Which Side Are You On? The State Employees Union Airs Its Dirty Laundry | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Fair Game

Which Side Are You On? The State Employees Union Airs Its Dirty Laundry

Fair Game


Published June 19, 2013 at 12:29 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

No matter how you look at it, irony abounds in the very public leadership feud that engulfed the state’s second largest labor union last week.

The board of the Vermont State Employees Association, which represents some 5200 state workers, voted 10-6 last Wednesday to fire executive director Mark Mitchell. Just five days later, the board reversed course — voting 10-7 to reinstate the union boss and put him on paid leave, pending an investigation.

What’s so ironic about that?

Though nobody will say it on the record, those agitating for Mitchell’s ouster claim he willfully violated federal labor law by refusing to pay the union’s own employees time and a half for overtime work. Noting that the union itself is currently fighting the state over similar alleged abuses of the Fair Labor Standards Act, one board member privately called Mitchell’s actions “the height of hypocrisy.”

According to a leaked email written by VSEA general counsel Michael Casey, who allegedly led the coup, Mitchell “knowingly allowed the organization to violate numerous laws, exposing VSEA to liability.”

In the opposite camp, Mitchell’s supporters say his summary firing represents everything the union fights to spare its own members. Mitchell says he was never informed of the allegations lodged against him, had no opportunity to defend himself and was terminated — albeit only temporarily — without warning.

“The board one minute learned some allegations and the next minute voted to get rid of the guy. There was no investigation outside of the allegations,” said board of trustees president John Reese, a Mitchell ally, shortly after news of the firing emerged last week. “Based on the allegations that were made, it’s crazy, frankly. I think it’s entirely unfair and, at the end of the day, Mark will be vindicated.”

Crazy? Perhaps. But you know what else is crazy?

Let’s see … How about a board president who speaks out publicly about an internal personnel matter and calls a decision made by his own board “crazy?” Oh, and how about the general counsel of a union emailing a factionalized — and very leaky — board to tell them that the organization he represents broke the law?

Dude, I didn’t go to law school, but even I know you’re not supposed to put that shit in writing!

Behind all the smoke and mirrors — and each faction’s lofty rhetoric about what’s driving the internecine warfare — the entire situation amounts to a personality conflict.

A lot of people really just don’t like Mark Mitchell. They haven’t since he arrived from California a year and a half ago with a hard-charging attitude and a mission to shake up the union.

Soon after he arrived, Mitchell antagonized the state’s political class, as Seven Days reported last October. Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding said he didn’t have “a trusting relationship” with the guy, while Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell said Mitchell had an “in-your-face style” that “is not the Vermont way.”

Last fall, six of the union’s 19 staff members left the organization within a five-week period — and four of them told Seven Days they blamed Mitchell for their departures.

“All of us have left because of our lack of confidence in the abilities of the director,” wrote one of those ex-employees, Lucinda Kirk, in a letter to the board in which she called Mitchell “untrustworthy and reckless.”

Another of those who departed at the time was former legislative coordinator Conor Casey, whose brother, Michael, is the guy allegedly leading the current coup.

Mitchell’s supporters praise him for reinvigorating what they contend had become a moribund institution. They note that he’s rebuilt the union’s staff and — thanks to a dues increase he supported — deployed more organizers into the field.

Mitchell’s performance aside, the real story here is that it’s amateur hour at one of the state’s most important unions. This isn’t the first organization in Vermont to endure a leadership crisis, but it’s one of the sloppiest in recent memory.

With the union fast approaching its biennial collective bargaining season with the state, that’s bad news for its members and bad news for Vermont’s labor movement.

“This is Jeb Spaulding’s wet dream,” says one labor leader who, for obvious reasons, did not want to be identified.

With the board-ordered investigation into Mitchell’s actions expected to take a month, it’s too soon to say how the union will resolve the matter. But if it’s serious about addressing its dysfunction, the VSEA will have to look beyond Mitchell — perhaps to the composition of its board.

With unions like this one, who needs management?

Dean Scene

Hard to believe, but it was 10 years ago this weekend that former governor Howard Dean stepped up to a podium on Church Street and formally launched his 2004 presidential campaign.

Vowing to “take our country back” from George W. Bush, Dean told a crowd of 2000 adoring fans, “We are built from mouse pads, shoe leather and hope.”

Mouse pads? What are those, grandpa?

By the time the Church Street rally rolled around, of course, Ho-Ho’s campaign train had already left the station. But as my predecessor, Peter Freyne, noted in these pages, it wasn’t until June that Dr. Dean “caught lightning in a bottle” and became “the man to beat.”

“It was an unbelievable summer. We came from no place to the leading candidate for president on the Democratic side,” says Dean, who plans to celebrate the 10-year anniversary this Sunday at a reunion of campaign staffers at Burlington’s Oakledge Park. The event, scheduled for 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., is open to the public. “It was sort of an unforgettable moment in political history, and it’ll be fun to bring together a lot of the people that had to do with it.”

