What explains it? How in the age of two-term President George W. Bush, in what is arguably the most left-wing state in the United States of America, has a Republican won his third consecutive race for governor? And won with ease?
It's a question we put this week to members of the Progressive Caucus in the Vermont House. Five out of six Progs in the 150-member General Assembly (Rep. David Zuckerman of Burlington stayed home on childcare assignment), hit the Statehouse in Montpeculiar on Monday to outline their coming legislative agenda.
The Progs ran 17 candidates for the Vermont House this year and won six races. That keeps them at the same level as last session.
Chris Pearson, a Sanderista since college, graduated UVM back in 1995 with a degree in psychology. Next, he put in a few years tending bar and waiting tables at Vermont Pub & Brewery in downtown Burlington. (Ah, Burlington bartending - a past life we share! Yours truly did Leunig's a decade earlier.)
Unlike any other state rep we know of, Pearson is a Canadian by birth. However, the Prog activist-turned-lawmaker did not become a naturalized U.S. citizen until 2001, one year after he became the first full-time paid executive director of the Vermont Progressive Party. Last April, Chris was appointed by GOP Gov. Jim Douglas to fill Rep. Bob Kiss' seat after Kiss won the Burlington mayor's race in a historic, first-time exercise of Instant-Run-off Voting. Much, much more info is available about Pearson on his website, http://www.christopherpearson.org.
Mayor Kiss, the quietest, politest, most soft-spoken politician Burlington's City Hall has seen in a long time, kept the Progs in power. Kiss took the leftist torch passed by Progressive-turned-Democratic Mayor Peter Clavelle. Mayor Moonie was the historic successor to Mayor Bernie Sanders way back in 1989.
Whatever happened to Bernie?
Oh, right, Ol' Bernardo just became the first Independent in American history to win one of those 100 hallowed seats in the United States Senate. That fact, we admit, is still sinking in. Can't wait for the next Congress to begin in January, can you?
For Pearson, the People's Republic of Burlington has proved a nice fit. He's become a respected Vermont political organizer, working on a Sanders re-election campaign (1998), and subsequently on the staff of Vermont's one-of-a-kind congessman. But not every campaign racehorse Pearson rode did as well as Bernie. Progressive Anthony Pollina demonstrated that in both the 2000 guv's race and the 2002 lite-gov contest. But life goes on.
So, what will be the top issues for the Progressive six-pack under Montpeculiar's Golden Dome this winter?
The Progs labeled the guv's catchy-sounding "agenda of affordability" a "joke." And they zeroed in on three major goals. One, said Pearson, will be a tax system to fund education that's "based on real income," and not on the property tax that everyone's been bitching about for the years we've been covering the Vermont political scene. The Progressives want to close the "unearned income tax loophole."
"Money earned from selling stocks," said the Progs' House leader, "should be taxed at the same rate as wages."
"Vermont is one of only a few states to allow this loophole," he told the tiny three-pack of reporters who showed up - none from TV Newsland or The Burlington Free Press - "and we will push the legislature to close it up, reclaim $15 to $20 million in revenue, and take a small chunk off of our property tax bill. To continue to ignore this loophole," he said, is "a slap in the face of working families."
Pearson also renewed the Progressive call to fund education based on ability to pay - the state income tax - instead of the property tax.
"Vermont deserves a simple formula based on the income tax," Pearson said. We "can keep a modest level of funding from the property tax to satisfy the need for stability." But the bulk of an individual's contribution to the ed fund, he added, "should come from personal income tax - a straightforward measurement of one's ability to pay."
Progressive Rep. Sandy Haas of Rochester, a member of the House Human Services Committee in the last session, made it perfectly clear the Progs are not dropping the reform banner on health care. Democratic leaders such as State. Sen. Jim Leddy and House Speaker Gaye Symington have been singing the praises of the modest, watered-down compromise bill they got through last year with Republican Gov. Jim Douglas' eventual blessing.
"The cost of employer-sponsored health care in Vermont," said Rep. Haas, "has skyrocketed. One-third of health-care dollars," she noted, "are eaten up by administration costs. We know that a single-payer system would reduce that bite by more than half."
A third issue Vermont's Statehouse Progressives said they'll tackle this coming winter: sweatshop labor.
"Sweatshop-free purchasing legislation has been adopted in numerous cities and states including Illinois, Maine, Pennsylvania, Newark, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Albuquerque," said Rep. Sarah Edwards of Brattleboro. She'll be introducing an anti-sweatshop bill in 2007.
Elected in 2002, Edwards has served on the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. Vermont's lone nuke plant is also on her agenda. She said she will be drumming up opposition to the 2012 renewal of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant's license.
However, the Progs' General Assembly six-pack did not have a clear, concise policy on global warming, a topic Vermont Senate Democratic leader Peter Shumlin of Putney has said will a be prism through which energy, transportation, environmental and economic issues, and much more, must be viewed.
The Progressives aren't there, yet.
Pearson called global warming "one of the challenges for the state and our caucus. I don't pretend to have the answers," he said, "but we have to start asking the questions. We can't seriously move ahead on global warming issues, in my opinion, without looking at how the solutions impact working families."
