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Into the Arena: Gov. Phil Scott Confronts the Gun Issue Head-On

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Gov. Phil Scott arrives at the statehouse for the bill-signing ceremony. - JOSH KUCKENS
  • Josh Kuckens
  • Gov. Phil Scott arrives at the statehouse for the bill-signing ceremony.

It was one of the most dramatic scenes in recent Vermont history: Gov. Phil Scott striding toward the Statehouse steps on the afternoon of April 11, his wife, Diana McTeague Scott, by his side. The governor was about to sign three pieces of gun control legislation, not behind closed doors, not in the confines of his ceremonial office, but outside, in view of anyone who chose to attend.

As he became visible to the crowd, a full-throated volley of "boos" erupted from gun rights advocates, many clad in orange vests and camouflage. Almost immediately, supporters of the bills cheered intensely in an effort to drown out their counterparts.

"We expected people to express their point of view in some way," said Scott's chief of staff, Jason Gibbs. "I personally did not anticipate the level of intensity ... I've never seen anything like that in any public forum ever."

The Republican governor had become the focus of the camo crowd's anger because he had abandoned his previous opposition to any gun legislation. So why put himself, perhaps literally, right in the line of fire?

"As soon as it became clear that legislation was going to move forward, the governor immediately stated that he wanted to do it publicly," said Rebecca Kelley, Scott's communications director. "It was his decision from the start."

"I didn't want to be accused of being ashamed of my actions," said Scott. "If I'd signed the bills behind closed doors, it might have given fodder to those who accused me of being a traitor or a coward."

Like former governor Howard Dean, who chose to sign the controversial civil unions bill behind closed doors in 2000? Just sayin'.

One can only imagine the response of Scott's security detail and other members of the Vermont State Police, but "that was never going to be the deciding factor," Kelley said. "The governor had his mind made up."

A few believed the open signing was a mere publicity stunt. "Some friends of mine, and I use the term loosely, accused me of orchestrating a 'victory lap,'" Scott said. "It was nothing of the sort. It was about facing the people, because I knew I'd disappointed so many."

He also wanted to sign the three bills at the same time. S.221 allows judges to order the removal of firearms from those who are deemed an imminent threat to themselves or others. H.422 allows police to immediately remove guns in cases of domestic violence. And S.55 includes a ban on bump stocks, a limit on ammunition magazines, a minimum age of 21 for would-be gun buyers and universal background checks for gun purchases.

"I thought that having all three bills signed together was important," Scott said. "Making sure everyone heard the same thing at the same time, because there's been so much misinformation being circulated."

As a public speaker, Scott can resemble a man crossing a stream by stepping on a series of rocks — a little tentative between the bits of familiar rhetoric. But this speech was delivered with eloquence and passion. That's because, much more than usual, it came directly from Scott himself. "He penned the overwhelming majority of the content in it," said Gibbs. "That comes through in the authenticity of the content."

The governor's wife rarely appears at gubernatorial events. "She doesn't like the limelight," Scott explained. The night before the signing, he told her that she would be welcome to attend — fully expecting her to decline. "She made the decision. She was going to leave work to come on her own, which surprised me." He said it was "absolutely" a measure of security and comfort to have her by his side.

And in case you were wondering, Scott wasn't wearing a flak jacket. Why not? Gibbs offered a simple answer: "He said 'No.'"

Scott delivered his speech from a podium high on the Statehouse steps, backed by dozens of lawmakers (almost entirely Democrats and Progressives) and members of his administration. Reporters and photographers stood in a designated area two flights down, and the audience clustered directly behind them. They had, without prompting, sorted into two camps: pro-gun advocates to the governor's right, and gun-bill supporters to his left.

Right in front of the audience was a signing table, less than 10 feet from the thin red tape separating the audience from the press. "I didn't want it to be above everyone," Scott explained. "I thought it was important that we have it down at the same level, witnessed by those who supported and those who did not."

Throughout the speech, jeers and catcalls erupted from the gun-rights section. Cries of "Traitor!" "Coward!" and less polite epithets rained down. "I've never been to an event when there was such incredible disrespect for the office," said House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero), who stood beside the governor. On a couple of occasions, Scott responded in kind. "Be careful what you're booing at here," he said, when shouts erupted after a mention of school safety. "If you want to boo on that, go ahead and boo!"

After his 25-minute address, Scott walked down to the signing table. Unbidden, the lawmakers and officials did likewise. "I was surprised that they followed me down," Scott recalled. "It was nice that they did. It wasn't planned by me."

