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Let the Games Begin!

Inside Track


Published January 10, 2001 at 6:49 p.m.

The Vermont Legislature returned last week to kick off the first biennium of the Third Millennium in the crucible of our beloved political democracy. But a couple of the biggest stories never made the darn papers.

In the Senate, before the gavel even fell, two distinguished members of the ever-expanding Senate Granny Caucus collided in an Opening Day heavyweight turf battle.

And over in the House, the brand new Speaker of the House became the first Speaker in Vermont history to get locked inside his own office!

The Senate Granny Caucus, composed of Sens. Jean Ankeney, 78, and Janet Munt, 77, both Chittenden County Democrats, grew by 50 percent last week as they were joined by the only Republican to win a seat from Chittenden — Barbara Snelling, 72. Babs was the first to arrive in the 30-seat chamber last Wednesday morning, and she promptly parked herself in Seat 7, the prime, inside aisle seat in the front row.

Later, Granny Ankeney arrived and saw Granny Snelling settling in. Granny Ankeney told Seven Days Granny Snelling “had unpacked her things and appeared firmly entrenched” in Seat 7.

Sen. Ankeney said she informed Sen. Snelling that she was the senior member from Chittenden. And had decided on the way down that morning that she would occupy Seat 7 in the coming session. Get out of my seat, Babs!

Granny Snelling said she pointed out to Granny Ankeney that Seat 7 had been occupied by Republican Sen. Helen Riehle in the previous session. Babs also noted that a few years before, when Republicans were in the majority, it had been her own seat.

So much for nostalgia.

“Feeling my anger rising,” Sen. Ankeney said, “I decided to leave the chamber” to cool off a little.

As the remainder of the delegation arrived, the Great Granny Clash was all the buzz. A consensus was reached to allow the senior senator from Chittenden, Sen. Ankeney, to make the seating assignments. She did.

Ankeney got Seat 7. Snelling was assigned to Seat 12, the seat farthest away at the other end of the aisle.

“She has seniority,” Sen. Snelling told Seven Days. “That made the difference.”

“If she had not been so aggressive,” said Sen. Ankeney, “I would have given the seat to her.”

Sen. Ankeney told us she “felt miserable all day long” about the morning turf battle between Senate Grannies. In fact, Granny Ankeney later expressed a grandmotherly preference that the story of the Great Granny Clash not make it into this week’s edition.

Sorry, Grandma.

Over in the House, the new Republican Speaker Walter Freed displayed a bit of surprising gamesmanship as he took the mound on Opening Day. Walt’s first pitch was a wicked curve ball that some say had a little wad of spit across the seams. Speaker Freed proudly took the gavel and promptly offered Democrat minority leader John Tracy the unheard-of privilege of picking two Dems for each of the 14 House committees. Tradition dictates it is the Speaker alone who determines committee assignments. To the victor go the spoils.

Walter the Bipartisan, who keeps his cards close to his vest, kept both John-John and the GOP leadership in the dark about his little surprise spitter until shortly before the big opening speech.

Though The Burlington Free Press lavished praise on Walt the Salt for this “generous” offer, John-John & Co. and many others saw it for the “exploding cigar,” “live hand grenade” or “Trojan Horse” it really was. If John-John had accepted, he would have had to play Noah. For every two Democrats Tracy pleased, he’d piss off three or four. No thanks.

Republicans just hoped that, in the future, Walt the Salt will consult a few lieutenants before throwing another curve ball like that one.

But Walt the Salt’s big thrill didn’t come until the following evening. That’s when he and the House Republican leadership managed to get locked inside the Speaker’s exclusive corner office.

According to Rep. John Labarge, the majority leader, he, Walt and Rep. Connie Houston, the whip, were working late on committee assignments. Around quarter to 11, he said, they decided to call it a night. As the trio exited the inner office, they discovered the sliding glass door on the outer office locked tight. And there was no way to unlock it from the inside, said Leader Labarge.

