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Shot in the Dark: Montpelier's Next Gun Battle


Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden) - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden)

Weeks after 20 children and six teachers were massacred at a Connecticut elementary school two years ago, Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden) introduced legislation to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition in Vermont.

But after five days of intense pushback from the state's fervent Second Amendment supporters, the Senate majority leader stood down and withdrew his bill.

This week, Baruth's back. Along with the Senate's other top Dems — President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor) and Majority Whip Claire Ayer (D-Addison) — Baruth plans to introduce legislation to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.

"I realize the solution I came up with [two years ago] I was alone on — literally," Baruth says. "I'm not alone on this."

Even then, he says, between 10 and 20 percent of the "shit-ton" of mail he received "calling me every name in the book" was from those who said they'd support tightening background checks.

Baruth's bill would do three things: force all gun buyers to undergo a federal background check; require the state to report to the feds the names of those involuntarily committed to a hospital or declared mentally ill by a judge; and empower state and local cops to enforce federal firearm possession laws.

"This is about creating an effective system to keep guns out of the wrong hands," says Gun Sense Vermont cofounder Ann Braden.

Her group plans to show up at the Statehouse in force Wednesday with 1,000 personal letters to senators and a petition with 12,000 signatures.

"We've spent the last two years building this grassroots machine," she says.

Will it be enough to overcome Vermont politicians' hostility to gun laws?

No way, says Gun Owners of Vermont president Ed Cutler.

"The people of Vermont find it insulting that they would come up with something like this to turn the honest, good people of Vermont into criminals," he says.

According to Cutler, the bill's sponsors have "been bought by Gun Sense." The organization spent more than $25,000 on the last election and another $39,000 lobbying the legislature last year. The group does not disclose the source of much of its funding.

No matter how much Gun Sense spends, its odds of success are long. Last year, House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) wouldn't even grant a hearing on a trio of gun control ballot initiatives passed by Burlington voters. And Gov. Peter Shumlin has opposed virtually every gun measure proposed.

"While we'll listen to the debate, the governor has been clear that he believes the gun laws we have in Vermont are currently serving us well," says spokesman Scott Coriell.

Even in the Senate, Baruth and company have a problem: Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. While Sears has supported forcing the state to report the names of the mentally ill to the feds, he "generally opposes" mandatory background checks.

"I don't think it's necessary for Vermonters," he says. "I haven't seen that it's going to solve some problem."

So do the senators even have a shot?

"I have no idea," Campbell says.

Gov. Flip-Flop

Shumlin's unexpected decision last month to ditch his quest for single-payer health care prompted many a Vermonter — and reporter — to question what, exactly, prompted him to reverse course.

So when he announced his flip-flop at a crowded Statehouse press conference, WCAX-TV reporter Kyle Midura asked a pretty bold question.

"Will you waive executive privilege for all backdated documents at this point related to this question so we can see what you knew when?" Midura said.

It was bold because pretty much any time a reporter files a public records request with Shumlin's office, his staff invokes executive privilege to withhold correspondence between the governor and his advisers.

But with dozens of watchful eyes witnessing last month's exchange, Shumlin promised to do just what Midura asked.

"There is nothing to hide on what we knew when, so we'd be happy to show you any documents you wish to look at," the governor responded.

Seven Days took him up on his offer and requested all health-care-related correspondence between the governor and his top staff — and between him and his Governor's Business Advisory Council on Health Care Financing — over the previous four months.

Late last week, Shumlin legal counsel Sarah London provided 57 mostly innocuous emails between the gov and his staff from the past year. But, believe it or not, the governor invoked executive privilege to withhold an unspecified number of other such communications. Improbably, London claimed that Shumlin and the 21 members of his business advisory council, who include many of his top donors and allies, engaged in no health-care-related correspondence during those months.

Why did Shummy flip-flop on disclosing emails related to his flip-flop?

According to London, "the governor was asked about waiving executive privilege on documents related to the specific question of Medicaid reimbursement rates." She appears to be referring to an unrelated question posed by's Morgan True just before Midura asked his.

But Midura says his question had nothing to do with Medicaid.

"I was asking to see the communications regarding single-payer health care and the conversations the administration was having surrounding the topic," he says.

Since Shumlin himself said, "there is nothing to hide," surely he'll honor his own commitment. Then again, he hasn't been doing much of that lately.

Soiree State of Affairs

Barely a week after they were sworn in, Democratic legislators are already collecting cash for the next campaign. Yes, the one in 2016.

The Vermont Democratic House Campaign, a political action committee run by House leadership, is hosting a "Speaker's Soiree" Wednesday night at Montpelier's Capitol Plaza — on the eve of the governor's budget address.

Campaign director Katherine Levasseur has been hitting up registered lobbyists to take part in the fundraiser, which costs $100 to attend and $1,000 to sponsor.

