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The Grocer is In

Inside Track

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There has been serious talk in political circles indicating that state Sen. Dick Mazza, a Democrat representing Grand Isle County and Colchester, was going to throw in the towel and call it quits after 16 winters under the golden dome.

The scuttlebutt going ’round was that the friendly Colchester grocer would become another shell-shocked casualty of the same-sex marriage war. Like so many who courageously supported Vermont’s landmark civil-unions law, Sen. Mazza endured the nonstop bombardment of the self-righteous, anti-gay, pro-“traditional” marriage opposition. There were thousands of e-mails from the Bible Belt, spurred on by ultra-conservative, fast-buck, gay-bashing talk-show hosts. There were the angry fire-and-brimstone threats of eternal damnation. There were rude and crude long-distance phone calls at home. And in Mazza’s case, a steady dose of rebukes he received each Sunday at Mass from the pulpit of his own parish church.

Dick Mazza reflects the best in Vermont’s part-time citizen legislature. He listens. He cares about his customers, his constituents and his state. His finger is always on a street-level pulse. You want to see your senator? If you’re around Malletts Bay, just pull into Mazza’s Market. The Grocer’s always around and he always has an ear or two for a sincere opinion. After all, the 60-year-old statesman has been working in the same darn store for the last 47 years.

At the Statehouse, the Grocer is a player. One of the Big Dogs. In the majority pack of liberal Democrat hounds, he’s the conservative St. Bernard. The Grocer functions as Ho-Ho’s ambassador-at-large, the keeper of the Howard Dean flame, the speaker of the Dean speak. He’s a fixer, a mender and a peacemaker. Sen. Mazza has also adopted the role of Good Shepherd. He’s performed miracles with the once noisier, tax-and-spend left wing of the Democratic Senate Caucus.

The Grocer commands respect because he gives respect. He’s a straight-shooter. A stand-up guy. A gentleman whose street smarts shine when it’s time to take a red pencil to the Agency of Transportation’s grocery list.

In an interview Monday morning in the back office of his Lakeshore Drive store, Sen. Mazza candidly told Seven Days he felt “beat and exhausted” when the legislative session wrapped up last month. The same-sex marriage debate “caught us all unprepared,” he said. It added another layer of stress to an already full legislative plate. “It made all the other issues seem very minor,” said Mazza.

The Grocer is a Catholic. You may have noticed most people of Italian heritage are. And as we all know, Vermont’s Roman Catholic bishop, Ken Angell, was one of the leading anti-civil-unions rabble-rousers. The Bingo Bishop even gathered Catholic priests from across Vermont to demonstrate outside the Statehouse. From their pulpits at weekend Mass, the Men in Black obediently read his pastoral letter condemning any and all legislation that would extend civil marriage rights to gay couples. “This is not about civil rights,” declared the Angell of Darkness, “this is about a minority imposing its morality upon the morality of the majority.” To hell with the Vermont Supreme Court, let all the people vote!

And at Holy Cross Church in Colchester, the Grocer’s parish church, the good pastor went even further. Fr. Roger Charbonneau, said Sen. Mazza, reminded the congregation weekly all winter long about the holy struggle to save traditional marriage as we know it.

“Some read the Bishop’s letter and dropped it,” said the Grocer. “Fr. Charbonneau kept on going.” And every weekend at Holy Mass, the Grocer sat quietly and listened as the priest warned the parishioners of the evil that the “liberal Democrats running the legislature” were forcing down their good Catholic throats. Fr. Charbonneau, said Mazza, urged the congregation each week to sign the petitions in the rear of the church and call their elected representatives to express moral opposition to civil-union legislation.

Despite the priest’s Scarlet Letter sermonizing, Mazza was a little surprised by how few of them obeyed the orders from the pulpit. After all, he told Seven Days, there are gays and lesbians among the Holy Cross congregation. And over the winter, he was reminded by many a customer/constituent that many, many Vermonters have a gay family member, a son or daughter or cousin. They know first-hand a human face that debunked the sinful, burn-in-hell picture the Men in Black were marketing.

