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Dave Gram Political Columnist

Grand Old Parting? Riot at U.S. Capitol Exposes Rifts in the VTGOP

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
TIM NEWCOMB
  • Tim Newcomb

For the Vermont Republican Party, recovery from last week's events in Washington, D.C., may take a long time — if it happens at all.

While the New York Times reports that President Donald Trump's divisiveness and incitement of violence have brought the national GOP "close to a breaking point," longtime fissures in the Vermont party have deepened into a chasm.

On one side stands Gov. Phil Scott, who, after the riot last week at the U.S. Capitol, put the blame for the unrest on Trump's shoulders. Scott, long a critic of the president, called for him to "resign or be removed from office by his Cabinet, or by the Congress." 

On the other stand 16 Republican members of the Vermont House and one newly minted senator, Russ Ingalls (R-Essex/Orleans). They voted against a legislative resolution that borrowed the governor's language and called for Trump's ouster.

"Donald Trump did not say to these people to go storm the capital [sic]," Ingalls wrote in a statement. "This Resolution was a political statement to cause as much harm as it possibly could to all Republicans, and Trump specifically. It was a hate filled, poorly written, vile document that was unworthy of anyone's signature."

There you have it, folks: Vermont's newest Republican state senator calling language used by its Republican governor — and then borrowed by lawmakers for use in their anti-Trump resolution — "hate filled" and "vile."

When my spouse subscribed to Ladies' Home Journal years ago, the magazine ran a regular feature called "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" It felt like too much information at times, because it laid bare private relationships and really got into the nuts and bolts, as in: Is she going to bolt from this nut?

For the VTGOP, the marriage between moderates and conservatives has hit the rocks. That may not mean the union is over, but some pretty tough couples counseling lies ahead. 

The rift has been evident for decades. Former Republican governor Jim Douglas traces the split all the way back to the fight between the conservative Proctor wing of the party and the moderate Gibson-Aiken faction, in the days when Vermont Democrats were so scarce that GOP politics were just about the only politics around. In the 1946 primary, moderate Ernest W. Gibson Jr. beat incumbent Republican governor Mortimer Proctor in a hard-fought race — then went on to beat the Democrat with 80 percent of the vote. 

Vermont Republicans have had a successful history, especially since the rise of a strong Democratic opposition in the 1960s, of papering over these divisions, which perhaps gives evidence they could do so again. 

"I'm an optimist," Douglas said. "We've always felt we're a big tent or a big umbrella ... There's always been an ideological diversity within the Vermont Republican Party. I think we can do fine."

But Douglas' big tent clearly had a hole in it as of Tuesday afternoon, when Seven Days' Kevin McCallum reported that two Republican House members were demanding the resignation of state party chair Deb Billado, who has been a staunch Trump supporter. 

Reps. Scott Beck (R-St. Johnsbury) and Anne Donoghue (R-Northfield) said they needed party leaders who would join most GOP lawmakers and Scott in condemning Trump.

Others on both sides of the conservative-moderate divide offered a range of perspectives on the party's future.

My own view is that coming together won't be easy. To be effective, a party needs to agree on what sorts of candidates to recruit and support, what should go into its platform, what talking points to try to get in front of the media, and so on. It looks right now like the Republicans can't decide whether to accept the results of the 2020 presidential race.

Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), who voluntarily stepped down as minority leader last week, and Sen. Corey Parent (R-Franklin) argue that when Vermont Republicans cast ballots, they vote for moderates. This was apparent in primary races just five months ago. Scott trounced John Klar, who ran well to his right, 73 to 22 percent. Scott Milne easily beat the more conservative Meg Hansen to clinch the lieutenant gubernatorial nomination.

"You've got a break between legislative, elected Republicans and, I would say, this small wing. And we saw how small it was with John Klar and Keith Stern," Benning said, naming another conservative whom Scott walloped, in the 2018 primary. 

"I think there'll be a lot of infighting in the next year, and my guess is, there'll be a group outside the party and there will be a group inside the party," said Parent. "What that will look like will remain to be seen."

But what Parent describes as a "small wing" appears to be growing. And its members have not been completely excluded from elected office. Recall the 17 lawmakers who voted no on the anti-Trump resolution last week.

It's often a party's most enthusiastic, activist and ideologically extreme members who move into its leadership positions. Witness the rise of staunch Trump supporter Billado to party chair. Notice that it was Ron Lawrence, chair of the Essex Republicans, and Ellie Martin, the Underhill GOP leader, who co-organized last week's bus trip of Vermonters to the ill-fated Trump rally.

