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Dave Gram Political Columnist

Women With a Plan? New Statehouse Leaders Could Become Political Rivals

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
TIM  NEWCOMB
  • Tim Newcomb

If five of the legislature's top six jobs are held by women and the sixth by a man of color, can we say equality is at hand, at least under the (currently virtual) Golden Dome? Is it fair to start noticing common human foibles, such as ambition and rivalry, in the new leadership class?

Rep. Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) is speaker of the House; Sen. Becca Balint (D-Windham) is president pro tempore of the Senate. The majority leaders are Emily Long (D-Newfane) in the House and Alison Clarkson (D-Windsor) in the Senate. The minority leaders are Pattie McCoy (R-Poultney) in the House and Randy Brock (R-Franklin) in the Senate.

First-term Sen. Kesha Ram (D-Chittenden), whose father came from India, is taking a de facto leadership role speaking out on issues important to women of color. And Democrat Molly Gray is presiding over the Senate as lieutenant governor.

Balint, Ram and Gray are three names that come up often in conversations about who might seek Vermont's seat in the U.S. House or one of its two in the U.S. Senate when one of the aging white men now in those seats exits the scene. That would end Vermont's status as the only state never to have sent a woman to Washington, D.C.

That's why, when Ram appeared to take a shot at Gray during a recent meeting of the Senate Government Operations Committee, "the texts were flying about the first salvo of World War III," according to one Democratic insider.

The committee was discussing how to enforce the Vermont Constitution's requirement that a candidate live at least two years in the state before serving in the legislature and four years before running for governor or lieutenant governor. 

As the committee worked through a list of proposed election law changes, chair Jeanette White (D-Windham), described one as "troubling." "It was a requirement that, in order to be a candidate for office, you had to have voted in every state and general election for which you were eligible..." she said.

Ram, who proposed the voting requirement, finished the sentence: "... for the four years you would be claiming residency." Ram went on to tell her colleagues that the residency requirements either should be better defined or scrapped.

"And so, at some point, I just felt like the one thing I would think we would hope all the candidates would do in the two or four years before they run for office is vote in those elections," Ram said.

Coincidentally — or perhaps not — Gray faced just such questions about residency and voting in her campaign for lieutenant governor last year. Gray grew up on her family's farm in Newbury but had been absent from Vermont some in recent years. Her travels to Switzerland while working for a human rights group included renting an apartment in Geneva for 15 months in 2017 and 2018. Gray didn't vote in a statewide or presidential election between 2008 and 2018, and it's an especially sore spot because a fact check found she was incorrect when she said during a September 24 campaign debate that she had "proudly voted for Hillary Clinton" in 2016. (Her campaign later said she had misspoken.)

In an interview with Fair Game, Ram denied she was trying to give new life to doubts about a potential rival's qualifications. She also made clear she didn't much like the question.

"I have watched as a lot of people outside the building ... have tried to pit women against each other," Ram said. "I hope we can have a debate on the issues without always pitting women against each other."

To which I'd only respond, as a longtime Statehouse reporter, I can recall similar speculation about male political rivals back when they were running the place. Gray was steering clear this week and had her chief of staff, Hazel Brewster, issue a statement praising Balint and Ram as "trailblazers."

As for a choice between better defining residency requirements and scrapping them, I'd vote to scrap them, though it would take an amendment to the state Constitution. They just about perfectly meet the dictionary definition of xenophobia.

And why limit voters' choices? Federal races have no such residency requirement, and in at least one famous instance, Vermont voters showed themselves perfectly capable of giving a newcomer's bid for a U.S. Senate seat all the respect it deserved. 

When Boston businessman-lawyer and wealthy Warren vacation homeowner Jack McMullen took aim at Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in 1998, his opponent in the Republican primary was retired dairy farmer Fred Tuttle. Tuttle's only prior political "experience" was starring as himself in a charming comedic film, Man With a Plan, about a retired dairy farmer who seeks and wins a seat in the U.S. House.

The coup de grâce was delivered during a Vermont Public Radio debate when Tuttle sought to test his opponent's Vermont bona fides by asking, "How many teats does a Holstein have, and how many does a Jersey have?" It was a trick question: Both have four teats. McMullen guessed six, but he was udderly wrong. On primary day, Tuttle beat him 54-44 percent.

The Other Pandemic

I had just awoken, and the first rays of morning sunlight were sneaking around the edges of the window shade. My dreams were coalescing into thoughts, and a metaphor dawned on me.

