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Governor Jim Douglas?

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The times are indeed a-changin’ and, so far in the 21st century, no one can make a good case as yet that they’re changing for the better.

Take the new trend in American politics in which the second-highest vote-getter on Election Day ends up the winner.

George W. Bush pulled that one off in grand style with the help of the five U.S. Supreme Court justices who halted the Florida recount. They remembered who brung ’em to the bench, and the silver medalist got to take home the gold.

Guess what?

Vermont Republicans are poised to play follow-their-leader.

Last week we reported on the recent ORC Macro Poll that showed the Democratic candidate for governor, Doug Racine, holding an 11-point lead (35-24) over his Republican rival, Jim Douglas. Independent King Con Hogan got 7 percent.

But we’ve since learned of two other recent “non-public” polls by the political parties themselves. And they show the race to be a bit tighter.

Our sources say that a recent Democrat Party poll showed Mr. Racine’s lead is in single rather than double digits — 37 percent-30 percent.

A Republican Party poll that, unlike the Ds’ poll, included the Prog candidate, came back with Slim Jim of Middlebury and the Quiet Man of Richmond neck-and-neck. Racine finished first by a whisker, with Michael Badamo getting 3 percent.

Let’s face it, nobody’s predicting a landslide at this point. Neither Racine nor Douglas is a fire-in-the-belly type. They’re just a couple of nice guys, the sort you wish your little sister dated. But unless Mr. Racine breaks the 50-percent threshold, there’s a darn good chance he won’t be moving into the Fifth Floor of the Pavilion Building come January. Instead, Jim Douglas will.

You heard it here first.

The fact is, Slim Jim Douglas represents the last, best hope for the Vermont GOP to grab the governor’s office in the forseeable future. The Republican Party’s statewide talent pool is, shall we say, extremely understocked. Meanwhile, the Democrat Party bench is overstocked with talented wannabes.

If the Republicans don’t take the Fifth Floor this November, it will remain in Democrat control for another decade. Quite simply, it’s now or never!

Fast forward to the evening of November 5. The votes are counted. Mr. Racine comes out on top with 47 percent of the popular vote. Mr. Douglas is five points back at 42 percent. Hogan scoops up 7 percent and the Progs and fringe parties divvy up the final 4 percent. Racine wins, right?

Wrong.

Republican National Committeeman Skip Vallee made it perfectly clear this week that under the hallowed Vermont Constitution, “The selection of governor would be made at the discretion of the legislature.”

And, barring a miracle, the Republicans are confident that they’ll hold a significant majority in the House, while at least finishing up on the heels of the Democrats in the Senate. That means that more than 90 of 180 seats under the golden dome will surely have Republican derrières occupying them. Come secret-ballot time, it’s impossible to imagine Speaker Walter Freed, the Duke of Dorset, handing Doug Racine the keys to the kingdom.

To the Republican eyes of Gasoline Vallee, that would present a horrific political landscape. He described it as one that includes Elizabeth Ready running the auditor’s office. Ed Flanagan running the treasurer’s office. Former State Sen. Dick McCormack as environmental secretary. Former State Rep. Sally Fox in charge of Human Services. And Assistant Attorney General Julie Brill calling the shots as the new banking commissioner.

“The Republicans in the legislature,” Mr. Vallee assured us, “will do what’s best for Vermont.”

Oh, sure, Democrats and others will scream bloody murder. They’ll say the election was stolen, that the voice of the people was ignored. But guess what, folks?

It’s all kosher under our Green Mountain Constitution. And it’s even been done in Vermont’s political past, noted Gasoline Vallee, back in the good old 19th century.

A second-place coup is a genuine possibility. That’s why Mr. Racine has been steadily making the case for all candidates to publicly agree ahead of time that the top vote-getter should get everyone’s blessing. The Quiet Man trumpets the ethically pure example of Republican Barbara Snelling, who graciously conceded the super-tight 1998 Lite-Gov race to Racine. Dougie just squeaked to victory that year with 48.6 percent and a 1129-vote “cushion.”

Anyone who thinks Jim Douglas would pull a Barbara Snelling is fooling themselves. If Slim Jim loses this one, he’ll be relegated to Vermont’s political compost heap. In fact, we’re hearing Republicans talk about crossing over to vote in the Prog primary to guarantee Michael Badamo a spot on the November ballot. Even if he only gets 3 percent in November, they reason, that’s 3 percent coming out of Racine’s hide. Every vote counts.

And while there may be “precedent” for the legislature picking the #2 vote-getter, one leading Democratic operative told Seven Days, “You don’t need to go back to the 19th century.”

Luke Albee, chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, said one has to look no further than the 1986 election in the Philippines. “Despite the fact Ferdinand Marcos lost the popular vote that year to Corazon Aquino,” said Mr. Albee, “he decided he was just going to remain in power.”

Cool. Jim Douglas plays Ferdinand Marcos! That certainly can’t hurt Mrs. Douglas’ footwear collection.

Mary Fanny Update — Chainsaw Liz Ready, our indefatigable Democratic state auditor, just couldn’t resist jumping into the Fletcher Allen Health Care (FAHC) dust-up. It was only a matter of time. Chainsaw got The Burlington Free Press to carry her water Monday. In a rather convoluted story, Ms. Ready raised her concerns about possible improper spending of hospital bond funds on parking-garage design work. Hey, if there’s an angle to be found, Elizabeth will find it.

