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Singing the Blues

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The news of almost 1000 job cuts at IBM’s massive Essex Junction facility hit the street Tuesday morning, just as this column was being put together.

Big news. So big that WCAX-TV interrupted the network game shows with live reports including Gov. Howard Dean taking reporters’ questions on the Statehouse steps. Bravo, nice work!

Now the recriminations and the fingerpointing can begin.

Republican gubernatorial hopeful Jim Douglas has been running “the sky is falling” TV spots for weeks. His mission is to make the “sow’s ear” of the IBM job cuts the “silk purse” of the Douglas for Governor campaign. To achieve it, Douglas will try to pin the blame on the Democrats and their environmentalist friends for IBM’s cutback.

The fact is, Big Blue’s first-quarter earnings report was its worst since Dubya’s daddy, George Bush, was President a decade ago. That report has absolutely nothing to do with the proposed Circ highway being built and everything to do with the decline in the global semiconductor market.

The fact is, Big Blue’s management always has and always will put its shareholders before its workers. T’is the nature of capitalism, right?

Unfortunately, we don’t anticipate Slim Jim letting those facts get in his way. Instead, he’ll try to convince voters that Jim Douglas in the governor’s seat will guarantee an IBM expansion in Vermont.

Good luck, Jim.


Freed’s Law — Congratulations to Republican House Speaker Walter Freed for finally revealing his personal interpretation of the House rule regarding conflict of interest.

Under House Rule 75, “Members shall not be permitted to vote upon any question in which they are immediately or directly interested.”

As everybody knows in the wake of Seven Days’ April 3 exposé of Wally’s West Pawlet tobacco stand, the Speaker has an obvious, immediate and direct interest in Vermont’s cigarette tax rate.

Freed’s Apollo Industries operates a run-down gas station that sells one and only one product in addition to gasoline — cigarettes. Freed’s smoke shack is conveniently located 175 yards from the New York state line. And with New York currently taxing smokes at $1.50 a pack — $1.06 higher than the current Vermont tax — Walter’s business is booming.

Early in the session, Speaker Freed made his position perfectly clear, using the power of his office to prevent the House from even debating a cigarette tax increase to pay for health care for the poorest Vermonters. Since there is no question that butt smoking is a leading cause of cancer, respiratory afflictions, heart disease and death, the ciggy tax is an apt choice for paying the doctor bills.

Late last week, as House and Senate negotiators argued over a tax bill, Sen. Peter Shumlin (D-Windham), the president pro tem, finally uttered aloud what everyone’s been thinking — that our favorite Dorset millionaire had clearly crossed the line between doing the people’s business and representing his own business. That Freed’s “astounding” conflict of interest was more obvious than the nose on Shummy’s face.

“The only obstacle” to raising the cigarette tax,” said Shumlin, “is the Speaker.”

Freed staunchly defended himself to the Associated Press. And what a defense it was! The dude sounds like he’s been taking lessons from Ken Lay of Enron fame.

You see, in Wally’s World of private planes, Thunderbird coupes and matching black-and-white Corvette convertibles, one can be so fabulously wealthy that the bar for defining a “conflict of interest” is much higher than it would be for ordinary legislators such as retirees, school teachers, nurses or others who work for a paycheck.

“I’m not dependent on any of my retail operations,” said the Freedmeister to the wire service. “I’m comfortable enough,” he declared. Wally, you see, has “invested wisely,” and he’s proud of it. “I don’t have to work if I don’t want to,” he said.

Surely Freed’s state-line tobacco business grosses six figures a year. But, apparently, that’s mere chump change for our “comfortable” Republican Speaker of the House.

God bless America. It’s a great country, eh?

So let’s give Walter Freed the deserved credit for advancing the cause of Statehouse ethics. By decree, Mr. Freed has established the “millionaire’s exception” to House Rule 75.

Henceforth, members of the House shall not be permitted to vote upon any question in which they are immediately or directly interested unless the member is so financially “comfortable” that he is not required to work for a living.

In the end, Speaker Freed caved. Whether he experienced a twinge of shame as folks scoffed at his outrageous conflict of interest, we may never know.

We do know Freed suddenly pulled a 180 last week following Shumlin’s remarks. Like a tiger with a new set of stripes, Wally declared his support for the Senate’s proposed 75-cent boost in the Vermont cigarette tax over two years. The price of butts in Vermont will jump 49 cents per pack on July 1 and another 26 cents on July 1, 2003.

But not to worry. Even with the increases, Speaker Freed’s state-line tobacco trade will continue to thrive. When the new rate kicks in this July, rest assured that happy New York smokers will continue to flock to Freed’s nicotine feeding zone. That’s because Wally’s cartons will still be about $6 cheaper than cartons sold just up the road in New York State.

Talk about a genuine “win-win,” eh?

Nice move, Wally. We appreciate the focus on your bottom line.


Jeezum Jesus! — Among the blitz of stories commemorating the first anniversary of U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords’ courageous departure from the Republican Party was a transcription of a one-on-one interview that appeared in The New York Times.

Times: “Some on the right have likened you to Judas. Is there a Biblical figure that you identify with?”

Jeffords: “Jesus.”

Times: “You’re going to catch hell for that one.”

Nothing wrong with having Jesus for a role model, is there?

After all, putting the kibosh to President George W. Bush’s right-wing, uncompassionate “coup” was nothing short of miraculous. But Jeezum Jesus has much more on his plate. His next task is nothing less than saving the entire planet.

As chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Jeezum Jesus’ next miracle will require him to convince President George W. Oil that the days of running our economy on carbon-based fossil fuels are numbered. Global warming eventually will result in human extinction.

Some see a ray of hope in the climate report the Bush administration just submitted to the United Nations. For the first time, President George W. Oil acknowledged that human actions promote global warming — namely, the burning of fossil fuels.

Miracles never cease.


Family Feud — How about dem battling Lynn boys? And it’s all over a dame, too.

We’re talking about Emerson Lynn, 51, the publisher/editorial writer of the St. Albans Messenger, and little brother Angelo Lynn, 48, publisher/editorial writer for the Addison Independent. Both Lynn boys have been heating up their keyboards lately on the subject of Vermont state auditor, Elizabeth Ready, a Democrat.

Big Brother Emerson, considered a conservative by Vermont media standards, has never been fond of Ms. Ready. Recently he raked Chainsaw Liz over the coals for sticking her nose into IBM’s labor policies.

Ms. Ready was taken to task for writing IBM’s new CEO Sam Palmisano in March, asking him “to consider rehiring terminated IBM employees when Vermont’s economy once again begins to grow.”

At the same time, noted Emerson, Chainsaw was in cahoots with IBM union organizers, promoting a letter-writing campaign that touted Ready’s pro-worker efforts and blasted State Treasurer Jim Douglas’ difficulties balancing the state checkbook. The difficulties were highlighted by a Ready audit.

Emerson’s editorial was greatly admired in certain political circles. Hit the nail on the head, some said. But with a circulation of about 5000, The St. Albans Messenger isn’t exactly household reading outside of Franklin County.

Not to worry. Ms. Ready’s Republican challenger in this year’s auditor’s race was only too happy to help. The Bruce Hyde for Auditor Committee eagerly put up the cash to purchase advertising space in other newspapers, reprinting Emerson’s sage editorial above the slogan: “I want to take the politics out of the Auditor’s office.”

On Monday, Hyde’s advertisement featuring Big Brother Emerson’s editorial appeared on page three of Little Brother Angelo’s biweekly Addison Independent.

And like a knight in shining armor, Angelo charged to Ready’s rescue. Our favorite damsel in distress received editorial support under the headline “Hyde: A bit early for mud?”

Without mentioning his brother by name, Angelo called Emerson’s editorial “catchy.” The Republican Party, he wrote, is doing its “dirty work” by using “the voice of another.”

Angelo argued that Chain-saw’s letter to Sam of Big Blue “isn’t strident, pushy or demanding.” Rather, “It’s simply a plea” to rehire laid-off workers. As he sees it, Elizabeth is an unfortunate victim of a political attack. All she was doing was standing up for the little guy. Sir Angelo of Addison then points his lance toward Mr. Hyde.

“Hyde may be painting himself as a candidate eager to fling a lot of mud at his opponent even when the issue is relatively benign — and that’s the type of politics that most Vermonters abhor,” wrote Angelo.

Clearly, chivalry is not dead. Can’t wait for Big Brother Emerson’s comeback. Family feuds can be such fun, especially when it’s a family of newspaper publishers.


Douglas on Drugs — You may recall that Candidate Douglas came roaring out of the box in April with radio spots touting a tough-on-drugs policy proposal that would make any Drug Czar cheer.

A Gov. Douglas, we were told, would fight to increase penalties for drug crimes, put drug counselors in every junior high school and pump more money into law enforcement. Slim Jim also called for the establishment of what he proudly called a “Megan’s Law” for drug dealers, requiring cops to notify residents when a convicted drug dealer moves into the neighborhood.

In addition, Mr. Douglas declared his opposition to the medical marijuana bill that passed the Republican-controlled House. No softie on drugs is he.

But Seven Days has learned that Jim Douglas hasn’t always been an anti-drug crusader rabbit. In fact, when he represented Middlebury in the legislature, Mr. Douglas supported decriminalizing marijuana possession.

The year was 1978. The bill was H. 669. It stated, “The legislature finds that arrests, criminal prosecutions and criminal penalties are inappropriate for people who possess small quantities of marijuana for personal use. Every year this process needlessly scars thousands of lives and wastes millions of dollars in law enforcement resources, while detracting from the prosecution of serious crimes.”

H. 669 proposed reducing the maximum penalty for possession of up to one ounce of pot to a $100 fine. And more important, it declared that “No record of such conviction shall be maintained in any repository of criminal history records.”

The bill passed the Vermont House on a 75-71 roll call vote on St. Patrick’s Day, but it was defeated in the State Senate the following month on a 14-11 vote. Rep. Jim Douglas of Middlebury voted for it.

You ask, is this the same Jim Douglas now running for governor as an anti-drug crusader?

You bet it is.

Last Saturday we bumped into Mr. Douglas at the Dairy Festival in Enosburg Falls and asked him about it.

“You’re very resourceful,” he replied with a smirk.

Gee, thanks, Jim.

Clearly Slim Jim’s vote as a legislator to reduce the penalty for pot possession was not a subject he was eager to discuss.

Yours truly asked if he might explain his change in position.

“I don’t know that it is a change,” replied Douglas coyly.

Oh, really?

“The only issue,” he said, “is what the appropriate penalty was in 1978.”

He quickly slipped back into his War on Drugs persona.

“There’s a lot of debate about whether marijuana is a gateway drug or not,” said Mr. Douglas. “I had a chat with a young man from southern Vermont who insists, based on his own experience, that it is.”

Hey, whatever works for you, right?

Finally, we asked the 50-year-old Middlebury graduate if he’d ever inhaled.

“Never,” he replied.

Never?

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