A lot of Vermonters are hoping they hurry up. And a lot of Americans are hoping the new Democratic Congress in Washington will do likewise.
Even Democratic Party chairman Ian Carleton told us "public consciousness is changing on this." Carleton, a Burlington attorney who also chairs the Burlington City Council, said he and his wife have been having "almost daily conversations" about trading in their Subaru for an environmentally friendly Prius. In case you didn't know, the Toyota Prius comes with a "Hybrid Synergy Drive" that combines gasoline power with an emissions-free electric motor.
But what we hoped to get from the Prog lawmakers and other Vermont Democratic leaders this week was a plausible explanation for our Republican governor's near unblemished political record in the state many consider the most liberal/leftist/progressive in the country. Vermont is the first state in America to institute marriage rights for same-sex couples. The only state in the country whose entire Capitol Hill delegation voted "no" on going to war in Iraq. What explains three consecutive GOP gubernatorial victories - the last two by double-digit landslides - in the home state of Sens. Patrick Leahy and Jim Jeffords and Congressman Bernie Sanders?
Rep. Edwards said she thinks about how Gov. Scissorhands does it "every time I drive up from Brattleboro. Quite frankly," she said, "I scratch my head."
As for genuine health-care reform, Edwards said, "We really need to do something that might work. Clearly, what we've been trying over and over again is not working. We need to try something new. It can't be any worse than what we're in now. So," she added, "I'm for going down a different alley to find the cheese."
Rep. Pearson attributed Gov. Douglas' amazing success to the fact that he gets around the state so much. "He's seen as working very hard. He's got a lot of good soundbites," said the Prog from Canada. "He's on message, and he's got a very, very skilled team behind him, but I am surprised at how little he's delivered."
When pressed to expand his answer explaining the Vermont Republican's success, Pearson replied, "Frankly, his opposition has not done a good job of poking holes in his act."
About time someone on the Progressive Vermont left dared say so, eh?
Democratic State Party Chairman Carleton hit a similar chord. He explained Douglas was reelected "not because of his agenda, but because he's a likable guy." Our guv, he noted, "has had no prominent scandals in his administration that could be identified as reason to vote him out of office." Carleton the lawyer also said rather bluntly that our current GOP guv "is not a visionary and has failed to exercise leadership."
Not surprisingly, Rep. Carolyn Partridge, the House Democratic caucus leader, told us she agrees with most of what Pearson said about our current guv - but not the bit about the failure of Democrats to poke holes in his agenda.
"Jim Douglas is a very nice guy. People tell me that all the time," said Partridge. "He comes to every event there is where he can cut a ribbon."
Also, Carleton cited a historic trend that he says keeps Douglas on victory row every November: "For 130 years, only one sitting Vermont governor has lost re-election." That was GOP Gov. Ray Keyser's loss to Democrat Phil Hoff in 1962
But in a state where polls show a strong majority supporting wind energy, Gov. Douglas has been the most prominent roadblock to it. The guv says wind turbines will spoil the beauty of Vermont ridge lines and alter the landscape we depend on for tourist dollars year round.
But won't global warming, which has boosted the planet's temperature for the last 10 years, impact that landscape as well? Won't it reduce our fall foliage colors as well as the production of snow on our ski trails, both natural and manmade?
Vermonters, we've observed, are growing more and more concerned about global warming on an almost daily basis. After all, time is short.
Looking forward to what happens in the coming session.
Recount Upset? - As Seven Days go to press, the recount of the close Vermont state auditor's race is showing signs that incumbent Republican Randy Brock is in trouble. The Associated Press is reporting that Democrat Thomas M. Salmon of Brattleboro has overcome the tiny 137-vote statewide deficit he experienced on Election Day, and has gained 265 votes so far, based on results from 11 counties. That's enough to put Salmon the CPA in first place. Check out his website at http://www.salmonforauditor.com.
Politics is in his blood. Salmon's dad, Tom Salmon, was a Democratic governor of Vermont in the 1970s, a Green Mountain Power CEO in the 1980s, and a University of Vermont president in the 1990s.
The ballots are being counted by hand in Chittenden, Rutland and Windsor counties - a tedious process now in week two.
In fact, remember Kate O'Connor? Kate was chief of staff for Gov. Howard Dean through the 1990s, and his righthand woman on the presidential campaign trail. She's also been a volunteer Chittenden County ballot counter.
Despite the fact that Kiss Me Kate recently served on the staff of Republican Rich Tarrant, who lost the U.S. Senate race to the Democratic Party-endorsed Bernie Sanders, Ms. O'Connor, daughter of a former Democratic state rep and House Speaker herself, insists she remains a Vermont Democrat.
Whatever you say, Kate.
If Salmon wins the auditor's race this week, not only will he remove the spoiler tag from Progressive candidate Martha Abbott, who got 9 percent of the popular vote, he'll also put himself on the list of potential Democrats who just might beat Gov. Douglas somewhere down the line.
EMAIL THE AUTHOR // LETTER TO THE EDITOR