State law prohibits individual lawmakers from taking money from lobbyists until the second year of the legislative biennium concludes, but both parties have long exploited a loophole allowing their PACs to do so. While Baruth has put a stop to that practice among Senate Democrats while the legislature is in session, Speaker Smith defends it.

"You know, we actually have a full-time staff person, unlike the Senate," Smith says, referring to Levasseur, who works with Democratic lawmakers on their campaigns.

Noting that the national Republican State Leadership Committee dropped $370,000 into Vermont legislative races last fall, Smith says, "I think it is incumbent upon us to make sure we have the infrastructure in place to run effective campaigns in 2016."

He adds: "This is within the rules, and it's historical practice that has been going on for a really long time."

Ah, well, that makes it OK.

Beltway Bucks

Smith isn't the only one bringing in the bucks.

When Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger travels to Washington, D.C., next week for a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, he'll be fêted at a fundraiser featuring Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.).

The shindig will take place at the home of Luke Albee, who spent more than 20 years working for Leahy — a dozen as chief of staff. He recently stepped down as Sen. Mark Warner's (D-Va.) top aide. The event is cohosted by America's Promise president and CEO John Gomperts.

Hizzoner first met Albee in 1991, when he interned in Leahy's office, and met Gomperts the next year when they worked together on former Pennsylvania senator Harris Wofford's campaign.

A similar event hosted by Albee three years ago raised $8,000 for Weinberger when the Burlington Democrat first ran for office, and it prompted some controversy at the time. Dave Hartnett, who managed Weinberger opponent Kurt Wright's campaign, told Seven Days back then that the fundraiser showed the Democratic candidate was an "elitist" who embraced "Washington, D.C., politics."

This time around, Weinberger's Progressive opponent, Steve Goodkind, says he doesn't care where his opponent gets his money, but thinks he should raise less.

"I don't think that money's healthy whether it comes from Washington or Timbuktu," Goodkind says. "If you think you need money to sell yourself, then maybe you should think again about what you're doing."

Weinberger says he "respectfully disagrees" with Goodkind's statement, saying, "I think the way our system works is to run a successful campaign, you need to play by the rules and you need broad support to be a successful candidate."

Jeez. Is this guy getting his talking points from Shap Smith?

Dems the Breaks

Speaking of Hartnett, the four-year city councilor suffered a surprising defeat Sunday when liberal activist Carmen George beat him at the Burlington Democratic Party caucus.

Hartnett, who manages the Jolley Mobil station on North Avenue, was seeking to represent a newly created council district encompassing the New North End's wards 4 and 7. But George, a marketing director at TruexCullins and vice chair of the city party, took him to task for managing Republican Wright's 2012 mayoral campaign ag ainst Weinberger and endorsing Republican state rep candidate Michael Ly last fall.

"I come from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," George told caucus-goers, paraphrasing fellow Queen City Dem Howard Dean.

Three years ago, George said, "I stood at the polls at Ward 7 holding your signs, Miro, while Dave Hartnett held your opponent's signs. And thank God we won."

In the end, George defeated Hartnett 72 to 53.

While it's true that he's sided with council Republicans as often as with his fellow Dems, Hartnett and Weinberger have grown close over the past three years. The mayor says he's "come to admire his leadership" on parks, education and mental health issues.

"I did make it clear to active Democrats out there that I supported Dave, despite my respect and admiration for Carmen George," Weinberger says.

Hartnett said Monday he hasn't decided whether he'll file papers to run against George as an independent in this March's Town Meeting Day election. (Hartnett has already bought $600 worth of lawn signs and pamphlets.) Even if he runs as an indie, the lifelong Democrat says, he'll still consider himself a D.

"This is a group that has had a target on my back ever since I've been on the council," he says, referring to George and her supporters. "I'm a Democrat, and if the Democrats don't want me, they can kick me out, but I'm not leaving."

If Hartnett does run, his own party may spend money to defeat him.

"We as a city party will be supporting Carmen, since she was elected in our caucus as our Democratic nominee," says city party chair Fauna Hurley.

But Weinberger says he may buck the party and stick with Hartnett.

"If he does decide to run as an independent and he commits to caucusing with the Democrats if he does win, I will continue to support him," the mayor says.

Says Wright, who currently shares a district with Hartnett, "Shame on the Democrats if they don't have room for Dave Hartnett in their party."

Media Note

A month after VTDigger lost business and data reporter Hilary Niles to freelance work, the nonprofit news site is losing criminal justice reporter Laura Krantz to the Boston Globe.

The Florida native and Boston University grad says she'll be covering higher education, with a focus on investigations, starting next month.

"I'm excited for the new job but sad to leave Digger, especially with what looks to be an exciting session just getting underway," Krantz says.

Digger has hired former Barre-Montpelier Times Argus reporter Amy Nixon and freelancer Elizabeth Hewitt to replace its two departing reporters, according to Digger-in-chief Anne Galloway.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Shot in the Dark"