Public Service Commissioner David O'Brien doesn't believe Entergy is trying to skip out on the clean-up: "Under the previous owners, ratepayers were on the hook for decommissioning. It's a dangerous stretch to say that somehow ratepayers are going to be handed a bill here."

Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, echoed O'Brien: "Regardless of how Entergy wants to structure the proposed spin-off, it would retain responsibility for decommissioning costs," Sheehan said. "If a subsidiary, i.e., Entergy Vermont Yankee, LLC, did not have sufficient funding, we would, if necessary, go after the parent company to make up any shortfalls."

Vermont Yankee spokesman Rob Williams said, "Only spent fuel storage costs incurred after the plant is permanently shut down would come from the decommissioning fund."

The NRC started reviewing Entergy's restructuring plan last July, a process that Sheehan said takes about a year. Meanwhile, in New York, the state's attorney general is raising some serious questions about Entergy's restructuring; the Indian Point reactor, just outside of New York City, is part of that deal.

Tough questions from an elected official about a nuclear power plant? What a concept.


Charlie & Ernie for Governor? - Gov. Douglas signed his sales-tax holiday into law on WVMT-AM's "Charlie & Ernie Show" Thursday morning. The governor was joined by Rep. Mark Larson, a Democrat who chaired a special panel that crafted a compromise economic stimulus package between Douglas and the Democrats. They were also joined by Democratic Sen. Dick Mazza and a spokeswoman for the University Mall.

It was the second bill the governor has signed into law on the popular morning show - the other was a transportation-related measure, according to C&E's Charlie Papillo.

Papillo takes some credit for the tax holiday. "This bill we lobbied hard for and can even be credited with suggesting it long before it was discussed in Montpelier. Our thought was, 'What a great way to keep our federal rebates in Vermont.'"

The radio pair talked up the rebate to anyone in the Douglas administration who would listen, and frequently debated its merits with callers. "We had hoped for a full week, but are happy that the governor was able to convince legislators that this was an important part of his economic stimulus package," Papillo said. "We were hoping it would be called 'The C&E Tax Holiday,' but you can't have everything. Can't tell you what we will lobby for next, but we'll make sure our name is on it next time!"

The sales tax holiday is the weekend of July 12 and applies to all "non-business purchases" up to $2000, except automobiles and other vehicles. A second "holiday," running July 14-18, makes tax-exempt all purchases of Energy Star-rated appliances valued at $2000 or less.


On the Hot Seat - Fiscal management is emerging as the main bone of contention in the continuing dispute between Winooski City Manager Joshua Handverger and Police Chief Steve McQueen. The showdown chewed up three days last week, including a Saturday session that began at 8 a.m. More hearings are scheduled for next week.

There have been no major revelations yet. To date it's mostly been the boys in blue taking the stand against the chief and getting quizzed by veteran attorney Joe McNeil. The main gripe is the radio system upgrade, although McQueen and his attorney Pietro Lynn claim the chief didn't really oversee the contract bid or its management. There seems to be consensus that the system was shoddy, cost the city thousands of dollars too much, and put officers' lives at risk.

Kudos - or condolences- to Burlington Free Press reporter Matt Sutkoski for live-blogging the event and actually making it seem interesting - no easy task. If you're really interested, go to and click "Watch TV." The fine folks at Channel 17 are posting each hearing online after they tape it. Welcome to the 21st century, folks.


Denver Bound - Last Saturday, the 10 Vermont delegates who were elected to attend the Democratic National Convention picked the final seven attendees: Shumlin, Sen. Sara Kittell and Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz got the nod, and Markowitz was unanimously chosen to be the delegation chairwoman. Obama activists Linda Weiss, Kevin Christie and Sherry Merrick are also going to Denver. Tim Briglin was chosen as the alternate.

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