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Go Time? Cabinet Members Prepare for Life After Shumlin


Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Secretary of Human Services Hal Cohen - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Secretary of Human Services Hal Cohen

When Hal Cohen agreed to serve as Gov. Peter Shumlin’s secretary of human services in late 2014, he figured his new boss was halfway through an eight-year tenure. So he was surprised to learn, six months later, that Shumlin wouldn’t seek reelection in 2016 — and that Cohen himself might soon lose the gig he’d just scored.

“To do this job, you really need to be in it for at least four years,” says Cohen, whose sprawling Agency of Human Services encompasses half the state budget. “I was disappointed. But I could understand the political environment — and I was OK with it.”

When Shumlin leaves office next January, the gov won’t be the only one out of a job. Including Cohen, 68 agency secretaries, department commissioners and their deputies serve at the pleasure of the governor, according to Deputy Human Resources Commissioner Tom Cheney. Another dozen political staffers work directly for Shumlin on the fifth floor of the Pavilion State Office Building. All will be expected to tender their resignations before the next governor takes office, though some could be retained or rehired for other positions.

“We all have mortgages and kids and lives,” says Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson. “To be honest, we’re all thinking about it right now.”

Johnson has been through this process before — and survived. A commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation in former governor Jim Douglas’ administration, he was retained when Shumlin took office in 2011 — though demoted to deputy commissioner.

In the years since, Johnson has been promoted twice — and now holds the most powerful position in the cabinet. That’s a problem, because while he says he “wouldn’t say no” to a job with the next governor, there’s nowhere to go but down — and he recognizes that whoever replaces Shumlin will want to name his or her own administration secretary.

“I love this job, but I can’t imagine staying in it,” Johnson says, his voice growing wistful. “That’s just not how it works.”

An informal survey of top secretaries and commissioners found that a surprising number of them would like to stay put — perhaps even if Republicans Phil Scott or Bruce Lisman wrest the fifth floor from Democratic hands in November.

“If it were the right governor, I would absolutely have a conversation about staying on,” says Secretary of Natural Resources Deb Markowitz, a Democrat who herself ran for governor in 2010. “After the election, I’ll assess who the governor is and whether or not I can continue to do the good work with that governor.”

Liz Bankowski, who served as chief of staff to former governor Madeleine Kunin and managed both Kunin’s and Shumlin’s transition teams, says “there should be no assumption” that any incumbent cabinet member will keep his or her job.

“There may be some few instances, but I think the better part of governing and good governance is, you have to start over again,” she says. “Elections mean something.”

Bankowski says that principle holds true even if a fellow Democrat — such as Matt Dunne, Peter Galbraith or Sue Minter — succeeds Shumlin. Such an intra-party handoff hasn’t taken place in Vermont since 1961, when F. Ray Keyser Jr. replaced fellow Republican Robert Stafford.

It could be awkward, given the close ties between the Democratic candidates and the cabinet officials they might hire or fire. Take, for instance, Minter, who worked alongside many of them when she served as Shumlin’s deputy secretary and then secretary of the Agency of Transportation.

Asked who they might retain, none of the five gubernatorial candidates would name names. Some provided generic statements such as Minter’s promise to “seek the best qualified leaders both in the private and public sectors.” Lisman extolled his credentials “growing organizations with the help of talented managers.”

Their reticence is reasonable. There is little to be gained by alienating potential allies, becoming yoked to the Shumlin administration or appearing presumptuous.

“I am not going to measure the drapes, move my desk or select a cabinet before the voters decide if they want me to be the next governor,” Galbraith declared.

Whoever takes office next might find it more appealing to retain the cabinet’s apolitical appointees — particularly those who have worked their way up from civil service positions — or those who inhabit less sensitive realms, such as the AOT or Agency of Agriculture. They might be less likely to rehire the leadership of entities such as the Department of Vermont Health Access, which has struggled for years to fully implement the state’s health insurance exchange.

“Vermont Health Connect is a disaster, and we need to throw significant people and resources at it,” Dunne says.

Scott, who has been criticized by Lisman for voluntarily serving in Shumlin’s cabinet, says retaining incumbent officials is “certainly not off the table.” He pushes back against the notion, floated by some Democrats, that he would simply rehire Douglas’ old team.

“I’m not Jim Douglas. I’m different. And I want my administration to reflect that,” he says. “The times have changed.”

Cognizant that their time in state service may be coming to an end, some cabinet officials say they’d consider leaving early for the right job. Just last month, Housing and Community Development Commissioner Noelle MacKay stepped down to take a position with the City of Burlington.

“I certainly keep my ear to the ground, but I’m not actively pursuing jobs at this moment,” says Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross, who isn’t ruling out serving another governor. “But I’d be foolish to say that I would never entertain another job if the right thing came along between now and January of next year.”

Labor Commissioner Annie Noonan says she’s ignoring, for now, any future offers of employment.

“I told someone, ‘Call me back in December or November,’” she says. “I’ve really got so much on my plate.”

Bankowksi, the former transition chief, says she worries that fewer outsiders may be interested in serving the next governor, arguing that “the whole tone around public officials” has grown negative.

