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Bernie Sanders

Rally the Troops

Fair Game


Published June 15, 2011 at 10:34 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

First Lady Michelle Obama will visit Vermont on June 30. But why? Vermont is not a battleground state in the 2012 election. President Barack Obama already has the state’s three electoral votes in the bag.

News of Michelle Obama’s visit came via the Vermont Democrats, who made the announcement that she would be headlining a political fundraiser for her husband. Days later, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said the First Lady was northbound to meet Vermont Guard members and their families.

Which came first — the fundraiser or the families? There’s no easy answer, which is why it’s the political equivalent of the “chicken or egg” question.

Since it’s an “official” visit, taxpayers will help finance Obama’s trip to Vermont; the balance will be paid for by the Obama Victory Fund, a joint fundraising operation between the president’s reelection campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

The Obama Victory Fund is charging between $100 and $500 to attend the fundraiser at the Sheraton Hotel & Conference Center in South Burlington. You know, for the little people.

An even pricier event is scheduled for ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center/Leahy Center for Lake Champlain. The entry fee is $5000 per person, $10,000 per couple — the maximum allowable contribution to Obama’s reelection campaign. If attendees are feeling especially generous, they can also give to the Democratic National Committee. Up to $30,800, in fact.

Man, that’s some serious change.

It’ll be interesting to see if the First Lady can top her hubby’s previous Vermont fundraising record: A campaign fundraiser at the Norwich home of Bill and Jane Stetson raised more than $250,000 in 2007. Shortly after Obama’s election, Jane Stetson was appointed chair of the DNC’s national fundraising efforts. Bill Stetson is on the Advisory Committee on the Arts for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Obama was in Vermont — at the University of Vermont — one other time prior, stumping for then-Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who was running for U.S. Senate. Kesha Ram, then president of the UVM Student Council and now a state representative, introduced Obama to the crowd.

Will the president ever set foot again in the Green Mountain State? My guess is … nope.

President George W. Bush saw no reason to come here. Could it have been the impeachment calls and arrest warrants? Instead, Vermonters received proxy visitations. First Lady Laura Bush came twice, once to campaign on behalf of Republican congressional hopeful Martha Rainville; the other, to make an official appearance at the Billings-Marsh-Rockefeller National Park in Woodstock.

In 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney touched down at the Burlington International Airport, where he gave a brief speech under a tent on the tarmac.

The Obama administration will likely have a better record. Vice President Joe Biden spent a whole afternoon here stumping for Gov. Peter Shumlin. That counts.

Leahy’s Senate staffers say their boss asked the First Lady months ago to come to Vermont to meet with National Guard families. He wanted her to use the opportunity to launch her Joining Forces campaign, a national initiative to support military families.

Leahy’s wife, Marcelle Leahy, is the honorary cochair of the Vermont Guard’s military family programs, which offers family support similar to that of Joining Forces.

“We understand that guard families face unique challenges during the deployment of a loved one,” said Sen. Leahy last Friday when he announced the details of Obama’s visit. “Without the benefits of living on or near a military base, guard families must press on without the community network of support that such proximity to a military community provides during a deployment.”

Vermont’s programs offer everything from counseling and financial assistance to accessing local volunteers to help with home repair projects, babysitting and other daily needs.

Maybe we should be holding a fundraiser for the soldiers and their families instead of the commander in chief.

Singles Party

The decennial rewrite of Vermont’s House districts is breaking down along party lines. The two minority parties on the Legislative Apportionment Board — Progressive and Republicans — want to break up the state into 150 single-member legislative districts; the majority Democrats support the status quo.

Progressives Meg Brook and Steve Hingtgen and Republicans Neale Lunderville and Rob Roper support the creation of 150 districts. Opponents are Democrats Frank Cioffi and Gerry Gossens, as well as Republican LAB board chairman Tom Little, a former House member.

Last Thursday, the LAB voted 4-3 in favor of the 150-district plan. Final details will be ironed out this week on a map the board members plan to ship out to local civil-authority boards for comment. A final proposal is due back to the legislature by August 1.

