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A Symington Scorecard

Inside Track


Published March 21, 2007 at 4:00 p.m.

Democrat Gaye Symington of Jericho, who turns 52 next month, is a wife, mother of three and holder of an M.B.A. from Cornell (1983). She has been serving in the Vermont House since winning her legislative seat a decade ago in 1996. She's currently serving her second term in the powerful post of House Speaker.

Symington has certainly brought a unique style to the office of Speaker. There is little, if any, resemblance to that of the politicians who preceded her: Republican Walt Freed of Dorset and Democrats Michael Obuchowski of Bellows Falls and the legendary Ralph Wright of Bennington. And, we'd argue, it's not just about gender.

Rather, what stands out is that those gentlemen were politicians who understood and played the political game. Symington, on the other hand, is more of a policy wonk who tries to avoid playing games. This, even though Gov. Jim Douglas takes shots weekly at what he paints as a tax-raising, do-nothing, Democrat-controlled legislature.

At her Friday "Brown Bag Lunch" with the press, Speaker Gaye was pitched a nice, fat political softball. She was asked how she thought Gov. Douglas was doing this session?

Symington chuckled but avoided the opportunity to take a shot, behaving more like an academic than a politician.

"My job is to know how the legislature's doing," said the Speaker, "and I think the legislature's doing solid work on the priorities we set out for this session. I think that all the work you see is focused on: What are the kinds of decisions we need to be making now that affect how strong the state is a generation or two from now?"

She rattled off a list of legislation in the works, including initiatives on climate change, public transit and global warming.

No criticism of the governor who's forever criticizing you, we asked?

"What Vermonters expect from their politicians, and I hear this all the time," answered Symington, conductor of the House Democratic Symphony, "is that they don't want politicians lobbing things back and forth and bickering."


Lobbing political bombs and bickering with the enemy certainly has worked well for Independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders for the last quarter-century, and it sure hasn't hurt Landslide Gov. Jim Douglas.

"I don't think it helps to move those conversations forward to lob back-and-forth judgments about each other," insisted Gaye. "The governor can choose to do that; I choose not to."

Maybe that's why he's the governor? And that he is explains why Symington and the Democrats never delivered the health-care reform they promised Vermonters in the 2004 election? Yes, Gaye's Democrats passed H. 524 in 2005 which "would establish the goal of universal access to essential health-care services through a publicly financed, integrated, regional health-care delivery system in Vermont, provide mechanisms for cost containment in the system, and provide a framework, schedule, and process to achieve that goal."

But, to the delight of the health-insurance industry, Gov. Douglas angrily vetoed it and his veto was upheld.

Instead of making health care the battle royale of the 2006 legislative session and the cause celèbre in the 2006 governor's race, Speaker Gaye politely dropped the fight for single-payer. She avoided a public political battle with the Guv. Instead, she dedicated herself and her Democratic majority to passing something "acceptable" to Douglas.

In fact, the watered-down reform plan Gaye and the Democrats passed last year was so "acceptable" to our Republican governor that it won him national recognition from AARP Magazine!

Nice work, Speaker Symington!

Not everyone is happy.

Out in the trenches of health-care reform, Deb Richter, M.D, Cambridge primary-care physician and founder of Vermont Health Care for All - http://www.vthca.org - has been a champion of publicly financed, single-payer health care in Vermont. Why?

For one thing, it's what the rest of the civilized world has, and their costs are significantly lower and care noticeably better. Dr. Richter argues it's the only way to halt the out-of-control escalation of our health-care costs. Public financing, she says means "budgeting" and "public scrutiny" that currently does not exist.

"Promoting healthy living the way Gov. Douglas does is great for show, but it doesn't reduce health-care costs,"charges Richter. The MRIs and the scanners are sitting there anyway, and still have to be paid for.

"The political reality is that the governor is against any dedicated tax to finance health care and he is against imposing a budget to contain costs," charges Richter. "The social reality is that no meaningful reform can be achieved without a dedicated financing source for the health care needed by all of us."

So far, says the reform-minded physician, "The Democrats - despite their power in the legislature, have subscribed to the Republi- can governor's political reality. Their attention has strayed from the social reality."

And that's a social reality, says Deb the Doc, that is "hurting Vermont businesses, schools, towns, cities and countless Vermonters."

Essentially, on real Vermont health-care reform, Speaker Symington and the Democrats have caved in, says Richter. Their promises of Election 2004 are but distant echoes.

She's got a point, eh?


Back in Play? - Former Congregational minister, Democratic state senator, energy-efficiency expert and unsuccessful 2006 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Scudder Parker has become a familiar face around the Statehouse once again. Good to see him back in play.

As everyone knows, Mr. Parker got his butt kicked by incumbent Republican Gov. Jim Douglas' 15-point landslide victory last November. It was Gov. Scissorhands' 13th successful statewide race since his 1980 run for secretary of state. Running for office on the Vermont two-year cycle has become second nature to him since his 1972 race for a Middlebury House seat. Clearly, his political talents showed themselves early.