All through the winter, the Grocer sat silently in his pew and took the heat from the pulpit. He listened. He even went and spoke privately with his pastor, a man he described as “a great guy” and “a fine gentleman.” He sought out Bishop Angell, too. And, gifted peacemaker that he is, Dick Mazza arranged private tête-à-têtes between the Bish and Peter Shumlin, the senate president, and Sen. Dick Sears, chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

All for naught, unfortunately. The position taken by the Men in Black was and is non-negotiable.

Politics is, at its very best, the art of compromise. Neither side gets precisely what it desires. Each side has to give a little. And even though Chief Justice Jeff Amestoy and the Supremes would have given their blessing, the pro-gay marriage side gave up the “marriage” title. They offered to compromise.

But the Men in Black refused to give one inch in return. It was sectarian warfare to them. The Bishop’s army refused to acknowledge the gesture and declare it a small victory. Right there and then, the opportunity for peace in Vermont was spurned. The Men in Black declined to accept the reality of the diversity of our human family. They refused to accept the political reality, too. The chance was theirs, noted the Grocer, to end this war and make the peace. To pull a George Aiken, declare victory and go home, and love one another once again in peace.

But, sadly, the Men in Black wouldn’t dare get out of their scripturally grounded metaphysical box. They clung to the Middle Ages as if it were a diaper. Homosexuality is a sin. They live to fight sin. Therefore, they must fight against civil and legal rights for homosexual citizens. Such a tiny box to be trapped in.

The Grocer did what he does well. He listened to all sides. He spoke with all sides. He tried to bring opponents together so minds might meet. But peacemakers don’t always succeed. In the end, Sen. Mazza voted for what he believed was the right and fair thing to do. And just seconds after he did, and cast a “yes” vote on the civil-unions bill, the Grocer slipped out of the jam-packed Senate chamber and dashed to the phone. The first person he called, said Mazza, was his parish priest, Fr. Charbonneau. No hard feelings. “We’ve agreed to disagree,” he said.

Time marches on. And in the days and weeks since the legislature went home, something’s changed. Suddenly, after months of anger from the “no” side, said Mazza, people began stopping by the store thanking him for his vote. Constituents, “who never said a word” to him before the big vote, he said, started to speak up. They thanked him for showing some courage and respecting and supporting the rights of all Vermonters.

Mercifully, these days the orthodox fanatics appear on the run. Little Vermont has bravely helped turn the tide. Two events in the last week speak volumes.

One was the decision by the Big Three automakers to extend insurance coverage to the gay and lesbian domestic partners of their workers.

The second was the government-sanctioned gay-pride rally held for employees at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Rep. Barney Frank was one of the invited speakers. The Washington Post described the event as “a ceremony intended to underscore how far the agency has come from its homophobic past.” Attention, Rep. Nancy Sheltra — there’s hope for you, too. Light is shrinking the darkness on this one, folks, and leaving the Randall Terrys, Nancy Sheltras and Men in Black in the dust.

Last weekend, the Grocer and his wife took off for a few days in Maine. Time for a traditional Vermont husband and his traditional Vermont wife to decide about returning for one more two-year stretch on the front lines in Montpeculiar.

Final answer?

Sen. Mazza told Seven Days Monday that he will stand for reelection in November. The Democrat Party is breathing a sigh of relief. And a lot of voters will remember in November when they choose their senator. The ones in the Grand Isle/Colchester district will remember a decent, fair-minded grocer who stepped up to the plate and did what’s fair and just, despite the roar of an angry mob.

Da Fix Was In

The news broke Friday afternoon as Champlain College President Roger Perry and lawyer Peter Collins, chair of the trustees, announced the board had just voted to end what remains of the school intercollegiate athletic program. Bye-bye, Beavers!

The college boldly packaged the announcement like a victory celebration. The spin had it that Champlain had just become the first in the nation to create a “multifaceted,” new-age fitness/athletic extracurricular program for all its students. True out-of-the-box visionaries! Can Notre Dame be far behind?

