It was an historic Montpeculiar moment, but it happened almost in secret. There was no ceremony in the governor's office. No reporters or TV cameras were present, and no press release was issued. But last Thursday, Gov. Jim Douglas signed into law a bill that will forever change the way Burlingtonians elect their mayor -- Instant Runoff Voting has arrived in Vermont!
On the recent March Town Meeting Day, Queen City voters overwhelmingly approved a charter change instituting IRV as the new method for electing mayors. The first implementation of the IRV system will occur next March.
Trust me, it's going to make for a different kind of campaign. Perhaps even a kinder and gentler one, too.
Mayor Peter Clavelle told Inside Track this week that, despite the lack of fanfare surrounding the new law, IRV will "invigorate democracy" in the Queen City.
The seven-term mayor, a Progressive who became a Democrat, has long been an enthusiastic supporter of IRV because, he says, "It makes a lot of sense."
Under the old election rules, a winning Burlington mayoral candidate had to get at least 40 percent of the votes cast. If no candidate did, a second runoff election between the top two would be conducted.
Under the new rules, however, the bar for victory has been raised to 50 percent. If no mayoral candidate reaches 50 percent when the ballots are counted, an instant runoff occurs. And that's where the fun begins!
For example, let's say there are four candidates for mayor. Voters will have the opportunity of ranking those four according to their preference as well as adding a write-in candidate.
On the first instant-runoff round, the last-place candidate is dropped and his/her ballots are distributed according to their marked second preference. A new count is taken. If no one has broken the 50 percent threshold, the next-lowest candidate gets dropped and his/her votes distributed according to the marked second preferences. And so on until a winner is picked.
For an online Flash demonstration of how IRV works, check out http://www.instantrunoff.com.
The point is, when all the counting and recounting is done, voters end up with a mayor who, as Clavelle noted, "will serve with majority support."
Progressive City Councilor Phil Fiermonte, a top aide to Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders and a potential mayoral candidate himself, called last week's bill signing "a great victory for election reform."
The IRV method, said Phil the Prog, "will allow voters to back a third-party candidate without worrying about the spoiler effect."
Rep. Kurt Wright, Burlington's lone Republican member of the Vermont House, was the only Burlington rep who was not a cosponsor of H. 505.
"Theoretically," said Wright, "it won't favor Republicans because this is not a Republican town."
"It's a whole new day in Burlington politics, and we'll just have to make the best of it," continued Wright. In fact, Kwik Stop Kurt suggested IRV might encourage more candidates to run for mayor, creating a Kentucky Derby-sized field.
One positive effect of IRV, all sides concede, is that mayoral campaigns will tend to be less negative and nasty. That's because each candidate will try to be picked as a second choice of their opponents' supporters.
Jo LaMarche, Burlington's director of elections and records, told Inside Track that implementation of IRV will be the topic at the next meeting of the city's Charter Change Committee. The city's voting machines will either have to be upgraded, or recounts will have to be done manually.
So who will IRV benefit -- Democrats, Progressives, Republicans or Independents?
Time will tell, but it's worth noting that if Burlington had been using an IRV system back in 1981, the father of the state's Progressive movement would not have been elected mayor.
Bernie Sanders, an Independent, defeated incumbent Democratic Mayor Gordie Paquette by just 10 votes, out of almost 10,000 cast. Sanders squeaked to victory with 40.1 percent. Third-place finisher Richard Bove, an anti-Paquette "Independent Democrat," got about 1500 votes.
Had an instant runoff been required, old-timers agree that the second preference of Bove's supporters would not have been the loud-mouthed left-winger from Brooklyn.
Statewide IRV? -- Though he signed Burlington's IRV charter-change bill, Republican Gov. Jim Douglas opposes IRV for statewide elections. According to Press Secretary Jason Gibbs, the Guv's opposition is based in part on a legal opinion by Democratic Attorney General Bill Sorrell.
Sorrell's opinion is that a constitutional amendment, which itself requires voter approval, would be needed to institute IRV for the offices of governor, lieutenant governor and treasurer. He bases that on his interpretation of the Vermont Constitution.
