Can’t We All Just Get Along? Vermont’s Divisive “Debate” Over F-35s
Burlington City Councilor Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1) usually gets hung up on the little things: an errant comma in a mundane ordinance or an obscure line item in a proposed budget. In her 26 years on the council she’s earned her reputation as a loquacious technocrat who occasionally misses the forest for the trees.
But on Monday night at Burlington City Hall, Bushor took a step back to consider the bigger picture: that of a community divided over the U.S. Air Force’s proposal to base a squadron of next-generation fighter jets at Burlington International Airport.
As she explained her opposition to a resolution meant to derail the basing via new noise limits at the airport, she caught herself and paused for a moment.
“I’m rambling because I’m emotional and because I feel like I can’t please—” Bushor began. “I like to please people. I’m a woman. I like to bring people together, but I can’t bring people together on this issue. I realize that.”
Indeed, she could not.
Since June 2012, when the council first weighed in on the matter, the tenor of the F-35 debate in Chittenden County has grown louder and more shrill. Each side has taken to presenting its own set of facts at its own orchestrated press conferences to bemoan its own version of inevitable doom if the other side prevails.
Monday’s meeting was a denouement of sorts, with the pros and cons marshaling their forces and packing city hall, from the balcony of Contois Auditorium to a basement overflow room. The crowd of hundreds was sprinkled with uniformed members of the Vermont National Guard, who adamantly support the basing, and with opponents holding signs reading, “too noisy,” “too costly” and “bad for Vermont.”
When it was her turn to speak, Councilor Karen Paul (I-Ward 6) lamented the state of the discussion, saying, “Both sides have asserted a lot of half-truths.”
“I have read — on Facebook, in social media, in the press, on the blogs — a lot of name calling. And I have to assume the reason they’re doing that is to incite people’s emotions,” she said. “I hope that after tonight or in the very near future that that kind of behavior will stop. I think that it’s only serving to divide our community and usher in a climate of disrespectful discourse.”
Given that she had just sat through more than two and a half hours of public comment from audience members, Paul said something curious: “There has been no venue for meaningful debate on this issue.”
Odd as it sounds, she’s right. What we in the media like to call “debate” has actually been a whole lot of people talking past one another.
In a way, that’s understandable. Those who feel their livelihoods depend on military aircraft flying out of Burlington are justly terrified that spurning the F-35 could imperil their economic security — whether or not there’s truth to that. And those who believe the little-tested aircraft would visit health, safety and financial ruin upon their communities — and, they’d point out, those of low-income Vermonters in the plane’s flight path — are justly terrified of that scenario.
With potential consequences so dire, how can you have a meaningful debate? And with the outcome seemingly binary — the planes will come or they won’t — how can you find any middle ground?
What we’ve witnessed instead over the past couple of years has been elaborate theater staged in the city halls of Burlington, South Burlington and Winooski. While the end of each act is uncertain, the play’s finale is clear: The Pentagon, surely oblivious to the bloviating of local politicians, will do what it wants to do.
While saying he was “appalled” by what he called an “economic disaster of a plane,” Councilor Tom Ayres (D-Ward 7) on Monday called into question the very premise of the resolution he was discussing. Military basing decisions, he argued, are “simply not the purview of this city council.”
“We as a city council have little or no control over the secretary of the Air Force’s final decision regarding the basing of the F-35,” he said, calling the resolution “little more than a symbolic gesture.”
So who might actually influence the Pentagon, which is due to issue its final decision within weeks?
Here’s a hint: three guys who were not at Burlington City Hall on Monday night and who, despite their ardent support for bringing the F-35 to Burlington, have not attended a single public meeting on the issue.
You guessed it: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.).
Just two months ago, as the Burlington Free Press’ Sam Hemingway reported, Leahy called up Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh to ensure that the basing decision would be made soon. But neither he nor Vermont’s other D.C. delegates has made the time to hold a forum on the controversy, despite repeated requests from opponents of the F-35 to do so. When asked about their constituents’ concerns, the trio’s spokesmen generally reply with terse, synchronized statements.
Recognizing the political peril of the increasingly divisive issue, they have simply gone M.I.A. And for some reason, opponents of the basing have let them get away with it.
