The first shot fired in the 2006 Vermont U.S. Senate race was fired on Monday, but the trigger was pulled far from Vermont, in Washington, D.C. The gun in question belonged to a staffer at the Republican National Senatorial Committee.
Everyone knows that in the wake of Sen. Jim Jeffords' retirement announcement, the race for that open Vermont seat will be the most expensive and hard-fought in state history.
Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders, Vermont's political living legend, has made it clear he intends to fill Jeezum Jim's Senate seat. The GOP has made it clear this week they will stop at nothing to defeat him. And despite trial balloons from political has-beens like Doug Racine, most leading Democrats are backing Bernie.
Monday's press release from the RNSC was titled "Bernie Sanders: An Ineffective Extremist and Extremely Ineffective."
The evidence provided was the charge that Sanders has introduced 155 bills since arriving in Congress back in 1991 and only one has become law!
So we rang up the RNSC and spoke with Brian Nick, the staffer focused on Vermont. Very pleasant chap. The Indian-apolis native previously worked on Sen. Elizabeth Dole's personal staff.
We expressed our surprise that the RNSC was labeling Vermont's seven-term congressman an "extremist." Does that mean the 68 percent of Vermont voters who backed Bernie are extremists, too?
We asked Mr. Nick for an example to prove his "extremist" point.
The RNSC spokesman cited juvenile justice legislation from 1999 that he said Bernie did not support. It was actually a 1999 amendment that would have "limited the exposure of pornographic material to minors." Unlike Sanders, he said, "most members did not support exposing minors to sexually explicit music or videos."
We looked it up.
The amendment in question was offered by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Illinois), a legendary conservative. It would have required store owners to listen to and, when necessary, censor the lyrics on the music CDs and videos they stocked.
Good bye, America. Hello, Big Brother, eh?
Nick was right. Sanders of Vermont voted "no." But what the RNSC spokesman neglected to point out was the fact that Ol' Bernardo joined 281 other members, many Republicans among them, in defeating Hyde's porno amendment. It lost on a 282-146 roll call vote.
Sanders' Chief of Staff Jeff Weaver told "Inside Track" the RNSC salvo is an opening sample of the "distortions and untruths" that lie ahead.
The truth, said the St. Albans native, is that Bernie is one of the most effective members of the U.S. House, and he had the numbers to back it up.
According to Weaver, "Sanders has passed the most floor amendments of any member of the House since 1996." In that period, the House has adopted 14 amendments offerered by Bernie. Rep. Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) was second with 11. They were the only two members in double digits.
Not bad for an "ineffective extremist" from Vermont, eh?
Statehouse Finale -- On Tuesday, Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington said she expects the House will hold "a full session, not a token session" on Thursday to amend the already passed state budget bill. Language related to the state college teachers-union contract dispute with the state college administration will be changed to meet the wishes of Gov. Jim Douglas, she said.
Speaker Gaye said the House will also act on a resolution "to study the state colleges."
Administration Secretary Charlie Smith said, "We're open to that approach. There are some technical things we need to understand first."
A Tuesday afternoon meeting with the Speaker's team was scheduled. Certainly, Symington gave no indication Democrats had any cards up their sleeves. In fact, Gaye and the Ds have been quiet as mice since the session ended.
Instead, Gov. Douglas has pretty much controlled the news coverage. After all, the Guv struck quickly, as soon as the gavel fell, even before Democratic and Progressive lawmakers could get to their cars. Douglas led a perfectly staged GOP pep rally at which he announced his intention to veto both the budget and the universal-health-care bill.
All the post-adjournment news coverage has been about the governor standing firm and tall, while the Democrats have been silent.
"We are not full-time politicians," Symington explained in defense when asked about that silence. "We're trying to get back to our lives and jobs," said the working wife and mother.
But Madame Speaker assured us, the health-care-reform torch will not go out. The new state budget contains language establishing a Health Care Commission with a paid director and two full-time assistants. Six public hearings will be held around Vermont between now and the legislature's return in January. A number of studies have been commissioned, too.
