Welcome back to Fair Game. Notice anything different?
Either Shay Totten grew a beard and switched to contact lenses, or this column has a new author. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Andy Bromage, and I have the distinct honor of succeeding Shay Totten as Seven Days’ political columnist. Shay is a tough act to follow, but it’s my intention to deliver an equally satisfying weekly dose of hard-hitting, independent, investigative reporting — with a dash of attitude, of course.
So who the heck am I? I joined Seven Days as a staff writer in August 2009, after almost a decade as a reporter and editor in Connecticut (nicknamed Corrupt-i-cut for the unusually high number of politicians sent to prison. See: John Rowland, Joe Ganim, Phil Giordano). So, yes, I’m a total flatlander. But lots of Vermonters are these days. Besides, I love my adopted state!
In Corrupt-i-cut, I was a city hall reporter for the New Haven Register, editor of the New Haven Advocate, and later wrote a state politics column for the Advocate and its sister papers covering the likes of Joe Lieberman and Chris Dodd.
Here are a few fun facts about me, to help us get to know each other.
• I’m a bluegrass banjo player, and once backed up Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward singing “Goodnight Irene.”
• I’m the reigning champ of the Maple Corner amateur biathlon.
• The first time I met Gov. Peter Shumlin, he said he noticed my big nose “from across the room.” Takes one to nose one, I guess.
• My last name is pronounced BRUMM-idge, not like the French word for cheese, fromage (although I do love French cheese).
But enough about me. On to the week’s political news.
The Irene Card
Gov. Peter Shumlin’s State of the State address last week can be summed up in three words: “Irene, Irene, Irene.”
In a speech dripping with Vermont exceptionalism, Shumlin recalled the heartwarming and heartbreaking stories that emerged from Tropical Storm Irene after floods laid waste to huge swaths of the state. The governor devoted roughly three-quarters of his speech (eight out of 10 pages on the written copy) to the storm that damaged brave little Vermont and how it rebounded. He was rewarded with more standing ovations than I could count.
And with good reason. Irene was Vermont’s worst natural disaster in modern history — maybe ever — leaving seven people dead and hundreds homeless. It’s a minor miracle, and a testament to Vermonters’ resilience, that the state has repaired so much in such a short time.
It also happens that Irene is good politics for Shumlin. Like all politicians worth their salt, the governor absorbed the lessons of Hurricane Katrina that George W. Bush learned the hard way: Never get caught flat-footed when disaster strikes. In the immediate aftermath, Shumlin helicoptered into isolated communities (with the media in tow) to console victims, briefed the news media frequently, and deployed state workers and contractors to rebuild and reconnect the state.
All that appears to have insulated Shumlin against criticism of how he handled the disaster — even from his usual detractors. Echoing other Republicans, state Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin), Shumlin’s opponent in the 2012 governor’s race, reacted to the speech by saying Shumlin’s goals of universal health care and renewable energy quotas would “harm the economic recovery” in Vermont. But when it came to Irene, Brock had to give Shumlin credit, albeit tepidly.
“I think the governor’s performance during this was fine,” Brock said. “He did what governors are supposed to do.”
What else could Brock have said? In a political masterstroke, Shumlin put a high-profile Republican — former Jim Douglas administration official Neale Lunderville — in charge of coordinating Irene recovery. Criticize the gov’s flood response, and Brock would be criticizing one of the GOP’s own.
Shumlin might ride his administration’s Irene response to an easy reelection this November but for some thorny politics standing in his way. Feel-good speeches are easy. Starting with his budget address this week, Team Shumlin will have to get specific about post-Irene plans on divisive topics such as where to relocate hundreds of state workers displaced by the floods, and finding a permanent home for mental patients scattered from Brattleboro to St. Albans as a result of the forced evacuation of the Vermont State Hospital.
In a couple of months, when he’s waist-deep in post-Irene sausage-making, the governor might find standing ovations harder to get.
Three’s a Crowd?
Republican state Rep. Kurt Wright has a new nickname around the statehouse these days: “Mr. Mayor.” As he strolled the capitol’s ornate halls last week, no fewer than four people jovially addressed him that way. When they did, Wright usually just smirked and changed the subject.
Wright isn’t the mayor of Burlington yet, but his campaign seemingly got a boost toward that goal last week when longtime community organizer Wanda Hines entered the race as an independent. At a campaign kickoff at North End Studios, a block from the house she grew up in, Hines said she decided to run because Burlington deserves a mayor who represents voters who “work hard to make ends meet.”
