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Dems Depleted: Vermont Democrats Facing Financial Woes


Published September 27, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
  • File: Robin Katrick
  • Faisal Gill

In recent years, the Vermont Democratic Party has enjoyed relative prosperity while state Republicans have struggled to keep the lights on.

But now the Democrats are feeling the pinch. The party's most recent payroll was delayed by four days due to a lack of funds. Worse, it has to raise at least $13,000 this week to meet its next payroll and almost $20,000 to pay all its bills on time.

The bad news was delivered to the Democratic State Committee on Saturday at its monthly meeting in Montpelier, along with an urgent call to right the financial ship. Democratic National Committee member Terje Anderson was named chair of a new fundraising committee, charged with replenishing the coffers as quickly as possible.

"I look at balance sheets every day," state Treasurer Beth Pearce told the crowd. "This one scares the bejesus out of me." She promised to spend one day a week fundraising for the party "until we get out of this mess" and called on other Democratic statewide officeholders to do the same.

Party chair Faisal Gill emphasized the need for a new approach.

"People do not accept just calling and saying, 'Give money to the party,'" Gill said. "The party has to do something. I've made phone calls, and people say the same thing: 'What is the party doing?'"

Gill said Vermont Democrats must become more "issue-focused" rather than simply promote candidates. There's a lot of competition from groups such as Rights & Democracy, Our Revolution, Democracy for America and Indivisible Vermont, to name a few. "Everybody's email boxes are full of solicitations," he said. "Rights & Democracy has done a great job of capturing the energy that exists, and people see them as doing things. They're holding rallies, they're holding forums, and people want to contribute to that."

So how did the Democrats wind up with their pockets turned inside out?

"The party had financial problems when I first became chair," said Gill, who took over in March. "We missed a payroll by a couple of days back then. After that, everything was fine."

Well, fine is a relative term. The party's fortunes got a boost from its annual David W. Curtis Leadership Awards dinner on May 5. Then came a long, dry summer. The Dems carry five full-time paid staffers and a monthly payroll of $27,000. That's a lot of money to raise consistently during an off year — at a time when, as Gill noted, liberal donors are preoccupied with the national scene.

"People think, 'We're OK here,' so they want to donate to flipping a district in Georgia or somewhere else," he said. "They want to give their money to defeat the Trump agenda."

The party's money picture is nuanced, thanks to the stupefying complexity of campaign finance law. State branches of national parties maintain both state and federal accounts; most revenues and expenditures flow through the federal account, even if they're generated entirely within Vermont. According to party compliance officer (read: campaign finance whiz) Selene Hofer-Shall, the state coffers actually contain roughly $30,000 — but that money can't be spent on what the law classifies as "federal" expenses, including payroll.

Still, the financial crunch is real. Is excessive spending to blame? The party's money experts say no.

"This is a revenue problem," said Pearce. "Cutting expenditures is not the way to go."

"We are significantly under budget for the year," added Hofer-Shall. "That budget was approved by the state committee." She added that the five-person staff is about the average size for the party "in the past decade or so."

Party leaders hope to replenish their coffers with ticket sales for a November 9 fundraiser in Burlington featuring U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim member of Congress and deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee. Ellison is known as a fiery speaker and, Anderson said, "We're hoping to raise $145,000 from the event."

Even so, it's a stunning state of affairs for a party that's ruled the roost — and had no money worries to speak of — since at least 2010. And it seems like a bad place to be as the Dems approach the 2018 campaign cycle.

And here's another question. Vermont's two Democratic members of Congress are sitting on millions in campaign cash. So far this year, according to federal campaign finance reports, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has given $5,000 to the state party, and Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) has donated $2,500.

Have they been asked for an emergency transfusion? Will they respond? Inquiries to their offices were not returned by press time.

Rights & Transparency

Gill's words of praise for Rights & Democracy are underscored by that group's healthy bottom line. The progressive advocacy group, which operates in Vermont and New Hampshire, is only about two years old. But it's attracting a lot of financial support. In 2016, says executive director James Haslam, the group received nearly $800,000 in contributions. "It's roughly the same so far this year," he adds, "and we're hoping to increase that."

Still, Haslam emphasizes, revenue is only part of the story. "The money we raise and spend is one piece of our growth," he says. "Some of the best parts of our organization are driven by our members."

For instance, he adds, "We had a whole crew in Washington, D.C., [Monday] protesting against the Graham-Cassidy [health care] bill." The group has organized D.C. trips every time congressional Republicans have mounted a fresh attack on the Affordable Care Act.

