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Truth Takes a Holiday

Fair Game


Published July 2, 2008 at 5:28 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Stephen Colbert's truthiness is emerging as a new journalistic standard in Vermont: ignoring facts in the service of a good story.

Case in point: the fallout from last week's charge by gubernatorial hopeful Anthony Pollina that Republican Gov. Jim Douglas was unfairly taking credit for the burgeoning "buy local movement."

A quick recap: On Wednesday, Progressive Pollina claimed the success of the "buy local" marketing campaign "was the work of farmers and citizens, not politicians." The claim came after an Agency of Agriculture publication touted the gov's "Buy Local movement." Pollina characterized the governor's program as anemic. The Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont deserved the credit, he said. Not surprisingly Pollina served on the NOFA board more than 20 years ago.

The Douglas administration snapped back saying the governor's Buy Local program was successful, coordinated, well-funded and his.

A few mainstream media outlets ran with the story, which was mostly a tit for tat between Pollina and Douglas; Democrat Gaye Symington stayed out of it. On Thursday, the website - part of a national network of political sites owned by the New York Observer - ran its own story, headlined "Farming organization chief on Pollina: 'NOFA was almost used to make a point.'" The piece, by Zach Silber, was an interview with NOFA-VT's longtime director Enid Wonnacott, who praised Douglas and his administration for his buy-local efforts and promotional largesse.

Douglas' campaign quickly blasted an email citing the "story" as proof that Pollina's claims were half-baked. This meme was later picked up by Burlington Free Press reporter Sam Hemingway in a blog post titled "Anthony's Ag-ony."

Hemingway opened with this salvo: "Progressive gubernatorial candidate Anthony Pollina is under attack from a group you'd least expect to have it out for him - the Northeast Organic Farmers Association."

After quoting heavily from the PolitickerVT story, Hemingway concluded, "Not exactly a boffo moment for the Progressive, who is having his troubles being heard in the ongoing back-and-forth between Douglas and his Democratic rival, Gaye Symington."

I see Hemingway's post as a sign of things to come from the state press corps. Many say, privately, that Pollina is an idiot for not challenging Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie instead of running against Douglas and for staying in the race after Symington entered it.

Hemingway's take on the matter was amplified at Green Mountain Daily, which repeated the charge that NOFA was on the attack, noting Pollina was "bloodied" by the blowback.

Here's the problem: The PolitickerVT story appears to be more fiction than fact. Curious about Wonnacott's statements, "Fair Game" did what journalists are supposed to do: pick up the phone and call the source instead of repeating shit spewed on a blog.

"I can't believe how misquoted I was!" Wonnacott said of the PolitckerVT story. "He put things in quotations that I absolutely never said." She called Silber to tell him the story was wrong, and instructed him to never call her again. She also told Pollina's camp to call her if NOFA's name is ever going to be brought up in a campaign spot.

"Fair Game" emailed Silber for a response. He declined to comment on the record, and referred questions to Politicker's managing editor James Pindell.

Wonnacott says the Douglas administration's "Buy Local" program has not been a rousing success - she says it's largely about public-service announcements instead of putting food on people's tables or at the farmer's markets. Neither Douglas, nor NOFA, can lay claim to the success of the buy-local movement, she said. It's been a collaborative effort - no one person or program can take credit, she told "Fair Game."

Hemingway only made a bad story worse by insinuating that NOFA had it in for Pollina. "For Sam to say that we're attacking Anthony is simply wrong. I don't have a beef with Anthony," she said. "This was not something we instigated, nor would we ever."

Colbert would be proud.


Hey Brother, Can You Spare $5000? - Gov. Douglas is renowned for his ribbon-cutting prowess. Now he's brandishing his scissors at the state's workforce.

This week, the Douglas administration unveiled a list of 150 positions being cut, the first of 400 jobs to be trimmed from the public payroll. In all, this could save $25 million annually from the state's general fund, according to Deputy Secretary of Administration Linda McIntire. The state employs about 8500 people.

The offices in charge of overseeing the cuts - the Department of Human Resources, Department of Finance and Management and the Governor's Office - were spared. Talk about leading by example. ***Correction, see below***

The Agency of Human Services took the biggest hit with 98 job losses, a number of which were associated with the rollout of Catamount Health. No wonder so few people are enrolling in the program.

No department is likely to be unscathed when the next round of 250 job cuts is announced, said McIntire, including those headed by pols elected separately from the governor. Just in time for the holidays, departments have until October 31 to offer up the sacrificial jobs. McIntire reiterated that the cuts will not affect the delivery of public services to the poor and others in need.

Meanwhile, about the time their colleagues' jobs were being eliminated, about 115 employees were receiving bonuses totaling nearly $300,000.

Jason Gibbs, the governor's chief spokesman, saw two separate bonuses totaling $10,200. One $5000 bonus came in mid-November after Administration Secretary Mike Smith issued memos urging state bosses to look for savings.

Gibbs also received an 8 percent bonus for taking over duties assigned to the secretary of civil and military affairs, a position vacated in early June by Dennise Casey. Casey took her leave to run Douglas' reelection campaign.