The 2006 gubernatorial contest was Ol' Scudder's first statewide race, and his lack of political acumen showed. Vermont has a well-deserved progressive, left-leaning reputation - it's the state of Patrick Leahy, Bernie Sanders, Howard Dean and civil unions. But Douglas' leadership role in the party of George "WMD" Bush and Dick "Halliburton" Cheney did not cost him in the least. (By the way, Halliburton stock is up 300 percent since Bush & Cheney started the Iraq war! And the corporate HQ is moving from Houston, Texas, to Dubai. Got to follow the money, eh?)

Then there's Mr. Douglas' own personal, adamant opposition to clean, environmentally friendly wind-energy development in Vermont. In a state considered "green" by the rest of America, trashing windmill development again and again hasn't hurt Jim Douglas one iota.

Gentleman Jim, a Bush supporter, has won three consecutive Vermont gubernatorial races, the last two without breaking a sweat. In 2004, he clobbered Progressive-turned-Democrat Peter Clavelle, the longtime Burlington mayor who succeeded Bernie Sanders in City Hall, in a 20-point landslide, effectively ending Mayor Moonie's run on the state's political stage.

Seeing Parker the Democrat back under the golden dome this winter prompted the obvious question: Is Scudder thinking of another gubernatorial shot in 2008 - a presidential year?

"No," he replied. "I'm not focused on that at all. I'm not even going to say it's a possibility."

Instead, Parker told us he's focused on energy-efficiency issues.


Blowing in the Wind - When it comes to Vermont's future energy sources, the answer, my friend, is definitely not blowing in the wind for Gov. Douglas. The issue came up at his recent weekly presser in the Guv's ceremonial office at the Statehouse.

Douglas: We have to weigh the anticipated gain against the impact on our ridge lines that give Vermont its natural beauty and define us as a state. So I think we have to be very careful about moving forward with wind development and do it appropriately and not industrialize our ridge lines.

Press: How much of the concern about industrialization of wind lines was related to the ski industry?

Douglas: We have a lot of people who enjoy recreation during all times of the year. I've heard some people ask rhetorically, "Are you going to like it when you're hiking the Long Trail and you have the constant whir of a huge, 400-foot windmill next to the trail, and you have the birds and bats being killed by the blades, falling down on you while you're trying to hike along the Appalachian Trail?"

(Really? Wind power advocates claim a house cat kills more birds than a windmill would.)

Press: But isn't the ski industry industrializing our ridge lines for business?

Douglas: We are where we are. We have fewer ski areas than we did a generation ago, and the towers are not 422 feet high. They're a lot shorter than that. The ski industry is a very important part of our state's economy. It has been for half a century now, and I certainly hope it continues to be. That's why I'm pleased to hear the forecast is very positive for snow this weekend."

Press: But when the ski industry began, people called it strip-mining the mountains; it was the same sort of argument, and now we're so used to it. Don't you think the same thing could happen with wind?

Douglas: The ski industry is very, very important . . . an important part of our fiscal strength, and without it, frankly, Vermont would be in very, very serious economic stress.

Of course, Gov. Jim Douglas doesn't have to personally prepare for Vermont's climate-changing future - he'll be long gone from the Fifth Floor in 2050. All he's got to worry about is the two-year political cycle. Global warming will be some other governor's number-one problem.

In fact, it'll be everyone's number-one problem.


Global Warming Fiction - Sure, it's an "inconvenient truth" - the fact that the temperature of ol' Planet Earth is rising as a result of the massive carbon emissions of the coal-oil-and-gas Industrial Age. The remaining doubters are few and far between. At least, it appears so.

This week, Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill released documents showing hundreds of instances in which a loyal Bush White House official named Philip Cooney, a gentleman who previously was an oil industry lobbyist, edited government climate reports to cast aspersions on any evidence of a human role in global warming.

Cooney resigned from his post as chief of the Bush White House Council on Environmental Quality (which sounds like an oxymoron), in 2005 after The New York Times broke the story of his global-warming censorship. He was quickly hired by Exxon-Mobil.


But the governor of Vermont, the environmentally conscious state, casting aspersions on global warming? Say it isn't so!

Yet that's exactly what Gov. Scissorhands did the other day when asked if within a half-century the Vermont ski industry will be no more, due to the "inconvenient truth" of climate change. Does Vermont's guv accept the reality of global warming?

"Well, I do," replied Douglas, "but I don't know what the pace is. We just had a month of February that was 5 degrees below normal."

He then pointed out Vermont ski areas have transformed themselves into four-, even five-season resorts with golf courses and wedding pavilions and facilities for corporate retreats.

"For the first time we have more economic activity in the summer than in the winter in Vermont," said Douglas.

"But the question was," the reporter noted, "do you accept the inevitability of the end of snow skiing in Vermont? You do believe global warming is happening?"

"Yes, but I'm not sure to what extent or what pace," he answered.

Not sure, eh?


Media Notes - Longtime Seven Days writer and associate editor for the last five years, Ruth Horowitz of Burlington is leaving the paper May 1. She tells us she's "sorry, but excited," because her departure involves a move to Providence, Rhode Island, with her husband, UVM philosophy professor David Christensen. After 20 years at Groovy UV, David's taken a faculty position at Brown University.

Ruth has written five children's books, but she's had the political bug, too. She ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for a Ward 4 city council seat in 1993 - the year, she remembers, the first Thai restaurant opened in the People's Republic of Burlington.

She and David love Thai food, she told us. Plenty of Thai in Providence.

Good luck!