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#vtpoli 2018: A More Interesting Year Than You Thought

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Gov. Phil Scott arrives at the statehouse for the bill-signing ceremony. - JOSH KUCKENS
  • Josh Kuckens
  • Gov. Phil Scott arrives at the statehouse for the bill-signing ceremony.

Conventional wisdom says that 2018 was a snoozefest in Vermont politics. The November election was devoid of suspense, it drew little attention and all the favorites won.

It's true that Vermont events were overshadowed by the torrent of national news. But still, a lot happened. More than you might think. Here's an unscientific list of Vermont's top seven political stories of the year — and, later, an even less scientific list of some memorable moments in state politics.

1. Scott signs three gun-safety bills on the Statehouse lawn. Not alone at his desk, not in his ceremonial office, but out in public before a raucous crowd. Gun-rights advocates showered him with boos and cries of "traitor." Gov. Phil Scott was unbowed.

"I didn't want to be accused of being ashamed of my actions," the governor said shortly afterward. "If I'd signed the bills behind closed doors, it might have given fodder to those who accused me of being a traitor or a coward."

The event may have ensured Scott's reelection. It stuck in the minds of many Vermonters and underscored the governor's image as a leader who puts principle above politics. It also showed that the gun lobby's political power, which had made Vermont one of the most gun-friendly states in the union, had dwindled to insignificance.

2. Scott wins a second term in a bad year for Vermont Republicans. The governor swept to an easy victory, but his party failed to seriously contend for top-ticket offices and lost critical ground in the legislature. Democrats and Progressives now enjoy veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate.

"There's no doubt the dynamic has changed," Scott's communications director, Rebecca Kelley, said after Election Day. True dat. Scott had tied Howard Dean's all-time record with 11 vetoes this year. In 2019 he will no longer be able to count on legislative Republicans to backstop him.

The election results left the Vermont Republican Party in disarray. There have long been indications of tension between Team Scott and the party's conservative base. This year's electoral failures may bring those disagreements out into the open, making it even harder for the party to compete seriously in 2020.

3. Hallquist's historic candidacy. With her victory in the August Democratic primary, Christine Hallquist became the nation's first openly transgender candidate to win a major-party nomination for governor.

Unfortunately for her, a flood of publicity and high-profile endorsements failed to produce the fundraising boost she needed to seriously compete. She finished with less than 40 percent of the vote — but still, she will be remembered as a notable first in LGBTQ history.

4. Bernie sets stage for 2020. Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) reelection further cemented his status as an icon of Vermont politics and cleared the way for a second presidential candidacy. All signs indicate that he is, at the very least, seriously considering a 2020 run. During a late October debate, Sanders refused to commit to serving a full six-year term in the Senate.

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I may not run [for president]," Sanders said. "I may. But on the other hand, I may not."

Well, that clears things up.

5. The (almost) never-ending budget battle. For the second year in a row, Scott engaged in budgetary brinksmanship with the Democratic legislature. For the second year in a row, the battle was unresolved until late June — with a government shutdown looming on July 1.

Top Democrats blamed the governor for unveiling significant proposals in late April and then insisting on their adoption. The governor blamed Dems for balking at ideas he considered sensible. Tempers ran hot; nerves were frayed. But in the end, the standoff didn't seem to register with voters. Scott was reelected, and the Democrats grew their majorities.

The No. 1 political question entering 2019 is: Will Scott adopt a more collaborative approach with the Democratic supermajorities? Or will he risk the embarrassment of veto overrides?

6. Morris resigns. Former Democratic state representative Kiah Morris of Bennington gave up her seat on September 25, citing a continuing pattern of racial harassment and a serious health crisis for her husband, James Lawton. In an interview with Seven Days, Morris called the situation "a complete bonfire of so many different challenges" for her family.

Morris was one of only four people of color in the legislature and the most outspoken on racial justice issues. "We are ill prepared as a state to really talk and think and understand the impacts of systemic racism," said Morris in that same interview. Her departure may motivate Vermonters to start having those conversations.

7. The apparent end of the Vermont Press Bureau. Since many of these columns end with Media Notes, it seems appropriate to close this list with the most prominent marker of daily newspapers' continuing decline this year.

The Press Bureau had provided Statehouse coverage since 1935 and was long a pillar of the state's media infrastructure. At its peak, when it served the Rutland Herald and the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, it had a staff of three full-time reporters. By mid-2017, Neal Goswami was the last journalist standing. And when the 2018 legislative session began, he had decamped to WCAX-TV and the bureau was empty. At the time, management promised to hire a replacement.