The following day, fellow Democrat and Lite-Gov. candidate Peter Shumlin of Putney called “time out,” suggesting Chainsaw and other public officals “who are not involved in the investigation,” stop “fueling the flames” and butt out.

Putney Pete knows Chainsaw Liz well from their days in the State Senate. Sen. Shumlin suggested Auditor Ready let the investigations by the U.S. attorney and the Vermont attorney general take their course.

Shummy called the leadership of tarnished FAHC CEO Bill Boettcher, “an embarrassment to all Vermonters.” Mr. Shumlin also told Seven Days, “Boettcher should resign, or the board should fire him immediately.”

Boss Boettcher, as you know, has been placed on administrative leave with pay. What you might not know is that Mr. CEO has demanded and received downtown office space and a secretary at hospital expense. It was part of his administrative leave agreement, we’re told.

Hey, a College Street office sure beats an office on the hill, especially at lunchtime. Plus, he’s closer to the Nickelodeon. Movies are a great way to fill those idle hours when one is under investigation.

Deanwatch 2004 — Like the cattle herd on “Rawhide,” the nascent Howard Dean for President campaign keeps “rolling, rolling, rolling.”

Next week, the Dean Team moves into new quarters on the corner of College and St. Paul streets in Burlington. Dean for America will occupy office space over Vermont Pub & Brewery. Apparently Dean’s political director, Kate O’Connor, was unaware until we told her that they’ll be on the same floor as the Jim Douglas for Governor Campaign.

Small world, eh?

Sunday night Ho-Ho was all over C-Span with a candid 90-minute report on his campaign travels in New Hampshire shot on August 18. There was plenty of gripping and grinning, but viewers also got to hear exactly what Ho-Ho’s telling ’em on the campaign trail. And Mr. Straight Talk was mighty impressive.

On health-care costs, Dean bit the bullet and told the audience he has met the enemy and it is us.

“We can all agree that health-care costs are killing us,” said Ho-Ho. But if a family member gets sick, he said, “We want everything done and we expect somebody else to pay for it. And that somebody else is the insurance companies.”

Dean told the Granite Staters that back home in Vermont a local business leader had complained bitterly to him about rising health-insurance premiums.

“The same business person,” noted Ho-Ho, “sits on the board of a local hospital and just voted in favor of a $100-million expansion program.”

Actually, FAHC’s expansion is more like $235 million. And might Dr. Dean have been using IDX CEO and Mary Fanny trustee Richie Tarrant as a campaign prop?

But Dr. Dean saved his best for foreign policy. In impressive, concise fashion, he dramatically connected energy policy, trade policy and defense policy together like peas in a pod.

“This administration doesn’t get the fact that the World Trade Center buildings were blown up using American money,” said Dean, with fire in his belly and fire in his voice.

“We gave a ton of oil money to the Saudis. The Saudis used some of our money to buy off their religious radicals and pay for the madrasas, the Islamic fundamentalist schools which teach people to hate Christians, Jews and Americans. Those are the recruiting grounds for Osama bin Laden,” said Dean. And it’s all happening, he declared, “because we don’t have a decent renewable energy policy in this country and we need one.”

Our favorite presidential hopeful boldly stated that his notion of foreign policy is “180 degrees different” from President Bush’s. “The president has said we should not engage in nation-building. I think we have to engage in nation-building.”

He pointed to the Marshall Plan — “the most successful foreign-policy initiative in the history of the United States” — under which we rebuilt Europe after the devastation of World War II.

“We took a continent that had been at war for a thousand years,” said Ho-Ho, “and only 60 years later, after 1000 years of continuous warfare, we have 12 countries that now share a common currency.”

“A strong defense,” he said, “is not just about well-trained soldiers and guns and bombs. A strong defense is about building middle-class democracies where women are fully entitled to participate in society. Middle-class democracies,” he said, “do not go to war with one another.”

Five years ago, when yours truly first started tracking Howard Dean’s road to the White House, no shortage of folks informed us we were full of horse manure. In recent weeks quite a few have stepped forward to apologize for earlier insults and congratulate us for prescience.

Today, we’re saying our favorite presidential hopeful is not just in the race, but very much a “live” horse. Howard Dean can win this sucker. He’s got more smarts and bigger cohones than his inside-the-beltway opponents combined.

And that was highlighted this week in The Guardian, a major British newspaper that identified Vermont’s governor as the leading voice of the opposition to the “scripted dumbness” and “incoherent nationalism” of President George W. Bush.

“[Dean] does not yet have big money,” writes The Guardian’s Hugo Young. “He comes from the wrong kind of state — though both Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter made it from small constituencies, and four of the past five presidents have been governors, not senators. Possibly Howard Dean’s greatest virtue is that he can speak. He has a voice. It is orderly, clear and unagonised. It says if you want an alternative that is truer than Bush to the great American dream of standing for a better world, here he is. There are worse beginnings for a candidacy.”

Amen.

Nice Touch — Yippee! The “Leapfroggers” statue returned to Burlap’s Church Street Marketplace Monday, restored and strengthened after a cowardly assault. Everyone’s an art critic when it comes to the Church Street fixture. Some like it, some don’t. Great!

But one unheralded event on Church Street the other day deserves a unanimous round of applause. A gang of teen-age boys suddenly descended on the Marketplace during midday on an unusual mission. Armed with mops and brooms and garbage bags, they proceeded to put a shine on the city’s downtown pedestrian thoroughfare.

The name of the gang?

The Burlington High School football team. Apparently, first-year head coach and retired Burlington police officer Jim Marrier believes it is in giving that one receives. Go, Seahorses!

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