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Trailblazer for the New Vermont?

Inside Track


Published May 14, 2003 at 4:00 p.m.

It's time to meet Jim Barnett. The 27-year-old Barre native is scheduled to be anointed Saturday as the new chairman of the Vermont Republican Party. It'll be a paid position for the first time in decades.

What's it all about?

Gov. Jim Douglas put it best.

"It's very important," said the Guv, "because it's only 500 and some odd days until the next election. It's important to consolidate the efforts of the Republican Party so that my campaign and the campaigns of legislators as well as the party organization be coordinated.

"Jim Barnett is one of the architects of my successful campaign last year. His experience both in Washington and Montpelier will provide the kind of coordinated, strong leadership that will be necessary next time."

Look, you don't have to remind Gov. Jimbo and his press-conference sidekick, Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, how fortunate they were to win their seats without getting anywhere near a majority of the votes. Douglas won with 46 percent. Dubie got just 41 percent.

In 2004 they simply can't count on a Progressive like Anthony Pollina to split the Vermont left. They have to be realistic and start now to plan a strategy to break the 50 percent threshold. If they don't, both Douglas and Dubie will be one-term wonders.

What we have here, folks, is a case of the new Republican governor grabbing the state party organization by the horns. Out goes the current GOP chairman Joe Acinapura, 68, as Gov. Jimbo slides grandpa over gently into a veteran's advisory post. And in comes James Barnett to hold onto the Republican beachhead and maybe even expand it.

Indeed, Barnett is one sharp political operative. Born and raised in Barre, he graduated Spaulding High School in 1994. The 130-pound defensive back co-captained the football team. He was ninth in his class out of 200, he told Seven Days this week, and won a scholarship to American University in Washington, D.C.

His major?

Political science, what else?

After graduation Jim hooked up with the Republican National Committee, and in 2001 walked into a White House job on the coattails of George W. Bush.

For role models, there's Lee Atwater and Dubya's political guru Karl Rove.

"I have great respect for Karl Rove and Lee Atwater," said Barnett. Atwater, the spin doctor who got Reagan elected, played a mean blues guitar. Barnett told Seven Days he just purchased a new Fender Stratocaster and is teaching himself to play.

Mr. Barnett first hit our radar screen in the early days of the 2002 gubernatorial race. He teamed up with fellow American University grad Neale Lunderville. Neale was the campaign manager. Jim was his deputy.

The Nasty Boys, as we called them, went to war against Democrat Doug Racine. Barnett dug deep into Racine's political record and pumped out the contradictions on an almost daily basis. He was pushy and persistent. And his "flip-flopper" strategy proved the undoing of Doug the Democrat.

The boys never gave up, even when a Burlington Free Press poll two days before the election showed Racine 10 points ahead.

"I want to make the Republican Party the majority party in Vermont," said Barnett. "That's the long and short of it."

To get there, he'll have to walk a fine line between Republican conservatives and Republican moderates.

"There's a good part of the party that believes strongly in the rights of the unborn," said Barnett. "We also are open to other views. The governor is pro-choice and he's about the best thing we've got going for us right now."

He called discussion on the abortion issue healthy. "Certainly," said Barnett, "you don't see that kind of openness in the Democratic Party."

Despite his young age -- we can't recall a younger state chair -- Barnett said he has the experience to handle the job. He promises to bring energy and enthusiasm to a political party with a shrinking membership.

"We're a party," he said, "that's aging to the point where we're literally dying off." It's not just a lack of 20-year-olds, said Barnett. "You frankly don't see a lot of 30- and 40-year-olds taking an active role," said the incoming state chairman.

As for 2004, Barnett told Seven Days, "I think we can beat Democrats with or without the Progressive Party if we organize the troops correctly."

If they don't, it won't be for lack of hard work. If they do, Jim Barnett is on track to start his own political consulting firm by his 30th birthday.

Targeting Leahy -- A right-wing special-interest group from Washington, D.C., is doing its bit to contribute to the Vermont economy these days by launching an outrageous ad campaign attacking our senior senator, Patrick J. Leahy. The issue is President George W. Bush's plan to change the federal bench so that judges will not only wear robes but have the option of adding KKK-friendly hoods, too.

"Shame on you, Pat Leahy, shame!" is the out-cue of the radio spot airing this week on two local Clear Channel-owned stations: Champ 101.3 and The Zone 96.7. It derides St. Patrick for not greasing the senate skids for Pop Gun's most-favored right-wing judicial nominees, like his old Texas buddy Miquel Estrada. Setting up Estrada for a Supreme Court seat appears to be the Bush plan.

The ad campaign is paid for by an inside-the-beltway outfit that calls itself American Renewal. It's the lobbying arm of the ultraconservative Family Research Council. Both groups are playing up the attack on Sen. Leahy on their Web sites. No doubt it greatly pleases their followers.

But the rather innocuous names of these two groups conceal their hard-right political agendas. The FRC -- -- proclaims it stands for Judeo-Christian virtues. This Taliban-style God Squad condemns everything and anything that relates to rights for women or homosexuals. Roe v. Wade and Vermont's landmark civil-unions law are the work of the Great Satan!

