Bernie Meets Castro! Jeffords on Drugs! | Inside Track | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Inside Track

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Meets Castro! Jeffords on Drugs!

Sanders' potential Senate run heats up. He meets with Ida Castro, chair of the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, to discuss the controversial cash-balance pension plans being proposed by IBM.


Published September 15, 1999 at 1:00 a.m.

Hell of a week so far. Under dark and gloomy skies, the Vermont GOP hit the fairway in their very first $1000-a-head golfing fundraiser, Bernie Sanders finally met eyeball-to-eyeball with Castro, and Jim Jeffords publicly admitted he's on drugs!

According to the Vermont GOP's national committeeman, Skip Vallee, about 70 Republican hackers, er, golfers, whacked their little balls around Green Mountain National in Waterbury Tuesday. Despite the dreary weather, Vallee said the state party would raise around $80,000, before expenses. Skipper, Vermont's gas station guru (he operates the chain of Mobil Maplefield's mini-marts), was hustling golf tickets at a grand apiece, but apparently a sliding scale was invoked. We spoke with several GOP hackers who refused to pony up anything close to Vallee's "suggested price."

Vallee told Seven Days that heavy hitters, like Rich Tarrant of IDX and Ken Squier of Thunder Road and Radio Vermont fame, pitched in a couple grand apiece even though they didn't participate. Nice to know some Republicans actually had to work on a Tuesday.

And Skipper and company finally had something to crow about Tuesday. While they pitched and putted 'round the course, the left-wing socialist they love to hate — Independent Congressman Bernie Sanders — was finally meeting face-to-face with Castro!

Gotcha, Bernie. Cat's out of the bag. Caught "red"-handed at last!

Unfortunately for Vallee and crew, Bernie's meeting was with Ida Castro, not Fidel Castro. Ida chairs the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Ol’ Bernardo led a delegation in to see Castro Tuesday afternoon on the hot-button issue of the American workplace — corporate America's sleazy new "cash balance" pension plans that have wiped away the retirement savings of a generation of loyal, hard-working baby boomers.

In the process, tens of thousands of middle-class Americans who always showed up for work, gave their best and never rocked the boat, have suddenly wakened to the downside of plantation life in the Land of the Blue Chips, where CEOs like Lou Gerstner call all the shots.

Ol’ Bernardo’s congressional posse wants the government to reverse the pension switcheroos of IBM and others because they blatantly violate the nation’s age-discrimination against the mid-level, middle-class folks with 15 to 25 years of loyal service to the corporation, and kids in college. (Apologies to GOP state chair Patrick Garahan, but PBS’ “News Hour” interviewed Sanders Friday on the pension scam for broadcast this week.)

Tuesday, a story on the Dow Jones wire zeroed in on the political subtext:

The current controversy also has a political dimension because speculation is rampant that Sanders, a political maverick who is highly popular in Vermont, may challenge Jeffords for his Senate seat in next year's elections. Jeffords, a moderate Republican, is considered vulnerable and the Senate GOP leadership is worried about his chances of survival. Sanders, who hasn't yet announced his intentions, quickly assumed a leadership role on the cash-balance conversion controversy, leaving Jeffords in a catch-up position on what has become a very high-profile issue in Vermont.

Don't write off Jeezum Jim too early. The IBM pension issue is due to fall right into Chairman Jeffords' lap next Tuesday when the Senate Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee holds a hearing on the matter. As was the case with Sanders’ Town Meeting, IBM’s Lord of Lords, Lou Gerstner, has declined Jeffords’ invitation to participate. Instead, the Godfather of Big Blue is sending Tom Bouchard a senior vice president for human resources, to testify. IRS legal counsel Stuart Brown will also testify. And several Vermonters from IBM Essex Junction are also on the list. You gotta wonder, with Jeffords of Rutland finally following Bernie of Burlington into the pension rip-off national media spotlight, will the Rutland Herald continue to downplay the story?

Jeffords was back in Chittenden County Monday trying to grab a little of Sanders' spotlight on another issue that's raging these days — the prescription drug rip-off. Though his press conference was well-orchestrated, it was more about style than substance. Jeezum Jim used the tiny pharmacy in the professional building at Fanny Allen in Colchester for the backdrop, along with three advocates for the elderly who regularly appear on the Sanders press conference circuit as props. Jeffords announced his proposal to provide free prescription drugs to senior households with incomes under $22,000. It was such a transparent, knee-jerk proposal that even WGOP, er, sorry, WCAX, buried the story.

On the way in, however, Jeezum Jim was buttonholed by a customer departing the drug store with his prescription in a paper bag. Keith Blake, of Essex Junction, provided Vermont's junior senator with and personal example of the impact of pharmaceutical corporate greed. In the paper his weekly prescription costing $150. You do the math.

“I happen to have Crohn’s disease,” said Blake. “I’m disabled and this is a med I can’t go without.” He said the pharmaceutical companies “are charging way, way too much money. They get paid by the government to run tests to come up with different meds, and then when they do, they put a high price on it. They’re getting big pocketbooks while normal people like me are going broke.”

Later Jeffords told Seven Days he, too, is on a prescription drug regimen. He takes Celebrex, he said, for back pain resulting from a car accident injury two years ago. At least he’s got good coverage. Jeezum Jim’s health plan, he said, picks up the whole tab. Nice.

Media Notes — You may have noticed an improvement in The Burlington Free Press Capitol Hill coverage of late. That’s a direct result of the work of Erin Kelly, who covers Vermont's congressional delegation for the Gannett News Service. Erin's a southern California native. She was a metro reporter at the Orange County Register for eight years before signing on with Gannett in 1994. "I love Burlington. I was up there in May and could have stayed much longer," she told Seven Days. "Beats the heck out of summertime in D.C."

But the big news at 191 College Street this week is that veteran Free Press reporter Anne Geggis is finally coming "unchained." Ms. Geggis wraps up her 10-year sojourn at Vermont's Gannett-chain operation this Friday. She's off to Hurricane Alley in sunny Florida, where she'll be the crime reporter for the Daytona Beach News Journal.

A decade ago Anne arrived in the Freeps' newsroom with her St. Mike's degree in journalism. She was the education reporter for many years and lately has been covering "exciting" South Burlington. Readers know Anne always reaches for a colorful and witty lead. Gotta be a few great novels in this Maeve Binchy fan. The Geggis going away party is Thursday at the Daily Planet. And like all her predecessors who've departed Burlington's daily, Anne will enjoy a dramatic increase in salary in her new job. Brilliant!