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The Pollina Problem

The prominent Progressive has outfoxed Vermont's Democratic Party


Published March 26, 2008 at 1:05 p.m.

Anthony Pollina, Pre-Campaign Haircut - ANDY DUBACK

Amost peculiar affair is this 2008 campaign for governor of Vermont. It has not yet begun. But it is over. The winner is Gov. James Douglas.

Here the usual "barring unforeseeable events" caveat is required. Something bizarre might happen. Like any other mortal, Douglas could die or suffer a debilitating illness between now and Election Day, November 4 (but let's hope not). Or some juicy scandal could erupt - a Capital City call girl? - exposing his administration as corrupt and decadent.

Yeah, right.

So consider him re-elected.

But in this bizarre campaign, there's another winner: Anthony Pollina, the Progressive Party candidate. He wins not because he is going to be governor - he is never going to be governor - but because he has flummoxed, outfoxed and humiliated the Vermont Democratic Party.

That's the loser.

Admittedly, as accomplishments go, outfoxing and humiliating the VDP is not all that impressive. But it must be gratifying to Pollina and his followers, who scorn the Dems. This year, however, Pollina has not been attacking the Democrats. He is directing all his criticism at Douglas for "lecturing us about all the things we can't do."

But Pollina has been "the most strident critic of Democrats as Democrats that Vermont has seen in the last 20 years," as Democratic State Chairman Ian Carleton put it. Pollina and his followers merely disagree with Republicans. They disdain the Democrats. From their perspective, Republican policies are so benighted that they need not even be debated. It's the Democrats' positions, and even more it's the Democrats' attitudes - the pragmatism and compromises - they find unacceptable.

Democrats respond in kind. "These folks don't deal well with ambiguity," said one Democratic state legislator of the Progressives.

Pollina is trying to be polite to Dems these days. But he could not keep the disparagement out of his voice when he responded to the Democratic mantra about how Douglas could be defeated only by a united opposition.

"He's won three two-way races in a row," Pollina said. "What do they say to that?"

They don't say much. They are, on this matter, speechless. Worse, they are candidate-less. That's how Pollina has snookered them. He understands that faint heart never won fair office, or even a place on the ballot. Months ago, he said he might run. The Democrats dithered. Then he said he absolutely would run. The Democrats dithered. Now he is running. So is Douglas.

And the Democrats? Vermont's majority party? The folks who hold every statewide office except governor and lieutenant governor, not to mention huge majorities in both houses of the legislature?

"We are waiting for our gubernatorial candidate to announce," said State Sen. Clair Ayer of Weybridge to the assembled members of the Democratic State Committee earlier this month.

They've been waiting a long time. It is getting late. The Vermont Democratic Party is in danger of becoming the one thing no political party can afford to be: pitiful.

Carleton, not surprisingly, does not agree. He claims there is plenty of time to find a candidate, that "Vermonters are not exactly enamored with year-round campaigns," and that voters don't pay attention to the general election until after the legislative session ends.

In fairness, Carleton has been trying. According to several senior Democrats, he has begged, pled with, cajoled and maybe even threatened a battalion of legislators, office-holders and assorted bigwigs. All have declined - all except author and former ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith of Townshend, who simply has not yet decided.

Perhaps Carleton can be faulted for breaking a basic rule of politics: Never trust an intellectual. Intellectuals actually feel complimented when they are called "Hamlet-like." The Dane may have dawdled, but he did it with such panache.

(And can't you see the Douglas commercial against Galbraith, should he run? There will be an actor vaguely resembling Galbraith in the governor's office when word comes of a calamity - fire, flood, insurrection. Does this governor call out the National Guard or declare a state of emergency? No, he ponders. He looks worried. He consults a scholarly tome. He's toast.)

Still, there was little Carleton could do. His pleas were rejected for one reason: Pollina.

"No one will run because of Pollina," said one senior Democratic office-holder, who would rather not be identified here. "You can't win with him on the ballot and there is no way to get him off the ballot. So you'd have to give up the position you now have, only to spend six months in a campaign that you'd lose."

What, then, this Democrat was asked, will be the outcome? He did not pause for an instant.

"We lose," he said.

Some Democrats are convinced not only that Pollina can't win, but that he knows it, that he just likes running. It's a plausible supposition. Mostly what Pollina has done in politics is run for office and lose - for Congress as a Democrat in 1984, for governor in 2000, for lieutenant governor in 2002.