Can the moderates keep ascendant conservatives in check? Can they shut down QAnon theories and the urge by some to see antifa behind every tree? Lawrence and Martin are among those pushing the line that the riot at the U.S. Capitol was, to use Lawrence's phrase, "instigated by our opponents," meaning antifa activists trying to make Trump and his supporters look bad. 

Baseless chatter about the election being stolen, antifa being a ubiquitous and imminent threat, and the mainstream media trying to do anything other than get the facts right won't help the GOP cause. 

And it's even clearer that more mayhem won't help. On that front, Montpelier police issued a scary statement over the weekend.

"Law Enforcement is aware of calls encouraging people to arm themselves and center at all State Capitols in the United States, to include Montpelier, specifically on the date of January 17, 2021," Montpelier Sgt. Eric Nordenson posted on Front Porch Forum. The statement also warned of a possible insurrection on January 20, Inauguration Day. "We are taking these calls extremely seriously and we are planning accordingly," Nordenson wrote.

Many Trump supporters talk up their love of the Constitution. Its very first sentence cites the need to "insure domestic tranquility." You don't have to read far into the Bill of Rights to get to the right "peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." 

Anyone packing for Montpelier on the 17th ought to answer this question: Why would you arm yourself for a peaceable assembly?

A Little Help

It's a year ending in the digit 1, which means it's time for a once-a-decade process called legislative redistricting or, a bit more formally, reapportionment. It's a tricky process whose bottom-line goal is to apportion — or dole out — legislative representation fairly, so that Vermonters have roughly equal representation in the House and Senate.

Former state representative Tom Little chaired the seven-member Apportionment Board 10 years ago and has been selected by Chief Justice Paul Reiber of the Vermont Supreme Court to do so again. The board has been meeting monthly since October.

 Little said simple math dictates that each of the 150 House members should represent about 4,200 Vermonters, and each of the 30 senators should represent about 21,000. Redistricting follows the decennial completion of the U.S. Census and is designed to respond to population shifts. 

One big challenge this time around is that the Apportionment Board and the legislature, which votes the board's recommendations up or down, will need to slice up the six-seat Chittenden County Senate district, now the largest in the country. That results from state legislation passed in 2019 saying no Senate district may have more than three members.

And an even bigger fight may ensue if the board or lawmakers try adding another Senate seat in northwestern Vermont, where population growth appears to justify it. That most likely would cost the southern part of the state, home to such heavyweights as newly installed Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) and longtime Judiciary Committee chair Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington).

Vermont only has one at-large U.S. House district and so is not subject to the pitched battles and gerrymandering that often mark redrawing of congressional districts in other states.

But things can still get complicated. In addition to simple math, Vermont law sets other goals for redistricting. Preserving existing political subdivision lines — towns, school districts, counties — is one. Economic and social ties, such as when residents of one town shop and seek medical care in a larger, neighboring town, are additional factors. 

Another factor, codified in experience rather than law, is jockeying for political advantage. For example, a town where one party has a good chance of winning a legislative seat doesn't want to be paired with a larger, neighboring community where the other party dominates.

Vermont law says the Apportionment Board should have House and Senate district maps drawn by July. Towns then get time to weigh in on the House plans, but not those for the Senate. The House plan is finalized in August. Lawmakers get to make changes as they approve the plans next winter. Little said the aim is to get a reapportionment bill to the governor's desk by May 1, 2022.

There could be a wrinkle, though: A U.S. Census official told the board at its December meeting that it may not finish its work by this March, as scheduled. Little said any significant delay could force the board to ask the legislature to push back its own deadlines. Stay tuned.

A Gram of Sense

An editor suggested I devote part of this, my first Fair Game column, to an introduction, so here goes: I grew up in Massachusetts but spent 30 years covering the Statehouse in Montpelier for the Associated Press — a pretty good introduction to Vermont. 

After wrapping up my AP career at the end of 2016, I worked part time at VTDigger.org and nearly three years as host of a morning public-affairs talk show on WDEV Radio.

My hope with this column is that I'll be able to break a little news and also quiet the screaming info-glut for a few minutes and help readers think a bit more deeply about an issue or two. 

I've been called too far left by conservatives and too far right by leftists. I try to avoid "both-sides-ism" by looking for the third side of every coin, in hopes it will give me an edge. (I'm also rumored to have a weakness for puns.) 

Most of all, I'm eager for your thoughts, tips and suggestions, and would be grateful if you send them to dave@sevendaysvt.com.