Cassandra Gekas, Vermont Public Interest Research Group’s health care advocate, turned heads two weeks ago when she became the surprise Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor.
The move, apparently, also came as a surprise to her employer. When she informed VPIRG executive director Paul Burns of her plans to run for office, Gekas says she was fired on the spot.
“He just said, ‘Collect your things, leave immediately, and don’t come back,’” Gekas recounts.
Now, in addition to launching a statewide campaign, the 30-year-old Montpelier resident needs a new job so she can make her student-loan, car and rent payments. After years lobbying legislators to improve the state’s health care system, Gekas says she’s worried that when her health insurance expires at the end of the month, she won’t be able to afford coverage.
“I decided to do what’s right for Vermont and to put my passion to use to make Vermont even stronger, and the reality is, I’m facing a situation now where I don’t have an income and health insurance,” she says. “It’s kind of ironic.”
Burns did not return calls for comment but said in an email that Gekas resigned her position. He said that in order to preserve the organization’s “longstanding nonpartisan status,” VPIRG’s personnel policy “precludes staff from holding a leadership position within a political party.”
Gekas disputes that account. She says she “didn’t even get a chance to talk about resigning.” After coming to a final decision to run for lite gov the afternoon before the filing deadline, Gekas informed Burns of her intention the next day. She says he asked her to step outside to discuss the situation in the parking lot. Ten minutes later, she was out of a job.
“I was asked to leave immediately — or told to leave immediately, not really asked,” she says. “I was in shock. I was more like, ‘Wow, I cannot believe how much my life has just changed in the last 24 hours.’ Absolutely shocked. And hurt.”
It was the culmination of a frantic week for Gekas and officials in two Vermont political parties who were scrambling to find an opponent to run against Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, a well-liked Republican incumbent from Berlin. Progressive stalwarts Sen. Anthony Pollina (D/P-Washington) and Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington) had been talking about it with Gekas on and off for months.
“I was very excited about the idea of her running,” Pearson says. “I think she is a very energetic candidate in an era when women’s rights are under attack around the country.”
As the filing deadline approached and the Democrats found themselves without a candidate for the post, party chairman Jake Perkinson and Alex MacLean, a top political aide to Gov. Peter Shumlin, became involved in the discussions with Gekas. In a series of phone calls and meetings the day before the filing deadline, Gekas agreed to run, and the parties agreed to coalesce around her candidacy.
The plan? Gekas would run unopposed in the Democratic primary, after which Progressive LG candidate Marjorie Powers would drop out of the race and Prog party elders would name Gekas as her replacement. Gekas would then run as a “fusion” Prog and Dem.
With just 24 hours to collect the 500 signatures required to get Gekas on the ballot, operatives from both parties scrambled the jets.
“There was quite a coordination among a number of people to get those signatures together,” Perkinson says. “I was quite impressed by our field organization, as well as other volunteers who came out to help.”
The next day, as volunteers pounded the pavement for signatures, Gekas informed Burns that she was running. An hour before an associate dropped off her petition for candidacy at the Secretary of State’s office, Gekas found herself unemployed.
According to Vermont statute, employers are required to grant “a temporary or partial leave of absence” to those seeking to serve in the Vermont House or Senate and are barred from firing or demoting employees who do so. The statute does not explicitly cover those running for statewide office.
Pollina, who himself worked for VPIRG just before launching a bid for governor in 2000, believes the nonprofit advocacy organization should encourage Gekas to serve.
“It’s difficult enough for someone to decide to run for office because of all the challenges involved in putting yourself out there. To be worried that your work career is going to be ruined and you’ll lose your job, it’s another deterrent to running,” he says. “We should be doing everything we can to encourage young people to participate and run for office.”
Gekas says she was aware of VPIRG’s rules barring employees from running for office, but she believed she could take a temporary leave of absence — or, at the very least, slowly transition out of her role over the summer.
