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Bernie Sanders

Places, Everyone!

Fair Game


Published January 12, 2011 at 11:49 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

It’s official. Democrat Peter Shumlin is governor of the state of Vermont and today completes the first full week of his administration.

Vermont’s media heralded the start of the “Shumlin era” before the guy had been on the job for 24 hours. In a Twitter-driven world, I guess one week does seem like an era.

There was plenty of pomp last week, between Gov. Jim Douglas’ farewell address, Gov. Shumlin’s inaugural one and the “ball” at Sugarbush. This week, it’ll be more about “circumstance” as the legislature gets down to business.

In the next fortnight, lawmakers will hear reports on restructuring Vermont’s health care system and its tax structure. At month’s end, Shumlin will deliver his plan to close a nearly $150 million gap in the state budget.

“Our economic challenges are real, and so is my firm commitment to address them responsibly and swiftly — with hard, sometimes painful, but sustainable choices,” noted Shumlin in his inaugural speech. “There is no easy or popular path ahead.”

Sounds like he’s preparing for a short honeymoon.

At his first official press conference on Friday, Shumlin said he could save $12 million in general fund spending and perhaps $25 million in total spending. How? By taking a swing at the public employee piñata.

Shumlin and Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding announced a hiring freeze and pledged to cut roughly 250 jobs from the state payroll through attrition and retirement.

The pair hopes to renegotiate health care and retirement benefit packages, to allow workers to voluntarily cut back to four days a week and squeeze savings from $237 million in private contracts. Private contract expenditures have more than doubled under the Douglas administration.

It’s worth noting that these proposals were previously suggested by state workers and their union, the Vermont State Employees Association. The Douglas team largely rejected them, opting instead to cut more than 650 jobs from the payroll and trim pay across the board by 3 percent.

In some areas, the cuts went too deep.

As Douglas was preparing to exit, Vermont Legal Aid successfully challenged the Department of Children and Families to hire 20 new workers so people who are eligible for food stamps and other welfare benefits wouldn’t have to wait more than twice as long as usual to receive them.

Shumlin said he wouldn’t mess with the new DCF workers. The first batch of new workers began processing applications this week; the remainder will be hired by February 1.

State workers aren’t concerned about the rhetoric coming from the fifth floor. Yet.

“With Gov. Douglas, there was no desire whatsoever to save state employees from further pain, or to have any working relationship with VSEA,” said Jes Kraus, VSEA’s director. “This time, Gov. Shumlin said he wants to avoid further layoffs and pay cuts. That’s a whole different tone.”

Got Balls?

Democrats were so excited about finally winning the governor’s seat that they had to have not one but three special inaugural events. No word on how much it all cost, but private donations covered the tab.

Organizers raised roughly $55,000 from ticket sales to the inaugural ball. More than 1000 well-wishers of all political stripes came to toast the new gov Friday night at Sugarbush Resort.

Shumlin also raised at least $132,000 in $5000, $2500 and $1000 increments from corporations and private donors. Vermont’s two largest utilities — Central Vermont Public Service and Green Mountain Power — ponied up $5000 apiece, as did AT&T, FairPoint Communications, Comcast, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont and lobbying firm KSE Partners. The “K” in KSE is Shumlin’s new Banking, Insurance, Securities and Health Care Commissioner Steve Kimbell.

I’m sure these donations have nothing to do with Shumlin’s promise to reform health care, shut down Vermont Yankee or expand broadband, right?

After expenses, the inaugural events raised $50,000 for the Vermont National Guard Charitable Foundation.

The One True King

Gov. Peter Shumlin has appointed nearly all the people he needs to carry out his ambitious agenda.

I’ve been keeping track of the appointees on our staff blog, Blurt.

One key appointment hasn’t been announced publicly, though: chairman of the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors. This person assembles the 18-member advisory panel that, in turn, shapes the governor’s economic policies.

Since the reign of Gov. Madeleine Kunin, one man has chaired this council — Harlan Sylvester, the political kingmaker and consummate insider I wrote about last October in a story titled “The Man Behind the Throne.”

Sylvester backed Republican Brian Dubie for governor, raising questions about whether Shumlin would keep Sylvester around. Question no more: Despite Sylvester’s support for his rival, Shumlin has decided to keep the 77-year-old on as the council’s chairman.

