Road Warriors: Republicans Attack Minter's Irene Record, But Will It Backfire? | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Road Warriors: Republicans Attack Minter's Irene Record, But Will It Backfire?


Published October 19, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 1, 2016 at 10:16 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Phil Scott and Sue Minter at a forum Monday in Burlington - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Phil Scott and Sue Minter at a forum Monday in Burlington

In the 2008 presidential election, then-senator Joe Biden famously said of former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani: "There's only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun, a verb and 9/11."

The same could be said about Democratic nominee Sue Minter and Tropical Storm Irene in Vermont's 2016 gubernatorial election. The Waterbury resident and former transportation secretary can barely make it through a debate answer or a television advertisement without mentioning her stint as Gov. Peter Shumlin's Irene recovery officer.

"Sue Minter helped lead the rebuilding, with hundreds of miles of road repaired and thousands of homes restored," says the narrator in one typical ad of hers.

Minter's mantra has clearly gotten under the skin of top Vermont Republicans, who claim she's taking credit for the work of one of their own: former Douglas administration official Neale Lunderville. They note that Shumlin tapped Lunderville to lead the state's initial response to the August 2011 storm — and that he served as recovery officer for four months before Minter took over that December.

In a press release earlier this month, Vermont Republican Party executive director Jeff Bartley accused Minter of "trying to take credit" for the state's recovery and "mislead Vermonters into thinking she rebuilt and reopened Vermont's roads." Dismissing her as a "mid-level bureaucrat," he questioned her repeated assertion that, during her time as deputy secretary and then secretary of the Agency of Transportation, she balanced the agency's $600 million budget.

"Minter and her surrogates have exhibited a Shumlin-like pattern of embellishment that needs to be addressed," Bartley wrote. "If Minter is so brazenly willing to exaggerate her role in Irene recovery for political gain, what else is she exaggerating?"

It's not clear that Bartley made the smartest move. There's a reason the heavily scripted Minter name-drops Irene every chance she gets: It probably polls better than anything else she's got. Unless he had some sort of proof that Minter was inflating her résumé, Bartley risked pushing the debate onto her preferred terrain.

That proved to be the case when an unimpeachable voice spoke up last week to defend Minter's credentials: her former boss at AOT, Brian Searles. Though he served as secretary in both the Dean and Shumlin administrations, Searles is no partisan player.

"I admit that I may have voted for more Democrats than Republicans over the years, but I don't have a label," he says. "And I vote for a lot of Republicans."

Searles says he's close to both Minter and her Republican rival, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, and had hoped to steer clear of the race.

"But I don't want judgments to be made by voters on the basis of something that's not accurate," he says. "Questioning that went over the line for me."

So last week, Searles released an op-ed saying he was "personally offended that anyone would question [Minter's] contribution for partisan political gain." He explained that, during the first four months after Irene, she played an "invaluable" role as deputy secretary in getting 500 miles of highway reopened and 200 bridges reconnected.

Minter, Searles said, "worked as hard and as effectively as anyone on the team."

Others who were directly involved at the time back his account.

"She played a key role in the recovery efforts after Irene, and I think that's beyond dispute," says Vermont State Colleges chancellor Jeb Spaulding, who was serving as Shumlin's administration secretary when the storm hit.

Even Lunderville, who has endorsed and contributed to Scott's campaign, corroborates Minter's story. During his four months as chief recovery officer, he says, "Sue was the person I primarily worked with on transportation recovery."

Debating who did more or less to help the state through its crisis misses the mark, Lunderville argues.

"There was nobody I worked with who wasn't giving a 110 percent effort — including the lieutenant governor and Sue," he says. "It wasn't political, and it wasn't about taking credit. It was about how quickly we could rebuild."

That Bartley and the GOP apparatus would question Minter's credentials isn't shocking. That's what political parties do. But what is surprising is that Scott would pile on. According to his campaign coordinator, Brittney Wilson, Minter "has been given a total pass for exaggerating her résumé."

"Frankly, what we hear from the Agency of Transportation employees who were there during that time is that they all collectively roll their eyes whenever Sue suggests she was principally responsible for any part of the actual recovery," Wilson says.

Scott's staffer also shares Bartley's impression that Minter was "a mid-level bureaucrat for years with no managerial responsibility."

Minter herself takes umbrage with that claim. While it's true that she served as secretary for just eight months — after Searles retired and before she stepped down to run for governor — Minter says she was actually more involved in the budgeting process in her prior role as deputy secretary.

"This was a collaborative process that needed leadership," she says.

Searles echoes the point, saying that he has always viewed the agency's two top roles as "more like a job share."

"She did a lot of tough work on budget development," he says.

Either way, denigrating Minter as a "mid-level bureaucrat" is about as smart as shifting the debate to Irene. After all, anyone who understands Vermont state government knows that even a deputy secretary has a lot more responsibility than a part-time lieutenant governor.