Chittenden County’s local politicians deserve credit for taking on the matter, even if it’s completely above their pay grades. They have listened to hours of heartfelt testimony from both sides, telling supporters and opponents alike where they stand on the issue — to their faces.
As Vermont’s elder statesmen, could Leahy, Sanders and Welch have presided over the sort of “meaningful debate” Councilor Paul has found lacking? Could they “bring people together,” the way Councilor Bushor hoped to, and bridge the divide in a community ever more torn by the issue?
Maybe not. But at least they could show up.
Not surprisingly, both anti-F-35 resolutions debated Monday night were defeated. One, which would have barred the city-owned airport from accepting the planes, went down on a 10-4 vote. The second, which would have asked the military to skip Burlington in its first round of basing and set new noise limits at the airport, fell by a 11-3 vote.
Far more surprising was that Councilor Jane Knodell (P-Ward 2), who campaigned on a pledge to oppose the planes, voted against both resolutions. That has her district-mate and former campaign manager, Councilor Max Tracy (P-Ward 2), steamed.
“On a pretty basic level as an elected official, you need to keep the promises you made when you were asking for your neighbors’ votes,” Tracy said, calling himself “shocked and betrayed” by Knodell’s vote.
In her remarks to the council, Knodell acknowledged that she had promised to oppose the basing — and that “a majority” of her ward opposed it.
“But I also made a pledge that I would work hard for good jobs,” she explained.
Knodell said she felt the first resolution exceeded the council’s authority, while the second put the airport at risk of losing commercial airline service — thereby putting Burlingtonians’ jobs in jeopardy.
“As an economist, I care a lot about the economy,” the University of Vermont professor said. “And as a Progressive, I believe that everything that Progressives work for, in terms of economic and social justice … requires a strong economy.”
Like Tracy, Councilor Rachel Siegel (P-Ward 3) said she is “disappointed” by Knodell’s decision. But, she added, “It was equally disappointing to me that we heard eloquent, beautiful soliloquies about the problems of our inflated military budget and about the devastation we cause around the world” from other councilors who opposed the resolutions.
Rep. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington), a former city councilor and close friend of Knodell’s, described her decision to reverse course as “brave.”
“Jane accepts the political consequences because she felt that she was doing what she had to do,” he said, “and I couldn’t respect that more.”
“I’m here to use my judgment to do what I think is right,” Knodell said after the meeting. “I’ll certainly understand if people are very disappointed.”
Saying the United States has “gone too far” in conducting surveillance against its own people, Sen. Leahy on Tuesday introduced sweeping new legislation meant to rein in the National Security Agency.
“Just because we have the technology doesn’t mean we have to use it,” he told Seven Days.
Leahy’s bill, called the USA FREEDOM Act, would put a stop to the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone metadata and prevent the agency from accessing Americans’ electronic communications without a warrant. It would also empower a special advocate to fight for privacy in front of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and call on that court to release some of its rulings.
“I grew up in a time when we always heard about countries that spy on their own people and how much better we are as Americans. Now we find that the privacy we thought we had we do not have,” Leahy said. “As a Vermonter, I’ve always valued my privacy. I don’t see [that] giving up unprecedented amounts of our privacy has really made us any safer. It hasn’t.”
The intelligence community, he said, is “spending billions of dollars” on eavesdropping and succeeding only at “embarrassing ourselves worldwide,” referring to recent allegations that the U.S. tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone for years.
Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, teamed up on the bill with Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), a former House Judiciary Committee chairman who wrote the USA PATRIOT Act. Sixteen senators and 70 House members, including Rep. Welch, have signed on to the bill.
But Leahy’s measure faces opposition from Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who’s drafting competing legislation that would codify the NSA’s phone-data-collection program.
“People believe it’s surveillance, but it’s not,” Feinstein told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Leahy said he’d “let [Feinstein] speak for herself,” but he acknowledged that he and Sensenbrenner are waging an uphill battle.
“It’s not going to be easy, because the argument has always been if we cut back we’re going to be unsafe and the terrorists are going to get us,” he said. “But we’re always going to face terrorist threats.”
Paul Heintz worked as Peter Welch's communications director from November 2008 to March 2011.