"We'll be on track when the commission gets its work started," said Symington.
She noted that at her recent appearance before the Burlington Rotary, the audience asked more questions about the Democrats' health-care bill than anything else.
"Once I explained how the payroll tax would actually work," said Symington, "many said they had never really understood it before," based on what they heard or read in the press.
In fact, she told us, she's even received an invitation to speak to South Carolina Democrats.
Hey, wait a minute. That's a primary state.
"Symington for President?" we asked.
Wish we could have bottled the ensuing laughter.
The Other Speaker -- The secret visit of Republican U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert to Vermont two weeks ago is finally getting a little media attention.
Speaker Hastert slipped quietly into town for two fundraising events at the South Burlington home of Fred Peet. Mr. Peet runs a real estate law firm on Patchen Road.
State Sen. Peter Welch (D-Windsor) had a beautiful line on it this week: "I'm kind of amazed the person who's second in line to the presidency of the United States comes in as though he's in the witness protection program. Nobody knew he was here; no opportunity for Vermont press or for Vermonters to talk to him about things that have enormous consequence here in Vermont."
Good point, eh?
Vermont GOP Chairman Jim Barnett was quick Tuesday with a sharp response. Drawing inspiration from Attorney Welch's television ads, Mad Dog Barnett told us he could picture an upcoming Candidate Welch campaign commercial in 2006.
"If your feelings have been injured by Dennis Hastert, if George Bush's reelection has caused you heartburn, I encourage you to sue someone," joked Barnett. "I'm Peter Welch, call me and I can help get you the compensation you're entitled to. I only get paid if you win!"
But it doesn't change the fact that the Republican Party chose to sneak Dennis Hastert into Vermont like he was Osama bin Laden slipping across the Pakistan border.
While Gov. Douglas did not attend the fundraisers at the Peet residence, he did meet with Hastert "for about 20 minutes" in an undisclosed location at the Burlington International Airport.
Hmm. Well, it couldn't have been the ladies' room, eh?
You'd think the Vermont GOP's No. 1 goal is to conceal its ties to the Bush administration.
Anyway, through the miracle of email we were able to contact Mr. Peet, who was traveling on a cruise ship to Alaska.
According to Fred, about 50 people attended and the suggested donation was $1000.
"Hastert feels Republicans in Vermont can win the House seat with a moderate candidate like Martha Rainville," wrote Peet. "He had met Rainville earlier in D.C. He hopes to bring money to Vermont to support the GOP House candidate."
Gen. Rainville, however, did not attend the fundraiser, either. An aide told us she was busy that evening with Guard duties.
Lite-Gov. Brian Dubie did attend.
What Will Doobie-Do Do? -- Brian Dubie told "Inside Track" this week he does not feel like the 2006 train has passed him by. You'll recall that IDX owner Rich Tarrant quickly launched his U.S. Senate trial balloon after Sen. Jim Jeffords announced he was retiring. And Gen. Martha Rainville suddenly came out of the military closet as a Republican, with her eyes fixed on the U.S. House seat Bernie Sanders will vacate.
On Monday, Dubie had a representative attend a training session in Washington for potential GOP 2006 Senate candidates. It was put on by the RNSC, and the topic was campaign-finance laws.
The Doobster said he was represented at the session by Char-lotte Attorney Brady Toensing.
According to the Washington Post, Toensing is the son of Wash-ington, D.C., lawyer Victoria Toensing. She and current husband Joseph diGenova are also law partners (http://www.digenovatoensing.com ).
Back in the late 1990s, Howard Kurtz of the Post described the pair as the "power couple" at the "vortex" of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Small world, eh?
"Martha, Rich and I are talking," said Dubie. "We're interested in the best possible team." Sounds like either Tarrant or Rainville is going to have to change their plans, because Doobie-Do said he isn't interested in running in a primary.
P.S. Richie Rich was represented at the Monday RNSC session by Burlington accountant Mike Flynn.