The election procedure for secretary of state and auditor, however, could be changed to IRV by legislation alone, according to Gen. Billy's legal opinion.
Of course, legal opinions are not perfect, as Sorrell demonstrated with an earlier opinion suggesting the granting of marriage rights to same-sex couple's was unconstitutional.
In fact, if you visit http://www.fairvotevermont.org, you'll find a scholarly legal opinion that makes mincemeat of Sorrell's opinion.
The fact is, IRV has broad bipartisan support. Republican Sen. John McCain supports it; so does DNC Chair Howard Dean. There's even an IRV bill in the legislature, but it remains tacked to the wall in the Senate Government Operations Committee.
Committee Chairman Jim Condos told Inside Track that the committee has been busy this winter on other issues, but said, "We'll take a crack at it next year."
The bill, S. 48, is sponsored by Condos and five others. It would institute IRV for all statewide races as well as for U.S. Senate and U.S. House.
Condos suggested that with Burlington voters breaking the IRV ice next March, "Lawmakers in Montpelier will see that IRV is not such a bad thing."
Dunne for Congress -- Windsor County State Sen. Matt Dunne launched his congressional campaign website this week at http://mattdunneforcongress.com.
Matt has said he'll drop out if fellow State Sen. Peter Welch decides to run for the seat being vacated by Bernie Sanders.
Progressive David Zuckerman has expressed interest as well.
A three-way race would certainly be a blessing for the GOP candidate.
However, Mayor Peter Clavelle tells Inside Track he's also considering a congressional bid. After all, he was Ol' Bernardo's designated successor as mayor and, because of his Progressive Party roots, Clavelle would be the one Democrat Progs could happily get behind.
Rainville Speaks! -- Last week, we mentioned what turned out to be an incorrect report in the Rutland Herald regarding Gen. Martha Rainville.
The Herald incorrectly reported Republican Rainville had suggested she could continue to serve as adjutant general while running for Congress, and also while serving in Congress.
In an interview conducted after her National Guard workday on Friday, the General told yours truly that she would have to resign if elected to the U.S. House. The Herald reporter misunderstood.
So, why did Marvelous Martha choose the Republican Party over the Democrat Party?
"I'm very moderate in my views," replied Rainville. "As I've said, I fit well with Republicans like Jim Douglas. I think that I can best serve Vermont that way . . . There's not one particular thing I can say as the reason I feel I'm a Republican. It's a matter of fitting in with the people I respect in that particular party."
We asked Rainville if she voted for George W. Bush in the last presidential election?
"Well," she answered, "I will wait to get into any more political answers until I actually make a decision to run for office and become a candidate."
Don't you think if the correct answer was "Bush," she would have said so?
Next we asked if she might elaborate on just what a "Jim Douglas-style" Republican is?
"To me," answered Martha, "Jim Douglas cares about the environment. I care very much about the environment. He also cares about building jobs and opportunities for Vermonters, and I agree with that."
OK, moving right along. Is Generalissima Rainville pro-life or pro-choice?
"If I run for office," answered Rainville, "then at that time I'll talk about my stand on the issues."
Though press reports have indicated Marvelous Martha is considering a U.S. House race, she told us she still hasn't made a final decision on what to run for. A race for the U.S. Senate hasn't been ruled out, though well-heeled IDX businessman Ritchie Tarrant has said he's pointed toward grabbing the GOP Senate nomination.
"Both seats appear to be open with Congressman Sanders looking at the Senate," said Rainville. "I haven't made that final decision yet. I think serving in either seat would be a rare honor for anybody."
Rainville confirmed she has met with Mr. Tarrant. When we suggested Jump Shot might have told her she was "talented and beautiful, but there was no way he would stay out of the race," Rainville chuckled.
"I will just say that our conversation was private, and I think we had a good talk and got to know each other a little bit. But what he does is his decision and what I do is strictly my decision."
Meanwhile, GOP Lite Gov Brian Dubie appears checkmated on a move up in 2006. Unless, of course, the Doobster thinks his charm and wit can beat Tarrant's money and consultants?
