In his quest to reshape Vermont’s social safety net on a shoestring budget, Gov. Peter Shumlin has enlisted an unlikely pitchman: Agency of Human Services Secretary Doug Racine.
Unlikely because, for much of the three decades he’s been in the public eye, Racine has fought against just the kind of cuts Shumlin is now proposing.
When the two competed against one another in 2010’s five-way Democratic gubernatorial primary, Racine distinguished himself from Shumlin by focusing on poverty and promising to raise taxes before cutting services to the working poor.
Now some advocates for low-income Vermonters say that by carrying out Shumlin’s budget priorities, Racine is enabling his former rival to do just the opposite.
“When he came to the Washington County committee, he said very strongly that fighting poverty was his central concern. And this seems incongruous,” says Washington County Democratic Party chairman Jack McCullough of Racine’s 2010 gubernatorial pitch.
Sen. Dick McCormack (D-Windsor), a fellow liberal
who served alongside Racine in the Senate, puts it this way: “The policies I see Doug representing now are not exactly what I think he would have developed had he been elected governor.”
But, McCormack adds, “He wasn’t elected governor. The people elected Peter Shumlin.”
Like many on the left, McCormack opposes two signature proposals advanced by the Shumlin/Racine team. The first is to save $6 million by capping eligibility for the Reach Up welfare program at three consecutive years and five years in a lifetime. The second is to finance expanded childcare subsidies by cutting $17 million of the state’s contribution to the Earned Income Tax Credit, which benefits 44,000 working Vermonters.
Racine, who played a relatively low-profile role in Shumlin’s first term, has in recent weeks become suddenly omnipresent — serving as the gov’s human shield as he pitches a plan that has so far failed to gain traction. Rarely does Shumlin mention his proposals without noting they were crafted by the “compassionate” Doug Racine.
But would the secretary have supported the plan if he were still in the Vermont Senate, where he spent 14 years representing Chittenden County and another six years presiding over the body as lieutenant governor?
“I have no idea,” Racine says. “If I had stayed in the legislature I wouldn’t have had the same perspective I have now. I wouldn’t have the same job. But given what I’ve signed up to do here, I feel very comfortable with these proposals.”
Working within the confines of another tight budget, Racine says his agency is trying to spend every dollar it has as efficiently as possible. In his view, investing in early childhood education does far more than providing an inconstant, once-a-year tax rebate to working Vermonters.
“To me, the most important thing we can do in this agency is to help kids off to a good start,” he says. “I think if we do more for children, we can avoid more long-term problems.”
While Racine acknowledges that he’d have been more comfortable raising revenue to fund social services than his boss has been, he says he understands his role as a deputy in the Shumlin administration.
“Anybody who wants to look at the record of what was said in that campaign, that’s absolutely true,” he says. “There were expressed differences. I lost. He won. And he gets to make those decisions.”
Shumlin won, but not by much. In the initial tally, Shumlin came out just 197 votes ahead of Racine in a primary that drew 75,000 voters. He expanded that lead to 203 votes two weeks later, after Racine requested a recount.
Despite the close margin, says one Racine ally who would not be named, “I think one thing Doug realized is that the people of Vermont chose Shumlin’s fiscal policy.”
Soon after he was elected, Shumlin sought to create a “team of rivals,” bringing Racine and two other former Democratic opponents into his administration. Susan Bartlett was named special adviser, while Deb Markowitz became secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources.
“I think he thought really hard when he took the job about whether he could really work for Peter,” the Racine ally says. “I think he made a decision both in his head and his heart that if he takes the job, that’s who he works for.”
Despite clashing with the Shumlin administration recently over its budget proposals, several advocates for low-income Vermonters say they understand that Racine is boxed in.
“I think Doug is trying to do the most good he can do in the position he’s in,” says Vermont Legal Aid attorney Christopher Curtis, who contributed to and volunteered for Racine’s political campaigns. “He’s in the tough position of having to balance a budget he’s given.”
Though Curtis has become one of the most vocal critics of Shumlin’s proposed cuts to Reach Up and the Earned Income Tax Credit, he says, “I think a lot of folks who’ve worked with Doug on child-poverty issues or low-income issues know that Doug Racine has an open door for them — and that makes a difference.”
Says Vermont Low Income Advocacy Council lobbyist Karen Lafayette, who served alongside Racine in the legislature, “I would rather have him there than not there.”
