We don’t know who they are. We don’t know where their money comes from. And we don’t know how much they’ll spend to influence this fall’s statewide elections.
What we do know is that Vermonters First — a shadowy new super PAC founded last week by a Republican political operative — is a game changer in Vermont politics.
Eight weeks out from November’s general election, the group dropped $70,000 on a two-week ad blitz starting Monday to bolster two down-ticket Republican candidates: state treasurer candidate Wendy Wilton and state auditor candidate Vince Illuzzi.
That’s more than either Wilton or Illuzzi has raised to date — $35,000 in Wilton’s case, and $52,000 in Illuzzi’s. It’s more than the $36,000 Illuzzi’s opponent, Democrat and Progressive Doug Hoffer, spent on his entire campaign for auditor two years ago. And more than the $57,000 incumbent auditor Tom Salmon doled out to beat Hoffer that year.
Keep in mind, folks: When the group’s initial $70,000 ad buy is spent, there will still be another six weeks until Election Day.
“We are very interested in supporting candidates who are willing to talk about the tough issues out there and the issues and problems the state of Vermont has,” says Tayt Brooks, the founder of Vermonters First and a former executive director of the Vermont Republican Party. “Both Sen. Illuzzi and Treasurer Wilton have shown that, and there are other candidates out there who have shown an ability to bring some balance to the discussion and to Montpelier.”
Beyond that, Brooks is mostly mum. While his group has so far eschewed investing in the GOP’s longer-shot races for governor and Congress, he cautions against making assumptions about Vermonters First’s future spending plans.
As for who’s backing Brooks, he won’t say — at least, not until the group files its first campaign finance report next Monday. But contrary to rumors that it’s the Republican National Committee or out-of-state corporations, Brooks maintains that his outfit is “a Vermont-led, Vermont-based campaign talking about Vermont issues.
“I think it may be a mistake for some people to speculate out there,” he adds.
But given the secrecy surrounding the super PAC — legally, Brooks is barred from coordinating with campaigns, though he can raise and spend as much as he’d like on them — even the lucky candidates appear to be clueless.
“I’m in the dark, just like you,” says Wilton, who first learned about the 15-second spot calling her a “fiscal trailblazer” after Seven Days posted it online late last week. “I really don’t know what to think. I’m busy running my own campaign is really the bottom line.”
Wilton’s opponent, Democrat Beth Pearce, who was appointed to the post in January 2011, seized on the mysterious ad buy Monday, calling on Wilton to insist that Vermonters disclose the super PAC’s contributors and take its ad down.
“I’m asking that Wendy request disclosure of the donors behind Vermonters First, consistent with her calls for transparency,” Pearce said in an interview Tuesday. “The good financial health of the state is too important to be decided by money that is shielded from public scrutiny.”
Yet Pearce refused to say whether she would accept the support of super PACs herself, should any be eyeing her campaign.
“I’d have to take a look at the super PAC and understand what’s behind it,” she said, adding, “I’m not going to deal with hypotheticals. Super PACs that do not provide transparency are inconsistent with the message we’re trying to get out to Vermonters.”
Hoffer, the Democratic and Progressive candidate for auditor, finds himself in a similar box as Pearce — but he says he’d rather super PACs steer clear of supporting him.
“I would prefer that nobody do such a thing. No one,” he says. “Having said that, I disadvantage myself, because Vince is from a very small club, which is an old boys club, but that’s just life.”
Despite being on the receiving end of Vermonters First’s ad buy, Illuzzi himself says he’s uncomfortable with it. But because he’s not legally allowed to coordinate with the group, he says there’s nothing he can do to stop it.
“I guess I would rather not have the support of super PACs — or the opposition, I might add,” he says. “I would just as soon run my own race and not have any involvement from super PACs, but I guess they’re a reality.”
Ads of Steele
In Vermont’s burgeoning super-PAC arms race, the best hope for Pearce and Hoffer may be for liberal special-interest groups to swoop in.
One such entity, Vermont Priorities, established the state’s first homegrown super PAC in July, but the progressive organization has since struggled to raise money. That changed Monday, when it disclosed a $25,000 contribution from Shelburne developer and philanthropist Lisa Steele. Of that largesse, $10,000 is earmarked for the group’s super PAC, while the remainder must be spent on issue advocacy — not explicit electioneering efforts.