The more things change…

Corporate Commitment

To kick off 2011, Burlington Free Press publisher James Fogler penned a front-page note to readers about all the great things going on at the state’s largest daily, including improved circulation figures and plans to invest more in local news.

Fogler also let slip that the paper has 160-plus dedicated employees, 40 of whom are in the newsroom. A little Internet sleuthing revealed that in August 2008, Gannett had 270-plus employees at 191 College Street.

Just days after Fogler publicly restated the paper’s mission to be watchdogs of public officials, Gannett announced that all community newspaper employees would have to take a one-week, unpaid furlough by the end of March.

That’s some investment … in executive bonuses. According to Jim Hopkins at GannettBlog, the company is using the money it saved from last year’s furloughs to bonus head honchos to the tune of $3.5 million.

What’s driving the 9 percent boost in Sunday circulation? Could it be better content? More likely it’s some of the great deals we’ve been hearing about: $10 a month for the weekday papers, or $8 a month for home delivery of the Thursday, Friday and Sunday papers.

Do I hear $6? $4? Going, going…

Progressives Into Ploughshares

Burlington Mayor Bob Kissmishandling of Burlington Telecom has done more to bring down the Progressive Party in a single term than Democrats and Republicans have accomplished in decades.

Even Carina Driscoll, the stepdaughter of Independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, made a recent bid for city council as a — gasp! — Democrat. Considered to be the “Progfather,” Sanders started the party’s run when he won the Burlington mayor’s race in 1981.

If Kiss has any supporters left, they’re likely to be alienated by his latest blunder: a proposed partnership between the city and weapons maker Lockheed Martin.

Kiss defends the move, saying the partnership will lend the city crucial technical expertise to fight climate change.

“This is an example of turning swords into ploughshares,” said Kiss. “If we look back at the last 30 years, we need to repudiate how we’ve used energy and damaged the environment. To be successful, we need all the partners we can get.”

A group of activists, most of whom are also opposed to hosting F-35 fighter jets in Vermont, want Kiss to revoke the agreement. So far, he has refused.

Kiss met with one leader of the anti-Lockheed Martin effort — former city council candidate and antiwar activist Jonathan Leavitt — who told him he thought Lockheed would use its partnership with Burlington to “greenwash” its war profiteering.

“We’re hoping to have a public hearing on this issue and are asking for a council resolution that allows for public input and creates some kind of community standards when it comes to contracts like this,” Leavitt said.

A public meeting about the agreement, and efforts to keep the F-35 out of Vermont, is slated for 7 p.m. on January 20 in Burlington City Hall Auditorium.

Looks like Kiss may have another PR disaster on his hands.

Salmon: Fishing for Answers

State Auditor Tom Salmon had been relatively quiet since he won reelection against Democrat Doug Hoffer. But there’s reason to believe he’s still sore that, just days before the November election, Burlington attorney John Franco, a longtime Progressive and Hoffer ally, got the state to release a videotape of his embarrassing DUI arrest.

Hoffer has denied encouraging Franco, and now Salmon wonders whether the wizard behind the DUI request might have been … U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the pol he has threatened to challenge in 2012.

“As the highest ranking Progressive in the State of Vermont, it is incumbent upon you to answer whether you were aware of” Franco’s request, Salmon wrote to Sanders in a November 3 letter.

“Was he acting on behalf of you? Could you please clarify your relationship with him because it has been reported to me that the two of you have a strong history and continue regular lunches and meetings,” wrote Salmon.

The auditor also asked Sanders if he knew about a separate, lengthy records request made in June by Mitch Pearl, an attorney with Langrock Sperry & Wool, who was seeking correspondence, travel records, phone records and other documents from Salmon.

“Were you aware of Attorney Mitch Pearl’s 1500 page investigation through public records request designed only to derail and discredit me?” Salmon wrote. “You mentioned at the airport on July 18, 2010 that you knew nothing about it,” continued Salmon. “Are you aware of the party for which he represented that cowardly remained anonymous? I will find out.”

Salmon told “Fair Game” that Sanders didn’t reply to his letter, which ended with this statement: “The 2010 election is over, and my skin is thicker and my resolve is stronger than ever. I am better prepared to lead by example as a result of this difficulty over the past year. I am grateful for the training but it was at the expense of my family,” wrote Salmon. “I do not expect an apology from anyone. I expect the truth.”

Don’t we all.