The FRC attack ad reflects the White House's take-no-prisoners political style. Apparently, truth is not one of their virtues, either. (Hey, Mr. President, where'd you say Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction" were?)

The fact is, more judicial vacancies have been filled under Bush than the Republicans allowed under Bill Clinton. To date, 124 of Pop Gun's judges have been approved by the U.S. Senate. Only two have not.

The fact is, the vacancy rate on the federal bench is the lowest in 13 years. It's even lower than the national unemployment rate, which is shooting up quickly under President Bush's brave leadership.

In politics, the action is in the reaction. The FRC's shameful ad campaign may play well to the true believers inside the beltway, but it only strengthens St. Patrick's broad and deep support in the Green Mountains.

Let's face it, folks. Since winning a Senate seat in 1974, Leahy has become Vermont's answer to New Hampshire's late, great Old Man of the Mountain.

The difference is, St. Patrick has a backbone. New Hampshire's pet rock did not.

Perhaps the Bushies are hoping the ad campaign will soften Leahy's support as we start the roll toward the 2004 election?

Dream on, boys and girls.

Just last week the Leahy Campaign held a little fundraiser at Theresa Alberghini DiPalma's Burlington home. It was attended by an all-star cast of prominent Vermont business people, including distinguished Republicans who surely supported Bush in 2000.

Among them were Angelo Pizzagalli, of construction fame, Bill Stenger of ski-area fame, Brian Cosgrove (former executive director of the Vermont Republican Party), Louise McCarren, of Fletcher Allen fame, John O'Kane of IBM fame, and Wayne Roberts, of the Lake Champlain Chamber.

Louise once ran for Lite-Gov as a Republican. Her hubbie, Ed Amidon, is a Republican legislator. Mr. Roberts once toiled proudly in the Ronald Reagan White House.

Just like six years ago, Leahy's got his ducks lined up. Democrat ducks and Republican ducks.

Just like six years ago, Jack McMullen, the millionaire Massachusetts transplant, is seeking the GOP's nomination to battle Leahy.

Unlike six years ago, however, Fred Tuttle, the retired Tun-bridge dairy farmer, won't be taking on McMillion, er, McMullen in the GOP primary. You'll recall that Mr. Tuttle humiliated Mr. McMullen in 1998 and promptly endorsed St. Patrick. This time, it looks like a clear track for Jack.

Mr. McMullen has already pumped out an op-ed piece on judicial appointments that echoes the FRC's attack ads. They're obviously reading from the same script.

If McMullen had any political smarts, though, he'd call off the attack dogs. That's because the "Shame on Leahy" spots only serve to crystallize the respect most Vermonters have for St. Patrick and the causes he has long stood for.

Last Friday Pop Gun himself went on the attack. The president used the Rose Garden to whine before the cameras about the fact that he hasn't gotten every single judicial appointment he wants fast enough.

It's scary. Total control is this man's ambition, folks. Congress' only reason to exist is to rubber-stamp the emperor's every decree. Unless you've been lucky enough to live in a cave the last two years, you've witnessed the sad hijacking of American democracy by the best president money could buy.

Sen. Leahy responded quickly to Pop Gun's Rose Garden tongue-lashing. He said in a statement, "Despite his earlier promises, the President has been a divider and not a uniter in choosing many of his nominees, who would roll back the hard-won rights of workers, women, minorities and consumers, and who would side with the big polluters over communities when it comes to clean air and water."

As Howard Dean would say, "We want our country back!"

Speaking of Ho-Ho -- For more than a decade yours truly's been calling Gov. Howard Dean "Ho-Ho."

It's been a term of endearment, a reflection of his high-energy, can-do, go-go personality.

"Ho-Ho" has become part of the Vermont political vernacular, as in, "Anybody see Ho-Ho lately?"

But on Monday, "Ho-Ho" appeared for the first time in the pages of the credibility-challenged New York Times. Yes, the Grey Lady is having a rough sail these days in the wake of the Great Jayson Blair Journalism Scandal. But that's another story.

Reporter Adam Nagourney wrote a snappy piece stirring up the John Kerry-Howard Dean feud that boiled over in the recent Carolina debate. The "scrappy" and "diminutive" Dean vs. the "solemn" and "towering" Kerry.

Though Nagourney baited him as best he could, Kerry restrained himself. "I'd like to stay focused on President Bush," said Kerry.

"That restraint is not entirely shared in Mr. Kerry's camp," reported the Times. "In Mr. Kerry's circles, Dr. Dean has become known, not endearingly, by the nickname Ho-Ho."

Not endearingly?

Attempts to question a Kerry spokesman were unsuccessful.

What's with these Kerry people, anyway? Now they've stolen a piece of Vermontiana and rever-sed its meaning. It's just not right.

Hey, hey, Ho-Ho, the Kerry campaign is full of "snow!"

Holy Computer Glitch! -- A few readers have called about yours truly's other column in the current edition of Vermont Business Magazine. It's a column that ran last November.

VBM Editor Tim McQuiston blames computer gremlins for the snafu. Fortunately, he's posted the correct column on the monthly's Web site: