The strain is starting to show in terms of damage control. And also in terms of the absence of his two former political whiz kids: Neale Lunderville and Jim Barnett, a.k.a. the Nasty Boys!
Lunderville is still in the vicinity as Secretary of Transportation. But Mad Dog Barnett has left the state to go to work for the McCain for President campaign.
Last week was a rough one for Vermont's Republican Governor Jim Douglas without them closer, eh? The poor guy's got headaches from an embarassing security breach in a state computer network, crumbling state road culverts and continued delays in evacuating workers from the contaminated state office building in Bennington that's experiencing an off-the-charts outbreak of sarcoidosis. Plus, the new state chairman of the Vermont Republican Party has got the Democrats and other political opponents positively delighted!
Nick Skala is a research associate at Physicians for a National Health Program in Chicago. It's an organization that represents 14,000 physicians who support a single-payer system. Skala told "Inside Track" Tuesday that about a year ago, Rob Roper called him "posing as a reporter" and seeking information on Vermont physician Deb Richter. Richter champions a single-payer health-care system here in the Green Mountains.
At the time, Roper was the head of the Vermont chapter of FreedomWorks, an organization Skala described as "a right-wing nut group."
FreedomWorks even put out a press release last year attacking Gov. Jim Douglas for "waffling" on his no-tax pledge.
Today, Mr. Roper is the newly elected chairman of the Vermont GOP, the candidate who, sources say, did not have the support of Jim Douglas.
C'est la vie.
Asked to respond to last week's Vermont Democratic Party press release going after him, Chairman Roper replied with this email: "Only to say that the mission of FreedomWorks is lower taxes, smaller government, greater economic opportunity and freedom - principles that benefit all mainstream Vermonters, regardless of party."
Sure. Whatever you say.
Closer to home, Gov. Douglas showed unusual, below-the-belt testiness at his weekly presser the other day as he tried to blame the Bennington building problem on his predecessor, Howard Dean, MD.
"The first diagnosis," of a case of sarcoidosis, he said, "was in 1994, and this is the first administration that has dealt with this situation."
We weren't going to let that one slide.
"Did I hear you say, Governor," we asked, "that the Dean administration did not deal with this at all?"
"The first diagnosis of sarcoidosis was 1994," Douglas repeated with emphasis, "and the first time that we are dealing with it in terms of moving people out of the building is now."
"So, to the best of your knowledge, the Dean administration did not deal with it?"
"I'm just, uh, giving you what I know," responded our current chief executive.
When another member of the Fourth Estate noted Ol' Jimbo was getting a wee bit testy, he replied, "Well, that's the nature of this business. I've been in Montpelier, as you know, for a third of a century. It's very, very challenging. There are obviously people who are not interested in my political success, and they're certainly exercising every opportunity to try to act on that belief this year."
But does he seriously think the sarcoidosis outbreak in Bennington and the computer security breach are the work of his political opponents?
"Well, I'll be perfectly honest," responded Gov. Douglas. "Some of the questions I get from the media sound an awful lot like some of the emails that come out of the other party headquarters. So, I don't think it's a coincidence."
You just won reelection in a 15-point landslide, Jimbo. A bunker mentality doesn't suit you.
Asked if he thought the press was "carrying the water" of the opposition party, the Guv sarcastically replied that he "would never make that assertion."
Not so sure he meant it, though.
No one ever said paranoia was pretty.
Round Two - An hour later, the Guv called what reporters he could find back in his office and issued an apology. (Unfortunately, yours truly had already left the building.)
"First of all, let me apologize to you for the comments at the end of the press conference," Douglas said to five reporters present for the second gathering. "It's not characteristic, as I think all of you know. I've worked with all of you for many, many years. I reacted to a question earlier in the press conference that, frankly, questioned my integrity, and something I resent strongly and that I think affected my answers throughout the balance of the press conference today."
We'd asked King James whether he was aware when Fecteau Residential received a state contract for temporary trailers at the Bennington site, that both the firm and Vic and Pat Fecteau of Barre had contributed several thousand dollars to his gubernatorial races?
Douglas said he wasn't.
Information confirming that they had contributed had been distributed under the Golden Dome by members of the state employees' union. It's public information taken from the Secretary of State's website.
Nothing to be ashamed of.
He did not react angrily to the Fecteau question at the time. Apparently he just let it simmer under the surface as the presser went on.
Hey, the cardinal rule for these engagements is: "There are no embarasssing questions, only embarassing answers."
As Ross Sneyd of the Associated Press later reported, "His staff later corrected him. The first case of sarcoidosis was diagnosed in 1992," said spokesman Jason Gibbs. Subsequent diagnoses were in 1998, 2000, 2005 and two in 2006. The outbreak was not identified as a cluster worthy of further investigation until last summer, Douglas said.
In the office meeting, Douglas backed off on blaming the Dean administration. "I'm not blaming my predecessor for any inaction," he said. "I simply wanted to point out to all of you that I took action."
Interesting. Suddenly, for the very first time, Jim Douglas looks vulnerable in 2008.
Attempts to reach Gibbs for comment this week were unsuccessful. He did issue a press release on Monday titled "Vermont Governor Vetoes Punxsutawney Phil's Forecast - Says Vermont Woodchucks Confirm 12 More Weeks of Winter Wonder - Vermonters Celebrate 'Woodchuck Day.'"
