When Journalists Run for Office | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Fair Game

When Journalists Run for Office


Published August 6, 2014 at 10:00 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Barton Chronicle publisher Chris Braithwaite knows a thing or two about becoming the story he's supposed to be covering.

In December 2011, the veteran Northeast Kingdom journalist was arrested for trespass atop Lowell Mountain as he documented a protest against Green Mountain Power's Kingdom Community Wind project. (The charges were eventually dropped, and the power company paid his $22,500 legal bill.)

Now the newsman's back in the news. But instead of running from the law, he's running for public office.

Forty years after he founded the Chronicle, the 70-year-old Santa Claus-lookalike stepped down from the paper's day-to-day management last spring and filed papers to run as a Democrat for a seat in the Vermont House. He joins incumbent Reps. Sam Young (D-Glover) and Vicki Strong (R-Albany), as well as Statehouse doorman Devin Small, a Craftsbury Republican, in the race to represent the two-member, seven-town district.

"It just occurred to me that after 40 years of close observation of public affairs in the Kingdom, it might be a good qualification for actually getting involved," Braithwaite says. "There is that frustration that every journalist feels at some point that they watch and they watch and they analyze and they report and are always constrained from direct involvement in what's going on."

This isn't the first time Braithwaite's run for office. In 1992, he unsuccessfully challenged then-senator Vince Illuzzi, campaigning against what he characterized as ethical lapses on the part of the incumbent.

And he's not the only journalist joining the political fray this year.

Mickey Smith, a veteran reporter for the Morrisville-based News & Citizen, is running as a Republican for a House seat currently represented by Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) and Rep. Peter Peltz (D-Woodbury), who is retiring. Other candidates in the race for that two-member, four-town district include retired Washington Electric Co-Op general manager Avram Patt, a Democrat, and Morrisville Elementary School para-educator Emily Lapan, a Republican.

Braithwaite isn't even the only Barton Chronicle staffer running for office. Paul Lefebvre, who's worked as an on-again-off-again columnist and statehouse reporter for the Chronicle since 1978, is running as a Republican to replace retiring Rep. Bill Johnson (R/D-Canaan) in a 14-town district on the Canadian and New Hampshire border.

"Never a dull moment," jokes Chronicle managing editor Bethany Dunbar, who now finds herself working for one candidate and overseeing another — all while she tries to direct the paper's election-year coverage.

Soon after her colleagues filed to run, Dunbar wrote an editorial with the headline, "We Will Do Our Best," to assure her readers that the two candidates would play no role in the paper's political reporting.

"We know that no matter what we do this summer and fall, there will be people who think we are giving our colleagues extra attention or some kind of breaks," she wrote. But, she argued, "the last time around, we were much harder on Mr. Braithwaite than we were on his opponent, the incumbent, Vince Illuzzi."

According to Dunbar, Braithwaite's candidacy is easier to navigate than Lefebvre's, because the former rarely comes to the office anymore and contributes only the occasional arts review. If she uncovered a damning story about him, boss Dunbar says, "We'd just do it — and I think he would expect nothing less."

To deal with Lefebvre, who now works 30 hours a week for the paper, she's reassigned him to cover the courts and barred him from writing about his own district.

"In a perfect world, I would probably take a leave, but the Chronicle can't pay me [for a leave] and I need an income," Lefebvre says. "But I'd also like to point out: It's a citizen's legislature, and I don't think reporters should be excluded. We all have conflicts that we have to address, and I just don't see it as an insurmountable problem."

Dunbar agrees, noting that state law requires employers to let their employees serve in the legislature.

"We can't say no," she says. "Supposing Paul gets elected, we have to hold his job for him. He's a working journalist. It's the law."

Mickey Smith, the News & Citizen reporter, says he's not worried about conflicts arising, because his paper keeps it hyper-local.

"We're very limited in what we cover for politics," he says. "I'll go take a picture someplace. I'll show up at an event where [politicians] are there. But we don't have a Montpelier beat or anything."

Last time he ran, Smith says, his editors "treated me just like everybody else."

What'll he do if he wins this time around and finds himself in Montpelier four months of the year?

"We haven't figured that out exactly," he says. "It might be easier for me to cover sports in the evening."

Does his opponent, the House speaker, have any concerns about the local press covering and running against him?

"I think that's an issue that he has to figure out on his own," Shap Smith says. "I'm looking forward to a robust discussion of the issues. I've known Mickey since we rode the bus together growing up, so I think he definitely knows the town as well as anybody."

Zero is the Loneliest Number

As he seeks to depose Chittenden County Sheriff Kevin McLaughlin in this month's Democratic primary, challenger Ed Cafferty is drawing attention to the number of women serving as officers in the department: zero.

"I really don't know why the present sheriff has no women deputy sheriffs, but I think it's wrong, and I will make hiring women a top priority," Cafferty says.

Compared to other Vermont law-enforcement agencies, the dearth of women in the Chittenden County Sheriff's Department seems unusual. Though the office employs two women in part-time civilian positions, all 21 deputies are men.

