A Bear-y Political Year
Vermont’s biggest political story of the year? We can’t believe you even had to ask!
It happened one April morning when a certain pajama-free governor heard a few bears prowling around his Montpelier backyard, munching on birdseed. The governor in question leapt into action, risking life and limb to protect his cherished bird feeders — and barely escaped with his life.
If that terrifying mental image doesn’t prompt you to burn this newspaper, we encourage you to read on. We’ve assembled a list of the 10 bear-free, Vermont political stories we hope you didn’t miss this year. Here they are, in loose chronological order:
Perhaps the biggest political story of the year came just 18 days into it. That’s when U.S. District Court Judge J. Garvan Murtha ruled that Vermont had overstepped its bounds when it effectively blocked renewal of Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant’s license to operate past March 2012.
In his decision, Murtha got all up in the state legislature’s grill, citing loose-lipped lawmakers’ testimony as evidence that they were totes trying to shut down the plant because of radiological safety concerns. That’s a no-no, Murtha argued, since the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has sole jurisdiction over such matters.
Much of the political blame for the episode was placed — fairly or not — at the doorstep of Attorney General Bill Sorrell, whose office argued the state’s case. Mostly avoiding responsibility was the guy who actually orchestrated the 2010 Senate vote to shutter the plant: antinuke crusader Gov. Peter Shumlin, who led the Senate at the time.
Yankee could well become one of next year’s top stories, too: The Second Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear the state’s appeal starting January 14.
Burlington’s beleaguered Progressive mayor, Bob Kiss, chose not to run for a third term this year — perhaps because his stewardship of Burlington Telecom made him, um, unelectable.
But that didn’t keep the candidates vying to replace him — particularly Republican Kurt Wright and Democrat Miro Weinberger — from running against Kiss’ record.
In the end, Queen City voters looked askance at the more politically experienced Wright, who’d served for years on the city council and in the state legislature. They opted instead in the March election for a little-known real estate developer and Democratic operative whose only prior public service was a stint on the airport commission.
Weinberger’s win had much to do with the support he received from the Vermont Democratic Party and a slew of high-profile statewide Dems, who were itching to take back city hall after a three-decade drought.
But the biggest reason he won? Burlington’s a liberal town, folks. And without a Prog on the ballot, lefties had little choice in the matter.
When Vermont’s second-largest electric company, Green Mountain Power, made an offer in June 2011 to buy the state’s largest, Central Vermont Public Service, the deal seemed destined for swift approval.
But a persistent, media-savvy campaign led by the iconoclastic Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans) forced regulators to reconsider whether the merged companies — both to be owned by Montréal-based parent company Gaz Métro — should control Vermont’s electric transmission lines.
Meanwhile, the Vermont AARP launched its own attack on the deal, arguing in television ads and direct mail that CVPS should first reimburse consumers the $21 million they paid in higher rates as part of a 2001 bailout of the company.
The deal became high political theater in the waning days of the legislative session last spring, with a motley crew of opponents staging a successful vote in the Senate and an unsuccessful one in the House to mandate ratepayer reimbursement.
In the end, the power companies got their way, as they always do. The Public Service Board approved the messy merger in June — and the two became one big, happy, foreign-owned family.
Plane on the Brain
The fight over whether to base next-generation fighter jets in South Burlington only got louder this year when the Air Force released its long-awaited draft Environmental Impact Statement.
Opponents panned the April report for underestimating the number of homes that would be impacted by the new F-35s, which will be louder than the Vermont Air National Guard’s current fleet of F-16s.
Supporters — led by the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation, Vermont’s congressional delegation, Shumlin and Weinberger — argued that if the F-16 isn’t replaced when it’s phased out, the region will most definitely lose jobs.
Sure, Vermont’s local and state politicians won’t have much — OK any — say in the Pentagon’s final basing decision. But they’re still feeling the heat from a mix of concerned homeowners and professional activists. Whether anyone outside of Chittenden County cares — and whether the politicians will suffer any fallout — remains to be seen.
Law and Disorder
Used to be that incumbent Vermont politicians were safe from a serious challenge until they croaked.
That changed in 2012, when Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan took on — and very nearly defeated — 15-year incumbant Bill Sorrell in the Democratic primary for attorney general.
Donovan’s opening arguments were well received: that Sorrell had lost too many high-profile cases, had alienated too many Democratic allies and lacked the energy of his 38-year-old challenger.
But after snoozing through the first half of primary season, Sorrell finally woke up and realized his job was in jeopardy. In a big assist, he benefited from $200,000 in television ads bought by a Washington, D.C., super PAC financed by his fellow attorneys general.
Sorrell narrowly won the Democratic nomination in August — and went on to defeat Republican Jack McMullen and Progressive Ed Stanak in November — but Donovan performed well. You can bet he’ll make another run for statewide office soon.
State lawmakers spent much of 2012 grappling with the biggest story of 2011: Tropical Storm Irene.
Faced with a damaged state psychiatric hospital and a waterlogged office complex in Waterbury, legislators rejiggered the footprint of state government. They planned a new facility in Barre, consolidated offices in Montpelier and designed a new complex for Waterbury.
Most dramatically, they opted to replace the state hospital with a network of public and private placements throughout the state. They also planned a 25-bed psychiatric facility for Berlin.
But the plot thickened in July when the Shumlin administration learned that FEMA was unlikely to reimburse Vermont nearly as much as expected for the lost state buildings. His Republican rival for governor, Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin), pounced, arguing that Shumlin had misled the legislature about funding sources.
Though FEMA’s decision could set the state back more than $100 million, Shumlin has said it will not deter him from rebuilding as planned.
It took two years, but the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision finally hit Vermont’s political system. And hit it hard.
The floodgates were thrown open in July when a liberal group called Vermont Priorities registered the state’s first super PAC. Just weeks later, an out-of-state Democratic super PAC called the Committee for Justice and Fairness flooded Vermont’s airwaves with television ads in the attorney general’s race.
It only got worse.
In September, a new conservative super PAC popped up, calling itself Vermonters First and spending heavily on behalf of Republican candidates for state treasurer, auditor and the legislature. That group, funded almost entirely by Burlington resident Lenore Broughton, invested a million bucks in campaign ads and mailers — but in the end, few of its candidates won.
Nevertheless, look for incumbent Dems, who’ve been squeamish in the past about placing limits on campaign cash, to finally do something about campaign finance in the legislature next year. And look for more super PACs to sprout up nonetheless.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision to uphold the federal Affordable Care Act was good news for Shumlin, who plans to use Obamacare as a springboard for his own, more comprehensive plan.
But don’t hold your breath for single-payer.
Despite promises from Shumlin early in his tenure that he would secure a federal waiver to implement his plan sooner than 2017, the governor now seems to accept that such a waiver is not in the offing.
That means that while implementation of the Affordable Care Act’s health care exchanges will remain a top priority next year, single-payer will be relegated to the back burner.
The biggest story of the 2012 campaign season was an utter lack of big campaign stories.
Why? Vermont Republicans mostly failed to put top-notch candidates up against incumbent Democrats — and they failed to provide those they fielded with the resources to win.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Congressman Peter Welch (D-VT) both faced no-name, no-chance opponents. And Brock’s campaign against Shumlin never gained traction. Brock was a well-liked, reasonably well-known candidate going into the race — and he ponied up $300,000 of his own dough — but he failed to articulate a coherent message and organize a credible campaign infrastructure. Brock’s 11th-hour decision to go über-negative probably didn’t help either.
The sole star in the Vermont Republican lineup? Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who easily defeated health care lobbyist Cassandra Gekas, a Progressive and Democrat, to hold on to his part-time job.
With no big-league matchups to hold their focus, political observers turned their attention to a pair of down-ballot races for seemingly second-tier offices: those of the state treasurer and auditor.
In the former race, appointed Democratic State Treasurer Beth Pearce faced off in a nasty fight against Wendy Wilton, Rutland’s Republican city treasurer and a former state senator. Wilton’s candidacy was boosted by a ton of ads financed by the Vermonters First super PAC, but her chances appeared to fade after her campaign went super-negative and Democrats rallied behind their candidate.
Pearce prevailed, defeating Wilton 52 to 42 percent.
In the other marquee, down-ballot race, second-time Democratic/Progressive candidate Doug Hoffer went up against 32-year Senate Republican Illuzzi for a seat opened up by the retirement of Republican Tom Salmon. Despite receiving little help from his party, Hoffer proved his doubters wrong, beating Illuzzi 51 to 45 percent.