In one fell, million-dollar swoop, Lenore Broughton did the unimaginable last fall: She united Democrats, Republicans and Progressives against the corrosive influence of super PACs in Vermont politics.
In the course of just two months, the Burlington heiress funneled a million bucks into television commercials and mailers backing conservative candidates and causes.
Her vehicle of choice? A super PAC called Vermonters First, which was free to raise and spend as much as it liked on political races, so long as it didn’t coordinate with candidates themselves.
Democrats were pissed because their candidates were outspent. Republican office-seekers were pissed because they couldn’t control the group’s message. And Progressives were pissed because, well, they hate that kind of shit.
After the election, all three parties seemed ready to embrace new rules requiring super PACs to disclose more about their fundraising and spending habits more frequently. They also backed the idea of replacing Vermont’s decrepit reporting system with an online, searchable database.
“There’s broad agreement there, and that’s something to celebrate,” said Vermont Public Interest Research Group executive director Paul Burns.
It seemed too good to be true. And it was.
When Rep. Tom Koch (R-Barre) and other House Republicans held a press conference last month to unveil legislation calling for more disclosure, Koch didn’t mention that his bill would also gut the state’s contribution limits to candidates, parties and PACs.
And when Vermont Democratic Party chairman Jake Perkinson announced his own transparency-lovin’ proposals two weeks later, he didn’t mention he was hoping to get rid of the $2000 cap on contributions to state parties and replace it with a much higher figure.
When the Vermont Press Bureau’s Peter Hirschfeld asked him that question after a Statehouse press conference, Perkinson pulled a number out of thin air: $20,000 per election cycle.
“Jake was kind of thinking out loud with Hirschfeld,” explains party spokesman Ryan Emerson. “We’re sticking with it because it makes sense.”
In Perkinson’s view, the only way to fight gobs of money raised by shadowy super PACs is to “level the playing field” and let political parties raise gobs of money, too.
“Until there’s restrictions on the super wealthy and their ability to saturate the media, we’re going to have to provide some kind of backstop against that activity in the form of other groups that are more democratically accountable,” Perkinson explains.
His GOP counterpart, Vermont Republican Party chairman Jack Lindley, also likes the idea of raising the party contribution limit to $20,000 — what we’ll call the Perkinson Provision.
“Jake and I have talked about that problem, and we’re in agreement that’s one thing that can be done to make things a lot better,” Lindley says. “Frankly, I don’t think there needs to be any limit if you have absolute disclosure.”
To paraphrase the inimitable Rahm Emanuel, the Democratic and Republican party bosses aren’t letting a serious campaign finance crisis go to waste. They’re exploiting public outrage over the advent of super PACs to fill their own campaign coffers.
Now that’s looking out for the public good!
But Vermont’s naysaying third party isn’t along for the ride.
“The point is not to bring more money into the process. The point is to limit money,” says Vermont Progressive Party executive director Rob Millar. “You don’t close one floodgate by opening another one.”
Moreover, says Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington), there’s a difference between super PACs and parties. While the former are legally barred from coordinating with the candidates they support, parties are free to share resources and strategy with candidates.
So if you reach the contribution limit of $2000 per election cycle to a candidate, you could simply write another $20,000 check to the Vermont Democratic Party, which could then spend that money on your fave politician.
“This is, in a way, a more direct workaround to any kind of campaign finance limitations for candidates,” Pearson says.
As it stands, you can already donate $10,000 per election cycle to the Vermont parties’ federal campaign accounts. That’s in addition to the $2000 you can give to the parties’ state campaign accounts. If the Perkinson Provision went into effect, any single donor could pony up $30,000 to a Vermont political party every two years.
And that’s not counting the $2000 checks you and your lobbyist friends can cut to each of the Democrats’ and Republicans’ several Vermont-based PACs, which finance direct mail for legislative candidates.
Nor is it counting the $2000 checks any man, woman, child and — wait for it — corporation can donate to any candidate for state office in Vermont.
Last year, Sen. Peter Galbraith (D-Windham) tried to bar corporations and unions from donating to Vermont politicians, but when he threatened to initiate an embarrassing roll-call vote on cutting off the cash flow, Senate leadership killed a broader campaign finance measure.
Now that Broughton’s bucks have changed the game, will the legislature get its act together and pass real campaign finance reform?
Maybe. But don’t be surprised to see the party bosses watering it down to benefit their own team.
And if they fail to institute the Perkinson Provision, don’t be surprised if the same folks railing against super PACs this year start their own next year.