A Predictable Outcome: Scott and Hallquist Win Their Primaries | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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A Predictable Outcome: Scott and Hallquist Win Their Primaries

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Hallquist speaking at the Skinny Pancake Tuesday night - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Hallquist speaking at the Skinny Pancake Tuesday night

In the end, Vermont's gubernatorial primary results were thoroughly unsurprising. The two apparent favorites, Republican Gov. Phil Scott and Democrat Christine Hallquist, won their respective party nominations and will face off in November.

Recent days brought a flurry of smokin' hot takes on potential shockers, fueled in part by wishful thinking from those who were craving some excitement after a low-key primary campaign.

But it wasn't to be. We can retire those headlines about a Keith Stern/Ethan Sonneborn matchup.

The result that will reverberate far and wide is Hallquist winning the Democratic primary. She becomes the first openly transgender person in U.S. history to win a major party nomination for governor.

"We felt like we were doing good, but seeing the numbers is pretty amazing," Hallquist said when she'd opened up a substantial lead with one-third of the votes counted. "It almost takes my breath away."

The biggest surprise on the Democratic side was the poor showing by water-quality activist James Ehlers. He'd been campaigning for more than a year and appeared to have first dibs on a pair of important constituencies: the progressive/liberal wing of the party, and environmentally minded voters. But throughout the evening, he trailed anti-poverty activist Brenda Siegel, who got a late start in the race and was little known outside of Brattleboro. (At press time, Ehlers and Siegel were neck and neck for second place.) Fourteen-year-old Sonneborn came in a distant fourth.

Scott, meanwhile, had no trouble defeating gun-rights advocate Stern, but he has to be disquieted by the fact that the little-known Stern got so many votes. It appears to be a signal of broad Republican dissatisfaction with Scott. He may not need their votes to win in November, but he will need their help in legislative races.

Hallquist, the former CEO of the Vermont Electric Coop, begins the general-election race as a decided underdog. Her statewide name recognition remains weak, and she won't have much money in her campaign kitty. Scott hasn't raised much either, but he does have the Republican Governors Association in his corner. It's already spent more than $200,000 on Scott's behalf.

Still, Hallquist campaign manager Cameron Russell is making brave noises. "We already have a full staff. We're ready to go," he said. "As we move toward the general election, we have a lot on our side."

Cheerleading, to be sure. But there is one big factor that could be an advantage for Hallquist: her gender identity. The Democratic nominee has begun to attract national and international media attention, including recent features from the Guardian, CBS News, NBC News, Fox News, CNN, Politico and the Hill. Her primary victory will ensure even more coverage.

And that will energize donors far beyond Vermont's borders. Hallquist has won endorsements from several national organizations that support LGBTQ, female and progressive candidates. She's a particular priority for the LGBTQ Victory Fund. "There are so few transgender elected officials," said former Houston mayor Annise Parker, now president and CEO of the fund. "Just the fact that she's out there is motivating to lots of people across the country."

Other Hallquist endorsers include the National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund, the Trans United Fund and LPAC (which supports LGBTQ women), in addition to Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party.

"We have folks from around the country writing in, offering words of support, telling us the country is watching," said Russell.

What remains to be seen is whether Vermont Democrats will join the parade. So far, most Democratic donors and elected officials have stayed on the sidelines, seemingly underwhelmed by the gubernatorial field and believing that a Scott victory in November was inevitable. The historic nature of Hallquist's candidacy has begun to resonate elsewhere, but it hasn't here at home. Perhaps Vermont is the only place that might see a transgender candidate as not especially noteworthy. Indeed, the Ehlers campaign persistently tried to portray Hallquist as the centrist, corporatist candidate. Only in Vermont.

Hallquist has already made history. She'd rather make even more by becoming the first openly transgender governor in American history. But Scott remains the favorite. According to a recent poll, he's more popular among Democratic voters than Republicans. Hallquist will have to change quite a few minds in less than three months.

Calamity Jane

If I told you that an ethical scandal engulfed the majority of a state supreme court's sitting justices, you'd probably think it happened far, far away or long, long ago.

In truth, it happened right here in Vermont — and within living memory for many of us. In the mid- to late 1980s, the state's legal and political communities were turned upside down by the Wheel saga. Three sitting Vermont Supreme Court justices were charged with ethical misconduct, and a Chittenden County assistant judge faced criminal charges.

The story is told in a new book, Breach of Trust, written by retired attorney and Burlington resident James Dunn. He witnessed the Wheel saga as it unfolded but had forgotten many of the details over the years. In retirement, he rediscovered the scandal while doing historical research on the Chittenden County courthouse.

