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Bernie Boost: Sanders Giving Plenty of Help to Vermont Democrats

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Sen. Bernie Sanders - FILE: ADAM BURKE
  • File: Adam Burke
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has had a sometimes rocky relationship with the Democratic Party. But he's making considerable efforts this year to support the Vermont Democrats' coordinated campaign, including direct financial support and a host of personal appearances between now and November 6.

The coordinated campaign is just that: a joint effort to support the entire ticket. Candidates benefit from the coordinated effort and are expected to contribute accordingly. The size and nature of the contribution is subject to negotiation with the party.

The Sanders reelection campaign has pledged $150,000 to the coordinated campaign this year, nearly 50 percent more than he contributed in 2012, the last time he was on the Senate ballot. On top of that, Sanders is paying for two statewide mailers promoting early and absentee voting. The first went out before the August 14 primary; the second is scheduled for next week.

"Vermont had terrible turnout in 2014," said Sanders campaign manager Shannon Jackson, referring to the last midterm election. "We're trying to reverse that." The second round of mailers will highlight the early voting period that begins on Friday and continues through Election Day. Jackson estimated its cost at roughly $40,000. A cynic would note that the August mailer was extremely Bernie-heavy and did not mention Democrats at all. The Sanders camp argues that promoting turnout helps all Dem candidates, which is true, but only indirectly.

Sanders is also making a substantial investment of his own time. In 2016, he didn't stump for Dems until late October, when he held two rounds of rallies with candidates at the top of the ticket. At the time he was criticized for waiting so long when his presidential campaign had boosted his popularity. The Dems could have used the help, as then-governor Peter Shumlin was bowing out of public life. This year Sanders will make appearances with a number of candidates for the Vermont legislature. "Specific events are new," Jackson noted. "The senator is using this moment to lift up a lot of other people."

Sanders launched this new unity kick at his traditional Labor Day rallies. In White River Junction he shared the stage with Zach Ralph, a first-time candidate for House running as a Democrat and Progressive. And in Middlebury, he boosted first-time House candidates Matt Birong, Barb Wilson and Caleb Elder, as well as Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison) and Democratic Senate candidate Ruth Hardy, who face an unpredictable six-way race for Addison County's two Senate seats.

The next events are on Saturday, September 22. At 9:30 a.m., Sanders will appear in Stowe with Democrat Marina Meerburg, who's challenging 12-year incumbent Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe). In the afternoon, he'll be in Troy on behalf of Rep. Cindy Weed (P/D-Enosburg Falls), who's in a tough reelection battle. On Saturday evening, Sanders will host a rally in St. Johnsbury that will feature House hopefuls Scott Campbell, Dennis Labounty and Martha Allen, Democrats who are hoping to win Republican seats in the Northeast Kingdom. (Allen served as a Sanders delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention.)

Jackson said there will be "three to four more" events the first weekend in October, with more likely to follow later in the month. There will also be a repeat of 2016's tours on behalf of the entire ticket in the closing weeks of the campaign.  

"We're working very closely with the Progressives and the Democrats, trying to get together a strong list of endorsements," said Jackson. "We hope we can fulfill the coordinated campaign's goal of a veto-proof majority in the House." The Dems and Progs currently have 90 seats in the 150-member body; they would need a net gain of 10 seats to be able to override gubernatorial vetoes without any help from independent or Republican representatives.

Meerburg, for one, is thrilled at the opportunity. She got word of the Sanders rally on September 6. "I'd spoken with his campaign [before then]," she said. "They said Sen. Sanders might be interested in endorsing me, but you don't count on it until it happens."

Is the endorsement a mixed blessing? Is Sanders perhaps a bit too radical for Stowe? Meerburg brushes the question aside. "I am proud to be endorsed by Sen.Sanders," she said. "He is well respected both within and outside Vermont."

It could be argued that Sanders' contributions aren't that significant. His $150,000 contribution barely makes a dent in his $7 million-plus war chest. But still, it's big money for the state Democratic Party. As for his personal appearances, they're clearly part of his own reelection campaign. But he doesn't need the coordinated campaign, and his endorsements mirror the Dems' own list of targeted seats.

There's a measure of cooperation and support that would have seemed unthinkable back in the 1980s, when then-Burlington mayor Bernie Sanders and the city Democrats were mortal enemies. As he consolidated his power, the Dems tolerated him. Now, he's a valued asset.

Farmer Versus Filmmaker

Rep. David Ainsworth (R-Royalton) is running for the legislature for the eighth consecutive time. So far he's won four times and lost three, usually by razor-thin margins. The district is once again a flash point in this year's battle for the House.

The Democratic nominee is Tunbridge resident John O'Brien, a filmmaker best known for Man With a Plan, the 1996 film that launched the brief political career of Tunbridge farmer Fred Tuttle. Two years later, Tuttle ran for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate and upset the party's choice, Jack McMullen, in the primary. Immediately afterward, Tuttle withdrew, endorsed incumbent Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and returned to his farm.

