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Backstory: Most Hostile Reception


Published December 26, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • House Speaker Mitzi Johnson

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) faced an unusual pair of opponents last fall. An uncle-and-nephew duo were vying to unseat her and fellow incumbent Champlain Islander Rep. Ben Joseph (D-North Hero). When the uncle, Leland Morgan, declined my interview request, I decided to attend a Grand Isle County Republican Committee meeting. I figured — rightly — that it would be my only chance to see him and his supporters in action.

The meeting had already started when I entered the small jury room in the North Hero courthouse, shortly after 7 p.m. As I took a seat in the far corner, county chair Carol Nedde abruptly stopped the conversation, saying she'd "forgotten" to do introductions. When it was my turn, I dutifully said, "I'm Alicia Freese, a reporter with Seven Days newspaper."

Nedde's reaction was immediate. She stood up, turned to me and began repeatedly demanding, "Out, out!" while jabbing her finger toward me and at the door.

When I didn't comply, she turned to a man standing next to me and ordered him to "Escort her out! Escort her out!"

I sat still, wondering how far they'd go. Would they pull me out of my chair? Should I go full limp-leg mode and make them drag me out?

Thankfully, I didn't have to choose; the designated bouncer was either unprepared or unwilling to perform his role.

Plus, Republican lieutenant governor candidate Don Turner, who was there to make his pitch, leapt to my defense. He stood up and said something to the effect of, "If she's leaving, I am, too."

Turner had posted the meeting to his public appearance schedule, and I'd told him in advance I'd be there.

I honestly hadn't thought my presence would cause a problem. Other county committee meetings I'd attended had been pretty ho-hum. Republicans had eagerly welcomed me at the last one I'd attended.

I tried several times to explain why I was there, but Nedde refused to let me speak.

As she and several others debated what to do about me, I quietly jotted down their comments in my notepad. The group agreed I could stay only for Turner's talk, which, of course, was irrelevant to my story.

The meeting continued. Turner gave his speech. I made no move to leave, and no one tried to evict me. Someone gave a brief presentation about how to use voter data. Then, less than halfway into the two-hour meeting, Nedde declared that she'd had a long day and asked for a motion to adjourn.

As a reporter, I've certainly encountered a fair amount of distrust and disdain, but never such uncontained rage. I can't help connecting it to President Donald Trump's repeated attacks on the media, which he has dubbed the "enemy of the people."

While it was disheartening to experience that kind of animosity here in Vermont, there was one reassuring sign: Both Leland Morgan and his nephew later called to apologize.