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Flying South: Shumlin Warns of Shutdown's "Huge Impact," Then Skips Town

Fair Game


Published October 9, 2013 at 11:23 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Seven days into a partial shutdown of the federal government, Gov. Peter Shumlin summoned top cabinet officials to the headquarters of the Vermont National Guard to bemoan what he called “a manufactured crisis.”

“I continue to be extraordinarily concerned with the senseless shutdown of the federal government that is going to have a huge impact on Vermont,” the governor told a crowd of reporters and Guardsmen at Colchester’s Camp Johnson Monday afternoon.

One by one, Adj. Gen. Steve Cray and a half dozen top administration officials explained how Washington’s woes would hurt their departments and the Vermonters they serve.

“Every day, as Gen. Cray just told you, that this shutdown continues is gonna continue to have a more devastating effect on Vermonters, on job creation and on our ability to run the National Guard,” Shumlin said.

“Enough is enough. This is not time for politics. It’s time for rational policy.”

The next day, however, Shumlin managed to carve out a little time for politics.

Leaving Lt. Gov. Phil Scott to mind the listing ship of state, the gov flew to Washington on the Democratic Governors Association’s dime to meet with Vermont labor union members and their D.C. affiliates.

Typically, Shumlin’s staff includes such trips in his weekly public appearance schedule, but not this time. Rather, he was caught sneaking out of state by an eagle-eyed Vermont Public Radio producer.

“Spotted on my flight to DC just now - @GovPeterShumlin,” “Vermont Edition” managing producer Patti Daniels tweeted Tuesday morning.

Asked shortly thereafter where the gov might be, his spokeswoman and deputy chief of staff Sue Allen pleaded ignorance.

“I’ll have to find out. I honestly don’t know. Let me see. He doesn’t show up on my calendar today, which is interesting,” she said. “I literally don’t know where he is … I would guess Washington?”

After looking into the matter, Allen called back to confirm that the boss was indeed in the nation’s capital.

Was Shummy twisting House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) arm, telling him to put the government back to work? Was he challenging Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to another 21-hour gabfest? Was he personally minting a trillion-dollar platinum coin to avert the looming debt crisis?

Alas not.

He was, Allen said, “discussing issues like prevailing wage legislation with labor leaders in the building trades industry, who are also meeting with members of Vermont’s congressional delegation.”

Why Shummy had to fly to Washington to hang out with a bunch of plumbers and carpenters from Vermont wasn’t exactly clear.

The meetings were coordinated, Allen said, by lobbyist David Mickenberg of the Montpelier-based Sirotkin & Necrason.

Later that day, the gov was planning to meet with DGA staffers, Allen said. The partisan political outfit, which works to elect Democratic governors, paid for Shumlin’s airfare.

Why did the DGA foot the bill, given that Allen characterized the trip as predominantly gubernatorial business?

“They wanted the option of holding an event down in Washington with the governor while he was there,” she explained. “No event got scheduled.”

Asked what “event” meant, Allen said, “Sometimes, obviously, they can be fundraisers. Sometimes they’re meetings. They vary.”

No word on whether Shummy brought back Boehner’s arm — or that trillion-dollar coin — in his carry-on luggage.

Enroll Play

Meanwhile, back in Vermont, Shumlin’s health care advisers were laboring to put a shine on last week’s rough rollout of the state’s federally mandated health insurance exchange.

Like most states, Vermont has struggled to accommodate those seeking to purchase plans through Vermont Health Connect, the new online insurance purchasing portal. While most media outlets attributed the system slowdown to a burst of traffic on opening day, Shumlin’s advisers have since conceded that wasn’t the case.

“The slowness issue is actually not related to the traffic issue,” Shumlin’s director of health care reform, Robin Lunge, said last Thursday. “We thought that initially. But what we’ve heard from our partners since then was that it’s actually a communication issue between the servers.”

Lunge’s comments came shortly after the governor himself addressed the situation during a Statehouse press conference, saying his administration was “making great progress” in resolving the glitches. He did concede that while a delay in the system’s ability to process payments was a “nothing-burger,” the “challenges that we’re having with the website are obviously something-burgers.”

But the administration kept the positive spin going.

After last Tuesday’s rollout, Vermont Health Connect spokeswoman Emily Yahr began sending a daily email blast to reporters with an encouraging pair of stats: how many people had visited the site to date and how many had registered an account.

By last Thursday, 13,000 people had visited and 780 had registered. By this Tuesday, 45,000 had dropped by, while 3400 had registered.

Pretty good numbers for one week on the job, eh? Yes and no.

See, all that registration number indicates is how many people have picked a user name and password. That’s barely step one.

Asked how many have actually completed the initial registration process and verified their identity, Yahr admitted it was just 142. Of those, only 114 have actually selected a new health insurance plan.

Meanwhile, 53 Vermont employers have initiated the enrollment process, Yahr said, but none has completed it.

This from a system that’s supposed to process 100,000 Vermonters by January 1!

“Those numbers seem low, but not unexpected, considering some of the problems we’ve encountered trying to sign up employers,” says Vermont Chamber of Commerce president Betsy Bishop.

