For fans of Democratic gubernatorial challenger Scudder Parker, the final week of the legislative session was painful to watch.
Already considered a long shot this fall in a head-to-head against Vermont's premier career politician, Mr. Parker's shot appeared to get even longer when Republican Gov. Jim Douglas took over the spotlight in the closing days of the session.
In a dazzling display of political mastery and experience, Gov. Douglas got the Democratic leadership to bend so far on their over-hyped health-care reform bill that he'll be able to claim the legislation as his very own! Way to go, Democratic leadership!
You see, the biggest weakness of the Vermont Democratic Party is that it operates as if one hand has no clue what the other is doing.
It hurt serious reform advocates to watch the Democratic leadership of rookie House Speaker Gaye Symington and veteran State Sen. Peter Welch, the wannabe congressman, simply bend and bend on the party's already-watered-down bill.
One can imagine the Douglas TV spots this fall in which our Republican governor will brag about standing up to the "extremists" as Vermont's true champion of sustainable health-care reform!
In the end, the top Ds didn't have the political spine to go home to the voters with a second consecutive gubernatorial veto on health care.
Two years ago, rebounding from the civil-unions backlash, the Democrats took back the House by promising Vermonters they would deliver on real health-care reform. When Rep. Gaye Symington of Jericho moved into the Speaker's chair, spirits were high. But the Democrats learned from last year's gubernatorial veto that the "real" reform they're talking about simply cannot happen as long as Republican Jim Douglas is governor.
This year the Democrats lowered their sights and dedicated themselves to passing modest legislation that Gov. Scissorhands would sign. They behaved like good little boys and girls, hoping the Big Daddy in the governor's chair would finally give them his blessing.
As the endgame unfolded, Gov. Scissorhands played the Democrats like a violin. Every time they bent as far as they said they could go, Jimbo made them bend a little more. It was clear who was in charge at crunch time, and it wasn't the Democratic legislature, folks.
Many rank-and-file Democrats had welcomed a second consecutive Douglas health-care veto. It would have made the stakes perfectly clear for voters in November and given a big boost to Scudder Whatshisname's uphill campaign.
But the leadership behaved as if there is no November election. As if Jim Douglas is king of Vermont rather than just a governor serving a two-year term.
"I think a lot of people wanted a veto," conceded Douglas' top political advisor Neale Lunderville. "But this is one of the governor's great strengths -- the long-term view." Lunderville said the last-minute health-care deal was a trademark example of Douglas' "patience and common sense."
"The governor said we can stay at the table and make this happen," said Neale. "He kept them right there until he got what he needed, and they got what they needed." Lunderville called it a "true compromise."
"Inside Track" suggested it was more than that, perhaps a stroke of true genius? After all, we asked, hasn't Gov. Douglas just taken health-care reform, the Democrats' top issue, off the table as far as the fall election goes?
Lunderville didn't say a word. He didn't have to. He just chuckled on the other end of the phone line.
All we could do was chuckle along with him.
Why the Democrat cave-in, you ask?
Well, a possible explanation is that Sen. Welch desperately wants to get elected to the U.S. House and is aware of the Guv's popularity. Or is it Welcher's desire not to offend the business community that Guv. Scissorhands represents? Or maybe a little of both, eh?
As for Speaker Symington, longtime observers just shake their heads. Unlike her predecessors, she doesn't appear to have hardball politics in her blood. She shows no awareness of the fact that, in politics, the action is in the reaction.
A second gubernatorial veto on health care is just what the Democrats needed to fire up the party faithful, as well as independents, who so far have trusted Jim Douglas. A second Scissorhands veto would have clearly demonstrated that our current governor is Vermont's leading protector of the private health-insurance industry and the number-one roadblock to the real reform the Democrats were elected to deliver in 2004.
With the Statehouse dust settling this week, we asked Parker the challenger how it felt to get sold out on health care by his fellow Ds?
"They were not focused on my campaign, or what I was doing, and I think that's probably appropriate," said Scudder. "They have to do what they can do as the current sitting legislature trying to deal with a governor who is intransigent in terms of any structural reform of health care."
He has a way with words, doesn't he?
But Democratic leaders, we noted, behaved like they had forgotten what they all said one year ago after the first Douglas veto -- that real reform could not happen with Jimbo on the Fifth Floor.
Parker took a deep breath. He knows full well the Democratic cave-in on health care has seriously downsized what once was his top campaign issue.
"Here's what I'll say," replied Scudder. "I think the legislature has dragged Jim Douglas absolutely as far as he will go on health care. If people of this state believe there's more change needed, or a different approach to change needed, then you need to elect me."
Despite press coverage touting the bill as some kind of historic reform legislation, Parker says it does nothing for "the epidemic of under-insurance."
"And I bring the awareness," he added, "that health care tied to your employment status does not make sense. It is anti-business. It is inequitable and creates all kinds of strange behaviors in the marketplace. It does not make sense as a policy for this state."
Scudder may well be right, but the question is, who will be listening?
Boy Wonder Departs -- Top gubernatorial aide and political strategist Neale Lunderville, 31, departs the Guv's side this week for a new job in Boston with Pfizer Pharmaceuticals.
The Burlington native and American University grad hit the political bricks as the Vermont GOP's executive director in February 2001 -- just three weeks before U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords left the GOP.
The following February, State Treasurer Jim Douglas asked Neale to sign on as his gubernatorial campaign manager. "And we had a heck of a good time," Lunderville said with a laugh.
Early on, Lunderville went to Washington, where he recruited a certain White House aide named Jim Barnett to be his campaign deputy. The two twentysomethings clicked, and the rest is history.
