You can hardly turn on local radio these days without hearing one of those ads from Campaign for Vermont , the supposedly apolitical “policy campaign” launched by Shelburne resident and ex-Wall Street bigwig Bruce Lisman.
Campaign for Vermont, which calls itself a nonpartisan coalition advocating for a more prosperous state, has been saturating local radio stations with ads — usually narrated by Lisman — that advocate holding the line on property taxes and criticize Gov. Peter Shumlin’s plans for establishing a statewide, universal health care program.
Now one of those ads is the subject of a complaint alleging violations of Vermont’s election laws. Last week, the Vermont Democratic Party asked Attorney General William Sorrell, a Democrat, to investigate a Campaign for Vermont ad that criticized Shumlin’s position on education funding .
Democratic Party chairman Jake Perkinson claims the ad — with a voiceover from state Rep. Oliver Olsen (R-Jamaica) — was a “clear attempt to influence the outcome” of the 2012 governor’s race and crossed the line from issue advocacy into electioneering. If Sorrell agrees, Campaign for Vermont would be in violation of state campaign-finance laws that prohibit spending more than $500 on political advertising without registering as a political action committee.
Perkinson admits to not knowing how much Campaign for Vermont has actually spent on advertising; as a registered 501(c)4 nonprofit, the group can raise and spend unlimited sums without having to identify or itemize its funding sources.
One of Campaign for Vermont’s core messages is about government transparency — how there’s not enough of it. In a brief phone interview last week, Lisman said the campaign believes the government should offer “remarkable transparency on how the money is spent and where it’s spent.”
But when it comes to Campaign for Vermont’s own finances, Lisman is only willing to divulge so much. Established last fall, the group hasn’t yet had to file a 990 tax form reporting the totals it has raised and spent.
Lisman told Fair Game that he is the sole contributor to the campaign, but he wouldn’t discuss how much money he’s put into it or how much has been spent. Asked if he would make that information public, Lisman replied, “I’m not sure yet. Eventually. We believe in transparency, so, eventually, sure.”
In the meantime, one of the only glimpses into the scope of Lisman’s activities comes from the “public files” at local radio stations where Campaign for Vermont has been running issue ads continuously since December. All together, the campaign has spent at least $41,790 on radio ads since December — and that’s just at the stations we know about.
At talk station WVMT-AM 620 in Colchester — which carries right-wing talkers Dennis Miller, Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham — general manager Paul Goldman says Campaign for Vermont has become one of the station’s biggest advertisers. The campaign has paid $14,760 to run ads up to 10 times daily over the past three months, he says.
At the Radio Vermont Group in Waterbury — which owns WDEV-FM 96.1 and WDEV-AM 550 — Lisman’s group has spent $12,240 to air its ads once an hour between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. virtually every day since November 28. That’s comparable to a major commercial advertiser, says Eric Michaels, the station’s vice president and general manager.
It’s not uncommon for advocacy groups to buy up huge blocks of airtime in the days or weeks ahead of a controversial vote, such as same-sex marriage or Vermont Yankee, Michaels says. What’s different about Campaign for Vermont, he says, is how sustained it is, stretching uninterrupted over a period of months.
Campaign for Vermont is also airing on three stations in Barre owned by the Nassau Broadcasting Partners — Frank 107.1 FM, Froggy 100.9 FM and WSNO News Talk 1450 AM — where it has bought $14,790 worth of advertising in the past five weeks, according to general manager John Gales.
So, is Bruce Lisman the Vermont version of Newt Gingrich’s sugar daddy Sheldon Adelson, a wealthy businessman seeking to influence the political process with his personal fortune?
Vermont Democrats might like you to think so. Talking to reporters at a statehouse press conference last week, Perkinson prefaced his remarks by saying “our Democracy is being assaulted by the influx of gross amounts of money from corporations, private organizations and individuals.”
What Dems may really worry about is Lisman putting his bank account behind a run for office. Called a “business icon” by Vermont Business Magazine, Lisman retired as chairman of JP Morgan’s global equity division in February 2009, after a 24-year career on Wall Street at Bear Stearns.
No matter how many times he insists he’s not running, some Vermont politicos remain convinced that Lisman is using Campaign for Vermont as a launching pad to run for governor, Congress or Senate in the fall election. At the Democrats’ press conference, Vermont Public Radio reporter John Dillon asked Perkinson what he makes of Campaign for Vermont — and whether he thinks it’s a “stalking horse” for a political campaign.