The 63-year-old Ainsworth, a fifth-generation farmer, is running for reelection despite serious health issues that kept him away from the Statehouse for most of the 2018 session. After receiving a kidney transplant in 2016 and suffering the onset of a chronic neurological disorder last summer, he contracted a life-threatening staph infection near the end of last year. "I was bedridden or in a wheelchair through January and February," Ainsworth recalled. "I was in rehab through March." When he returned to the Statehouse, on April 25, he received a standing ovation upon casting his first vote of the year, to uphold a gubernatorial veto of a toxics bill.

Ainsworth acknowledged that he's still far from 100 percent. He gets around slowly. There's some bruising on his face and head, and his once-formidable beard has been reduced to a few wisps. But he's back for another go-round, in large part because he couldn't find a replacement.

"I did rack my brain trying to find someone to run," he said. And he's deeply worried about a Democratic supermajority. "We stopped the majority party from raising taxes [this year]," he said. He listed various tax ideas that have been proposed in Montpelier and expressed his concern that, with a bigger majority, the Dems could increase taxes at will.

"I've been told I'm too conservative, but I'm sticking up for working Vermonters," he said. So he's running again, even though he can't guarantee he'll be able to serve out another two-year term. "I hope I'm over the hump with my health issues," he said.

O'Brien, meanwhile, says his filmmaking renown has proven to be an asset —sometimes. "Anyone under 30 doesn't know who Fred Tuttle was or heard of Man With a Plan," he said. On the other hand, "I talked to a guy last night, asked if he'd put up a yard sign. He replied, 'I know Fred would approve!'" Score one for the filmmaker.

The 57-year-old O'Brien is a Tunbridge native. He earned a degree in government at Harvard, then moved back to the family farmhouse. He still lives there. He first got interested in politics at age 11, when his father Robert ran successfully for the state Senate. "We'd go door-to-door," he recalled. "I have memories of campaigning and being chased by German shepherds."

The filmmaking career has been on hold for a while. O'Brien's most recent project, a climate change comedy called Oxymoron, has been more than 10 years in the making and has "gotten stalled." He and his wife are building a business by renting out their farm as an event venue. "We had six weddings and a funeral this year," he said. Film nerds.

O'Brien believes in many of the ideas that worry his opponent. He favors a Democratic proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour over six years, a plan to create paid family leave and the idea of legalizing marijuana. "I generally agree with the Democratic platform," he said. "What I don't agree with is how partisan the process has become. It discourages cooperation and problem-solving."

On that, if on little else, Ainsworth would agree. He sees a loss of civility in Vermont politics. "We don't have all the answers, but they don't either," he said.  

Media Notes

Vermont Life ceased publication with this year's summer issue. But the magazine's entire 72-year print run is being preserved online in digital form, thanks to the Middlebury College library. Every page from 1946 to 2013 is already available, and keyword-searchable, on Middlebury's website. The remaining issues should be posted by the end of September.

The digitizing idea came from professors Kathy Morse and Michael Newbury. They were developing a course called Vermont Life's Vermont, which uses the library's nearly complete run of print issues as a resource. "They came to me and wanted to find out if they could digitize the magazine," explained Rebekah Irwin, director and curator of Middlebury's special collections and archives. Good idea. But rather than using students as unpaid labor, the library raised enough money to have the scanning done professionally.

The project got a boost from the state's decision to shutter the magazine. The Vermont Department of Tourism & Marketing was looking to find safe homes for its back issues and archives. It donated a full set to Middlebury, which made the scanning much simpler. "Our collection was in bound volumes," Irwin said. Those are harder to flatten, and the process can damage the binding.

"It's important to me that people will be able to go back and read Vermont Life from the first issue onward," said Deputy Tourism & Marketing Commissioner Steven Cook.  

The online archive hasn't been publicized yet, but Irwin says "people are already discovering it." The most frequently viewed page is a Vermont Life cover from 1947 that features an artist wearing a backlit and (partially) see-through dress.

Well, that's one kind of research.

Another donation of Vermont Life material is going to the Vermont State Archives & Records Administration. The trove includes "all editorial notes from the editorial staff, deciding what stories to cover, going back to the first issues," said Cook. "Handwritten notes about each issue. What stories to cover, photography, writers, topics, those kinds of things."

The state archive will also have a complete set of print magazines, plus "copies of all the Vermont Life calendars ever published," Cook said.

One asset that won't be included is all the photography commissioned by the magazine. "The licensing of images allows for use as they appear in the magazine," explained Cook. "The agreements cost far less that way. We were trying to work out expanded licensing agreements, but it's too costly."

Going through the magazine's documents and back issues was "an emotional task for me," said Cook. "There are so many fascinating stories. I hope people will take the opportunity to explore the magazine."

Even when there isn't a comely artist on the cover.

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