The voters thought that after nearly a dozen years of Democratic rule, "The state was heading in the wrong direction," said Lunderville. The Douglas agenda of "more jobs and the need for change resonated with people."
In his travels around the country, Lunderville said people "are shocked to hear" that Vermont, the state of Howard Dean, has a Republican governor (and lieutenant governor and state auditor).
Barnett, at 30 the youngest GOP state chairman in the nation, remembers their first meeting over cheeseburgers at The Bottom Line, a restaurant near the White House. "Neale seemed to be a smart and savvy guy," recalled Barnett. "Neither of us had experience running a campaign, but we agreed that it shouldn't be rocket science."
Turned out, it wasn't.
Lunderville, who's made friends on both sides of the aisle, ran Douglas' reelection campaign in 2004, but he won't be around this time. Barnett said Gov. Douglas "is in pretty good shape, but when somebody of Neale's talents isn't around anymore, it's always cause for concern."
P.S. Lunderville said he expects to return to the Vermont political scene one day, hinting it could be as a candidate. Oh, boy!
Strange Race, Indeed -- State Sen. Mark Shepard of Bennington, one of the nicest "conservatives" you'll ever meet, was the only one of three scheduled Republican congressional candidates to show up Monday morning for a one-hour debate on WVMT radio in Colchester.
Martha Rainville, the ex-National Guard general who was barely a nose ahead of Shepard in last week's Ch. 3 poll, let everyone know ahead of time she wasn't coming.
But Denny Morrisseau's no-show was a surprise. More on that later.
There will be a "straw poll" on Saturday at the GOP state convention in Barre. Rainville, the choice of party bosses, is expected to clean up. But after recent gaffes over a possible resignation by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Marvelous Martha has been laying low. Even her campaign website -- http://www.martharainville.com -- has been real quiet. No press releases in a month!
Sen. Shepard, by the way, did a fine job on WVMT. He's not an "all things to all people" kind of politician. He speaks plain English and isn't afraid to let folks know where he stands.
One caller expressed the views of many, telling the Bennington state senator he was a "breath of fresh air" because he was "crystal-clear" on his positions, unlike "wishy-washy Martha."
The congressional race is a biggie. Two more years of one-party rule will be disastrous. In that context we asked Shepard a "hypothetical" question: What would you do to a president who took the country to war based on lies?
"Well, I'm not going to answer that for you, OK?" replied Shepard, who then proceeded to do just that.
"Obviously," said the GOP hopeful, "there's some people who feel it was a lie. Some people who feel it was based on misinformation. I don't think I'll answer that, if it's OK with you, because I don't know that it was a lie. OK?"
We kept our mouth shut and Shepard just kept going.
"There certainly was misinformation," he conceded. "I don't think there's any question about that. But that's different than someone volitionally going forward on a lie, and that hasn't been shown to my satisfaction at this point."
Where's Denny? -- GOP candidate Morrisseau has been flooding reporters' email boxes for months with press releases and attention-grabbing statements. But Denny hasn't gotten much coverage. The mainstream press apparently sees him as "out there on the fringe."
Morrisseau informs "Inside Track" this week that he did not attend the WVMT debate, or two other radio "debates" this week, because Shepard arranged them and he had questions about the format. Also, they were all "up north" -- a long drive from Morrisseau's current residence in West Pawlet.
Instead, Denny says his focus has been on preparing for this Saturday's GOP convention in Barre, where for a $500 fee he'll get what he calls "a seven-minute whack at 600 to 1000 GOP bigwigs and the media."
Whatever. But one thing is clear -- candidate Morrisseau is certainly a different kind of Republican.
On his campaign website -- http://www.2ltmorrisseau.com -- he describes himself this way: "I'm an old war horse and a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from Vermont who believes we must impeach Bush and Cheney, and we must remove the neoconservative cabal from power."
Ah, yes, there's only one Dennis Morrisseau.
You see, Denny's first political splash was way back in the late 1960s. The Burlington native was a U.S. Army lieutenant. He refused orders to go to Vietnam, the Iraq of its time. Big splash in Time magazine. Denny ended up with an honorable discharge and came home to Vermont.
Morrisseau's first run for office was for Congress on the fledgling lefty, antiwar Liberty Union ticket in 1970. He received 2.8 percent of the statewide vote.
That was a decade before Burlington went through the "change." The change from a tiny town on New England's forgotten "west coast" to the new frontier of American politics. Where the notion of a "livable" urban existence was symbolized by Church Street's transformation from a busy street to an outdoor pedestrian mall.
Leunig's, on the corner of Church and College streets, was part of that cultural change. Denny and then-wife Laura Thompson opened it on Mother's Day, 1980. Ten months later, Bernie Sanders won the mayor's race by just 10 votes.
Morrisseau sold Leunig's in 1995. The joint's never been the same since, that's for sure.
Tarrant Flip-Flop? -- A lot of political observers were laughing this week after viewing Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rich Tarrant's new TV spot.
You see, in last week's campaign commercial, Richie Rich told viewers "Congressman Sanders wants the federal government to run your health care."
Sanders called it a "lie."
Now, in his latest TV spot, Tarrant tells viewers, "I believe that all Americans should be covered by health insurance and I would expand Medicare to make that happen."
But Richie, Medicare is a federal program run by the federal government. What have you been smoking?
This week candidate Tarrant is holding meetings around the state with Vermont physicians. And in his latest spot, Tarrant touts his "35 years experience in health care."
Of course, Richie's experience has been in developing and selling computer software to manage medical billing. He's become a fabulously wealthy man, but we don't think he's ever been near a bedpan.