“Clearly, that candidate has not emerged yet,” Hines said to enthusiastic applause.
Her not-so-subtle implication is that Democratic candidate Miro Weinberger doesn’t represent working-class values — a concern shared by some city Progressives. Weinberger would dispute that notion by pointing to his day job as a developer of affordable housing with the Hartland Group. But even Weinberger admits his support among working-class Old North Enders is thin.
“It’s no secret that that’s not the part of the city I live in, and I have work to do,” Weinberger told me last week after his first debate with Wright. “But I’m doing it. I have been since the start.”
A Burlington resident since 1963 and a product of its public schools, Hines comes into the race armed with a long résumé of grassroots community activism. For 12 years, she ran the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf before taking her current job heading the Social Equity Investment Project, part of Burlington’s Community and Economic Development Office, or CEDO. Her campaign material features a laundry list of civic honors and awards she has won: the Burlington College Most Distinguished Alumni award, the Women of Color Alliance award, the Vermont Heroes award and the YWCA Susan B. Anthony award, to name a few.
Her agenda? That’s less clear. At her campaign kickoff, Hines listed her top priorities as economic development, affordable housing and transportation, but offered no more details.
“I really don’t want to get into specific things [I] want to do,” she said. “As we move forward it will become more clear about what my platform will be. But, then again, I might just change the conversation or the way we do business.”
Hines’ lack of clear proposals is surprising given the financial problems facing Burlington — Hines herself called it “the most important election in 30 years” — and the short time left before voters cast ballots (less than two months). She didn’t utter a word about Burlington Telecom, the underfunded pension or a host of other issues that have dominated the campaign so far. Hines seems unconcerned about her relatively late entrance or her better-financed opponents.
“I’m playing in Wanda’s territory,” said Hines, who repeatedly referred to Weinberger as “Mario” during her kickoff. “I don’t perceive myself as the underdog at all.”
A three-way race would seemingly play to Wright’s advantage if Hines and Weinberger split left-leaning voters. Thanks to the repeal of instant-runoff voting in 2010 — an effort Wright supported — a candidate only needs 40 percent plus one to win the race. In the four-way mayor’s race of 2009, when IRV was in effect, Wright won 33 percent in the first round and 37 percent in the second round before losing to Progressive Bob Kiss in round three.
So Wright must be positively giddy about Hines’ candidacy, right?
“I’m not looking at it that way,” Wright insisted. “I think it would be really presumptuous of me to say a candidate’s entry into the race would be good or bad for me. How could I say that Wanda couldn’t win this race? I mean, six years ago, nobody thought Bob Kiss would be mayor.”
What about Weinberger? Is he sweating bullets over the Hines factor?
“No one really knows what it will do exactly,” he said nonchalantly. “I welcome her into the race. She’s an important part of this community and has been a leader for a long time.”
With Hines added to the mayoral mix, one big wild card remains: Will Progressives run a candidate and make it a four-way race? Or will they sit this election out?
Burlington Progs were left high and dry when their favored candidate, state Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden), lost to Weinberger in the Democratic caucus. The party rescheduled its nominating caucus to January 22 — presumably to buy some time to regroup.
Now that Hines has entered the fray, will the party throw its support to her? Her message is aimed squarely at the Prog “base” — working-class voters.
“Honestly, it’s too early to tell,” says Elijah Bergman, vice chair of the Burlington Progressive Party, noting Hines has never run for office. “She might be that person. There might be a Progressive candidate that talks about those issues in a better way. We’re leaving that door open.”
One Prog who was considering a run will not be a candidate for mayor: City Councilor Vince Brennan (P-Ward 3) is dealing with personal issues and will not run, Bergman said. Who else might be considering a run? Bergman wouldn’t say.
Meanwhile, Weinberger is working to build a coalition of Ds and Ps for the general election. Last week, he scored the endorsement of former Burlington mayor Peter Clavelle, who served seven terms — six of them as a Progressive, one as a Democrat/Progressive.
Clavelle will have to vote absentee in the March election, though. His job with Burlington-based Tetra Tech ARD is taking him to Albania at the end of January for a five-year stint working on a USAID-funded local governance project.
How do you say “Vote for Miro” in Albanian?
(Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly.)