Busy guy, eh?
New Director Settles In - "Quite an experience," said the new executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party. Last weekend was Jill Krowinski's first DNC Winter Meeting as state director. "I spent a lot of time outside the meeting room catching up with people," she told us Tuesday.
Four years ago, this was the DNC meeting where a virtually unknown governor from Vermont named Howard Dean unleashed his now infamous "I want to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" speech.
In the end, guess what? He did up end representing the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party - not as its presidential standard-bearer, but rather as its national party chairman and successful architect of a winning 50-state strategy for the Democrats, one that took back both houses of Congress for the first time in 12 years!
Krowinski was particularly touched by one man from the Midwest who lit up when he learned she was from Vermont.
"'You know,' he said, 'Gov. Dean stayed with me when he was campaigning for president, and at the time my son was terminally ill. Gov. Dean made it a point to stay with us so he could check in on our son. He went with us to the hospital. He was with us every part of the way.' And he was so touched by that. All he could talk about was Gov. Dean and what he did for their family. He was so excited to tell me this story."
Also a treat, said Jill, was hearing all the Democratic presidential candidates so far. Who stood out?
"There were four," replied Krowinski. "Barak Obama, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson were the four, for me, that definitely stood out."
Obama, she told us, "just has this passion, and he has this way of speaking that everybody just sits there staring at him with a mesmerized look. It was interesting to watch folks watch him and listen to him."
Edwards, she said, was "great on the issues." He talked "about the middle class and poverty and what he's been doing since he ran for president, and he's really been putting his money where his mouth is - opening a poverty center."
Sen. Hillary Clinton?
"She's straightforward, a straight shooter," said the Vermont director. "She was the only one to say, 'My name is Hilary Clinton and I'm running for president.' She just put it all out there."
Bill Richardson made an impression, too. The New Mexico governor "has this great resumé and he was really funny." Krowinski said she was least familiar with Richardson, but curious. His style, she said, was "intriguing to me." She "looks forward to getting to know him a bit more."
Any favorite at the moment?
"I'm sticking with the four," said Jill.
As for Ho-Ho's current status as chairman of the DNC, Krowinski told us, "Everybody was really excited about Gov. Dean and his work with the '50-State Strategy,' and the confidence in him as chair really showed through."
Yes, indeed, he's come a long way, baby!
Flashback to 10 Years Ago - 1997. Gov. Howard Dean held his nose as he signed Act 60. The gilded low-tax age of Stowe and Manchester and other exclusive Vermont gold towns was over. The statewide property tax was a reality.
Speaking of Act 60, did you catch Paul Cillo's op-ed in the February 1 Barre-Montpelier Times Argus?
Sure you did.
Cillo, then a state rep, was, along with then Rep. John Freiden, a co-author in 1997 of the landmark public education funding bill known as Act 60. The Vermont Supreme Court said "equal educational opportunity," and that meant a level playing field.
Cillo notes that, based on recent figures, "School taxes as a percentage of income are dropping." And "60 percent of taxpayers in owner-occupied homes are paying school taxes based on their incomes, not on the value of their homes."
And he concludes with a statement that leaves no wiggle room.
"Our system needs refinement. But the bottom line is, Vermont's Act 68 (Act 60's successor) is still the best school-financing law in the nation."
No if, ands or buts.
The Times Argus editorial echoes Cillo's op-ed. Titled "What Crisis?" it highlights the fact that in 1996 school taxes took 5.4 percent of Vermonters' income. Ten years later, in 2006, school taxes have fallen to 4.9 percent of income.
Gov. Douglas said he was "not aware of that."
Jeezum crow. You'd think the state's chief executive would be, wouldn't you?
As the Times Argus edit concluded, "The sense of crisis that has surrounded this question, emanating chiefly from the property-rich towns where the new system has never been popular, is exaggerated. The legislature need not be rushed into an ill-advised reform of a system that is mostly working."
Lunderville Shines - Inner-city passenger rail really does have a future in Vermont, says the state's Transportation Secretary Neale Lunderville.
Lunderville, who twice was Jim Douglas' esteemed campaign manager (2002 and 2004), was the featured guest on Ch. 3's "You Can Quote Me" on Sunday morning.
"A good day," the Boy Wonder told Marselis Parsons and Kristin Carlson, "would be when we can take a train from Burlington to Middlebury, Rutland, Manchester, Bennington, and then down to New York City. But it is going to take time and investment."
At the moment the emphasis is on culverts and bridges - putting the few dollars we have today to extend the life of those assets. "A dollar we put in today will save $10 in the future," said Neale. "It really is a good rule of thumb to live by, and one we hope everybody will agree with."
Media Notes - Ready for a little mid-life career change?
Job opening: "WCAX-TV is looking for a general assignment reporter for weekday, night shift. Occasional weekend work may be scheduled. We are looking for a bright, self-starting individual who will also take direction well. Television news reporting experience preferred, but not required. Familiarity with Vermont is a real plus. College degree, valid driver's license, and good references are required. Send letter and resume to: firstname.lastname@example.org or: NEWS, WCAX-TV, P.O. Box 4508, Burlington, VT 05406.
Just trying to be helpful.
Thank You - For all the cards, calls and emails. This weekly columnist fighting cancer is mighty appreciative.
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