Not all the bonuses were handed to Douglas' staff. For example, a principal assistant working under State Auditor Tom Salmon saw his pay bumped from $59.89 to $62.42 an hour - the annual equivalent of $5200. And a number of attorneys working for Attorney General Bill Sorrell received sizeable merit bonuses.

As a civic duty, I hope they plan to dispose of some of that income during the upcoming sales-tax holiday.


A Little Help from Her Friends - All politics may be local, but Gaye Symington made an appearance in Washington, D.C., last week.

Symington was the guest of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sibelius at a special luncheon of the Democratic Governors Association, a group Sibelius once chaired. The Kansas Democrat is considered to be one of Sen. Barack Obama's vice presidential hopefuls.

"I was very impressed with the work that Speaker Symington has done for the citizens of Vermont, and by her energy and enthusiasm about this race for governor," Sibelius told "Fair Game" in a prepared statement. "I look forward to working with my fellow Democratic governors to support the candidacy of Gaye Symington and also having her join our ranks in helping to bring about the change that Americans are looking for in 2008."

The DGA is also impressed with Symington, according to Brian Namey, the organization's spokesman. "There are 11 races for governor this year that are very competitive, and Vermont is in that mix," Namey said. "We are actively engaged with Gaye's campaign." Namey said the DGA's political team has visited Vermont to meet with Gaye and her staff.

Their support is significant: The DGA sat out the last two elections in Vermont, allocating its resources to more competitive states. And, thanks to the GOP's efforts to keep the legislature from limiting campaign contributions from outside entities, the DGA can spend an unlimited amount on Symington's behalf.

The Republican Governor's Association may do the same. In 2004, the RGA dumped roughly $250,000 into Vermont for Douglas, and ran afoul of the state's election laws by not properly registering as a political action committee.


Freeman's Oath - The Democrats may have a candidate to unseat Lt. Gov. Dubie, and believe it or not, he's not a doctor. Northfield upholsterer and blogger Nate Freeman announced his candidacy over the weekend.

"Vermont needs a lieutenant governor who will build a coalition of forces together on his way to the governor's office so that we can at least address three converging storms on the horizon: the end of oil, climate change, and the decline of economic strength," Freeman said.

Freeman told "Fair Game" he hopes to work with Progressives. "When I look at the rift between the two liberal parties," he said, "I am reminded of how parliamentary systems require coalition building to achieve successful campaigns and policy making."

Freeman blogs at Green Mountain Daily, where he recently posted a video of the ailing Taylor Street Bridge in Montpelier. The video showed a broken crosspiece swaying every time a car passed. Unnerving to say the least. The mainstream press picked up the story, which quoted state and local transportation officials saying the video, and its running commentary, was much ado about nothing.

One look at the video will make you think twice about the status quo. Freeman hopes voters will do the same thing in November.


Brock is Back - Former State Auditor Randy Brock, a Swanton Republican, is running for . . . state senate. Brock had been urged to run against Rep. Peter Welch, and had pondered a rematch with Salmon. He decided against it because Salmon would be serving overseas in Iraq during the campaign. His travel schedule will leave little opportunity for debates.

The GOP is hoping Brock will bolster Republican ranks in the senate - currently seven out of 30 senators are GOPers. Democrats Don Collins and Sara Kittell represent the two-seat Franklin County senate district.


Gimme Shelter - Getting out of town can clear the mind. I did just that this past weekend, avoiding the crowds and camaraderie of the third annual bloggers picnic at North Beach, the Chew Chew Festival and Michael Franti.

Three years ago on the Fourth of July, my mother died after a seven-month battle with ovarian cancer. For some reason, I've been thinking of her a lot more this year and little remembrances surface daily: the smell of wild chamomile; dill chicken; black-eyed susans; sweet and sour pickles; sugar snap peas; turquoise and silver jewelry; peasant skirts; black plums; and The Rolling Stones.

Her favorite song, "You Can't Always Get What You Want," gets me every time. I surmise she first heard the song, off 1969's Let It Bleed, when I was one, she was 21, her generation's musical and political heroes were dead or dying, her one-year-old marriage was crumbling. Shortly after, she got what she needed - shelter in Vermont.

Saturday morning, I headed out of town to pick up our oldest son. He'd been at the grandparents for two weeks, and we met halfway, at Manchester's Northshire Bookstore - a rendezvous point of which my mom would have approved. For 20 years, she was an elementary school librarian in Holland, VT.

Traffic going south was moderate, the threatening storm was holding off and Let it Bleed blared. Just south of Rutland, as I passed the turn for U.S. 4, the sun broke out, and Mick sang, "If you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need."

Thanks, mom, for the reminder.


The Department of Human Resources and the Department of Finance and Management were not spared job cuts, as "Fair Game" originally reported. Each department lost three positions; however, two of the Finance and Management positions had never been filled. Also, Douglas aid Jason Gibbs received his second $5,000 merit bonus in October 2007, before the administration department heads were notified about the need cut positions from their payroll.