Peter the Great -- Peter: It's a pretty common name in Vermont political circles.
We've got Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle, State Sen. Peter Welch and Vermont Democratic Party Chairman Peter Mallary.
But don't you dare forget former State Sen. Peter Shumlin of Putney. That's because Putney Pete, who lost the three-way 2002 Lite-Gov race that made Brian Dubie famous, has his sights firmly fixed on the 2006 race for the U.S. House.
All the news ink so far has been about Peter Welch and fellow State Sen. Matt Dunne. As everyone knows, the thirtysomething Dunne has made it perfectly clear he would step aside if the fiftysomething Welch wants to run. And the conventional wisdom this week is that he will run. But hold all bets, folks.
Former Senate President Peter Shumlin told "Inside Track" in no uncertain terms this week that he is planning a run for Sanders' open U.S. House seat.
"I am excited," said Shumlin, "about taking a strong voice to Washington and standing up to the extremists running our country."
In the 2002 election, the beginning of the post-Howard Dean Age in Vermont, Shumlin was poised to run for governor but bowed to pressure from Dean and U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy to give then Lt. Gov. Doug Racine a clear shot at governor.
We all know what a dismal flip-flop of a campaign Racine ran, losing to Jim Douglas.
Instead, in the Lite-Gov race, Shumlin and Progressive Anthony Pollina divided the left and greased the skids for Dubie.
"In hindsight, I might have done it differently," said Shumlin. "I made the mistake of deferring to party leadership. I don't intend to make that mistake twice."
Shumlin made it clear he will not shy away from a Democratic primary this time.
In addition, Shumlin was particularly critical of the deal Welch and Speaker Symington made with Entergy, owner of Vermont Yankee.
"We'll be stuck forever with high-level radioactive waste on the shores of the Connecticut River," said Shummy. "I wish they'd taken more time."
As for taking on Welch or Dunne in a primary, Shumlin said, "A primary can be healthy. Voters, not party leaders, would get to decide who's strongest."
Skip to Slovakia! -- The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will vote Wednesday afternoon on the appointment of 11 new Bush administration ambassadors to countries including France, Spain, Iraq and the Slovak Republic.
A long-time favorite of "Inside Track" readers, Skip Vallee of South Burlington will be approved for the ambassador's residence in Bratislava, Slovakia.
The owner of more than two dozen gas stations in Vermont, including the Maplefields mini-mart chain, has been a very good nominee, declining interview requests until the deal is done.
Certainly there's no question that had Skip not raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Bush-Cheney campaign he would never have had a shot. It's a funny way to conduct foreign policy, but that's the way it works.
Still, one has to smile when a hometown kid, regardless of party, snares the brass ring.
P.S. For a window on Ambassador Skip's new world, check out the website of the U.S. embassy in Bratislava: http://bratislava.usembassy.gov .
Media Notes -- It was another exciting week of Ch. 3 Six O'Clock News with solo anchor Marselis Parsons. Over a month ago, the station put out a press release announcing former reporter Kristen Kelly would return in "late May or early June" from NECN in Boston to fill the co-anchor seat left vacant by Sera Congi's departure.
As you recall, News Director Parsons got a little snippy and defensive last week when we inquired about Ms. Kelly's arrival. Funny guy. Perhaps he only gives out information when he's reading it off a teleprompter.
However, according to reliable sources at WGOP, er, WCAX-TV News, Marsillyiss informed the news staff on Monday by email that the new female co-anchor will arrive at the Joy Drive HQ on Thursday.
But Ms. Kelly won't be hitting the airwaves right away. According to Parsons' note, she will "practice" anchoring with her male co-anchors to be -- Marsillyiss and 11 o'clock anchor Roger Garrity. The news staff was not informed of a specific date when the redhead will made her on-air debut.
Meanwhile, over at WPTZ-TV, veteran news photographer Mike French is departing after seven years with our local NBC affiliate. Where's he going?
Get this: Mike's going to bike across America. Check out http://www.mikeacrossamerica.com .