Fifteen days before Vermont voters head to the polls, endangered State Treasurer Beth Pearce finally got serious Monday about holding on to her job.
In a commanding debate performance followed by a stinging press conference, the incumbent Democrat systematically rebuffed a litany of charges from Republican opponent Wendy Wilton. And for the first time this campaign season, Pearce took the fight to Wilton, calling the Rutland City treasurer a hyper-partisan flip-flopper who fails to understand the position for which she’s running.
It’s about damn time.
Consider this Act III of Pearce’s campaign to keep the post to which she was appointed in January 2011.
In Act I, Pearce and her Democratic allies figured she’d prevail against a similarly unknown Republican if the two kept a low profile in a year in which President Barack Obama, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Gov. Peter Shumlin drove Vermont liberals to the polls.
Act II came in September, when Pearce’s campaign realized a conservative super PAC called Vermonters First planned to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on television ads and direct mail supporting Wilton’s candidacy. In response, Pearce’s campaign went into fundraising overdrive, eventually pulling in enough cash to buy $60,000 worth of airtime.
But as Wilton went aggressively negative — criticizing Pearce for renting instead of buying a home, falsely accusing her of earning a “D-” in transparency and ginning up a cockamamy overtime “scandal” — the incumbent stayed relentlessly positive. And, true to her reputation, she remained breathtakingly boring: focusing on the critically important, but utterly unsexy, issue of protecting Vermont’s triple-A bond rating.
“Beth wanted to talk about her job,” says Democratic Party chairman Jake Perkinson. “But I think that the reality of any campaign is people are gonna focus on what’s interesting and, unfortunately, what’s interesting is controversy. Wilton recognized that.”
Wilton may have, but as recently as last Thursday, it appeared Pearce hadn’t. As the Rutland Republican continued to lob accusations at the incumbent, Pearce summoned the Democratic chairwomen of the legislature’s four taxing and spending “money committees” for a Statehouse press conference. They talked up Pearce’s record — but not one of them would take on her opponent.
Asked after the press conference why she wasn’t fighting harder, Pearce told reporters, “I’m not going to get into negative politics … I want to run on the issues, and I think voters ultimately will respect that.”
Five days later, Pearce took to the same podium in the stately Cedar Creek Room of the Statehouse. This time she came alone — and with a very different message.
“There’s been a lot of personal attacks and misinformation out there,” she began. “I wanted to take the opportunity to set the record straight and to get us back on focus about what the issues are.”
And then she opened up her campaign’s opposition research file and let loose.
Under Wilton’s fiscal stewardship, Pearce argued, Rutland has failed to address its unfunded pension liability and drew criticism from auditors for incomplete financial statements. Pearce said her opponent failed to understand how credit-rating agencies evaluate Vermont’s fiscal standing. And she took issue with Wilton’s recent characterizations of herself as a nonpartisan agnostic who has never weighed in on Shumlin’s single-payer health care plan.
After putting on her reading glasses, Pearce read a comment Wilton posted last December on the conservative blog Vermont Tiger, in which the Rutlander wrote that Shumlin “must be reading from the Sandernista [sic] playbook as he proposed a huge stealth tax increase on Vermont’s middle class” through health care reform.
“By the time everyone will have figured out what a fiscal disaster this will be for the state of VT, Mr. Shumlin will have replaced retiring Sen. Leahy or Sanders,” Wilton wrote at the time, “and he will likely be seeking a federal bailout for Vermont’s folly — which he created! What a plan!”
Calling Wilton’s words “partisan politics at its worst,” Pearce said they would hinder her challenger’s ability to make the state’s case before the big three credit-rating agencies.
“For me, the bottom line is that when you make statements like this, how can you take Vermont’s case to Wall Street and defend our bond rating?” Pearce asked. “It appears my opponent has been unable to leave her ideological baggage at the door.”
Pearce made her toughest attack of the day earlier Monday during a debate on WDEV’s “The Mark Johnson Show.” When Wilton touted the fact that she had moved Rutland off the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank’s “watch list,” Pearce pounced.
“Rutland is back on the monitoring list at the bond bank. They were in 2007, and they are back on the monitoring list for the bond bank,” Pearce said during the morning debate. “So that is not something that’s a step forward. That’s a step backwards.”
After a brief pause, Wilton said, “Well, first of all, that’s news to me. Because [Vermont Municipal Bond Bank executive director] Bob Giroux has not called me to say that we’re on the monitoring list. So until I talk with him, I guess I would say I don’t have a comment at this point.”