“I personally think that we need to end unlimited spending in campaigns, but I also know that will not happen without action,” Steele said in a statement explaining her donation. “After careful thought and analysis, I have concluded that if independents, liberals, Democrats and Progressives do not participate in the process, critical policy decisions will be made by individuals who do not share my values.”
Cofounder and owner of Burlington’s Main Street Landing, Steele has contributed at least $300,000 in recent years to Democratic political candidates and parties at the federal level, according to the Federal Election Commission. Steele is a member of the Bancroft family, which sold its controlling stake in the Dow Jones Company — owner of the Wall Street Journal — to Rupert Murdoch in 2007.
According to Vermont Priorities board chairman Bob Stannard, the group is “talking about” whether to use Steele’s contribution to counteract the conservative ad buy from Vermonters First — and will meet this Wednesday to decide.
Attention may have turned to the general election, but Vermont Republican Party chairman Jack Lindley says he’s still focused on the actions of a super PAC that may have tipped the scales in the Democratic primary for attorney general.
Lindley says his party plans to file a complaint next week alleging that Attorney General Bill Sorrell illegally coordinated with the Committee for Justice and Fairness, a Washington, D.C.-based super PAC that spent more than $184,000 backing Sorrell’s primary campaign. Lindley believes that former governor Howard Dean, who told Seven Days he advised the super PAC on its media strategy, served as an intermediary between the two entities.
“We need a full investigation,” Lindley says.
Sorrell and Dean both denied illegal coordination last month, with Dean telling Seven Days, “I know the campaign laws.”
With whom will Lindley file his complaint? Sorrell’s own office.
“It’s going to be awkward for the attorney general probably, but they can’t have a double standard on that issue,” he says.
Bonds, Bongs & Bikes
That hopey-changey guy won’t be the only thing on the ballot this fall in Burlington. By a vote of 13 to 1, the Burlington City Council on Monday night asked voters to approve a $9 million “fiscal stability bong” in November.
Shit, bro, did I just say “bong”? Must’ve confused the council’s bond vote with another burning issue: its 11 to 3 approval of a nonbinding reefer-endum asking Burlingtonians whether they support “the legalization, regulation and taxation of all cannabis and hemp products.”
Don’t think we’ll need the Castleton Polling Institute to tell us where Burlington’s stoners, er, voters stand on that one!
While the council spent plenty of time tittering over toking — Councilor Ed Adrian (D-Ward 1) went so far as to say he’d be “shocked to find out that the vast majority of the council hasn’t tried out marijuana at some point in their life” — the real debate Monday night centered around bonding.
Two weeks ago, Mayor Miro Weinberger proposed the $9 million fiscal stability bond to shore up the city’s finances in the wake of the Burlington Telecom debacle and reduce its reliance on short-term borrowing, which could grow more expensive if the city’s credit rating continues to slide. Weinberger also proposed a half-cent tax hike to pay for bike-path repairs and a $7 million waterfront tax increment financing project — all of which the council sent to voters Monday night.
Despite the lopsided vote in favor of Weinberger’s bonding proposal, councilors expressed plenty of grievances. The body’s three Progressives and independent councilor Sharon Bushor (Ward 1) sought unsuccessfully to add $3 million to the bond to invest more in the bike path.
“Everybody I spoke to was way more excited to spend money to get something more concrete than financial stability,” said Councilor Rachel Siegel (P-Ward 3). “I feel that we can sell it better if the bike path is attached to it.”
Bushor and Councilor Paul Decelles (R-Ward 7) expressed frustration that the process was rushed and that, as Decelles put it, the council had “no serious time to address this.”
In the end, though, only Decelles voted against the bond, while Weinberger’s other proposals passed unanimously. Voters will have the final say in November — assuming they get past the pot question.
Barre-Montpelier Times Argus reporter Keith Vance quit his job last month, citing low wages and the rising cost of daycare. But barely a week later, he was back on the beat, reporting for a new media source: his own hyper-local, online news organization called Voice of Montpelier.
“Financially, it made more sense for me to not work for the Times Argus anymore, stay home, watch my daughter during the day, freelance write and work for myself,” he says.
Vance, who worked for the TA for a year and a half, hopes to fund the nonprofit through grants, donations and sustaining memberships — not unlike the model pioneered by fellow ex-TA staffer Anne Galloway at VTDigger.org.
“That’s the question! I don’t know. Talking to people, I think they’re looking for something fresh,” he says. “People seem to be really interested in a modern, 21st-century news organization for Montpelier.”