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The Undertaker's Daughter: Darcie Johnston Wants to Kill Vermont Health Care Reform

Local Matters


Published October 2, 2013 at 11:19 a.m.

Republican strategist Darcie Johnston at the Statehouse in Montpelier - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Republican strategist Darcie Johnston at the Statehouse in Montpelier

A self-described practitioner of the political dark arts, Darcie Johnston learned much of what she knows from the undertaker — her father, that is.

By day, Jimmy Johnston ran the Barber & Lanier funeral home when Darcie was growing up in Montpelier. By night, he served as finance chairman to congressman-then-senator Jim Jeffords. The latter undertaking — indeed, the entire Jeffords political apparatus — “lived in the back of the funeral home,” the elder Johnston recalls.

“My dad really ran Tammany Hall,” his daughter says.

These days, it’s Darcie Johnston, 47, who finds herself at the center of Vermont’s Republican political scene — at least, what’s left of it. And it’s she who is leading a lonely effort to deep-six Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin’s ambitious agenda to overhaul the state’s health care system.

Johnston says she was inspired to act in January 2011 upon returning to Vermont from an out-of-state political gig. She was stunned to hear the newly elected governor’s inaugural address, in which he declared his intent to build a single-payer-like system. Within a month, she founded Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, a nonprofit advocacy group dead set on derailing his efforts.

“It just stirred something in me that I couldn’t just sit back and wait for some other organization or some other person to lead the fight,” she says. “So I decided to use my skills to do something.”

Those skills include nearly 25 years as a political fundraiser, strategist and lobbyist in a region that’s grown ever more hostile to the party in which she was raised. Her allies say she’s just the one for the job.

“She’s a very intense, hardworking person,” says former state senator Randy Brock, whose 2012 gubernatorial campaign Johnston essentially ran. “I’m not sure she sleeps at all.”

“She knows the political game,” says Bill Kurtz, who worked with Johnston when he ran Jeffords’ 2000 reelection campaign. Kurtz later became the senator’s chief of staff. “I would say that when she gets the bit in her mouth and truly believes in something, it’s difficult to shake her.”

But Johnston’s detractors — many of whom hail from her own party — tell a different story. Pointing to her dismal electoral track record, her history of scorched-earth tactics and her reputation for being politically tone deaf, they say she’ll only succeed at turning Vermonters off to her message.

Single-payer advocate Peter Sterling, who runs the Vermont Campaign for Health Care Security, certainly hopes that’s the case.

“Darcie Johnston defines the political operative. She has no background in health care policy, no real expertise in how health care systems work. Her analysis comes down to a political ideology and has no basis in the realities of reforming a health care system,” Sterling says. “She just screams from 30,000 feet about why we need more competition.”

Just last week, while most health policy experts focused on Tuesday’s long-awaited rollout of President Obama’s health insurance exchanges, Johnston flew to Denver to give a speech lambasting Shumlin’s single-payer agenda. Her remarks to the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons’ annual meeting interspersed video clips of Shumlin describing his plan and Johnston’s own dire predictions of its consequences.

Among them, according to a PowerPoint presentation she drafted for the occasion: “Doctors leave VT … negative job growth … young Vermonters continue to exit VT … middle class and wealthy leave … Vermont’s tax base implodes … Vermont’s budget deficit explodes … large companies leave VT: IBM, UT, GE.”

Days later, Johnston ordered up 30,000 automatic phone calls to coincide with the exchange’s launch, warning Vermonters that, thanks to Shumlin, their health insurance “may terminate” come December. The administration quickly disputed the assertion, dismissing the calls as “efforts by partisan opponents to derail” health reform.

Despite the parade of horribles Johnston and her allies have marched out since VHCF’s founding, Vermonters by and large seem to back single payer. Surveys conducted by the Castleton Polling Institute in May 2012 and February 2013 indicate that support for it marginally increased during that time from 48 to 52 percent, while opposition declined from 36 percent to 30.