In the Vermont State Police, 12 percent of its 321 officers are women, while 15 percent of the Burlington Police Department's 98 officers are women. In the state Department of Corrections, the percentage of women officers ranges from 7 percent to 36 percent, depending on the facility, and averages out to 16 percent of the 526-member force.

McLaughlin, who's served as sheriff since 1987, says gender diversity is important to him — but because his department has such low turnover, he rarely has the chance to hire more women. Before December, when his last female deputy retired, it had been five years since his department had a vacancy.

McLaughlin also says he prefers to hire those who have already been certified by the Vermont Police Academy, a qualification that can further limit the number of women seeking the job.

"It's who you have applying and what you have for applicants — and the pool for male and female is not that great," he says.

But according to Vermont Commission on Women executive director Cary Brown, "When women are underrepresented, it's not enough to just open the door and say, 'Women are welcome.' You have to actively recruit ... Once they're in there, you have to have a climate that works as well for women as it does for men."

You also have to demonstrate to potential applicants that women can succeed in a field traditionally dominated by men, says Vermont Works for Women director of women's programs Rachel Jolly.

"Women need at least the exposure and the role models in their lives," she says.

Jolly's organization tries to provide that to the women who take part in its nine-week Step Up to Law Enforcement program, which has provided 60 women with pre-Academy training.

Cafferty, who teaches criminal justice courses at Champlain College, says he would work with — and help fund — organizations like Vermont Works for Women to diversify the sheriff's department. And he would expand the size of the force to bring on more women.

"You have to make long-term commitments, and I'm willing to make those long-term commitments," he says.

Winning Windham

The good news for Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham) is that her seatmate and nemesis, Sen. Peter Galbraith (D-Windham), isn't running for reelection.

"I am glad he won't be in the seat beside me, if I'm back up there," she says. "I think he was disruptive to the system."

The bad news for the Putney Democrat is that the race to replace Galbraith in the two-member district has drawn several top-notch candidates to this month's Democratic primary — and any one of them could end up toppling White herself.

"I'm not taking anything for granted at all," she says.

Though White struggles to identify specific achievements during her 12 years in office, she's hoping voters value her experience, which she says will come in handy during next session's fight over single-payer financing.

"My knowledge of the process, the system, how it works and the relationships I've built allow me to work with other people to get things done," says White, who works for the Brattleboro Housing Authority. "I think that counts for a lot."

But White isn't the only one playing the experience card.

Townsend Democrat Roger Allbee has a résumé longer than most. The former U.S. House Agriculture Committee staffer for then-congressman Jim Jeffords went on to serve as former governor Jim Douglas' secretary of agriculture and currently serves as CEO of Townsend's Grace Cottage Hospital.

"What differentiates me?" he says. "I guess my knowledge of Vermont, my knowledge of its people and my experience."

Allbee, whose family has lived in the area since the 18th century, is a known quantity in the district's West River Valley towns — and he's won Galbraith's endorsement.

"He's somebody who has enough experience, who's prepared to stand up to the special interests," Galbraith says, before taking a swipe at White, who he battled over campaign-finance reform. "[Allbee] doesn't think, as Jeanette does, that Vermont lobbyists are virtuous creatures, unlike the ones in Washington, who are just there to provide advice to legislators."

Working against Allbee in Vermont's most liberal Senate district are his Republican roots. When he ran unsuccessfully for the House in 2004, he did so on the GOP ticket, though he now says he was always a "liberal Republican."

"The party of George Aiken is not the party that exists today," he says.

Becca Balint isn't so sure about Allbee's ideological leanings.

"I wonder how comfortable Roger is in this race, because primary voters tend to be pretty far to the left," she says.

For a first-time candidate, Balint is making an impressive run — a result, perhaps, of her work with the Democratic training group, Emerge Vermont. Last month, the Brattleboro resident far outraised her rivals, taking in more than $10,171.

A freelance columnist for the Brattleboro Reformer, former teacher and mother of two young children, Balint says she's focused on addressing rising rates of poverty and supporting the middle class.

"As someone who is an educator and whose children are currently in the system, I think I have a different perspective on where we've been and where we're going," she says.

Like all those in the Democratic primary, Balint calls herself a "big supporter of single-payer."

But the candidate with the best credentials on that issue might be Putney's Joan Bowman, who serves as a navigator for Vermont Health Connect.

"I'm running for the Senate because I want to be part of the work that's going to be done on the financing piece of single-payer," she says. "I'm fully committed to universal health care."

Bowman would also be fully committed to serving. Though she'd be paid as a part-time legislator, she says she'd serve as a "full-time senator."

"I want to set up an office so there's ongoing constituent services here," she says.

Bowman has lived in Vermont only since 2010, but her work as a navigator and former field organizer for the Vermont Democratic Party has introduced her to plenty of Windham County voters.

"I just got very integrated," she says.

The two Democrats who rack up the most votes will face Liberty Union candidates Aaron Diamondstone of Marlboro and Jerry Levy of Brattleboro, as well as independent Mary Hasson of Brattleboro, in the general election.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Fourth Estate Legislature"

Speaking of...