All Players Waver

Sometime next week, state regulators are poised to make the most consequential decision in years about Vermont's health care system. And, chances are, you don't know the first thing about it.

The choice before the Green Mountain Care Board is whether the state should sign an agreement with the federal government to move from a fee-for-service health care delivery model to one that reimburses providers for positive health outcomes. Proponents argue that such an "all-payer model" would not only slow the growth of health care spending but actually make Vermonters healthier.

The proposal, which has been in the works for years, took on new urgency last month when Shumlin reached a provisional agreement with U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell. The governor announced the deal September 28 and said he wanted the GMCB to vote on it within three weeks, after a mere trio of public hearings.

What was the rush? The same thing that pushed the state and the feds to a deal in the first place: the electoral calendar. With both Shumlin and President Barack Obama leaving office in January, the respective administrations knew their time was running out.

"They agreed they couldn't sign it after the election," GMCB chair Al Gobeille says. "So what I've told the governor is, I'm going to try to get an up or down vote before the election."

Ironically, the very thing that's expediting the process has dampened the debate. With an election looming, Vermont voters, politicians, policy makers and reporters have been focused on other matters — from the state's gubernatorial race to the national nightmare of a presidential campaign. The all-payer waiver hasn't exactly jumped to the top of the pile.

That's not the worst news in the world to those hoping to make it happen.

"I'm desperately trying not to politicize this," Gobeille says, adding, "I recognize it's already been politicized."

Indeed, not long after Shumlin announced the provisional deal, Lt. Gov. Scott called for more public meetings to discuss it, saying that it was "disrespectful" that none had been scheduled for southern Vermont. The board added more meetings and delayed its vote, but the Republican gubernatorial nominee still doesn't sound convinced.

"Phil believes that Vermonters have not been provided enough information to make a decision," Scott spokesman Ethan Latour says. "Perhaps a few people at the GMCB or in the Shumlin administration know all the details, but those details are not being communicated if they exist."

While the all-payer model has "legitimate potential," Latour says, "The details and process are important, because Gov. Shumlin's track record with health care reform is incredibly poor."

Republicans aren't the only ones who hold that view. Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington), the vice chair of the House Health Care Committee and a candidate for state Senate, says Shumlin faces a pervasive "lack of trust" over his struggles to implement Vermont Health Connect and his abandonment of single-payer health care.

"Any innovation involves a level of trust, so I think that presents a real challenge for the state — and particularly for the Shumlin administration," Pearson says. "My own sense is, there's a tremendous amount of potential, but it also could go horribly wrong."

Lawrence Miller, Shumlin's chief of health care reform, says he understands the skepticism but isn't concerned. After the vote, he argues, all the players will have plenty of time to work out the details — and the state can pull out of the contract at any time, with 180 days' notice.

"This is completely different than a large IT project on an absurd schedule," he says, referring to Vermont Health Connect. "That was truly set up for terrible pain."

So far, those most affected by the proposal — namely the medical community — appear largely on board with it. The Vermont Medical Society, which represents the state's doctors, and most hospitals and health insurers have sent letters of support.

Minter, meanwhile, sees the plan as "a promising approach" to cut costs, according to spokesman Elliott Bent.*

"As governor, she will have the ability to end the agreement if it is not in the best interest of Vermonters," Bent says, adding that Minter's been discussing it with providers around the state. "She will continue to assess details and, as governor, will move forward in a transparent, community-based manner."

While Gobeille says he hopes his board will be ready to vote next week, he doesn't want to rush it.

"I've told the governor and his staff that we'll vote when I think it's the right time to vote," he says. "I'm not being obstinate, but I'm not going to be pushed, either."

Media Notes

In a last-ditch effort to stave off bankruptcy, the former owners of the Rutland Herald and the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus ceased daily publication in July and moved to a four-day-a-week schedule. Ever since, the papers have distributed print editions only on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Now the new owners, Reade Brower of Maine and Chip Harris of New Hampshire, are looking to bring back at least one day of print. Editor in chief Rob Mitchell, whose family sold the papers to Brower and Harris last month, announced Sunday that, after next month's election, the Herald and the TA would start publishing on a Tuesday-through-Saturday schedule. It will scrap the papers' Sunday edition and replace it with a single "weekender" edition.

"This is one of many steps that will continue the course of these newspapers back from the brink of insolvency," wrote Mitchell, who remains at the helm even though his family no longer owns the papers.

"There have been a number of very successful 'weekender' publications," Harris explains, citing the Wall Street Journal's and the St. Albans Messenger's Saturday editions. "That's really the sort of direction we would be going in."

According to Harris, he and Brower may yet return to print on Mondays — but not immediately.

"Ideally, we'd like to be out more days than even five," he says. "How many more than that is a good question, but we do want to come up with a frequency that best serves the community, and we really are not there yet."

*Correction, November 1, 2016: An earlier version of this story misspelled Elliott Bent's first name.