Just as significantly, single payer’s chief advocate, Peter Shumlin, resoundingly defeated its chief detractor, Randy Brock, last November by a lopsided vote of 58 to 38 percent. That, despite the challenger’s best attempts to score points on the issue.

Johnston has a simple explanation for why Vermonters haven’t fully come around to her point of view.

“I really think that until people are impacted by what’s coming, they’re not going to understand,” she says. “Until people experience it, I think it’s not going to register with them.”

To get that message across before it’s too late will take everything Johnston has learned over the years about Vermont politics — and probably quite a bit more.

Johnston says she got her start in politics “stuffing, stamping and sealing envelopes” at the family’s kitchen table. But her first real gig came in 1988, after her junior year at Virginia’s Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. Jeffords was seeking to make the jump from the U.S. House to the Senate, and Johnston landed a summer job on the campaign.

Tasked with documenting Democratic candidate Bill Gray’s press conferences, she became known as the “lady in white,” thanks to her summer attire. Such menial tasks led to a job offer from the new senator when Johnston graduated the next year.

After five years in Washington, Johnston returned to the campaign trail in 1994 to work on Jeffords’ reelection race against Democratic state senator Jan Backus. She quickly earned a reputation for her cutthroat tactics.

One piece of direct mail she produced — contrasting the two candidates’ records on crime — was universally criticized as race-baiting, according to two political observers who followed the campaign. Even Johnston admits it was “scorching.”

“We hit [Backus] hard with everything we had,” she says, “and I was responsible for a lot of that.”

Johnston’s reputation got even nastier two years later when she managed her first campaign: Republican state senator Susan Sweetser’s uphill battle against then-congressman Bernie Sanders, an independent.

Johnston made the decision to hire a private detective to investigate Sanders’ whereabouts during the Vietnam War. But the plan backfired when the private eye tried to interview the congressman’s ex-wife and she tipped off Sanders, who in turn tipped off the media.

“Bernie went berserk and the press ignored what we had discovered,” Johnston recalls. “Susan got condemned for it. I got condemned for it. Today, it’s what’s done. I don’t think it would be an issue today.”

Sweetser says, “I was like the lamb to the slaughter.” She lost to Sanders, 55 to 33 percent.

But the ex-candidate, who now works as a marketing and branding consultant in Essex Junction, defends Johnston as “smart and tenacious.”

“Did Darcie give as good as she gets? Absolutely. Is she the one who’s going to go the extra mile and run a totally negative campaign because the other person’s running a nasty campaign? Absolutely not,” Sweetser says. “I think with Darcie, it’s ‘Attack me, and we’re going to come right back after you.’”

As it was for many longtime Jeffords aides, the senator’s decision in 2001 to leave the Republican Party and become an independent was a painful one for Johnston and her family.

Jimmy Johnston, who’d known Jeffords since the two grew up together in Rutland, recalls a phone call from a Providence Journal reporter who was looking for a reaction.

“I said I felt like I got kicked in the balls,” the elder Johnston told the reporter, who asked permission to substitute the word ‘stomach’ for ‘balls.’”

His daughter, who had rejoined the Jeffords apparatus as a fundraising consultant during the senator’s 2000 reelection campaign, says the experience was “horrible, tough, confusing and emotional.”

Jeffords himself wrote about the younger Johnston’s reaction to the news in his 2001 memoir, My Declaration of Independence.

“Darcie is a rock-solid Republican and had been very active in all of the Bush for President campaigns,” he wrote. “Days before, she had expressed her sincere hope that I would not make the switch, but now she was calling in tears to say she still wished I had decided differently but she would support me personally.”

Johnston continued to help her mentor raise money until he announced his retirement in 2005.

“She never waivered,” Kurtz, Jeffords’ final chief of staff, says. “Whatever swamp he was in, she’d carry him out.”