Dean’s memories of his kickoff speech aren’t quite what you’d expect. He says it was one of the first times his staff made him deliver a prepared political speech — written mostly by somebody else: “I didn’t like it, and I remember not feeling particularly comfortable, but it went really well.”

Among those planning to attend the celebration is Washingtonian magazine editor-in-chief Garrett Graff, a Montpelier native who was still in high school when he started interning for Gov. Dean and later served as the presidential campaign’s deputy national press secretary. He says he remembers well the closing days of June — just before Dean shattered quarterly fundraising records, raising nearly half his $7 million haul online.

“We knew we were living through something that was remarkable,” Graff says. “We knew that the internet was allowing people to participate in politics in a way that they had never been able to do.”

Indeed, that very week deputy campaign manager Bob Rogan, who now serves as Congressman Peter Welch’s chief of staff, predicted to Freyne that the Dean campaign would “raise more money on the internet than any campaign in the history of the internet.”

“This is the beginning of rewriting the book on how presidential campaigns operate in this country,” Rogan, who plans to attend the Oakledge Park reunion, told Freyne.

I don’t know, man. I still think it’s a fad.

Dean himself sees a “pretty linear” progression from the online innovations his campaign pioneered to those employed by a certain Illinois state senator who ran for president four years later. He points to Joe Rospars, who joined the Dean campaign the day of the Church Street rally and went on to serve as chief digital strategist for Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

“Obama ran the two best campaigns I’ve ever seen,” Dean says. “I think the general blueprint came from our campaign, and I know it did because he said so. But it’s the difference between driving a Model T and driving a Maserati.”

Dean pauses to correct himself: “Maybe we were a horse-drawn carriage.”

So was there any lasting impact from a campaign that nobody expected to take off but for a brief moment did?

“I think that the legacy of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign is sitting in the White House today,” Graff says. “If you look around at the major Democratic institutions in the United States today, they are effectively all run by people who either worked for the Dean campaign or subscribed to the type of organization that Dean wanted to be.”

In particular, he points to EMILY’s List president Stephanie Schriock, Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin, Obama campaign national field director Jeremy Bird and Rospars.

“On a personal level, it’ll be fun to reconnect with a lot of the people that were in ground zero,” says former Dean spokeswoman Sue Allen, who now plays the same role for Gov. Peter Shumlin. “Some of us have been in touch over the years, but most of us haven’t. It’ll be interesting to see where people landed.”

Too Many Chiefs?

Are political “chiefs of staff” trending in Vermont?

First came Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, who elevated his sole paid staff position from “assistant” to “chief of staff” last November when he hired Rebecca Ramos for the role. (The new title came with a $20,000 pay increase.)

Now comes Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, who’s proposing to promote right-hand man Mike Kanarick to the lofty new title of chief of staff. Kanarick, Weinberger’s former campaign spokesman, currently holds one of the office’s two “assistant to the mayor” positions — the second of which Weinberger created just last year.

Though Kanarick would get a $14,332 raise, Weinberger says the proposed mayor’s office reorg would actually save $9424, because the second “assistant” position would be downgraded to “mayoral projects coordinator” — with a corresponding cut in salary.

That second position was vacated two weeks ago when former city councilor and state representative Carina Driscoll left the mayor’s office to return to the Vermont Woodworking School, which she cofounded. Driscoll says she left City Hall because she felt she’d completed her goals there, and the school needed more day-to-day attention.

Does a city with a population of 42,000 really need a mayoral chief of staff?

“The mayor’s responsible for a lot,” Weinberger says. “My sense is, having a chief of staff, as many kind of executive-branch-type officials have, is a structure that has worked out and makes sense.”

Burlington’s Board of Finance approved Weinberger’s proposed reorg 5-0 last Monday. The city council will vote on it at its next meeting on June 24.

Media Notes

One of Vermont’s — and the nation’s — most talented and provocative young journalists died in a Los Angeles car crash Tuesday morning.

Michael Hastings, who moved to Vermont at age 16 and graduated from Rice Memorial High School in 1998, was just 33 years old.

Best known for a 2010 Rolling Stone cover story that led to the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Hastings was no stranger to dangerous assignments. While serving as an Iraq war correspondent for Newsweek in 2007, his fiancé, Andi Parhamovich, was killed in an ambush.

Hastings wrote about her death in his first book, I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern Love Story.

A contributor to BuzzFeed and GQ magazine and contributing editor to Rolling Stone, Hastings’ focus had shifted in recent years to domestic politics, where he made quite a stir. When he pressed then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s spokesman about the Benghazi attacks last fall, the aide memorably told him to “fuck off.”

Though Hastings lived in New York City with his wife, Elise Jordan, he told Vermont Life earlier this year that he considered Vermont his “spiritual home.” That Vermont Life story — and a cover photo of Hastings on the Burlington waterfront — remains on newsstands today.

Our hearts go out to Hastings’ friends and family.