"As much as I was aware of the power and arrogance of these folks, I never understood how it played out," Dunn said in an interview. "As I pieced it together, I thought, Gee, this is a story that people don't really know."

Assistant judges are elected and are often nonlawyers. Jane Wheel was a loyal Democratic foot soldier; her reward was a 1974 nomination to be assistant judge. She won and went on to serve three consecutive four-year terms. "She went from gym teacher to assistant judge," Dunn writes. "She was a person who did not figure out how to use power."

As Dunn tells it, Wheel engaged in courthouse intrigues, abusing subordinates and cultivating friendships with superiors. One of those friends was William Hill, chief judge in Chittenden Superior Court. When he was elevated to the Vermont Supreme Court in 1976, he retained an office in the Burlington courthouse and spent a lot of time there — often in Wheel's company.

Hill and Wheel denied persistent rumors of an affair. But their relationship was strong enough that Hill repeatedly protected Wheel, at his own professional peril.

Wheel often got into trouble. She faced a contempt of court charge, was disqualified from hearing a trial, allegedly claimed pay for days when she did no work — and was accused of fabricating court records to support her pay claims and lying about it under oath. In every instance, Hill intervened in ways that clearly displayed favoritism.

Hill's successor on the Chittenden bench, Thomas Hayes, followed in Hill's footsteps by befriending Wheel and then, in 1985, ascending to the high court, where he backed Hill's efforts on behalf of Wheel. Fellow justice Ernest Gibson supported them, for reasons that are unclear to Dunn.

In early 1986, then-attorney general Jeffrey Amestoy (later a Supreme Court justice himself) opened an investigation into Wheel over the pay issues. The case began to gather significant public attention. That September, Wheel was defeated in her bid for a fourth term and the Judicial Conduct Board opened an investigation into Hayes, Hill, Gibson and Wheel.

In January 1987, the board formally charged the three Supreme Court justices with a total of 24 ethics violations. Wheel faced six charges, plus the criminal case. Five months later, Hayes died of cancer at the age of 60. The board closed his case. It also dismissed the case against Gibson. He remained on the high court until 1997.

Wheel's defense team fought the criminal and ethics charges to the limits of their ability. Her attorneys, Richard Davis and Leonard Wing, were "two of the most prestigious, expensive lawyers in the state," Dunn said. Her legal bills "were in the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. I don't know who paid for it. I have no idea."

The maneuvers only delayed the outcome. In June 1988, Wheel was sentenced to 45 days in jail plus one to three years' probation for perjury. She was released after 19 days. She lived out her life quietly in Burlington and died in March 2017.

The final decision on Hill came in the fall of 1989, when the state Supreme Court affirmed the board's finding that Hill had committed four ethical breaches. He was publicly reprimanded and barred from sitting on cases as a retired judge.

Most of the principals have passed on, leaving many unanswered questions. Why were Hill and Hayes so driven that they risked their reputations? Why did Gibson appear to go along? Why didn't the other two justices raise more of a stink? And who paid Wheel's legal bills?

What's certain is that we should all learn from Vermont's past. "History is there for a reason, you know," said Dunn. To him, the lesson is that there are checks and balances in the judicial system. "We can take away some confidence that [the system] did its job and continues to do its job," he said.

Color me cynical, but I take a different lesson. Many Vermonters see their state as exempt from high-profile scandal. This book is a stark reminder that it can happen here. And it has happened here.

Media Note

A welcome sight greeted VTDigger.org readers on August 8: a story written by senior editor and reporter Mark Johnson. It was his first byline since early February, when a life-threatening condition forced him to undergo major surgery.

"I had an aortic valve replaced," he said. The operation corrected a birth defect that had slowly worsened over time. His doctors "have been monitoring it for 20 years," he said. "It reaches a point where it becomes less and less efficient."

After a lengthy recuperation, Johnson returned to work last week. "People say I look noticeably better," he said. "I don't think I noticed I was so compromised, but now I definitely notice the difference."

Johnson is one of Vermont's most respected journalists. He joined Digger in 2015 after spending 25 years as a talk radio host for WKDR in Burlington and WDEV in Waterbury. Before that, he was a reporter for the Burlington Free Press.

To celebrate his recovery, he recently climbed Camel's Hump. The new valve survived the trip, and Johnson is looking forward to enjoying his newly restored health. Which is a good thing for those who value quality reporting in Vermont.

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