Last winter, with the passage of civil unions, the Vermont Legislature took the historic step of being the first in America to legalize love for all couples. Last Friday, the Republican House majority, spurred on by the anti-gay backlash, tried its darndest to legalize hate. It wasnt pretty.
With the blessing of rookie House Speaker Walter Freed (R-Dorset), all other pressing business was put on hold for almost four hours as the GOP shamelessly waved the torch of bigotry in the faces of gay and lesbian Vermonters.
In passing last years civil-unions legislation, lawmakers included two separate provisions in state statutes defining marriage as a legally recognized union of one man and one woman. But that just wasnt good enough for the GOP backlashers who insist upon sticking their noses into the sex lives of their neighbors. The Republicans have the majority in the House now and they want a pound of flesh to compensate for their defeat on civil unions last year.
As Judiciary Committee Chairman Peg Flory (R-Pittsford), put it, Weve spelled out what marriage is, but we did not spell out what marriage was not.
So Flory & Co. tried to attach a marriage clarification to the incest law prohibiting a man from marrying another man and a woman from marrying a woman.
The Republicans were willing to claim redundancy as victory, but taking Vermont backwards was much harder than they imagined.
Rep. Henrietta Jordan (D-Middlesex) hit the nail on the head when she rose from her seat in the cavernous House chamber to eloquently denounce the Republican attempt to caste a slur on a minority group of honorable Vermonters.
No question, Florys bill was both insulting and redundant. And there was a vengeful meanness to it. Earlier that morning, Rep. John Tracy (D-Burlington), the minority leader, had warned the GOP whip, Rep. Connie Houston (R-Vergennes), that the Democrats intended to fight this one tooth and nail. This one, he told her, was uncalled for.
But the Republicans marched ahead anyway, convinced their 83-seat majority could withstand anything the Democrats could throw at them.
The Take Vermont Backwards game plan disintegrated when Rep. Margaret Hummel (D-Underhill) pointed out that Florys hastily concocted clarification would have the likely effect of turning gay couples united in Vermont civil unions into criminals if they engaged in fornication! Incest laws, she noted, come with penalties. In her haste to get something passed before Town Meeting Day, Princess Peg had failed to look into that. The committee hadnt taken testimony on that aspect. H. 404 was a right-wing rush job. It wasnt about policy. It was about payback.
Princess Peg floundered and fizzled on the House floor under interrogation by the opposition. At high noon, she beat a hasty retreat to her committee room in hopes of rewriting something kosher. But the smell of desperation and defeat hung in the air. The one-hour recess was hitting 90 minutes when Speaker Freed dropped into the committee room to personally let Peg know it was time to put up or shut up. The House, he told her, would be going back on the floor in exactly four minutes.
The Judiciary Committee couldnt find a fix. Time was up. The Republicans reluctantly agreed to Rep. Maxine Grads motion to postpone action until they return to the Statehouse next week. The God Squad went down in flames.
Around the building there was plenty of buzz about how the freshman House Speaker, the Big Dog with the gavel, was looking like a dumb-dumb for allowing the debacle to happen in the first place.
An hour after the curtain fell, we bumped into Speaker Freed in the cafeteria and he wasnt in a very good mood. Walter has never been known to initiate conversation with the press. Mr. Outgoing, hes not. We couldnt resist.
After all, the millionaire pilot from Dorset had allowed the House to waste hours on an anti-gay wild goose chase on the final day before the week-long Town Meeting break. Insiders were openly questioning his leadership skills, or lack thereof. We noted previous House Speakers would never have allowed such a partisan bill to come up unless its passage was guaranteed in advance. Thought through. Locked in.
Former Speaker Ralph Wright, we suggested, would never have permitted such a debacle. The mention of Ralphs name appeared to set off the normally reserved Mr. Freed.
Thats a bunch of crap! snapped the Speaker of the House. Thats your style of journalism, he added. And he proceeded to whine to us about previous columns questioning the fairness of his committee assignments and yours trulys editorializing of the news.
Like we said earlier, Walter was having a bad day.
Fact is, there are more pressing matters on the legislative agenda than legalizing hate and Walter knows it. Its been two months now, and theres been little shine in the style or performance of the new Freed regime.
Sanders Hits the Airwaves Vermonts Independent congressman, Bernie Sanders, is turning into a hot ticket on the political talk show circuit. Last week Ol Bernardo appeared on The OReilly Factor on the Fox News Channel and on CNNs Crossfire. This Wednesday, March 7, Mr. Sanders is scheduled to appear at 9 p.m. on Foxs Hannity & Colmes. Bernie describes it as an extremely right-wing show. But it sounds like a format made for The Bernmeister.
You go on that show, said Sanders, and you start screaming. For a half-hour you scream!
Asked to account for his sudden notoriety on the national talking-head TV circuit, Vermonts six-term congressman attributed it to his new suit. Its brown, and he looks like a million bucks in it.
My wife got it for me, actually, said Ol Bernardo. We got it at Filenes, as a matter of fact. Theres the headline, he joked Sanders Buys New Suit! (Reliable sources tell Seven Days the suit was a Christmas present.)