It's a virus.

Symptoms manifest themselves in varying ways. Some seem so mild you can almost make a plausible denial — almost. Others mesh with preexisting conditions, and the results are scary.

You can't deny the virus is out there, even if you insist it's not present under your own roof. Some recent cases:

A state transportation contractor fired one of its employees last week after he uttered a racial slur during a break in a legislative committee hearing. Steven Gayle blamed his outburst on an underlying mental health issue.

That incident followed the introduction, for the second year in a row, by state Rep. Brian Smith (R-Derby) of a bill that would ban flying flags other than those of the United States and State of Vermont on public school grounds. The proposal followed the display of Black Lives Matter flags at several schools around Vermont.

"This bill has nothing to do with racism," Smith told Fair Game. Hmmm ... The bill's appearance in the legislative hopper, after BLM flag-raisings sparked controversy in a few places, seems, as Yogi Berra once said, "too coincidental to be a coincidence."

Tabitha Moore, former head of the Rutland regional NAACP office, argued in an interview that, because the measure would bar people from using a flag to symbolize opposition to racism, it was functionally racist.

And the beat goes on.

On January 7, the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance wrote to Gov. Phil Scott to highlight the damage it believes the proposed Champlain Parkway, a long-planned roadway designed to speed traffic between Burlington and its southern suburbs, would do to the racially diverse neighborhood around King and Maple streets.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, who is pushing the parkway project, last year declared racism a public health emergency. But white people aren't suffering from it as much as they are from COVID-19. Maybe that's why the governor and a dozen of his top aides aren't taking four hours a week to talk to the media about it.

But racism is definitely a virus. It's contagious. It's not just the curse of Southern states. As Vermont's population grows more racially and ethnically diverse, an ugly Yankee variant is certainly growing more visible right here at home.

Could a vaccine against racism be developed? Well, you couldn't call any such effort Operation Warp Speed. This virus has been a pandemic for more than 400 years.

One Man's Journalist

One unprecedented phenomenon connected to the pandemic has been the news conference marathons that Gov. Scott and his agency and department heads have conducted two or three times a week on Vermont's COVID-19 response. And one of the weirdest aspects of those has been the forum Scott and his staff have provided for off-the-wall questions from Vermont's burgeoning right-wing mediasphere.

So here was Guy Page of the Vermont Daily Chronicle, a conservative website, asking Scott shortly before Joe Biden's inauguration as president last month, "Governor, there's a lot of social media buzz that QAnon ... predicts President [Donald] Trump will declare martial law. If he does, will you and the State of Vermont police cooperate?"

A recent focus of Steve Merrill, a volunteer show host at the public-access cable channel NEK-TV, has been whether Vermont minority groups might be given priority for getting the COVID-19 vaccine. As VTDigger.org's Anne Wallace Allen reported last week, no such plan is in the works.

"Governor," Merrill began at the February 2 news conference, "you'd mentioned set-asides for the BIPOC community. What with no ... federal tribal recognition and, you know, reservations or anything like that, how would one qualify as Indigenous? Do we use the [U.S. Sen.] Elizabeth Warren [D-Mass.] standard with high cheekbones, or did you just take people's word for it?" 

When you can question some folks' claims to Indigenous ancestry and take a shot at a liberal icon like Warren all in one question, hey, that's a clip you might want to save for your job application at Fox News.

Two days later, the governor's office banned Merrill from asking questions at the news conferences. Rebecca Kelley, the governor's communications director, explained in a letter to Merrill that she had found his show to be "hobby entertainment," rather than news.

Merrill told Fair Game he asks good, well-researched questions. "You know how much time I've spent in the last nine months looking up virology and immunology?" he asked. He called his most recent question and its reference to Warren "a little sarcastic."

In a letter to NEK-TV executive director and station manager Tod Pronto, Kelley wrote, "This is not the first time our office has received messages from concerned Vermonters about perceived racist comments/questions in these briefings from Mr. Merrill."

Sarcastic or racist, here's something the public should understand: It's really bad practice for public officials being covered in the news to pick and choose those doing the coverage. Such a process could end up weeding out all but the stenographers and those who decline to hold officials accountable. Even if journalists in the room agree that one of their colleagues has gone off the deep end into racism or QAnon-induced lunacy, that, as one colleague told me, "is the price we pay for the First Amendment."

When you consider the First Amendment priceless, as I do, that's not too high a price to pay.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Women With a Plan? | New Statehouse leaders could become political rivals"