Rights & Democracy has something in common with big-dollar conservative groups such as Crossroads GPS and American Majority. It's a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, which means it can conceal the identities of donors. Seems a bit at odds with the group's mission, no? Shouldn't it, perhaps, go above and beyond the legal minimum — if only for the sake of principle?

"We don't have a problem with releasing the information," says Haslam, "but as a young organization bursting at the seams, it's not something we've had a chance to talk about with our donors."

That seems a little thin. The group is young — but not that young. It's had enough time to generate nearly $2 million in revenue. Surely a letter could have been sent notifying donors that their names and total gifts are subject to public release.

Besides, it could be argued that when donors seek to affect the political process, they should expect disclosure.

Haslam is willing to share an overview. "Grant funding [from nonprofit organizations] is about 65 percent of total donations," he says. That includes many nonprofits based in Vermont and New Hampshire, as well as a handful of national organizations, such as the Public Welfare Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Center for Popular Democracy. Haslam estimates that 95 percent of gifts from individuals come from within the twin states.

Rights & Democracy's growth has been fueled by its image as an organization that, as Gill would say, does things: organizes rallies, protests, forums and activities aimed at promoting issues rather than party structures.

"The reason we established Rights & Democracy is that we need new kinds of vehicles for people to create change," Haslam concludes.

That's all well and good. But the lack of disclosure required of these new organizations is a troubling thing, whether the organizer is James Haslam or Karl Rove.

Media Notes

Sunday's Burlington Free Press was almost twice as hefty as usual. But that's not because it delivered a generous quantity of news. Almost half the bulk was provided by a 64-page special section which, as its front page announced, was "Devoted to Celebrating Antonio B. Pomerleau," the Burlington developer and philanthropist who turned 100 on September 28.

The supplement was printed on higher-quality paper than the Free Press' usual fish wrap. Its "articles" consisted of undiluted, uncritical praise for Pomerleau.

The second page was telling. It featured a large photo of Pomerleau and Free Press publisher Jim Fogler, above a lordly caption declaring "Special Birthday Wishes to One of Our Most Loyal Daily Free Press Readers ... and a Very Dear Friend to So Many of Us, From Your Family at the Free Press."

Gag me.

The lead article was an effusive profile piece entitled "Meet Antonio Pomerleau, Vermont's Phenomenal Centenarian." Laudatory essays were written by community leaders such as Mary Alice McKenzie, the recently retired head of the Boys & Girls Club of Burlington; former Burlington police chief Kevin Scully; and Saint Michael's College president John "Jack" Neuhauser.

But most of the section — roughly 41 pages — consisted of paid advertisements from area businesses, nonprofits and individuals sending hearty birthday wishes to Pomerleau.

One full-page ad was bought, for $500, by the Burlington Police Department. Your tax dollars at work.

"Tony's been extremely generous to the department," Police Chief Brandon del Pozo explains. "Our building is named after him. He paid for it. I'm comfortable with buying an ad whenever a major benefactor turns 100."

Sure. The man's done a lot of good for Burlington. He's also, it must be said, made enough profit to ensure his family's comfort for generations to come.

But there's something off-putting about this enterprise. I mean, besides the icky-sticky shower of encomiums.

This whole thing was a profit-making venture for the revenue-starved Free Press.

The pitch must have been hard to resist. The paper is going to celebrate a very powerful man who reads it every day. If you've benefited from his philanthropy, you lease space from his company or you depend on him for construction contracts, do you want your name featured in the brownnosing throng? Of course you do.

"The job of a newspaper," in the words of the late writer and humorist Finley Peter Dunne, "is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." On Sunday, the Free Press spent 64 pages comforting the comfortable.

Neither Fogler nor FreePressMedia sales manager Tammy Johnson returned calls for comment.

Down in Brattleboro, there's a new morning radio voice in southeast Vermont. On Monday, Olga Peters became the host of "Green Mountain Mornings" on WKVT-AM and FM. Peters is a familiar presence in the area, having spent seven years as a reporter for the Commons, a weekly newspaper serving Windham County. She also had a brief run as news director at WTSA radio.

"I can't think of a better person who's more prepared, more knowledgeable about the community," says Randy Holhut, deputy editor of the Commons.

Initially, Peters plans to keep the show as is. "I want to get really good at being on the air, and then over time it will evolve," she says. "The thing I'm most excited about is getting to interview people. My favorite thing is getting to talk to people."