But since then, the papers have been sold for the second time in 18 months. The new owner, the Pennsylvania-based Sample News Group, is known for a focus on hyper-local coverage.

"Obviously there's going to probably be changes in certain ways, like philosophically and all that," Herald general manager Rob Mitchell said after the sale. So far, "all that" appears not to include a fresh commitment to statewide coverage.

Snapshots

Here's a purely personal collection of seven moments from 2018. They may not be very impactful, but they do reveal the human side of politics that's often overlooked in our obsession with winners and losers and power plays.

1. A goddess ascends. For much of 2018, the Statehouse was bereft of its familiar profile. The wooden statue representing Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, was removed last spring. After 80 years atop the golden dome, Ceres had fallen victim to the ravages of wind and weather.

The statue's replacement was part of a $2 million renovation of the dome, including significant structural work and a re-gilding of its surface. Vermont sculptors Chris Miller and Jerry Williams worked through the summer and early fall on a new statue. Their creation was finally installed on November 30, and the stately dome looks better than ever.

2. The political debate that ended in song. Democrat Lucy Rogers and Republican Zac Mayo became friends as they competed for an open legislative seat in Lamoille County. They closed one of their debates by pulling out their instruments and singing a song called "Society," which had been performed by Pearl Jam front person Eddie Vedder in the film "Into the Wild."

It was a touching moment of civility in a bitter political season, and our story about the duet went viral. Rogers and Mayo wound up re-creating their duet for CBS News. (In November, Rogers won the formerly Republican-held seat.)

Postscript: Pearl Jam mega-fan Rebecca Kelley recently informed me that although Vedder's recording of "Society" is the best-known version, the song was actually written by California musician Jerry Hannan. We regret the error.

3. Dave's tie sale. Retiring Rep. Dave Sharpe (D-Bristol) decided to celebrate his pending liberation from dress codes by putting most of his famously colorful tie collection up for sale in late April outside the Statehouse cafeteria. According to Sharpe, sales totaled roughly $700, with the proceeds going to Friends of the Vermont State House, a nonprofit devoted to preservation and education efforts around the building.

4. The candidate/page. Democrat Ethan Sonneborn broke a few glass ceilings in his gubernatorial campaign. He declared his candidacy at age 13 and, although he was widely seen as a novelty, he was a creditable presence on the campaign trail. Sonneborn's Twitter feed was by far the most interesting of any Vermont politician, and his press releases showed an awareness well beyond his years.

The most noteworthy passage of his candidacy came when he served as a Statehouse page for several weeks. He was almost certainly the first person in American history to be a page and a gubernatorial candidate at the same time. And he managed to win 4,696 votes in the Democratic primary. Not bad.

5. The Holcombe boomlet. It was a curious event in a curious Democratic gubernatorial campaign. On March 27, Rebecca Holcombe abruptly resigned as Vermont's education secretary without explanation. On April 18, Seven Days reported that Holcombe departed over deep policy disagreements with the Scott administration. In the weeks following, the rumor mill produced whispers that Holcombe might run for governor.

As the rumblings grew louder, Holcombe declined to address them. But in late May, just before the filing deadline for candidates, she finally issued a definitive statement to Seven Days via text: "I am not running for office," she wrote.

Oh, well. It was fun while it lasted.

6. The buzzards attack. Last January, Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D-Chittenden) introduced a "right to repair" bill. The goal was to make it easier for Vermonters and independent repair shops to fix a variety of implements and gadgets, from smartphones and computers to cars and tractors. Pearson argued that corporations often make it difficult or even impossible to access instructional manuals and replacement parts, as a way to boost profits and force consumers to deal with manufacturers or licensed repair outfits.

The bill went to the Senate Economic Development Committee, which held a series of hearings. One, in mid-February, attracted a flock of sharply dressed out-of-state lobbyists who warned of security breaches, rogue machinery, and life-and-death consequences. They were clearly spouting extravagant worst-case scenarios. But in the end, their testimony carried enough weight that the bill was stripped of its original intent and reduced to a mere study of the issue.

7. A newspaper survives a fire. Again, we close with a Media Note. The Vermont Standard, which claims to be the state's oldest newspaper, suffered a devastating fire at its Woodstock offices on July 16. Publisher Phil Camp immediately vowed that the paper would continue to publish.

He kept that promise. That week's edition of the Standard came out one day later than usual and featured a front-page report on its own fire. "I couldn't have found a better picture to sell newspapers," Camp said at the time.

It may be tough times for the news business, but Camp showed once again that journalists are truly a hardy bunch.

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