The Final Straw
Pearce campaign manager Ryan Emerson says the decision to go negative has its roots in a television ad Wilton first aired last week. In it she falsely claims that the state treasurer’s office earned a “D-” in transparency from U.S. PIRG, a national good government group. (See this week’s Fact Checker).
“We have dealt with a slew of untruthful information that she has repeated in literature and debates and now she’s airing on TV,” Emerson says. “We felt that now it’s time to put our foot down and say, ‘Enough is enough.’”
Since the start of the campaign, Wilton has pushed the envelope of truth and decorum. As Seven Days and VTDigger.org found last month, Wilton has repeatedly exaggerated her role in restoring Rutland’s fiscal health, earning a “debatable” ranking in a previous Fact Checker.
Last month, she piled on Pearce for declining to buy a house in Vermont, arguing that as a renter, she has shown no commitment to the state’s property- tax system. Wilton’s campaign manager, Bradford Broyles, subsequently suggested that Pearce may be renting because she plans to move back to her native Massachusetts “when [her] tour of duty is over.”
For the past two weeks, Wilton has been sounding the alarm over what her campaign has called “an overtime scandal.” In overwrought language, Wilton and Broyles have emailed missive after missive to reporters accusing Pearce of “padding select employee pensions” in an act of “gross mismanagement.”
In a letter to the state auditor calling for an investigation, Broyles went so far as to allege “some form of collusion in violating the Retirement System’s salary ‘spiking’ law” — a pretty serious charge, which drew a sharp rebuke from the generally sedate Burlington Free Press editorial board.
“Without offering any evidence other than conjecture, this tactic comes across as nothing but a mean-spirited attack from a candidate whose primary leverage is to drag down her opponent with innuendo rather than to run on her own merits,” wrote Free Press Executive Editor Mike Townsend.
The gist of Wilton’s claim is that between FY2010 and FY2012, overtime in the state treasurer’s office jumped from $82,000 to $104,000 — and one employee earned $32,000 in overtime pay for working 1132 additional hours.
True. But what Wilton fails to mention is the cause for that overtime: The office was understaffed at the time — thanks to a few high-level retirements and transfers — and the employee in question was covering for others. Because there were fewer employees on the job, total payroll actually dropped during the same period from $2.1 million to $1.95 million — and that includes the additional overtime.
In making her case, Wilton has repeatedly invoked the testimony of seven alleged “whistle-blowers” — all current and former Pearce employees — who apparently uncovered the “scandal.” Wilton’s campaign provided the names and numbers of four of them and Seven Days spoke with three — but only one, Skip Perkins, would speak on the record.
Perkins, a 13-year veteran of the treasurer’s office whose position was eliminated in 2009, spoke extensively about what he viewed as Pearce’s “bullying” behavior when she served as deputy treasurer. But neither he nor the other two former employees provided additional details about the treasurer’s overtime figures — except to say that Pearce rewards her allies and punishes her foes.
And while Pearce declined to address the mostly anonymous accusations, her boss at the time, former state treasurer Jeb Spaulding, defended her, saying, “I would just say Beth Pearce didn’t do anything that I wasn’t fully aware of and fully supportive of.”
Allow me to be the first reporter in Vermont to admit that I am in no way qualified to judge whether Beth Pearce is a good state treasurer. I have a hard enough time balancing my own checkbook.
And consider me guilty of Perkinson’s charge: I’m far more interested in covering the latest Wilton accusation than I am in Vermont’s nearly impeccable bond rating, for which Pearce can rightfully take a lion’s share of the credit.
But I consider myself a decent judge of integrity. And one thing I’ve found during this campaign is that Pearce appears to have a lot of it and Wilton does not.
Wilton proved this once again Monday when she held her own counter-press conference on the lawn of the Statehouse and responded to Pearce’s new charges. Though she has spent the entire campaign slinging mud in Pearce’s direction, she claimed she hasn’t accused the incumbent of a thing.
“Mine aren’t charges,” she said. “Mine are questions.”
And though Wilton made her name pre-campaign by poking holes in the supposed financing of Shumlin’s health care plan, now she’s claiming she has never been against single payer.
When reporters showed her what she herself wrote in Vermont Tiger’s comments section, the Rutland city treasurer claimed she’d never made them.
“I don’t know where that came from,” Wilton said.
Asked again, she said, “I do not recall that I have ever said that.”
So you’re saying you’ve never been against single payer or Shumlin’s single-payer plan?