Security-conscious Dave Janawicz, the one-man Statehouse Secret Service Brigade, had made the rounds earlier and locked everything up tight. He didn’t realize Walt & Co. had returned after dinner and were slaving away behind the closed inner door.

“When our usually articulate Speaker discovered the problem,” said Labarge, “He said ‘Oh, shit!’”

Not to worry. Labarge was able to pry open a screen on one of the windows, springing Speaker Freed into the cold, dark night. Walter walked around to a main door and used his new keys to reenter and spring his trapped mates.

Freed at last!

Family Values — The only two political lawn signs we ever saw last fall on the front lawn of Gov. Howard Dean’s residence were those of State Sen. Jim Leddy and his sister, Johanna Leddy Donovan, a candidate for the House. Both won, and it was kind of nice to see sister and brother from the old-time Burlington political family chatting it up in the Statehouse hallway. Together again!

And last Wednesday, the wife of Vermont’s only congressman was not in Washington, D.C., watching her husband get sworn in for a sixth term in Congress. That’s because Jane Sanders was in Montpeculiar, accompanied by her 85-year-old mother, Bernadette O’Meara, witnessing the swearing-in of her daughter, Carina Driscoll, as a new state representative from Burlington.

Yesterday, Speaker Freed assigned the daughter of Vermont’s congressman to the Fish and Wildlife Committee.

Nice gesture, eh?

And Rep. David Zuckerman of Burlap, chair of the four-member Progressive Caucus, is planning a traditional marriage to Rachel Nevitt, an “educator, artist and contra-dance caller,” who ran unsuccessfully for a House seat in November. No date set as yet.

Supermarket Follies Continue! — Even with the steel up and construction underway, the controversy over Burlington’s new downtown supermarket continues to boil. Let’s face it, the brouhaha in Burlap over food last year was more controversial locally than the statewide lathering over civil unions. Burlington’s Great Food Fight was a clash between vegetarians and carnivores, socialists and capitalists, local businesses and the crush of transnational corporate control of everything!

In the end, the city council unanimously gave the contract for a new downtown supermarket to the Onion River Co-Op. The loser, Shaw’s, wanted to put up a store twice as big that would have cost city taxpayers more than a million bucks. But even with construction moving ahead, The Great Food Fight continues, thanks in no small part to the efforts of our local daily.

A front-page story in The Burlington Free Press last week — “City may lend cash to coop” — kicked up a swirling cloud of hysteria. The article, by reporter Leslie Wright, informed readers City Hall was “considering” loaning the Onion River Co-op a couple hundred thousand dollars to close a financing gap.

Instantly, howling about the Progressives giving city taxpayer dollars to the commie vegetarians erupted. Down at a favorite local watering hole, yours truly was buttonholed by Prog critics demanding we acknowledged at long last that the Progs had gone too far this time.

You see, the Freeps’ article gave the clear impression the money for the loan would come out of city coffers. Merchants were wailing about public encroachment into the private sector. But guess what?

It just ain’t so.

“There was a significant piece of information that was missing from that story,” said Mayor Peter Clavelle Monday.

No kidding.

What the Freeps left out of the front-page article was where the money for the loan would come from. Turns out the bucks would come to town through a federal program designed to promote community development — not from the city treasury.

“The source of financing that was being pursued,” said Mayor Moonie, “was the HUD Sec.108 loan-guarantee program. And I think that was a very relevant piece of information to that story.”

In fact, noted CEDO Director Michael Monte, “the city would make money on the loan.” That’s because Burlap would get the buckaroos from Uncle Sam at 7 percent and loan it to Onion River at 8 percent, he said.

In fact, for decades the city has aggressively tapped federal community development funds both as grants and as loans for dozens of projects, both large and small, all over town. From Filene’s to North Street, Main Street Landing to Burton Snowboards, the Progs have mastered the art since way back when the current mayor was CEDO director in the 1980s.