Johnston had less luck ingratiating herself with Vermont’s next Republican success story: Jim Douglas. After a brief stint as a fundraiser for the state treasurer’s successful 2002 gubernatorial campaign, Johnston was sidelined mid-campaign by Douglas aides, who accused her of overcharging for her services.

“I just wasn’t part of his crowd,” Johnston says.

Throughout Douglas’ administration, according to two of his former aides, she was persona non grata, thanks to her messy departure from the campaign.

“When you have an eight-year administration and the one Republican operative in Montpelier gets no business, has no access, has no relationship, that’s an indication of something,” says one of the former aides, who would not speak for attribution.

As her Vermont business dried up, Johnston steadily expanded her reach into Rhode Island, Maine and elsewhere in New England, but few of those races ended in victory. She also started a lobbying practice, but says, “It’s usually just last-minute stuff, like on the cigarette tax.”

Not long after Johnston founded VHCF, Brock began signaling an interest in running for higher office.

“He was talking about maybe running for auditor again, or treasurer, and I was really like, ‘go big or go home,’” she recalls. “And you know, Randy may not still believe this, but I think it was the right thing to do. I think we ran a very credible campaign. I think we were very substantive. We exposed a lot of things.”

But Brock’s gubernatorial campaign never really got off the ground. The Republican candidate was easily felled by Shumlin, a politically shrewd incumbent with superior fundraising, organizing, messaging and strategy.

Precisely who ran the Brock campaign was never quite clear. An early announcement named San Francisco-based Bob Wickers as “general consultant, lead strategist and pollster” and Johnston as “fundraising consultant.” But on the ground, Johnston appeared to serve as everything from spokeswoman to policy adviser to campaign manager.

Early on in the campaign, she also served as a distraction when the Vermont Democratic Party attacked her and Brock for a seemingly homophobic Facebook post she shared. The post featured a photo of a soldier smoking a cigarette with the caption, “RED STATES” and a photo of two flamboyantly dressed men with the caption, “BLUE STATES.” Below the two images was the kicker, “ANY QUESTIONS?”

In sharing the post, which was produced by someone else, Johnston wrote, “I wish I lived in a red state. Soon I hope!”

Johnston attributes Brock’s loss to three factors: the lack of expected financial support from the Republican Governors Association, a weakened Vermont Republican Party and Shumlin’s unwillingness to engage his opponent before Labor Day.

But former Vermont Democratic Party chairman Jake Perkinson sees it differently.

“I think there was a tone-deafness. There was a lack of focus on things that people really cared about and more of a focus on an agenda that didn’t really have widespread appeal,” he says of the Brock campaign. “It seemed like it was geared toward a more conservative Republican Party demographic.”

That’s a trait that, thus far, VHCF appears to share. In her public messaging, Johnston seems to be preaching to the anti-Obamacare, anti-single-payer crowd — rather than appealing to the middle. She even admits that those 30,000 robocalls dispatched Tuesday were aimed at “people who share our view.”

How Johnston intends to target her most persuadable audience — anxious small-business owners and middle-class Vermonters — remains unclear.

Despite promises to run television ads, her group still hasn’t. She won’t say how much money VCHF has raised, nor from whom. For now, Johnston’s efforts seem restricted to low-budget e-newsletters and the robocalls, which cost just $800.

“There are always going to be critics of health care reform,” Sterling says. “But to say Vermonters for Health Care Freedom has been effective would probably be an overstatement.”

Johnston says she doesn’t know what’s next for her, though she’s keeping an eye on Vermont’s 2014 gubernatorial race, which could feature a second bid by Brock. Gubernatorial and senate races in New Hampshire may also provide some opportunities, she says.

But how long will the dyed-in-the-wool Republican last in increasingly liberal Vermont?

“I love Vermont,” she says. “I would love to live here all my life. But at some point even I’m going to say uncle on that, because it’s hard. It’s hard to make a living here.”