It's obvious just checking the letters to the editor in papers across the state that in 1996 the No.1 political donnybrook in the Green Mountains will be the Bernie Sanders versus Susan Sweetser race for the U.S. House of Representatives.
This past weekend Sweetser's troops gathered for a confab at John McClaughry's place up in the Northeast Kingdom. "It was a great weekend," said Sweetser's campaign director, Darcie Johnston. Darcie was born and raised in Vermont politics and this is her first time running a statewide campaign.
Sanderistas will be glad to to learn that Jill McDermott has joined the Sweetser team as finance director. Jill is the former top aide to Burlington Mayor Peter Brownell, the Republican who knocked the Progressives out of City Hall in 1993. And coming on board July 1 as press secretary will be Andrea Zentz, former UPI and Free Press reporter who currently works for the Ski Areas Association.
But the big news is, Sweetser has signed up the political consulting firm Dresner and Wickers. Dick and Bob handled Jim Jefford's 1994 race and have worked for California Governor Pete Wilson as well as former Vermont Congressman Peter Smith.
What does it all mean?
Well, based on Dresner and Wicker's track record, it means a hardball campaign with plenty of dirt-dishing, negative ads. Remember how Jezzum' Jim savaged Jan Backus as soft on crime? Imagine what they'll do to Ol' Bernardo.
Fact is Ol' Bernardo is already imagining what he's in for. And to that end, his campaign spokesman, Mrs. Jane Sanders, told Inside Track this week there'll be one minor change in Bernie's campaign this year. Jane Sanders said the Sanders for Congress Campaign will be going out-of-state to hire a new media consultant. "With the consultants Sweetser's hired," said Jane, "we expect it to be real negative and we're not going to allow it to go unanswered."
To that end, she said, they'll be hooking up with a media team that can provide "24-hour turnaround" in responding to Sweetser's attack ads. Two years ago in the race against John Carroll, she said, they got hit with the negative ads and didn't respond quickly enough. "We will not let [the attack ads] go unanswered again," she promised.
McClaughry, Vermont's conservative iconoclast (who will surely write a letter to the editor since his name appeared here), calls the Sanders-Sweetser race "too close to call" at this stage.
"It's not likely to be a big Republican year like 1994 was," said the astute political observer from Kirby who got trounced by Howard Dean in the 1992 governor's race. As for Susie's strong points, Johnny Mac pointed to her gender, the fact she was the leading vote-getter in Chittenden County in her runs for the Statehouse and the fact that "she has as much experience as John Carroll without the baggage."
The challenge facing Sweetser, he said, will be convincing people that "Bernie's way out in left field howling at the moon."
Still, McClaughry can't hide his respect for Sanders. They're a couple of, shall we say, experienced political warhorses. Ol' Bernardo, he said, "is driven by principle. It's one thing I admire about him. He doesn't want to compromise with the exploiters of the proletariat."
Media Notes — Speaking of negative campaigning, the competition between our two county-wide weeklies, Seven Days and Vermont Times, is heating up. Competition is what made this country great, right? But the false rumors coming out of Vermont Times may backfire. Yours truly's even been dished the dirt by two people whose names appear in the Vermont Times masthead. The dirt? That Seven Days is on the verge of financial ruin.
Seven Days is financially healthy and thriving, much to the chagrin of Vermont Times and its out-of-state owners. Seven Days has already claimed its niche in the local cultural scene as the one paper that continues the legacy of the Vanguard Press. Unlike Vermont Times' publisher, Ed Coats, the publishers of this paper, Paula Routly and Pamela Polston, actually live in Vermont, have lived here a long time and have no plans to live anywhere else. Eddie the Carpetbagger ought to take a real close look at his masthead. It reads Vermont Times, not Vermont Slimes. But that may change soon.
Mr. Coats told Inside Track this week he's heard the ugly rumors, too, but denies his Shelburne shop is the source. "Not to my knowledge," he replied when asked if Vermont Times employees were dishing the dirt on Seven Days. In fact, Coats said he doesn't even "pay attention" to what Seven Days is doing. Uh-huh. And birds don't fly, do they?
Anyway, if you hear the rumors, don't believe 'em — unless it's the one about Ed Coats filing For Chapter 11. Just kidding.
Rutland Herald Vendetta — Will somebody please tell the Rutland Herald Montpelier bureau chief, Jack Hoffman, that Ralph Wright hasn't been in Montpelier in two years. Hoffman's legislative wrap-up was all about how Ralph Wright ain't around anymore as speaker of the House. In fact, on Saturday, Sunday and Monday the Herald ran articles highlighting the absence of the former House Speaker from Bennington. It sounds like a payback for Wright's unflattering portrayal of Hoffman in his new book, All Politics is Personal. "When I look back," wrote Wright, "I can say with all honesty there was only one reporter I felt had lost all sense of professionalism. That was Jack Hoffman ... a guy who lives in a glass house."
Obviously Hoffman isn't going to let Ralph have the last word.
Burlington's Hired Guns — You'd think for $6,000 a month Mayor Peter Clavelle's hired-gun Statehouse lobbyists could get a simple charter change through the legislature without breaking a sweat. But Kimbell Sherman & Ellis are human after all. The charter change approved by voters that would allow Burlington Electric to get in the telephone and cable television business didn't come out as planned. Opponents were able to tack on amendments that prevent the city from utilizing the big stick of eminent domain. Also, the charter change was altered to require the city to go through the same hoops as the private sector. Lobbyist Kevin Ellis says it's no big deal. He says B.E.D. isn't interested in using eminent domain. Then why did they bother to get city voters to approve it? One of the good things about being a lobbyist is the fact they get paid even when they lose.