“I didn’t want to cause any stress to the organization, but I also wanted to be able to transition the health care program in a reasonably responsible way,” she says.
Because she continues to support the organization’s mission and considers many of her former coworkers close friends, Gekas says she was hesitant to disclose the full story of her departure when she first announced her candidacy. In early press accounts, she said she left VPIRG voluntarily.
Gekas says she doesn’t regret her decision to run. If anything, she says, it reminds her of the importance of fighting for universal access to health insurance — the signature issue of her campaign.
“It just highlights for me the importance of health care reform and of having continuity when people switch up jobs or decide to choose public service or decide to start a business,” she says. “My situation may be unique in the exact circumstances, but it has a lot more in common with what most Vermonters are facing than many would like to admit. And it just drives home the importance of why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
Holy Votes, Batman!
Vermont’s longest-serving senator is poised to reach yet another milestone: his 14,000th vote in the nation’s upper chamber.
Shortly before Seven Days went to press, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) cast his 13,983rd vote since taking office in 1975. His staff expects him to pass the 14K threshold soon after the Senate returns from an Independence Day recess.
Throughout the Senate’s history, only six senators have cast more votes, including such legends as Robert Byrd (18,689), Strom Thurmond (16,348) and Ted Kennedy (15,236). Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who took office a full 12 years before Leahy, is the only sitting senator who outranks the Vermonter in both years and votes (16,223).
With so many to choose from, which vote is Leahy most proud of?
“I think it was actually a committee vote. In April of ’75, when I was first here, I became the only Vermonter to vote against the war in Vietnam,” Leahy said in a phone interview from Capitol Hill. “By a one-vote margin, we voted to cut off authorization for the war, and so then the war ended.”
Since committee votes don’t really count, Fair Game gave the senior senator a second crack at the question.
“If everybody else had voted the same way, we would have saved a trillion dollars and would have probably had a balanced budget right now — plus all the thousands of lives we would’ve saved,” Leahy says.
As for the vote he most regrets, it was a September 1996 vote in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred federal recognition of same-sex marriage. Leahy subsequently sought to repeal the law.
Perhaps more impressive than Leahy’s 14,000 votes? His four Batman movies. Leahy was coy in the interview about whether he would appear in the forthcoming The Dark Knight Rises, but a staffer later confirmed that he was filmed for a speaking role in the movie.
The die-hard Batman fan had a line in 2008’s The Dark Knight and cameos in two earlier films about the caped crusader.
You can pony up $100 or $250 for tickets to a screening of the film at the Majestic 10 theater in Williston on July 15 — ahead of its July 20 world premiere — and maybe sit next to Leahy or Warner Brothers president and CEO Barry Meyer. Proceeds benefit Montpelier’s Kellogg-Hubbard Library and the ECHO Leahy Center for Lake Champlain.
Media — and Campaign — Notes
Gov. Peter Shumlin’s noncampaign for reelection hired its first nonstaffer last week: Erika Wolffing as finance director. She served the same role in Shumlin’s 2010 campaign. Meanwhile, Ariel Wengroff — a special assistant to the governor who coordinates his social-media outreach — will leave the government payroll to take a job as communications director for the Vermont Democratic Party starting on July 9.
Two local television stars are leaving Vermont for greener — or at least flatter — pastures. WCAX-TV anchor Keagan Harsha will sign off July 3 to take a job as evening anchor at a station in El Paso, Texas. The Montana native came to Vermont in September 2007 and worked his way up from reporter to morning anchor. Also exiting is WPTZ-TV reporter Jill Glavan, whose last day on air is June 29. The Hoosier is heading back to Indianapolis after three years in Vermont to take another reporting job.
Closer to home, Seven Days has promoted political editor and Fair Game columnist Andy Bromage to the role of news editor. Bromage came to Vermont in 2009 from the New Haven Advocate, where he served as editor and wrote a political column.
Now that Andy’s got more important things to do, yours truly will be writing this column full time.