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Congressman for Life? In Bid for Fifth Term, Welch Faces Little Opposition


Published May 28, 2014 at 10:00 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
  • Courtesy of Paul Heintz
  • Peter Welch

For all the ink spilled over who may or may not challenge Gov. Peter Shumlin this fall, barely a drop has gone to this year's other top-of-the-ballot race: for Vermont's lone seat in the U.S. House.

That's not terribly surprising. Since 2006, when then-Senate president pro tem Peter Welch claimed the open congressional perch by defeating former Vermont National Guard adjutant general Martha Rainville, the Norwich Democrat has avoided a real challenge.

This year looks no different. So far, only 2012 Republican nominee Mark Donka and perennial independent candidates Jerry Trudell and Cris Ericson have announced plans to run. Comedian Rusty DeWees flirted with the notion last year but told Seven Days in February he'd take a pass.

According to Vermont Republican Party chairman David Sunderland, "a couple others" are pondering a run, but he doesn't sound optimistic about the GOP's chances.

"There's a lot of headwind in that race, obviously," Sunderland says. "Congressman Welch is well-entrenched in Washington, D.C., politics and has a lot of money and a lot of name recognition."

Sunderland is having a hard enough time drumming up Republican candidates to take on Democratic incumbents with less campaign cash and political experience than Welch. He says it's only "possible" the party will field candidates for such down-ballot positions as attorney general and state treasurer.

"The Republican Party in Vermont is on the ropes," says longtime Associated Press bureau chief Chris Graff, now vice president of communitcations for National Life. "They need to pick their fights strategically, figuring out what's the best return on the dollar."

That may not be on a race for federal office. While Vermonters seem willing to back Republicans for governor, they're less inclined to send them to Washington. Last time it happened was Jim Jeffords' final run for U.S. Senate in 2000 — a year before he fled the party and became an independent.

Republican Mike Smith, who served as secretary of administration to former governor Jim Douglas, says Welch benefits from a "disconnect" between Vermonters and their congressional delegation.

"They don't get the press scrutiny that other positions, like the governor, get," says Smith, who retired last summer as Vermont president of FairPoint Communications.

Beyond that, Smith credits Welch with "positioning himself so that he has appeal to independents, moderate Republicans and Democrats."

"He's likeable, he's a straight-shooter and he likes to work with you to get what you need or what you want," Smith says.

He's also got plenty of money in the bank.

Welch reported having $1.4 million in his campaign account at the end of March. In the first quarter of the year, he raised 73 percent of his $72,250 in campaign contributions from special interest groups — most based outside of Vermont.

Donka, who raised just $4,000 in his first race against Welch in 2012, says he plans to focus on campaign finance this fall.

"If you're a Vermont representative, why aren't people from Vermont supporting you?" he asks. "Why is your money coming from out of state?"

Welch defends his fundraising, saying that in a "post-Citizens United world," special interest groups can "cherry-pick a congressional race and try to flood the airwaves."

"So I raise money to be prepared," he says.

Donka, who lost to Welch 23 to 72 percent last time around, says he learned a lot about "time management" during the 2012 race and plans to rely more on "grassroots" supporters to get out the vote. As a fulltime police officer in Woodstock, the Hartford resident can't exactly spend the summer and fall traveling the state. But he says he's got one major advantage.

"I will be the only candidate who's come back a second time," he says.

Welch declines to speculate as to why he hasn't faced a tough race since 2006.

"What I control is how I work, how hard I work and how engaged I am with Vermonters," he says. "What others decide to do — whether to mount a campaign or not — that's up to them."

How long does the 67-year-old plan to stay in Congress? He won't say.

"One day at a time," he says. "One election at a time."

And will he run for the U.S. Senate if Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) retires in 2016 or if Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) retires in 2018?

"Well, I fully expect both of them to run and I support their running. They do a great job," he says. "So I hope they run and I expect they both will."

Right, but what if they do retire?

"I just told you my answer," he says. "I hope they both run and I expect they both will."

Cajoled for failing to give a political columnist any juice, Welch cajoles right back.

"You're asking speculative questions," he says. "I don't speculate that much."

School's In

Burlington Friends of Education was caught off-guard by the city's Town Meeting Day vote against a $66.9 million school budget, admits the advocacy organization's treasurer, Chris Hood.

That won't happen again Tuesday, he says, when Burlingtonians go back to the ballot box to choose between a revised $67.4 million budget and a $66.7 million default budget.

"I think people are ready to move forward," he says. "We just strongly believe now's the time to show support for the great things going on in the Burlington school system."

To make its case, the pro-budget group has raised $3,641 from 57 donors, according to a report filed Tuesday with the secretary of state's office. That money has largely gone to lawn signs, full-page ads in the North Avenue News and 16,000 pamphlets the organization is distributing to Burlington voters. Only six donors contributed more than $100; two of them, Mayor Miro Weinberger and his wife, Stacy, gave $125.*

Hood says that some 200 volunteers have signed up with BFOE to make phone calls, knock on doors and march down Church Street next Monday in support of the revised budget.

Organized opposition has been scarcer.

