If you thought Tropical Storm Irene wouldn't become a political football this campaign season, think again.
At a hastily-called press conference Wednesday morning on the flood-damaged campus of the Waterbury State Office Complex, Sen. Randy Brock (pictured) took a direct shot at the crowning achievement of Gov. Peter Shumlin's first term: his administration's response to last August's devastating storm.
Clutching a stack of emails he requested from the Shumlin administration, the Franklin County Republican said the correspondence proved the governor misled the legislature and the public into believing the Federal Emergency Management Agency had promised more recovery funding than it had.
"Governors and governments can't withhold facts and information from the public they serve. Vermont taxpayers are not going to be satisfied with vague statements and reassurances that we have from the governor. They demand facts. They demand and deserve answers," Brock said, listing warning signs he gleaned from FEMA's emails to the administration. "These warnings weren't told to the legislature. And the question is: Why weren't we told? Why weren't Vermonters told?"
Brock's charge comes nearly two weeks after the Shumlin administration revealed to legislators new worries about how much money FEMA would provide to help rebuild the Waterbury complex and the Vermont State Hospital. In recent meetings with legislative leaders, administration officials claimed that FEMA had backtracked from earlier guarantees, potentially leaving taxpayers liable for tens of millions of dollars.
On Wednesday, Brock sought to tie the FEMA funding issue together with Shumlin's health care plan and his support for an electric utility merger to sew a narrative of a governor short on transparency and long on "murky" promises that will eventually cost the taxpayer.
For a challenger who has thus far mostly failed to draw the incumbent governor out of the rose garden and into a political skirmish, Brock's press conference was a striking gambit — and it resulted in some serious political theater. In town for a previously scheduled appearance on WDEV's Mark Johnson Show, Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding (pictured at right) — a top Irene recovery coordinator for the governor and the author of some of the emails in question — showed up to Brock's presser and found himself dragged into it.
After the state senator spent 20 minutes delivering remarks and answering questions from half a dozen reporters, he ended the press conference and walked over to shake hands with Spaulding, asking him where the governor was.
"He's, uh, on his way to Bethel to open a new telecommunications tower as we speak, because we're going to get connected before the end of 2013—" Spaulding replied, gripping Brock's hand and struggling to maintain a convincing smile.
"Good, good, alright. Good, good good. Good, good," Brock interjected. "Well I would have thought that, you know, he would have wanted to be out here talking about this."
"I happened to be in Waterbury for the Mark Johnson Show, scheduled last week, which is why I'm here," Spaulding said, teeth clenched.
Then the press corps swiveled around, television reporters mic-ed up Spaulding and the Administration secretary spent half an hour rebutting Brock's allegations, arguing that the governor never made any iron-clad assurances that FEMA would come through with significant funding. Brock (pictured at right), meanwhile, walked behind the scrum of reporters and took in the Spaulding show.
"Was I confident that FEMA would participate substantially with the state hospital replacement plan? Yes I was," the Administration secretary said. "Did the information change? Yes it did, and we reported it to the legislature. We've tried to be transparent through the entire process."
Then Spaulding upped the ante, intimating that by taking a political shot at the governor's handling of the situation he was endangering the state's chances of receiving the funding it desires.
"In some ways you can think of FEMA like an insurance company. And if they think you're going to be happy with something less than you might be able to get, that's what you're going to get. And it's unfortunate that we are in a campaign season debating this publicly, and I think it does hurt our odds," he said. "There's no question in my mind if Sen. Brock wasn't running for governor, he would have come in and asked the questions and got the answers directly, as opposed to holding a press conference."
Asked to clarify how Brock's raising the issue hurt the state's chances, Spaulding said, "I think doing these kind of negotiations in a public setting doesn't help."
So you think he's causing trouble for the state? It could cost the state money?
"I don't need to answer— I'm not going to answer that anymore," he responded, "Because I just said I don't think having these discussions in public is helpful."
"Because we are trying to maximize the funding that we can get from FEMA to lower the hit on Vermont taxpayers to recover from the closure of the Vermont State Hospital and the state office complex," he said.
"You say you've been transparent throughout," Associated Press reporter Dave Gram said. "On the other hand, you say it's a bad idea to have these kinds of conversations in public. How do those two ideas square?"
"It's a balancing act. It's tough. It's difficult. Here I am, trying to be transparent," Spaulding said.
Spaulding's assertion was remarkable, given that the administration itself was first two weeks ago to publicly raise the possibility of a smaller check and first to cast blame — in FEMA's direction. It's unclear whether by doing so the governor intended to put FEMA on notice that it wouldn't quietly accept reduced funding — or whether he was simply trying to get out ahead of a potentially devastating public relations nightmare. Either way, though, when it comes to publicly debating the issue, the cat's out of the bag.
Will Brock's hit leave any bruises?
It's hard to say that the emails he obtained show anything more than the Shumlin administration nudging FEMA for funding assurances and the feds responding exactly how you'd expect them to: with dodgy, legalistic, noncommittal answers. It's not exactly a smoking gun.
If the governor's guilty of anything in this situation, it's naively believing verbal assurances from FEMA underlings — not deviously hiding the truth from legislators and the public.
Of course, if the goal was to engage with an opponent who has thus far succeeded in pretending he doesn't exist, then perhaps Brock's move was a smart one. By going after one of Shumlin's perceived strengths — his adept handling of a natural disaster — Brock clearly got under the governor's, or at least his administration secretary's, skin.
Whether politicizing the response to Irene will play well with voters is another question entirely.