“I don’t know what else it could be, but I have no personal knowledge about what the intentions of Campaign for Vermont are,” Perkinson answered. “But in my political experience, I find it hard to believe that it’s anything other than, as you say, a stalking horse, or perhaps the preliminary entree of a particular candidate to run for some office in Vermont.”
Perkinson isn’t the only one wondering what Lisman is up to — or checking up on his activities. Goldman says someone called WVMT-AM on behalf of the Shumlin campaign two weeks ago, seeking the same information Fair Game did about Campaign for Vermont’s ad buys.
“They were ascertaining if this was political, and I had to give them the information of the expenditures and that sort of stuff,” Goldman says. “My answer to them was, ‘I hope you match.’” Meaning: He hopes the Shumlin campaign spends at least as much.
Shumlin is expected to run for a second term, but hasn’t formally announced his plans yet.
Lisman, a native Vermonter who grew up in Burlington, insists his group isn’t political — it doesn’t plan to endorse candidates — and is focused on uniting Vermonters around common solutions. Lisman believes the campaign’s ads are on safe legal ground but says, “If we made a mistake, we’ll fix it.”
Responding to the Democrats’ complaint, Lisman says, “Maybe they don’t like the idea that we’re offering up alternative ideas, but also poking holes in their ideas. They don’t like the idea of Campaign for Vermont opening up the hood and finding a bunch of lemons.”
If Lisman is really not running for office, then what is he up to? Here’s a theory: He wants to be a player and has figured out a way to buy his way into the conversation. It remains to be seen whether Campaign for Vermont will translate its substantial investment in paid media into an actual people-powered, grassroots campaign that can move policy in Montpelier, or continue to be a political vanity project for its founder and benefactor.
Spotted at the statehouse last week: former Burlington lawmaker David Zuckerman, yukking it up with state rep and Burlington mayoral hopeful Kurt Wright outside the governor’s ceremonial office.
Zuckerman, who retired in 2010 to focus full time on his organic farm in Hinesburg, said he was returning home after delivering a load of meat to Windsor County and figured he’d swing by his old haunt. While chatting, he confessed he’s considering a return to public life.
The ponytailed Progressive said he might run for lieutenant governor or state Senate. If he did, Zuckerman says he would pursue a “fusion” candidacy cross-endorsed by Democrats and Progressives. But unlike state Sen. Tim Ashe, who wears a “D/P” label, Zuckerman says he’d run as a “P/D” to reflect his core loyalty to the Progs.
Coincidentally, state Sen. Hinda Miller (D-Chittenden) confirmed to the Vermont Press Bureau last week that she will not seek reelection this year , leaving an open seat in Chittenden County.
Could Zuckerman step up to run this year? Anything’s possible. But we wouldn’t bet the farm on it.
No wonder the Burlington Free Press needs an online paywall. With retired Gannett CEO Craig Dubow due to collect a $5.9 million cash payment in April  — part of a $37.1 million golden parachute, er, retirement package — the paper’s parent company is in need of some serious cash.
Eighty Gannett papers are set to go behind a paywall by the end of the year, the company announced last week. Locally, Freeps publisher Jim Fogler wrote about the change in a front-page article last week . Starting in June, Vermont’s largest newspaper will offer five to 15 articles a month online at no charge. After that, readers will need a subscription.
In a money saving move, Fogler also revealed that the Free Press is ditching its broadsheet format and going to a “tall” tabloid size of 15 inches high and 11 inches wide. Like the British tabloids News of the World and the Sun, but without the phone-hacking scandals. And with “Vermont Beauty” nature photos in place of half-naked celebrity beauties.
The new print Freeps will have color on every page and focus on “in-depth narrative reporting,” Fogler said. Hmm. A Burlington tabloid with color on every page that specializes in in-depth narrative reporting. Why does that sound so familiar?
Behind the switch is a $2.4 million rebuild of the daily’s printing press. Meanwhile, as reported by Seven Days staff writer Paul Heintz last week, Free Press employees are again being forced to take weeklong, unpaid furloughs , as they did last year. On the upside, though, Gannett has purchased iPhones for 18 Free Press staff reporters.
Which is nice. Because nothing passes the time on unpaid days off like a few games of “Angry Birds.”