Shut It: The Feds are Down, But Vermont's Exchange is Up | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Fair Game

Bernie Sanders

Shut It: The Feds are Down, But Vermont's Exchange is Up

Fair Game


Published October 2, 2013 at 11:46 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

The federal government is shut down, Vermont’s health insurance exchange is up and Randy Brock sounds like he’s gunning for a rematch against Gov. Peter Shumlin.

Strange times, indeed.

Down in Washington, Vermont’s congressional trio eagerly piled the blame on “extremist” Republicans for the looming shutdown. In back-to-back speeches on the Senate floor Monday, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) decried the other party’s “bumper-sticker politics,” while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said, “What this debate is about is blackmail and hostage taking.”

Later that night, an hour before the clock struck midnight and the money stopped flowing, Sanders really hit his stride on MSNBC’s “Up with Chris Hayes,” juicing up his standard “the American people are angry” line.

“The American people,” he updated Hayes, “are profoundly disgusted.”

The state’s third congressional amigo, Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), reported that the House debate over how to avert a shutdown broke down in the wee hours of Tuesday morning “with a whimper, not a bang.”

“This is fundamentally about the Tea Party opposition to the implementation of the health care bill,” he said later Tuesday. “We voted in the House, like, 45 times to repeal health care, and the shutdown was the last gasp.”

On his walk to work Tuesday, Welch said he noticed longer lines and traffic backups at the Capitol, prompted by understaffed checkpoints.

The congressional trio’s own staff members aren’t immune to the shutdown, though the congressmen themselves are. A Welch spokesman said four of the congressman’s 17 staffers would be furloughed on a rotating basis. Seventeen of Sanders’ 30 staffers were furloughed Tuesday, while Leahy’s office said it would wait until Friday to reduce its ranks.

Sanders, who chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said Monday he was hoping to shield veterans from the shutdown’s fallout. But ironically, eight of his 14 staffers on the veterans committee had to stay home Tuesday.

Up in Vermont, the Shumlin administration was measured in its response to the meltdown.

Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding said he worried about its impact on consumer and business confidence — and on federal workers living in Vermont. But when it comes to the state’s coffers, he said, “We’re in pretty good shape.”

For the time being, the state will continue to provide federal benefits to low-income Vermonters who receive Reach Up welfare payments and 3SquaresVT food assistance. It will also keep state workers who receive federal funding on the job. But if the shutdown drags on for weeks, Spaulding added, “that’s a different story.”

Separately, the Vermont National Guard said Tuesday afternoon it had furloughed 450 civilian employees.

Shumlin’s reaction to the congressional funny business?

“They really are acting like a bunch of pirates that are trying to hold the country hostage,” he said.

Pirates? Aargh!

If I Only Had a Brock

While the feds were shutting down Washington, the state’s new health insurance exchange, Vermont Health Connect, was powering up — in fits and starts.

Early-bird users found the federally mandated, online marketplace struggling to load, a problem Department of Vermont Health Access commissioner Mark Larson attributed to “high traffic.”

Must’ve been all those reporters hitting refresh!

Larson said in a late morning statement that his department was “working to identify any issues and resolve them quickly.”

No doubt he is. Particularly after’s Andrew Stein reported last Friday that the state had doubled its contract with a multination corporation tasked with building the exchange — even though the company, CGI, has missed several key deadlines.

Stein’s story was followed two days later by a scathing, 2500-word op-ed by Brock, Shumlin’s vanquished 2012 gubernatorial rival, who deployed a meandering Wizard of Oz metaphor to say, in short, “The system doesn’t work.”

More colorfully, he added, “Like the Wizard, it is smoke and mirrors, and behind the curtain there is no Wizard — there is only Peter Shumlin.”

Reached Tuesday in Australia, where he said he’s mixing business with pleasure, Brock explained, “It began when I was contacted by a whistle-blower who was close to what was going on and expressed concern.”

Brock, a former state auditor — and, as an editor’s note on his Digger piece noted, “a certified fraud examiner” — said he’d spent “two to three weeks” researching the matter and writing the op-ed. He claimed he’d tipped off Stein to what he’d found, prompting the original Digger story.

Is this the opening gambit for a second Brock for gov run?

“People will say that because it’s me who’s doing it,” Brock said. “But take a look at the results and judge for yourself.”

Either way, it’s not a foolish move. The ex-candidate spent plenty of time last fall trying to pin a slew of state IT problems on his rival. If it turns out delays implementing the exchange are more something-burger than “nothing burger,” as Shumlin characterized them, he’d be ready to toss Shummy on the grill.

So is he gonna run for gov in 2014?

“I’ve made no decision one way or the other,” he said. “I’m not there.”

A Billion Dollars in Jobs

After casting yet another vote last Friday to fund the government and avert a shutdown, Sen. Leahy raced to Washington’s Reagan National Airport to catch a flight to Burlington. He was hoping to make it back in time to catch the kickoff of his long-planned Fall Foliage Retreat for top donors to his political action committee.

“The last vote was at two o’clock. The flight was at 3:05. It was tight,” Leahy said as he took in a view of Burlington’s waterfront from the second-floor deck of the ECHO/Leahy Center for Lake Champlain. “If I couldn’t get home, whether I had this [event] or not, God. If I go more than two weeks, I get homesick.”

