A Case for Cash: Zuckerman's Public Financing Quandary | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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A Case for Cash: Zuckerman's Public Financing Quandary


Published February 3, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 7, 2017 at 12:39 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Sen. David Zuckerman (P/D-Chitttenden), a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sen. David Zuckerman (P/D-Chitttenden), a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor.

Last week, Sen. David Zuckerman (P/D-Chittenden), a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, sent out a fundraising email urging supporters to "Click here to help me qualify for public financing."

It was notable that the appeal came on January 28. State law clearly states that candidates won't be eligible for public financing if they announce their candidacy, or if they raise or spend more than $2,000, before February 15.

Zuckerman has done all those things. He declared his candidacy on November 10 and readily admits he's both raised and spent more than $2,000, two weeks before the public financing deadline. He's flouting the rules, openly and deliberately.

Why? In hopes that a federal judge will ease the rules of Vermont's public financing law, based on a pending case involving him and 2014 Democratic/Progressive lieutenant governor candidate Dean Corren.

The rarely used law is confounding, as Corren discovered the hard way. State Attorney General Bill Sorrell accused Corren of violating it by asking the Vermont Democratic Party to send a mass email on his behalf. The digital missive was interpreted to be a campaign solicitation — prohibited by the public financing law — with a value of $255, which Corren didn't report as a campaign expense. That transgression precipitated a whopping $72,000 fine. In response, Corren sued Sorrell in federal court, and Zuckerman has joined in. In legalese, the Chittenden County senator has been granted "intervenor status."

Given that uncertainty around the law, it seemed unlikely that any Vermont candidate would go for public financing this year. But Zuckerman is using the opportunity to challenge the court to agree to more reasonable terms: He thinks that he should be able to start campaigning before February 15; that political parties should be able to help him; and that if his opponents raise more money than he gets through public financing, he should be allowed to raise enough private money to make up the difference.

It's a long shot, and Zuckerman knows it. "The question is, 'Can the judge do that?' I don't know the answer to that," he says.

Zuckerman expects a ruling soon. If the judge doesn't change the parameters, he says, he won't apply for public financing — and, thus, won't be violating the law.

In the meantime, is Zuckerman misleading his supporters by asking them for contributions to help him qualify for public financing? Nowhere does his request indicate that he'll go that route only if a judge changes the law.

To qualify for public financing, candidates must raise $17,500 in contributions of $50 or less from 750 registered Vermont voters between February 15 and May 26. In return, they get to spend taxpayer dollars to get elected: up to $50,000 for a primary and $150,000 for a general election.

Zuckerman says there's nothing deceptive about his reform strategy. Donors are giving him money to help him get elected, he argues. They aren't going to cry foul over his public-financing push.

The candidate admits that in the early days of his campaign, he received contributions in excess of the $50 public-financing limit. He's put that money into escrow, he says, and will return it, if necessary, to comply with the law.

Rep. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington), who is competing with Zuckerman for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, says she thinks the better course of action would be to change the law first, then pursue public financing. Seizing an opportunity of her own, she says, "I'd rather remain up-front with people."

A House Divided

It was a big deal for advocates of marijuana legalization when the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 4-1 last week to advance a bill. But there was another reason to be surprised: The bill moved on schedule, with no Statehouse meltdowns, bickering or grandstanding.

In the few short weeks since the legislature convened for the 2016 session, the Vermont Senate — often characterized in these pages as dysfunctional — looks like a well-tuned machine. Whether or not you agree with their agendas, senators are acting, well, senatorial.

The House, on the other hand, ended January in a political arm-wrestling match. Once considered well-adjusted in comparison to the Senate, the chamber resorted to a middle-of-the-night Saturday session to amend controversial school spending caps.

What's going on? Has the Statehouse turned upside down?

It would be wrong to leap to conclusions less than a month into the four-month session, but here are some things to consider.

Senators started the year by suspending one of their own, Sen. Norm McAllister (R-Franklin), while he faces sexual assault charges. This difficult move seems to have disciplined the senators into focusing. Shocked and humbled them, too.

Now in his sixth session at the helm, Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell (D-Windsor) may finally be learning the ropes. Although he's not known for running a tight ship, Campbell set firm deadlines for committees to consider marijuana legalization, and lawmakers are meeting them — without drama.

Or upstaging. Senators who authored earlier marijuana legalization bills yielded enormous power to Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears (D-Bennington) to craft the latest version. Senators who oppose the legislation quietly agreed to let the debate take place.

It's almost eerily polite.

The House, on the other hand, looks like a former Goody Two-shoes who just can't behave any longer. Last Friday, the Democratic majority tried twice to vote on a fix to school spending caps, which hit low-spending schools especially hard. Instead it turned into an early-session game of one-upmanship.

House Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton) said he went into the day thinking his Republican colleagues would begrudgingly go along with a compromise. They didn't. Because the bill had just arrived from the Senate, House members couldn't vote on it for a day — unless they elected to suspend that particular legislative rule. Fueled by the protests of young freshmen Republicans, Turner's party twice refused to supply the three-quarters majority required to let it happen.

That prompted House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) to declare that the House would reconvene at 12:01 a.m. Saturday — technically a new day, on which the chamber could vote without suspending rules. When they were done at 1:12 a.m., the tally was the same as it would've been 12 hours earlier — 92-32 in favor of the compromise.

So, after all the maneuvering, who won? Neither side, though both tried to spin it.

Republicans proved once again that they have just enough power to block rules suspensions. Meanwhile, in the committee rooms where bills are written, their members routinely go along with the majority. When bills come out of committee 11-0 — with Republican support — it's hard to buy the argument that Democrats are dooming us to partisan rule.

But that's what the Vermont Republican Party tried to say hours after the Saturday session ended. The GOP sent out a fundraising letter, which read in part, "If we do not elect a Republican governor and more Republicans to the House and Senate, we will only have more midnight votes that leave Vermonters behind."

The statement ignores the fact that Republicans in the Senate voted for the education compromise, and that most wanted to go further and repeal spending caps altogether.

The Democratic majority, meanwhile, can't get away from the fact that they spent nearly a month trying to fix their own work from last year. There's no question that education funding is a tough nut to crack, but it's hard for them to claim victory on this one.

Smith dismisses the observation that his 149 members have grown more unruly. "I don't understand why people consider it unhealthy when there's disagreement and jousting," he said. "If it was all 149-0, that would worry me."

'Os With GMOs

In 2014, when Vermont passed its first-in-the-nation law requiring genetically engineered foods to be labeled, the July 1, 2016, start date seemed wholly theoretical, due to anticipated legal challenges.

The massive Grocery Manufacturers Association sued the state within a month, seeking to block the law. What would happen next was anybody's guess.

Nearly two years later, the court case is still pending. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is expected to rule any day whether to put the law on hold while the underlying case is heard.

No one knows if Vermont will prevail in court, but the state did score a related victory.

Last month, Campbell Soup announced it would become the first major manufacturer to voluntarily label genetically modified foods.

Campbell, which makes a wide array of foods, including V8 juice and Pepperidge Farm products, also declared that it is withdrawing its opposition to mandatory labeling. And, although the soup company remains a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, it is no longer backing the lawsuit.

Does Campbell have some ulterior motive? "I don't think so," says Vermont Law School assistant professor Laura Murphy, who helped craft and defend Vermont's law. "They're just doing the right thing. That's the only way to take it."

Campbell isn't the only food manufacturer working on new labels. Todd Daloz, the assistant attorney general overseeing rollout of Vermont's law, says a steady flow of companies are calling with questions about where the "Produced with Genetic Engineering" labels can be placed and how big they should be. "We are getting a lot of, 'I can't find anywhere to put this,'" he says.

Campbell's decision did expose a flaw in Vermont's law, however. The company noted that a can of SpaghettiOs must carry the GMO label, but SpaghettiOs with meatballs does not.

The law exempts meat, because federal rules that govern meat labeling preclude states from getting involved. Most people following the law understood that packages of beef would be exempt — but a can of SpaghettiOs with meatballs?

"We followed the proposed Vermont legislation," Campbell spokesman Tom Hushen says. "We did not conclude this on our own."

That, he says, is why Campbell would still prefer a federal GMO labeling law. In the meantime, Hushen says, "We will label the meatballs version anyway."

Changing Horses

While 2016 election season has barely gotten started, two candidates have already made key changes to their campaign staffs.

As Seven Days reported Monday, Sue Minter, a Democratic candidate for governor, has hired a new campaign manager: Molly Ritner, a 28-year-old Bates College grad who has worked on Democratic campaigns around the country. Sarah McCall, who had filled that role since the campaign started in September, is now Minter's senior adviser.

Minter and Ritner have a lot in common: Both grew up in Philadelphia and excelled in college athletics. Minter called it a "great personal fit."

Meanwhile, Ram and her campaign manager, Brandon Batham, parted ways Sunday over what both described as philosophical differences.

Batham, chair of the Windham County Democratic Committee and a former Vermont Democratic Party field organizer, says Ram made the decision a couple of weeks ago.

"We realized we didn't have a great dynamic," Ram says. For now, finance director Liz Kane will be her only paid staffer. "It's early enough that we're going to see what makes the most sense," she says.

"It just wasn't a good fit," says Batham, adding, "I do think she's still the strongest candidate."