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Communications Shakedown

Fair Game


Published September 3, 2008 at 5:33 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Staying on message is an important political skill, and few in Vermont politics do it better than incumbent Gov. Jim Douglas.

Then again, few politicians can boast a $400,000-a-year communications A-team at their disposal, thanks to the taxes you and I pay.

And Republicans like Douglas say they oppose public financing of political campaigns. Sure they do.

Democrat Gaye Symington and Independent Anthony Pollina would like to have that kind of PR money kicking around - especially given their lackluster fundraising - to issue daily updates on their good deeds.

Now that lawmakers may have to cut millions more from the state budget, some Democrats say it's time to eliminate "communication" jobs instead of those that provide direct social services.

"The governor has repeatedly been asked by legislators to reduce spending on public relations and each time he has stubbornly refused," Symington said. "He obviously has the wrong priorities. He would rather promote himself and his administration than fund the affordable housing, college scholarships, job training and other critical programs Vermonters need."

Sounds like Symington may have found her voice in this campaign. Better late than never.

But, is the Douglas administration putting PR over substance? Let's take that claim for a spin.

But first, a quick confession: I was an executive assistant to State Auditor Elizabeth Ready from mid-2001 until mid-2004. I wrote and edited office reports, took part in special investigations, conducted research and fielded citizen and whistleblower complaints. I never pitched stories to the media, nor acted as a spokesperson.

I always bristled when folks chided Ready for hiring a "journalist." Those same folks now defend the Douglas positions. Go figure.

Symington values Douglas' PR machine at $1 million. This figure, however, includes so-called "classified" employees, or state workers protected by the union contract. Those positions total roughly $320,000 in base pay.

The "communicators" targeted by Democrats are political appointees and not protected by the union. They have nondescript titles such as principal or executive assistants. The crème de la crème are: Sabina Haskell at the Agency of Natural Resources; David Mace at the Agency of Commerce and Community Development; John Zicconi at the Agency of Transportation; Kelly Loftus at the Agency of Agriculture; and Heidi Tringe, now with the governor's office, but who also served at the Agency of Human Services. She was replaced by Kim O'Leary.

The chief communicator is Jason Gibbs, the governor's press secretary. Stephen Wark, the director of consumer affairs at the Department of Public Service, is also a target of lawmakers.

The payroll tally of this key staff is roughly $450,000 in base pay, but additional assistants scattered throughout state government easily boost that number.

So, who are these political appointees, and how did they get where they are?

Gibbs worked on Douglas' first campaign for governor. Tringe, Loftus, Wark and O'Leary have previous government or marketing experience. Mace, Zicconi and Haskell were journalists - Mace and Zicconi at the Vermont Press Bureau (Mace also served as chief spokesman for VELCO); Haskell as editor of the Brattleboro Reformer, which recently agreed with Symington's call to cut the governor's communication's staff.

In an editorial headlined "PR before people?" the paper observed, "It's hard to justify these positions in a time of fiscal crisis."

Douglas might not get the Reformer's endorsement this year like he did in 2006, when Haskell, who wrote the editorial, was at the helm.

These politically appointed positions have been lurking around state government since 1994 when the Legislature empowered "commissioners and secretaries to hire exempt employees to help them communicate and execute the mission of their respective departments and agencies," according to Linda McIntire, deputy secretary of administration.

McIntire said it was done at the behest of a former personnel commissioner in Gov. Howard Dean's administration. As if Dean needed anyone to speak for him. Shoot from the lip was his modus operandi. No detailed policy briefings necessary.

I don't remember Dean's administration crawling with as many former press colleagues and on-staff lobbyists, or "legislative liaisons." If you wanted to talk to a secretary or commissioner, you talked to a secretary or commissioner. No go-betweens (other than private secretaries).

Today, your first call is to a communicator, although, the communicators claim, fielding media calls is a small part of their job. "There are days when I have one call or no calls, or days when I have 15 calls," Haskell said.

Haskell, you might remember, tried to stymie Seven Days reporter Mike Ives earlier this year by denying him access to an ANR expert. It seems she didn't like Ives' previous reporting on the agency. She even ordered staff not to talk to the paper's reporters until she "had a chance to vet out questions."

OK, so what else do Douglas' appointed flaks do?

They handle plenty of behind-the-scenes work that largely goes unnoticed by the public or their critics, and they often help answer citizen questions and address concerns. They are passionate and dedicated to their work and see themselves as providing a public service to taxpayers.

Haskell recently coordinated the recognition of the Civilian Conservation Corps 75th anniversary in Vermont. Wark oversaw the public input process around Vermont's energy plan.

Loftus pulls together Agriview, Vermont's ag publication of record for 70 years. Her agency took some flak earlier this year when it tried to credit Douglas as a progenitor of the "buy local" movement. Not quite. He did put in place a "buy local" program at the Ag Agency, but the movement predates the program by a couple decades.