Though her organization is a state-designated “navigator” charged with helping employers figure out the new system, Bishop says the Chamber hasn’t succeeded in enrolling a single employer or employee electronically. Like many navigators and insurance brokers, they’ve had to resort to paper applications.

But to Department of Vermont Health Access commissioner Mark Larson, whose office oversees the exchange, those numbers tell a different story: one of success.

“People are using Vermont Health Connect,” he says. “That’s the big news. Ten days ago, people were expecting we would never go live. It would never work. Even if [the numbers] are small, people are utilizing Vermont Health Connect and it’s helping them pick plans for coverage in January.”

Nothing like beating low expectations!

Frozen Out

Dismissed by the Air Force and ignored by the state’s reigning political elite, Vermont’s anti-F-35 crowd had hoped to take their fight to the Burlington City Council on Monday night.

Instead, all they got was a 62-year-old ice cream magnate serving AmeriCone Dream while wearing an oversize guinea pig costume.

“The plane has never been operationally tested,” Ben Cohen said, referring to the F-35 joint strike fighter, as he scooped liberal helpings of ice cream outside Burlington City Hall’s Contois Auditorium.

The Ben & Jerry’s cofounder was dressed head-to-tail in a brown, button-down onesie with a rodent hood and a white, fuzzy ice cream belly.

“In all of history, there’s never been a situation where they’ve based a plane that has not been operationally tested at a residential airport,” he continued. “If they do that, we will all be guinea pigs.”

That was the message Cohen planned to deliver to city councilors faced with a pair of resolutions that would’ve evicted the Vermont Air National Guard from the city-owned Burlington International Airport if the F-35s tried to land in town.

But City Council President Joan Shannon tabled the vote late last week after city attorney Eileen Blackwood made the surprising discovery that Burlington hasn’t properly insured its public officials against airport-related lawsuits. Shannon said Monday she’d reschedule the debate for October 28 — just a week before the Air Force is expected to make its final basing decision.

That left a rowdy band of F-35 opponents to give speeches in the City Hall foyer and Cohen to dish out ice cream — and commentary — in costume.

“When you first google ‘guinea pig costumes,’ what you get is a lot of pictures of guinea pigs dressed up in costumes,” Cohen explained between scoops. “I think people who have guinea pigs really like to play dress-up with the guinea pigs. I mean, there’s guinea pigs as cops, guinea pigs as actors, actresses, guinea pigs as ballplayers. So I had to google ‘adult guinea pig costume.’”

Sure enough, Amazon sells the “Bcozy Guinea Pig Onesie” for just $40.34 — shipping included.

“You know, I don’t think this costume really looks like a guinea pig,” Cohen confessed. “I think they use this same costume for flying squirrels, guinea pigs and —”

“Can I help myself?” a hungry protestor asked, not waiting for a response to pick up an ice cream scoop.

“Yeah, help yourself!” Cohen said. “You know, one of the big selling points is that they double as pajamas.”

“So are you gonna wear them as PJs?” Seven Days inquired.

“You bet I am,” he said. “Could you resist me if I came at you? Well, let’s not get into that.”

Turning serious, Cohen said he was so frustrated with the plane’s highest-profile political backers — Shumlin, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Mayor Miro Weinberger — that he’d have a hard time voting for any of them again. Or, at least, most of them.

“There’s one guy, Sanders, that I would have a hard time not voting for,” Cohen said. “He probably gets a pass because he’s been really out there and done some really, really good stuff. But the rest of them, you know, I don’t think they have any — what are they called? Redeeming social benefits.”

Then the guinea pig went back to scooping ice cream.

Media Notes

Newport Daily Express publisher Kenneth Wells fired editor Susan Davis last Thursday; they both agree on that. But what prompted the firing isn’t quite so clear.

“There’s really no huge thing,” Wells says. “People get fired all the time. There’s no real big angle on it. There was philosophical differences.”

Not so, says Davis, a former attorney who’s edited the Daily Express since July 2010. She says that after witnessing Wells engage in “bullying and name-calling” and “inappropriate use of company property,” she contacted the Newport City Police Department and Horizon Publications, the Illinois company that owns the paper.

“Basically I ran my mouth about things that were happening. Word got back to Kenny and he got pissed and finally said, ‘You’re out of here,’” Davis says. “My feeling is he fired me in retaliation for me basically telling on him.”

Davis was subsequently escorted out of the building by a police officer, wrote Caledonian-Record reporter Jennifer Hersey Cleveland, who broke the story.

According to a police report written by detective Jennifer Harlow, Davis accused Wells of a litany of offenses, including physical bullying and sexual harassment of employees, theft of company property — including liquor and lumber — and circulation fraud. Davis told the cops that Wells routinely charged a local business for 5000 newspapers’ worth of advertising, when the Daily Express prints closer to 2700 papers.

Harlow said she investigated the complaints but dropped the matter after Horizon opted not to pursue it.

“They said they wanted to handle the investigation internally,” the detective says.

A Horizon spokeswoman did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday.

As for Wells, he says, “it was all news to me” that Davis had contacted the police, though he says he was aware she had complained to company higher-ups.

“That sounds, like, at best, kind of slanderous,” Wells says. “But, you know, in America anybody can say anything about anybody.”