As the September sun dropped behind the Adirondack high peaks, Leahy mingled with guests in blazers and cocktail dresses. Some 35 donors had swooped in for the affair, dropping $5000 “suggested” donations for a weekend of food, foliage and senatorial access.

Their agenda included a Saturday morning trip to the Waitsfield Farmers Market, a hike at Sugarbush, dinner at Juniper and a Sunday morning brunch at Shelburne Farms.

“I could’ve done this in Washington. Instead, we’re selling how many hotel rooms in Vermont? We’re bringing how many tens of thousands of dollars into Vermont? I’d rather do it here,” Leahy explained.

Gesturing at his guests, he continued, “I talk to all these people about Vermont all the time. A lot of their companies — I say, ‘Send jobs to Vermont.’ I brought over a billion dollars in jobs in the last 10, 15 years to Vermont working with a lot of these people. So I want them to see where it goes.”

Nimish Shah is just the kind of guy Leahy means.

A D.C. lobbyist for the Pennsylvania-based, global pharmaceutical company Mylan Inc., Shah said he was excited to visit Vermont, where Mylan’s presence in St. Albans has been expanding.

Shah attends such fundraisers, he said, because, “We want to encourage high-quality, affordable medicines.” Specifically, he said, he wants to make sure Leahy supports the Drug Quality and Security Act, an industry-backed bill that would crack down on counterfeit prescription drugs.

Another attendee, National Association of Broadcasters lobbyist Curtis LeGeyt, said his organization was particularly interested in working with Leahy, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, on copyright issues.

Does LeGeyt make it to many such weekend fundraisers?

“We have a unique relationship with Chairman Leahy,” he said.

Indeed he does. A quick Google search reveals that prior to joining NAB, LeGeyt served as senior counsel to Leahy on the judiciary committee. Two years ago, when LeGeyt swung through the revolving door to the lobbyist side, Leahy said in a NAB press release that he was “sorry to see him leave, but I know he will be a great asset for my good friend Gordon Smith and the NAB.”

Once a sufficient quantity of drinks and hors d’oeuvres had been consumed, Leahy gathered his friends in a loose semicircle to make some welcoming remarks. He was quick to acknowledge old friends in attendance, such as Robert Jones, who heads Alston & Bird’s powerhouse lobbying practice, and Venable partner Thomas Quinn, who regularly makes the Hill’s list of top lobbyists.

“I have one of my old law-school classmates, Tommy Quinn, who wondered if I would be in jail by this time or practicing the law,” Leahy quipped. “Here I am, Tommy!”

Looking at LeGeyt, he said, “Curtis, you had to make sure I did the right thing on matters in the office.”

After the formalities, Leahy proceeded to thank the assembled muckety-mucks for their contributions to the Green Mountain State.

“What you’ve done to help bring jobs in means so much to me as a Vermonter,” he said. “But the other thing you’re doing tonight is, you’re helping candidates we’re going to have running next year.”

That’s because the money raised over the weekend was destined for Green Mountain PAC, a Leahy entity that donates to Democratic Senate candidates and funds his own year-round political apparatus.

“Frankly, I love being in the Senate,” he continued. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. I love being chairman of the judiciary committee, but if these guys had won in the past, there’d be a different control of the senate.”

With Republicans in charge, he said, the Senate would never have passed the Violence Against Women Act, dairy protections, immigration reform — and it wouldn’t have confirmed “two wonderful women on the U.S. Supreme Court.”

“We would not have had the money for Katrina, had I not been in the majority party on the Appropriations Committee,” he said. “We wouldn’t have had the money we needed to recover from Katrina here in Vermont. And we would also have Ted Cruz not doing an ineffectual ‘Sam I Am’ kind of speech on the floor, but he’d be winning!”

After concluding his remarks, Leahy’s wife, Marcelle, whispered something in his ear.

“Marcelle reminded me I said ‘Katrina.’ I meant ‘Irene,’ of course,” he said.

With the weather and the Senate calendar cooperating, the rest of the weekend went off without too many hitches, said Leahy political hand Carolyn Dwyer. Except for one thing: While out on that hike at Sugarbush, the senator turned his knee, leaving him wheelchair bound, according to a WCAX-TV report.

The injury didn’t stop him from doing the zip line, though, said Dwyer, “so we didn’t think much of it at the time.”

Media Notes

As the Burlington Free Press’ April Burbank first reported last Friday, her employer has sold seven of its 12 buildings to members of Burlington’s expansive Handy family.

The 55,700-square-foot property is assessed at $3.3 million, but Freeps publisher Jim Fogler wouldn’t tell Burbank how much the Gannett-owned company got for its College Street headquarters. Nor would he respond to our request for comment.

Joe Handy, who says he bought the property with his four siblings, tells Seven Days he expects to fit “six or seven” retail shops on the building’s first floor and “probably 40” units of housing upstairs.

The Freeps will retain five of its buildings, which house the paper’s recently refurbished printing press. Fogler told Burbank he plans to move her desk and those of her colleagues to a new downtown office space.