“Why would anyone want these jobs in this environment of distrust toward public officials?” she asks. “You wake up in the morning and find protesters on your lawn.”

Bankowski is referring to an incident last month during which environmental activists showed up at Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia’s Randolph home wielding chainsaws and pretending to cut down trees on his property. They were protesting his department’s support for Vermont Gas’ ongoing pipeline extension.

“When they come to my house at 6:15 in the morning, I have to tell you that was unnerving,” Recchia says. “Truthfully, I don’t think there’s a place for that in Vermont.”

But he says the incident doesn’t diminish his appetite to serve. A DEC commissioner in former governor Howard Dean’s administration, Recchia sought a job in the Douglas administration but was passed over and left government for eight years. He’s hoping his luck will improve this time around.

“I’m not planning on that, but I’ll consider that if it’s offered to me — this position or another position,” he says. “And, frankly, it doesn’t matter to me whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat that gets elected governor.”

Free Press Release

Since the Burlington Free Press hired her in January 2015, Haley Dover has covered everything from South Burlington development projects to Bernie Sanders tattoos. Last Thursday, her work graced the front page of the Freeps’ Vermont section again: this time a bylined story about a Burlington High School freshman seeking to illuminate a northern stretch of the city’s bike path.

Here’s the thing: Dover’s no longer a reporter for the paper. She left the Freeps in March to work as a spokeswoman for the state Agency of Education. And while her piece last week looked, for all intents and purposes, like a news story — with a catchy lede and a portrait of the BHS freshman in question — it wasn’t. It was a glorified press release quoting one of Dover’s new bosses, Deputy Secretary Heather Bouchey, promoting the agency’s focus on “proficiency-based learning.”

So what on Earth was it doing in the paper’s news pages?

“It is always appropriate for a daily community newspaper to run submitted content,” says Free Press publisher Al Getler. “We clearly label each piece to make it clear to the reader.”

Getler’s right that many small community weeklies fill their newsprint with press releases from the town grange or the local little league. But until recently it would have been unfathomable to think that the state’s largest daily would run state-sponsored propaganda, in full, outside its op-ed pages.

Now it’s a matter of course.

Two days after publishing Dover’s piece, the Free Press ran a “story” — again on the front page of its Vermont section — highlighting the successes of a Greater Burlington YMCA class. It was penned by none other than Y spokesman Doug Bishop. Unlike Dover, whose affiliation with the AOE was identified immediately below her byline, Bishop’s didn’t appear until the end of the piece — two pages later.

“We run submitted stories from nonprofits all of the time,” Getler says. “We value the nonprofits in Vermont and have a strong relationship with many of them when it comes to submitted content.”

It’s true that the Freeps is littered with “submitted content” from town historical societies and the like, often in the journalistic graveyard it refers to as “The History Space.” But it’s not just nonprofits that get to spin their stories in the paper’s news sections. Last December, the Freeps published a history of how Fred and Judi Danforth founded Danforth Pewter — written, in an awkward third person, by Fred Danforth himself.

“I think they thought it was a pretty good feel-good story in the middle of the holiday season,” he said at the time. “I was surprised it was on the front page, as well.”

Many of the state’s ski resorts have received similar treatment. In April, the paper published a multipage spread celebrating Q Burke Resort and its “game-changing addition” of a 116-room hotel and conference center. It was written, of course, by the mountain’s marketing manager, Jessica Sechler.

Three days after the story ran, federal and state authorities raided the resort and charged its owners with “massive” fraud, alleging that they built the game-changing resort with pilfered money. Sechler said at the time that the Free Press approached her about submitting such a story — and then offered her “discounted ad space, which we respectfully declined.”

Getler defended the practice back then, calling it “not uncommon for a feature piece like this.”

“And it has nothing to do with whether we run the piece or not,” he said in an email. “The newsroom is NOT involved in the ad offer AT ALL.”

One would certainly hope not. But whether or not it was a shakedown, the Q Burke incident illustrates perfectly why a news organization should not allow a powerful institution — be it a deep-pocketed local business or an arm of the government — to dress up its unadulterated spin as journalism.

When we hand over our typewriters to those we’re supposed to hold accountable, we might as well give up.

Media Notes

Soon after he broke the news in March that the Department of Fish & Wildlife might euthanize an East Montpelier wood duck named Peep, WCAX-TV reporter Alex Apple went missing. He hasn’t been seen on-air since.

Was Apple disappeared by dark forces intent on silencing the duck? Did DFW Commissioner Louis Porter euthanize him?

Nah. Turns out Apple’s been in Fiji filming a new reality TV show called “Stranded With a Million Bucks.” According to MTV, which plans to air the show this fall, the premise is pretty simple: Ten cast members are stuck on an island with — you guessed it — $1 million cash. Those who last 40 days get to split whatever money they don’t spend in the meantime.

Neither Apple nor his boss, WCAX news director Anson Tebbetts, would comment on his whereabouts. But our sources say that after a couple weeks of R&R in his hometown of Nashville, Apple’s expected to return to the station later this week.

Whether he won or lost “Stranded” remains a mystery. But if he’s back to reporting on ducks in central Vermont, it may be safe to assume he’s no newly minted millionaire.