Tarrant File -- Gen. Rainville isn't the only potential GOP rival who's been talking to IDX whiz Ritchie Tarrant. Last Thursday Tarrant, the former St. Mike's basketball player, and Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, the former Essex wrestler, had a powwow at Libby's Blue Line Diner in Colchester. Thanks go out to the eyewitnesses who called to tell us about it.
In an email exchange this week, Tarrant confirmed both the Rainville and Dubie meetings.
"Obviously, the purpose of these types of meetings," wrote Tarrant, "is to sound each other out. So I cannot say, nor do I know, what Brian or Martha will do, other than what the media has been attributing to Martha, namely the House race."
Meanwhile, due to an apparent email snafu, Inside Track has learned that Mr. Tarrant is getting political advice from David Carney, a controversial New Hampshire-based GOP operative. Carney, who runs Norway Hill Associates in Hancock, won unwelcome notoriety during the 2004 presidential race for his effort to get fellow Republican voters to sign Ralph Nader's nominating petition.
We asked Jump Shot about his position on the so-called "nuclear option," backed by Senate Republicans, that would put an end to the use of filibusters to block a president's judicial appointments.
Tarrant surprised us by not singing out of the Republican hymnal.
"I think it would be a mistake to lob the nuke in at this point," wrote Ritchie. "I believe the filibuster has too much history to push it aside in this manner. Rather, the Senate should appoint a bipartisan committee to study the origins, intent, purpose, etc. of the filibuster phenomenon to once and for all determine its usefulness or lack thereof in advancing the democratic process. Any other route will divide this country even further on this issue, which is the last thing we need right now."
Quite a thoughtful, moderate, nonpartisan answer, eh?
A couple hours later, however, a most unexpected email arrived. It was from "David" at Norway Hill Associates and addressed to both Tarrant and yours truly.
Apparently Jump Shot had emailed yours truly's question and his response to the New Hampshire political consultant.
So what did the consultant think?
Well, Carney wrote that Tarrant's suggestion of forming a bipartisan committee to study the problem "sounds incredible (sic) weak. Almost naive. But it's better than the nuke option. We may want to outline a fuller answer that outlines the second step after the committee fails."
Yes, indeed, a glimpse behind the curtain.
Tarrant later confirmed he is considering hiring Carney as a campaign consultant, though he disagrees with Carney's assessment on this one. Ritchie also predicted he will "frustrate advisors on a regular basis because I will refuse to be handled."
Let's hope so.
Dean Sighting -- Except for at the airport, Howard Dean sightings in Vermont have been infrequent lately. But the chairman of the Democratic National Committee still lives in Burlington, and Saturday provided a rare glimpse of him.
Ho-Ho and his lovely wife, Judith Steinberg, MD (formerly "Judy Dean" for presidential campaign purposes), were among the few users of the Burlington Bikepath on a gray and overcast Saturday afternoon. The dynamic duo were enjoying a brisk walk together.
A bit more white in Ho-Ho's hair than at our last encounter.
Judy was dressed casually, but Ho-Ho still had on his work duds. Just a couple hours earlier he had brought the Massachusetts Democratic Party in Lowell to its feet with the suggestion that House GOP Leader Tom DeLay "ought to go back to Houston where he can serve his sentence."
That crack, however, brought a swift rebuke from Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), who told the Boston Globe, "I think Howard Dean was out of line talking about Tom DeLay. The man has not been indicted."
Media Notes -- Two former newsfolk from WCAX-TV had a recent new arrival. Former Ch. 3 reporter Joan Ritchie and Bryan Goodchild, a videographer, are the proud parents of Charles Bryan Goodchild. Based on the photo Joan sent along, the cute little tyke has a face made for television.
The Goodchilds and son are currently in the Boston area, where Bryan is working for Fox 25.
Last week we incorrectly reported that Ch. 3's incoming news anchor Kristin Kelly left WGOP five years ago for a position at NECN in Boston. Actually, Ms. Kelly departed two years ago. It just seems longer.