On a more serious note, Sanders is the new ranking member on the International Monetary Policy subcommittee. Bernies seniority is starting to kick in. Its the subcommittee that covers everything from the IMF and the World Trade Organization to AIDS in Africa. He hinted Monday that we should be ready for some interesting action there relating to the global economy.
Dont Cry for Dean, Argentina! Gov. Howard Dean and Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce wunderkind Wayne Roberts were lucky they departed Burlap early for the big 10-day South American Vermont trade mission. In doing so, they missed the biggest blizzard of the 21st century. Good timing. Ho-Ho slipped out of town on Sunday. Saõ Paulo, Brazil and Buenos Aires, Argentina are on the itinerary for the 21-member Vermont delegation.
You might have noticed that was Lt. Gov. Doug Racine holding the sacred hand drill at the annual maple tree tapping ceremony in Randolph Monday and looking very gubernatorial in the process. Douglas Racine is the governor of Vermont until March 16. Make no mistake, hed like the job full-time.
Doug the Democrat sits atop the list of likely successors to Gov. Dean, assuming King Howard ever finds something else hed like to do for a day job. Recently, sources say, our five-term Guv has been taking the political pulse, asking Statehouse insiders if they think hes been around too long. Some say thats because hes having fun setting the agenda and wants to keep doing it. The guy loves his job.
Gov. Racine has to be delighted with the goofy tactics of his principal Republican rival, state treasurer Jim Douglas. Mr. Douglas recently signed up the support of 82 out of 83 House Republicans, but he continues to cling to a bizarre vow of public silence on the top issues of the day. A strange bird is he.
In fact, Jim Douglas is so strange, The Burlington Free Press gave the Dagwood Bumstead of Vermont politics an editorial drubbing Monday. The Freeps openly questioned the strength of James spine and ridiculed him for declining to comment on civil unions, or even the Bush tax-cut proposal, while openly running for governor.
(Of course, everybody knows, The Burlington Free Press pulled a Jim Douglas on civil unions, too. No spine, that is.)
Clearly, Jim Douglas is busy lining up his political ducks for the 2002 governors race. But hes made an unusual strategic decision he may come to regret. Jims decided he will try to offend as few people as possible by staying mum on issues. How can you be against a candidate if you dont know what the candidate stands for? Pretty smart move, eh?
Not one that I would use, said Racine Tuesday. Vermonts acting governor was keeping abreast of the storm situation when he spoke to Seven Days. If youre announcing interest in running for the office of governor, said Mr. Racine, you should be prepared to answer questions. Vermonters have a right to know and at some point they will.
Meanwhile, Mr. Douglas determined self-censorship is starting to make some folks question his qualifications for the biggest job in Vermont. Ought to nip that one in the bud, Jimbo.
Shut Down Commuter Rail? According to Dot Newhall of Barre, the Burlington-to-Charlotte commuter rail line should be shut down pronto because its in violation of the law, specifically the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Ms. Newhall knows its violating the law because when she rode the Champlain Flyer the other day, the crew had to carry her and her wheelchair off the train in Charlotte. Thats a no-no, says Newhall. Dots an amputee whos been wheelchair-bound for nine years. Shes also co-chair of the statewide Independent Living Council and sits on the Access Board of the Department of Labor and Industry.
Transportation Secretary Brian Searles tells Seven Days, The commuter rail project must be ADA-compliant to be federally funded, and, in fact, the Burlington and Shelburne stations are in compliance by virtue of portable lifts at each site.
According to Sec. Searles, the Charlotte station is still under construction and wont be ADA-compliant until it opens sometime this spring. He said its not uncommon for limited service to be offered at facilities that are still under construction.
Dot Newhall says thats just not good enough. She says the commuter train service is supposed to be compliant today when the train is running. She told Seven Days she wrote and called Gov. Howard Dean about the matter over a month ago and has yet to receive a reply.
On first blush, most folks weve mentioned this story to thought Dot Newhall was being a little too picky. Yours truly was leaning that way, too, at first. Hey, so they carried her off the train. No big deal, right?
Then we imagined spending a day walking in Dot Newhalls shoes and suddenly the Americans With Disabilities Act took on a whole different significance. The fact is, since 1990, the United States has recognized accessibility as a civil right. Last we looked, the Champlain Flyer was operating in the United States.
This Buds For You Update A couple weeks ago we reported Hub Vogelmanns annual collection of discarded cans and bottles tossed out car windows along a one-mile stretch of Schillhammer Road in Jericho. Budweiser, the king of beers, was the run-away first-place finisher when it came to Jerichos roadside trash 229 Buds in a three-month stretch. (Thats $11.45 in deposit change.)
Vogelmann, a distinguished professor emeritus at Camp Catamount and a national pioneer in acid-rain research, says his annual roadside garbage collecting is for a reason to make the point that beer containers make up 90 percent of the roadside litter.
A simple solution to eliminate the problem, says the Hubster, is to raise the deposit on beer containers. Make it whatever it takes to make it hurt to throw a can or bottle on the roadside.
Fifty cents? A dollar?