Last Monday, Ward 4 school board member Scot Shumski held a press conference calling on the city to send another round of absentee ballots to anyone who requested them on Town Meeting Day. Joining in the effort, behind the scenes, were Vermont Republican Party vice chairman Brady Toensing and longtime GOP operative Tayt Brooks — both of whom asked the secretary of state's office about it.

During the 2012 election cycle, Brooks ran Vermonters First, a conservative super PAC that spent more than a million dollars backing Republican candidates. The group was almost entirely funded by Burlington resident Lenore Broughton.

Since January, Brooks has served as Vermont executive director of American Majority, a national conservative group dedicated to training candidates for school board and other down-ballot offices.

In March, Brooks wrote on American Majority's website that "three of four candidates who worked with the organization [at a January training] and ran in Burlington won their races." The only one mentioned by name was Shumski, who was quoted by Brooks as saying, "I was the top vote-getter in the entire city. Thank you American Majority!"

Brooks did not return calls for comment and American Majority's national executive director, Matt Batzel, declined to identify the group's other elected trainees, saying, "It would be up to them to tell you."

Shumski, who received a $1,000 donation from Broughton when he ran for office in March, expressed surprise at last week's press conference that he was quoted on American Majority's website. He said he thought the "nonpartisan" training had been put on by the Ethan Allen Institute, a conservative think tank.

Shumski also said he knew of no organized opposition to the school budget.

That changed pretty quickly. Reached this week, Shumski says he decided the day after the press conference to start a new organization dedicated to reining in school spending.

"I don't want this to be a one-time effort," he says. "I want this to be a voice in the school discussion for years to come."

To that end, Shumski ordered up $500 worth of lawn signs, he says, and quickly distributed them to those who share his view that, "There's not accountability for the lack of student outcomes. There's no accountability for the mess."

Shumski says he hasn't collected "a single penny" for the effort and won't take more than $100 from any donor, including Broughton. He says the longtime advocate for independent schools is not behind the effort and hasn't yet contributed. Broughton did not return a call for comment.

Media Notes

Readership of Vermont's daily newspapers continued to decline over the past year, according to new data from the Alliance for Audited Media, an Illinois-based nonprofit that tracks circulation figures.

Among the Vermont papers audited by AAM, slides were steepest at the Burlington Free Press, which lost nearly 21 percent of its total Sunday audience and nearly 17 percent of its weekday audience between March 2013 and March 2014. In that period, combined print and digital circulation went from 36,528 to 28,914 on Sundays and from 29,059 to 24,194 on weekdays — the sharpest one-year declines in years at the Gannett-owned Free Press.

Slight growth in the paper's digital subscriptions failed to make up for precipitous drops in print circulation. On Sundays, the number of papers printed fell by a quarter over the past year, from 36,006 to 27,143, and by nearly 23 percent on weekdays, from 26,893 to 20,780. That's a 44 percent drop in weekday circ from five years ago, when the Free Press printed 37,216 copies, and a 57 percent drop from a decade ago, when it printed 47,984 copies.

Print circulation remains critical even as newspapers look to grow their online audiences, because advertisers still pay far more for print ads than for digital ones.

Ever-changing standards for reporting digital readership make it difficult to draw conclusions about how Vermont newspapers are growing their online audiences. For instance, the Free Press included in its overall circulation totals some 1,350 online copies it says were accessed by educational institutions. The number of individuals who paid to access the paper's website or its tablet and mobile apps increased this year from 1,319 to 1,416.

Both the Brattleboro Reformer and Bennington Banner, which are owned by New York-based Digital First Media, reported remarkable interest in their "digital editions." But of the roughly 3,000 people counted as those papers' online readers, only about 500 paid for access to either.

Meanwhile, weekday print circulation at the Reformer decreased by 10 percent over the past year to 5,273 and by 13 percent at the Banner to 4,064. Both papers' print runs were down 49 percent from a decade ago.

Neither the Newport Daily Express nor the St. Albans Messenger report readership numbers to AAM, while the West Lebanon, N.H.-based Valley News belongs to a different auditing organization. According to Valley News publisher Dan McClory, weekday readership at the bi-state paper was 14,933 in calendar year 2013 — down slightly from 15,327 the year before.

The Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, which are owned by the Vermont-based Mitchell family, dropped their AAM membership after last September's reports, according to AAM spokeswoman Rachael Battista. At that point, the papers' total weekday circulation was 11,200 and 5,796, respectively.

The Herald's weekday print circulation of 10,412 was down 28 percent from five years ago and 51 percent since March 2004. The Times Argus printed 5,374 copies last September — 30 percent less than five years ago and 52 percent less than a decade ago.

Not every Vermont daily is hemorrhaging readers. The St. Johnsbury-based Caledonian-Record's total circulation has grown slightly over the past five years to 9,849. And even its print circulation has held relatively steady, dropping just 4 percent over the past five years and 13 percent over the last decade.

Disclosure: Paul Heintz worked as Peter Welch's communications director from November 2008 to March 2011.

*Correction 5/29/14: An earlier version of this article stated that Burlington Friends of Education purchased a full-page ad in the Burlington Free Press. In fact, the ad was paid for by a separate group of residents who support passing the school budget.