However, Seven Days has learned, despite the feigned drama, it was a done deal well before Friday’s trustee vote. Athletic Director Sue Rand was contacted Monday by a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Nice chap. Former Rutland Herald scribe by the name of James Bandler. He already had a copy of the press release the school would release to the locals four days later. Seems the school tried to generate positive national press by giving the WSJ a heads-up. The Journal did not run a story.

Nice try.

Election 2000

Democrat U.S. Senate candidate Jan Backus scored some points in the past week. Jan of Arc got in some good licks Monday on the incumbent, Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords, on the issue of a patient’s bill of rights. And she turned in a sharp performance Sunday on Ch. 3’s “You Can Quote Me.” Backus smoothly parried Marselis Parsons’ question about the snafu late in the 1994 campaign over her position on legalizing drugs. Backus calmly informed Marsillyiss she hadn’t changed her position one bit — she still doesn’t think individual users should go to jail. It’s an “addiction” problem, she said, and should be treated as such. In 2000, that’s a position a lot closer to the mainstream.

Backus also scored with a challenge to her financially well-heeled opponents, Jeezum Jim and Democrat Ed Flanagan, to forego TV commercials. “We’re candidates,” said Backus, “not cans of soda.”

Good line.

And while Backus may be far behind in the fundraising arena, it appears the Jeffords campaign is paying close attention. On Friday, according to her campaign manager Scott Goldstein, the headquarters got a call from a young man who wanted to know Jan’s upcoming public appearance schedule. Goldstein told Seven Days he told the caller he’d be happy to give that out, but he asked for identification.

The caller told him he was “a college student.”

When Goldstein requested a name, the caller hung up. Goldstein hit star-69. The number that came back was 229-0000. He dialed it up.

“Hello, Jeffords 2000,” said the voice on the other end.

Interesting.

Goldstein said the incident reflected “pretty stupid, petty and immature tactics for a candidate with $1.6 million in the bank.”

Jeffords’ campaign manager Bill Kurtz admitted the call to the Backus camp had been made by a Jeffords campaign “intern.” Got to watch those interns, right, Mr. President? Kurtz also said the Jeffords campaign had sent someone to attend Backus’ Monday press conference blasting Jeezum Jim for hypocrisy on health care.

Good move. You just don’t want to take Jan Backus lightly. We’ve watched her in action for years, and trust me — don’t let the soft voice and gentle manner fool you. Jan of Arc is one tough cookie.

Ho-Ho in Packer Country!

Speaking of public appearance schedules, Gov. Howard Dean’s trip to Wisconsin Friday was noticeably omitted from his weekly public schedule. Ho-Ho was one of the official cheerleaders invited to the state Democratic Convention in Green Bay, Wis., along with Sen. John Kerry, Rep. Barney Frank (he sure gets around) and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.

“Our party is what America is about,” bellowed Dean to the party faithful. “The other party will drive this nation to failure,” declared Vermont’s governor. According to the Green Bay Post Gazette, Dean’s speech was “at times drowned out by applause.”

Ho-Ho’s oratorical skills have developed slowly, but they have developed. He learned a whole lot from watching Bernie Sanders perform. Volume counts. It gets people’s attention.

“I may be a ‘passionate centrist,’” Dr. Dean told us Monday, “but I do have passion about some things.”

Scalpel, please!

The Eyes of Texas Are Upon Us

Seven Days has learned that the big black hat of the dairy compact range war — giant Suiza Foods of Dallas, Texas — has just signed on a Vermont consulting firm to handle their “strategic communications.” According to Sen. Jeffords, Suiza is Enemy #1 in the fight to renew the Northeast Dairy Compact. Kimbell, Sherman & Ellis, a veteran Montpeculiar lobbying and public relations firm, landed the Suiza contract a month ago. Congratulations, cowboys!

“We’re helping to get their message our about a range of issues,” said Kevin Ellis.

Moo-o-o-o-o.

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