Scott sat down to sign the bills, completely surrounded on all sides — by legislators, reporters, supporters and opponents. That must have been quite a moment for his security team — but nothing happened. The signing concluded, the governor and his wife walked away, and the crowd dispersed peacefully.

"The governor made the right call, letting the people participate," observed Johnson. "That's easy to say now. Had something gone differently, there would have been a lot of 'I told you so.'"

The openness of the event was striking. Scott made himself accessible, and vulnerable. It's in stark contrast to his first gubernatorial veto of the year, on S.103, a bill to boost regulation of toxic chemicals. His office announced it in a press release after hours on Monday night, when Scott was on an official visit to Montréal.

Which is to take nothing away from April 11, when the governor stepped forward to sign bills that were especially controversial to his political base. And Scott is fully aware that the personal and political risk is far from over. As he travels the state in what's expected to be a campaign for re-election, he will find a decidedly mixed reception at events that used to be friendlier: parades, fairs and the like.

The controversy may even force him to give up his favorite pastime: racing stock cars at Barre's Thunder Road SpeedBowl.

"I have thought about that," he said. "I'm considering what I'm going to do in the future there, because I don't want to drag politics into it. It's not fair to the fans who show up to just watch racing."

He would actually give it up? "I'm going to speak to some of my fellow racers and talk to track officials and get their perspectives," he said. "Because I don't want to turn it into a spectacle about this issue."

The closing rush of the legislative session is just beginning, and there will be disputes aplenty in the days to come. Scott is openly opposed to at least a dozen bills that may reach his desk, which would make for a truly epic faceoff with the Democratic legislature. But let's not forget a rare moment when principle eclipsed politics, and courage trumped expediency.

The Republican Rift

A few hours before the signing ceremony, the Vermont Republican Party launched a new slogan: "Make Vermont Great Again," in garish orange letters on a green background. It was a clear echo of President Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan. In message and in timing, it seemed a direct shot at the party's top Vermont officeholder, who is no fan of The Donald.

Scott reacted with restraint. "I'm not going to try and second-guess their strategy," he said. "It wouldn't have been something that I would have promoted myself, but I don't have any control over what they do in the party."

Really? The most successful Republican of the last decade and the party's top officeholder has no control over his own party?

That's, well, stunning.

And it's a sign that the governor and his party may be permanently alienated. Recall that last November, the VTGOP's state committee elected Trump supporter Deb Billado as party chair over Scott's choice, Mike Donohue. Things don't seem to have improved since.

Especially in view of Billado's appearance at a Statehouse gun-rights rally on Saturday. As she took the podium, an audience member shouted "We're not supporting Phil Scott!" according to a video of the event published by the Burlington Free Press.

Billado proceeded to throw her governor under the bus. "It's everyone's choice to take that to the poll," she responded. "I don't pick winners or losers. I work for the Republican Party. I work for you."

She read an excerpt from the party's platform expressing support for the right to keep and bear arms — and called on the crowd to back pro-gun legislative candidates and defeat gun-control advocates.

For instance, Rep. Martin Lalonde (D-South Burlington), who advocated for the high-capacity magazine ban.

"Who is here from South Burlington today?" she said.

Someone shouted "Run against Lalonde!"

"That's right," said Billado.

"Get him out of here!" cried another voice.

"That's right, absolutely," said Billado.

"He's a California scoundrel to boot!" came a shout.

"Absolutely," said Billado, endorsing the nativist "true Vermonter" sentiments of many gun-rights advocates. (Lalonde was born in California but grew up in Alpena, Mich., a small northern city in the heart of hunting and fishing country.)

It was straight out of the "Make Vermont Great Again" fundraising email, which bemoaned the state's lost status as a "true bastion" of conservative values, now "co-opted by the liberal elite" who are bent on "stripping away every right and freedom that Vermonters hold dear."

The contrast with Scott couldn't have been more explicit. "The lack of civility and respect is going to be our undoing," he said in response to the party's Trumpian pitch. "I'm far more fearful of the political polarization than I am about anything that happens outside our borders at this point."

When asked for his thoughts on the party's direction, the governor said, "I've shown that there is a path forward for Republicans and the Republican Party, but they have to figure out if that's the path they want to go down."

Gibbs, who has served the last two Republican governors and once ran for secretary of state as a Republican, opted for subtlety.

"My mom taught me that if there is nothing nice to say, I shouldn't say anything at all," he said when asked about the party's email.

Ouch.


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