“We made that point to Free Press reporters and editors,” said Clavelle, “that they had missed a very relevant piece of information. And if you look very closely in the next day’s paper, I believe there was a clarification as to the source of funding. Obviously it did not get front-page headlines, though. I think the citizen reaction to that story would have been a bit different if there had been a better explanation of the source of funding being utilized.”

Good point, Mayor Moonie.

Mr. Monte told Seven Days that Reporter Wright had told him she’d left the source of the loan money out of her story because “she said she didn’t think it was important.”

Seven Days contacted Ms. Wright by telephone at the Freeps’ newsroom Monday evening to get her side of the story. We told her what Clavelle and Monte had told us, but the city hall reporter at Vermont’s largest newspaper was not in a talking mood.

Ms. Wright told Seven Days, “I don’t have any comment.”

Why is it so many folks in the Fourth Estate, who, after all, spend their working lives asking people questions, clam up like scared little rabbits when they’re on the receiving end?

And it gets better. The day after the “clarification” ran, the Freeps ran an editorial telling the city not to loan the Onion River Co-op money anyway, even if it is a federal loan program and not local tax money! Is there a problem over at 191 College Street with locally owned businesses?

Fact is, The Burlington Free Press is not a locally owned business. The newspaper is owned and operated by a multi-national media giant — Gannett (www.gannett.com). Shaw’s is also owned by a multi-national giant — J. Sainsbury, a British-owned conglomerate (www.jsainsbury.co.uk). Shaw’s is also one of the Freeps’ regular advertising clients.

Knowing that helps to make the paper’s editorials just a little more understandable — though no more credible.

P.S. Over the holidays, other remarkable goofs by the local daily included getting the date of Hanukkah wrong. I’m not making this up. At least there was a tiny correction on that one. But no correction so far on the headline over the banner on Page 1 on January 4: “Oklahoma defeats Florida in Orange Bowl.”

Oklahoma didn’t play Florida in the Orange Bowl.

Moe, Larry and…Curley? — Republican City Councilor Kevin Curley tells Seven Days he will decide within the next two weeks about challenging Mayor Clavelle in the March election. “We’re giving it a thought,” he said.

Curley, who said he was 38 years old when the interview began, corrected himself later and said he was actually 39. He’s a BHS grad and works nights as a printer at The Offset House in Essex. Other candidates include former Prog councilor Haik Bedrosian (www.haikformayor.com) seeking another 15 minutes of fame, and John Pius Hogan, the perennial gadfly of public-access TV fame.

If Curley runs — and he can retain his council seat for another year if he loses — Clavelle will have to mount a somewhat serious campaign. Curley said da’ mayor approached him before Monday’s council meeting to remind him he (Clavelle) is “an old guy who doesn’t need to be out there knocking on doors in this kind of weather.”

Cross-country skis or snowshoes might help, Mayor. Stay tuned.

Media Notes — WPTZ-TV’s new weekend anchor spent the last seven years on the box in Austin, Minnesota. The last four years, Erin Connors was the top anchor. At least she’s right at home with cold weather. Ms. Connors is a Pennsylvania native and graduate of Shippensburg University. But Erin told Seven Days she got the TV bug in high school outside Philadelphia. The school had its own on-air TV station. Erin debuts behind the Ch. 5 anchor desk this weekend.

Meanwhile, WCAX is beefing up its solid Statehouse coverage. Ch. 3’s the only station with a Montpeculiar studio. And “Vermont’s Own” is there — every single day with home-boys Tim Lewis and Anson Tebbetts. This session WCAX is finally adding a female to the mix — hip, hip, hooray! Reporter and former morning anchor Kristin Kelley will be spending more time under the golden dome this winter. Ms. Kelley left the national desk at CBS a few years back to get some front-line experience out here in the provinces. Hard not to imagine Kristin on “Dan Rather” in a couple years.