Lawmakers can use the LAB proposal as a starting point or draw up their own map. Given that House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morrisville) has raised the specter of “political chicanery,” House Democrats will likely scrap the LAB plan and write their own in order to help maintain their legislative “supermajority.”

That’s not political chicanery; it’s political power.

Bulging Burlington

Tripartisan Burlington is known for its bare-knuckle ward politics. That means legislative reapportionment could devolve into a slugfest.

The proposal — as it stands — would give Burlington 10 single-seat districts, up from nine and a half. One district is currently shared with Winooski.

Instead of sharing a district with Burlington, Winooski would get a piece of Colchester, around St. Michael’s College. Legislatively, the Onion City would retain its two House seats.

Creating single-seat districts in Burlington could force at least two Democrats to run against each other: Reps. Jason Lorber and Rachel Weston live on the same block bordered by Park and Pitkin streets.

Contrary to popular belief, Burlington’s New North End is losing population. That could force the city’s board of civil authority — which is the city council with the mayor presiding as chairman — to borrow from Old North End neighborhoods to keep the New North End districts whole.

Since Lorber and Weston’s block abuts the legislative district held by Democratic Rep. Mark Larson, they could end up being forced to run against Larson.

In this case, three is definitely a crowd.

The core problem facing Burlington’s election officials is this: Wards 1, 2 and 3, which encompass the Old North End and parts of the college housing district, have 3000 more residents now than they did 10 years ago. This growth puts three legislative districts seriously out of balance: One two-seat district has 1600 more residents than it should; another has 1000 too many. A third is about 700 people over the limit.

While the immediate goal is to even out the legislative districts, the new census figures may necessitate configuring the city’s wards.

Ward lines were last redrawn in 1992 after New North End residents complained of being underrepresented with just three councilors out of 12.

Their effort created Ward 7, encompassing much of the east side of North Avenue, Lakeview Terrace and very northerly parts of the city, and the New North End got another city councilor. Three Republicans and one Democrat — who doesn’t regularly caucus with his fellow Burlington Democrats — represent the region.

As with legislative districts, redrawing ward lines to balance out the voter-to-councilor representation would mean additional parts of the more liberal Old North End would have to be tucked into one of the two more conservative wards.

Good luck with that one.

The Price of Freedom

The Vermont Press Association is appealing to its membership to help pay off a hefty $8500 lobbying bill.

The VPA’s members include most of the state’s daily and nondaily newspapers — including Seven Days. The group may be forced to dip into its First Amendment fund, which is used to help smaller papers defray legal costs associated with legal battles to access public records or pursue open-meeting violations. The fund has about $5000 in it.

VPA president Maria Archangelo, associate publisher and editor of the Stowe Reporter, told Fair Game the money was used to monitor about a dozen different bills dealing with open government, from proposed changes to vital records to updating the public records and open-meeting statutes.

Some of those bills were not finalized this year, which means next year could also be an expensive one for the association, Archangelo added.

“If everyone pays their dues, we should be fine, but I think this speaks to a bigger issue that, while public records affects everyone, it still really falls to traditional media to fight these battles, and they can be expensive when you have well-funded opponents,” said Archangelo.

Meanwhile, the VPA is looking to include non-newspapers and other media as a way to grow its membership — and its bank balance.

Pass the Pork

The last federal budget earmark. That’s what brought roughly 100 housing advocates, tenants and politicians to a groundbreaking Monday-morning ceremony in Burlington’s New North End.

The purpose of the event was to fête the construction — already well under way — of Thayer Commons. The project will add about 140 units of housing to the New North End. Some are market-based rentals; some are permanently subsidized for families and the elderly.

Way to reverse Ward 4’s aforementioned population loss.

Sen. Patrick Leahy secured a $433,000 earmark for the $13.8 million project — quite possibly the last Vermont will ever see, since Congress has banned the practice. Voters equate budget earmarks with “pork” such as Alaska’s infamous “bridge to nowhere.”

“This is one of the better examples of using targeted federal dollars as a way to help people,” said Leahy at the event. “The law of supply and demand doesn’t always take into account basic human needs.”

Sounds like a bridge to somewhere.