Nor is it an irrational ambition. Running for governor can be fun. Not to mention that it's the biggest megaphone through which to broadcast your policies. There is a certain political turn of mind - and Vermont's Progs definitely have it - which holds that a campaign is as much for "educating" the public as for winning office.

It is precisely this turn of mind that so enrages Democrats, who think that the purpose of a campaign is to get elected, and that Pollina cannot.

"Anthony Pollina can't get the middle," said State Senate President Peter Shumlin.

Almost surely the case. More Vermonters are liberal than conservative, but Pollina and the Progressives are not merely liberal. They are "of the left," and most Vermonters are not. And it doesn't much matter that the difference between being "of the left" and being a liberal is more a matter of style than substance. Pollina's no radical - more a romantic. Still, given a choice between an incumbent who is conservative but not right-wing and a challenger "of the left" who has never held public office, most middle-of-the-road Vermonters (and theirs are the decisive votes) would no doubt stick with Douglas.

Wait a minute, say Pollina and the Progressives. What about Bernie Sanders? Isn't he "of the left"? And doesn't he kick electoral butt in this state?

Yes, but there's no comparison. Pollina is a pretty good campaigner, but Bernie Sanders is a political force of nature - Vermont's version of Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan, one of those candidates who dominates any scene he enters. Besides, Sanders wins as an Independent, not as a Progressive.

Pollina does have followers. As they express themselves at gatherings, on the radio and in innumerable letters to editors, they - like their leader - are stalwart, loyal and devoted to certain principles.

But there aren't many of them. Pollina's greatest political "triumph" was getting almost 25 percent of the vote in the 2002 race for lieutenant governor. By splitting the left-of-conservative vote with Democrat Shumlin, Pollina got Republican Brian Dubie elected with 41 percent of the vote to 32 percent for Shumlin.

That's a tribute to Pollina's appeal - no other Progressive has done nearly that well in a statewide race. But those results also prove the limits of his appeal. Pollina was the most engaging of the three candidates. For most Vermonters, it would have been an easy throwaway vote: Who cares who the lieutenant governor is? But Pollina still came in a poor third.

He does not seem to be doing any better this year. The latest poll has Douglas well ahead, Galbraith at 22 percent and Pollina with only 15 percent, even though he's far better known than Galbraith.

Like the Democrats, Pollina wants to face Douglas one on one. In Vermont, a candidate may put his name on the ballot in only one party's primary. But if he wins another primary as a write-in candidate, he can put both parties' names after his own on the November ballot.

A few weeks ago, Pollina asked to speak to the recent Democratic state committee meeting, or the next one, apparently hoping that the Dems might endorse him, or at least not put up a candidate of their own. They turned him down. They are determined to field their own candidate for governor.

But who? Right now it seems to be Galbraith or nobody. There is a small draft-Shumlin movement in the works, but while Shumlin stopped just short of a categorical refusal the other day, he'd have to give up his Senate seat to run for governor.

And, with Pollina on the ballot, most likely lose. That doesn't make sense.

Maybe it's in the interest of the Democrats to turn the tables on Pollina. He called their bluff; they could call his. For years he and his devotees have argued that if Vermont liberals had the gumption to support a real, uncompromising, resolute left-of-center candidate, that candidate would win.

Here's the chance to put that to the test. And after Pollina, running one-on-one against Douglas, gets his clock cleaned - the almost certain outcome - Vermont's center-left and liberal factions just might learn to accept reality: that the only vehicle with the strength to beat Douglas or any strong Republican is the state's Democratic Party.

Carleton will have none of that, arguing plausibly that it wouldn't work that way. Not because he doubts Pollina would lose badly, but because he doubts that such a loss would discourage him or other Progs from trying again.

"It doesn't mean you won't be running into three-way races, or even more Pollina candidacies in the future," Carleton said.

Besides, he added, there is too much bad blood between Pollina and the Democrats for the VDP not to field the strongest candidate it can find this year. Carleton just doesn't yet know who that candidate might be.

There is but one comfort for Carleton and the Democrats: The Republicans are just as bad off. No Republican has come forward to take on Rep. Peter Welch or the Democrats who hold all the other statewide offices.

"We've got some people who are interested in every one of those races," said Republican Chairman Rob Roper. "People are waiting to see what happens in the national race."

Perhaps so. But right now it looks as though Welch, Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, Attorney General Bill Sorrell, Treasurer Jeb Spaulding and Auditor of Accounts Tom Salmon will breeze to re-election, as will Douglas and, probably, Dubie.

Good thing there's a presidential election. Otherwise, it could be a dull fall.