For his part, Zicconi is often the community liaison for construction projects. He wants any story written about his agency to be accurate and informative.

"Does that make the governor look better? Yes. It also makes the legislature look better," Zicconi said, adding that shining Douglas' badge is "a byproduct of what I do, not the reason I do my job."

Communications aides often act as legislative liaisons, answer calls from the public, and coordinate disaster response. And, in the Internet age, they oversee the content placed on agency websites.

As well, several appointees work on policy research for Douglas in his role as vice chairman of the National Governor's Association, and they sit in on key committee teleconferences. As a group this "communications cabinet" gets together once or twice a year in person, but is mostly in contact by email.

Gibbs said he never pre-approves a press release unless it contains a statement from the governor. He also said he rarely gives out talking points, although it does, of course, happen.

Case in point: Late last year, as the Douglas team announced budget cuts, he provided his communications cabinet a two-page memo on how to talk to reporters about the pending cuts and layoffs.

Gibbs offered communicators this sound bite for reporters: "[T]his is the real world and we get our money from taxpayers who are already carrying the highest per capita tax burden in the country. Budgeting is about making difficult decisions and choosing among good things."

But the claim that we are the highest taxed state in the country is simply not true. And, the Tax Foundation (upon which it is based) has recently corrected its own math and downgraded our ranking.

Vermont is now the eighth most taxed; New Jersey is number one. I know, small consolation. Believe me, I'm not cheering, and neither is my bank account.

I'm just saying, if you look deeper at the Foundation's rankings, Vermont was once ranked the 24th most taxed state during Dean's tenure. When Dean ran for prez, we suddenly became the highest-taxed state. Coincidence?

Incidentally, Secretary of State Deb Markowitz and Treasurer Jeb Spaulding have no appointed communicators on staff. Spaulding's shop has a classified employee who does communications. Attorney General Bill Sorrell and current Auditor Tom Salmon don't have appointed communicators, either. These officials are all Democrats, by the way.

One defender of keeping Douglas' communication team is Sen. Vince Illuzzi, R-Orleans/Essex.

"It's not about defending what they do," Illuzzi said. "I don't want anyone to lose their job - job cuts should be the last option to look to for cost savings."

That's a statement many state workers would like to take to the bank.

From Mississippi With Love - If there was ever a Vermont outfit in desperate need of messaging mojo, it's Vermont Yankee.

It had been quiet on the southern front for a couple of weeks, and then, wham, an "air slug" loosened some "crud" and sent radiation loose, causing the evacuation of some workers.

Last week opposite this column was the print version of Entergy's radio ads asking us to talk "Vermonter to Vermonter" and learn "what makes our state different, and how we can keep it that way."

After a few months of this blatant marketing campaign, is anyone buying it?

The Vermont Public Interest Reseearch Group isn't. VPIRG claims the ads are false and misleading, and on Tuesday asked Sorrell to investigate whether they violate the state's consumer fraud act. The group hopes to get the ads pulled to "protect the public from further deception."

As a Kingdom boy, I always listen with caution when well-meaning, well-suited folks "from away" tell me what's so great and "unique" about my state and want to show me how I can keep it that way. Usually, it means, "Hey, let's make your state more like where I come from." And, by golly, there's usually money in it - for them.

Where do these Entergy folks really come from? Hard to say, but their state motto is apparently "safe, clean, reliable." Just the way I like my highway restrooms.

At the bottom of last week's ad is this nugget: Vermont Yankee is owned and operated by Entergy Nuclear. Hmm. When I looked at Entergy's website, it says Vermont Yankee is owned by Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee LLC.

And where is Entergy Nuclear headquartered? Jackson, Mississippi.

I'm happy to sit down and chat Vermonter to whatever, but that 1400-mile drive is a real conversation killer.

Palin in Comparison - Gov. Douglas is ecstatic about Sen. John McCain's choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, claiming she has a lot in common with Vermonters.

Here's what Douglas told Bob Kinzel of Vermont Public Radio: "She has a strong commitment to combating greenhouse gas emissions, having just established a sub-cabinet task force to address that. She has spoken strongly about energy independence getting away from the reliance on big oil companies. I think Gov. Palin reflects a lot of the values of the people of our state."

Oh, really? Douglas, who called Palin an "outstanding choice," may want to read between the lines of the RNC talking points.

Setting up a sub-cabinet task force is a strong commitment? I suppose taking action is scheduling a meeting. Spoken strongly about energy independence? For Palin that means taking polar bears off the endangered species list and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She also opposes a woman's right to choose, supports teaching creationism in school, and says the "jury's still out" on global warming.

Folks, Palin has about as much in common with Vermonters as does Entergy.