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Homework Assignment

In their first face-to-face, reporters are treated to a Sweetser-Sanders exchange on welfare reform. Bernie's opponent gets the facts wrong.

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Yours truly was looking forward to this one: The first official public showdown between Bernie Sanders and Susan Sweetser at the Fairgrounds Friday morning. Surely this would be an opportunity for Susie Creamcheese to get under Ol' Bernardo's skin — confront him on naming his under-$200 donors, and steal the headlines from the No.1 socialist in American politics.

Sweetser has been talking tough — at least to the press. "What's Bernie afraid of?" has become her battle cry. But as soon as Sweetser started off Friday by holding up a picture of the farm her grandma was born on back in County Carlow, Ireland, one realized confrontation was not in the cards. It'll take a lot more than the good wishes of the Ancient Order of Hibernians to knock off Bernie Sanders.

But confrontation did occur, thanks to the resourcefulness of the local press corps. Immediately after the forum, reporters moved in and the subject of the just-passed House welfare reform bill popped up.

"It doesn't cut food stamps," insisted Sweetser. "It increases the amount of spending on food stamps over the next seven years from what we're spending today. I think its $20 billion in increased spending.

Asked again if there'd be a reduction in food stamps, she replied, "I'm told that there's not a reduction in food scamps."

Jane Sanders, who had been listening in on the impromptu press conference, quickly rounded up the congressman, who was standing just out of earshot. No one loves an argument more than Ol' Bernardo.

"If I may just jump in," said the man with the rehabilitated voice box, "let me respectfully say that both proposals [Republican and Democrat] make major, major cuts in food stamps, and the Republican proposal eliminated SSI for 300,000 disabled children. While I absolutely support welfare reform and have voted for welfare reform," said Sanders, "what you want is to get people to work, but you don't want to punish innocent children." Pretty heavy on the high ground, eh?

Sanders won the point in the campaign's first unscheduled debate. Will members of the More Punishment for Innocent Children lobby please stand up?

"I agree," answered Susie Creamcheese as the troupe of reporters turned their attention to the challenger. "Nobody wants to punish innocent children, and I hope that you all will do your research and find out was it a cut or was it not a cut."

Don't you just love homework? I remember my seventh-grade teacher, an Irish Christian Brother who believed homework was what made Christmas vacations worthwhile. He piled it on. No problemo.

The Senate is working on the House-passed welfare reform bill as yours truly is at the keyboard. The Democrats are trying to tinker with it. Unsuccessfully. But what did the House pass last week?

Maybe you're one of those lucky Americans who's never had the pleasure of proudly whipping out the little government-issued coupon booklet in the checkout line at Price Chopper. You know right off that anyone who does is a slacker, if not worse. And they've probably got a 12-pack of Labatt's, right? Just ripping off the system. It never occurs that the group depending the most on food stamps is kids.

We're the breadbasket of the world and supposedly not only at war with drugs but in the trenches fighting hunger, too. And in terms of ordinance, food stamps are as important to the war on hunger as "zero tolerance" is to the war on drugs.

Back to the homework assignment. Who was right, Sanders or Sweetser? Is it a cut or isn't it?

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the House bill will reduce the federal food stamp program by $23.4 billion dollars over seven years. The food-stamp program takes the biggest hit of any and doesn't include the $33 billion cut out of child nutrition programs as part of this historic welfare-reform legislation. The figure does include all food-stamp reductions, including those achieved by making most legal immigrants (damn foreigners) ineligible for food stamps. Only 2 percent of the projected savings to Uncle Sam would come from reducing fraud and abuse.

The bill originally would have limited "able-bodied" folks without kids to four months of stamps per year if they don't work. Mercifully, that wasn't good enough for the Contract with America team. The Republicans amended the bill on the floor last week. Now it's three months of food stamps for life. Period.

Look, no matter where you stand — whether you're a Save the Poor bleeding-heart liberal with 10 shares of Ben & Jerry's or a Make Da' Bums Work taxpayer with a mortgage and college tuition on the front burner, the fact is that Susan Sweetser flunked this one. She said "Do your research," and we did.


Short Memory Needed — Politics is a war of words. And one of the rules most dreaded by pols is "only you are responsible for what you say" Everybody knows the feeling, "Boy, I sure wish I didn't say that!" But it's much worse in the spotlight. Just ask John Gropper, the Rochester business consultant running for governor again. He was in attendance at Halley Barbour 's press conference at the Sheraton last week showing signs of a wound sustained the previous Friday night. On ETV's reporters round table, Jack Hoffman had the audacity to remind folks what Gropper said two years ago on the night he lost the Republican primary to David Kelley. In a moment he'd gladly erase from living memory, John attributed his defeat to the low intelligence of the average Vermont voter. Now, forget it.


Real Estate Bulletin — The Sanders for Congress campaign appears to have gotten a pretty good deal on their campaign headquarters on lower College Street. They've rented the old Vanguard Press offices. (Probably performed an exorcism.) It's 2000 square feet at $800 a month. It's a first floor and has a leaky basement. Class B property. Let's see, that's $4.80 a square foot. Good deal. Most Class B downtown office space is in the $8-$10 range, according to realtors we talked to.

Sweetser for Congress has a pretty good deal, too. In fact, a great deal. It's located in a couple offices in the rear of Montpelier's distinguished Barber & Lanier Funeral Home on Main Street. The owner is Jimmy Johnston, a guy who's been around Vermont politics for a long time, primarily under the Jim Jeffords banner. His daughter, Darcie Johnston, is Sweetser's campaign manager. All in the family, you know.

There's about 600 square feet, according to Jimmy, and the rent is ideal. See, it's an in-kind campaign contribution priced for federal reporting purposes at $150 a month. Class A property on State Street with parking. Let's see, chats about $3 a square foot, and the total won't even come close to the $2000 individual contribution cap. Montpelier realtors we contacted say Class A, first floor with parking goes for $10-$14 a square foot. Nice.

It looks even better at the Sweetser campaign's new Church Street Marketplace location in Burlington. Second floor above Fremeau's Jewelers. It's 2,600 square feet, handicap accessible and air-conditioned. And it's also free, since, according to Sweetser press secretary Audi Zentz, its an in-kind campaign contribution from Warren and Evelyn Wood of Burlington.

How much? we asked.

"It will not exceed the legal limit, guaranteed Zentz, who added, "we haven't sat down and done the math."

Get ready for some pretty funny arithmetic.

Inside Track contacted owner Warren Wood. Mr. Wood declined to discuss his generous campaign contribution, so we can't tell you what the rent normally is. Mr. Wood made it clear that it is his policy not to comment on tenants. "That's their personal business," said Wood. Then he hung up.

Bye, bye.

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