July 20th, 2006

Lamont Kicking Much Lieberman Ass

by Philip Baruth

If you were wondering whether the netroots were more than just hype, wonder no longer.

Ned Lamont now tops 18-year incumbent Joe Lieberman in polls ahead of the Connecticut Democratic primary. That’s just shy of miraculous, given that no one had ever heard of Ned Lamont a year ago, and no in America hadn’t heard of Joe Lieberman six years ago.

Entirely the work of bloggers? No. Lamont is right on the issues, and Lieberman remains both clueless and defiant. Lamont has deep pockets, and Lieberman is in deep denial.

But this turnaround is 30% advertising and direct mail, 70% buzz. And that buzz is the work of the netroots.

Think of it like this, by way of analogy. You’re watching a film, in a theater. Everything you see on the screen, or most of it, is provided by mainstream journalists. The visual facts of the film (what the characters do, the settings they occupy) are what the media supplies.

Bloggers, for the most part, provide the sound track. The emotional cues, which control the way the visual aspects of the film are received and processed.

Imagine Spielberg’s Jaws. Shark knifing through the water, young woman swimming in a dark sea, buoy tolling softly in the background. And instead of the deep bass strains that worked so well in that sequence, we replace it with the Peanuts theme from A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Suddenly it’s a comedy. Bloggers score the more factual narratives strung together by mainstream media outfits.

This is not to denigrate the work of bloggers in breaking news, because Lord knows the netroots have been responsible for more than a few major stories. But to date, their central role has been to change the way that readers process what they read in the mainstream press, and see on cable television.

And in that way, bloggers have taken a guy like Lieberman, a posterboy for the way that incumbency allows a Senator to thumb his nose at his party, and shown him for the arrogant, Right-leaning deal-cutter he’s been for many years now.

They’ve changed the sound track in Connecticut.

Lieberman still leads in a hypothetical three-way race, if he runs as an Independent. But once he’s lost that Democratic primary to Lamont, and Lamont goes national as a giant-killer, look for Lieberman to start hosting a small, little-watched program on Fox News called Joementum!

First guest up: John McCain, another profile in courage.

July 19th, 2006

Ralph Reed: The Omen, Unplugged

by Philip Baruth

Not sure about you, but Ralph Reed has always struck us as the grown-up version of Damien from The Omen film trilogy. He has the baby-smooth good looks, the smooth seal-brown hair.

And the eyes, of course.

The sort of eyes you can’t look into without hearing loud, violent, operatic voices, the voices that are always wailing away in the background as Satan sends a Rottweiler to dismember a priest.

Which is why Reed’s loss in the Georgia Lite Governor primary is the best news America has had in 25 years, at the very least. Reed was on track to occupy the Governor’s mansion within 6 years, and the White House within 12. No joke.

For millions of Southern evangelicals, Reed is the Chosen one, and any spin doctor would agree: no one in America had better ties to both the born-again community and the deeply entrenched D.C. Republican machine. No one looked better on TV; no one looked better behind a pulpit. No one moved money more efficiently, or spent it to greater effect.

bush, in denialAnd Reed’s deliberate mingling of the religious and the governmental would have made George W. Bush look like a wild-eyed atheist.

Then, of course, came Abramoff.

Bit by bit, drip by drip, the Abramoff revelations wore away the shield of inevitability around Reed’s campaign; subpeona by subpeona, Congressional investigators and the Justice Department dredged up enough material to soil and then to bury Reed.

And now, Reed’s Plan has been set back at least 10 years, if not scrapped altogether.

So if you care anything at all about preserving the distinction between Church and State, you should celebrate tonight. Take your wife or your husband to the swankiest place you can think of, eat well, drink liberally, and when you get home, pop in The Omen. Or Omen II, or III.

And at the moment when the orphaned Damien, after killing his own parents, winds up adopted by the President of the United States, and turns to give the viewer that last creepy look, the two of you can laugh your heads off and shut off the VCR and go to bed.

And your dreams will be sweet. This VDB promises.

July 18th, 2006

Blogging Hard from Sverige

by Philip Baruth

A quick note to point out what isn’t obvious at all: VDB has left the building. That is, America. Blogging currently from Valentuna, Sweden, a nice, quiet, radically networked community library full of big meditative Swedes.

We’ll be making every effort to hit our marks every day, Monday through Friday. Some days that will require driving for 15 minutes, boarding a ferry, scrabbling onto a small island, and blogging from the only internet cafe within 100 miles.

Why do we go to such lengths? Because politics has never mattered more.

And because we’re obsessive-compulsive. More soon.

July 17th, 2006

The Clintons, Infidelity, and the Outer Limits of Journalistic Kink

by Philip Baruth

I found out the hard way that the word “Clinton” still sets teeth on edge. And that those teeth get set on edge in unexpected places.

clinton, looking not so hotWhen my novel The X President went out in manuscript form, a very well-known editor at a high-buck press rejected it with a note explaining that Bill Clinton is “on his way to becoming the most loathed US President in history.” Another loved the book, but said he could never get it past the remaining editors at his house, who were all virulently anti-Clinton. [Photo credit: Cathy Resmer, 802 Online]

Granted, this was in the aftermath of the scandal over pardons.

But still, this was the NY publishing world, not a Southern Baptist convention in Mobile.

After the book came out, right-wing blogs and websites attacked it with great gusto. One issued a “Barf Alert!” when it became clear that the novel created some sympathy for Clinton, and traded on a certain nostalgia for his Presidency.

So it was no surprise to me that Hilary’s own nascent Presidential candidacy drew a downright creepy response from the NY Times last month: a long, front-page article sifting through the latest empty gossip about the Clinton’s marriage, and the latest rumors of the ex-President’s infidelity.

I read it, stifled my gag reflex, and went on, like the rest of the center-left blogosphere.

But Steve Benen, over at The Carpetbagger Report, forced himself into a more productive mode. Benen generated his own Washington Monthly article by way of response: “High Infidelity: What if three admitted adulterers run for president and no one cares?” Those adulterers – John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Newt Gingrich – the piece labels “the most martially challenged crop of presidential hopefuls in American political history.”

All three not only had affairs, but left their wives. Sometimes (Gingrich, McCain) in the most callous possible ways.

Not that it necessarily matters. The three are Republicans, after all. As Benen puts it:

“Despite the scandalous [GOP] details, whether the press will air them is still an open question. When it comes to personal morality, liberal commentators have long argued that the press has one standard for Democrats and another for Republicans (and another entirely for the Clintons).”

When all is said and done, Benen argues that infidelity will indeed cost all three of these Republican candidates, mostly because Evangelicals have acquired outsized influence in the primaries, but also because the GOP field will be crowded – and hence prone to negative attacks. Not to mention that Democrats have an axe to grind here, given that their last standard-bearer was formally impeached over a consensual affair.

But the most striking thing about Benen’s piece is the way the entire argument pivots on the assumption that the mainstream media – far from harboring a liberal bias – actually favors right-wing Presidential contenders. So when Benen discusses McCain’s chances this time out, for instance, he takes McCain’s “charmed relationship with the press” for granted, and suggests that “establishment reporters will be grateful . . . to steer clear of that subject altogether.”

As it happens, I couldn’t agree more.

It’s always seemed to me that the press enjoys adopting a certain deferential, even submissive posture before the Presidency – and that effect is enhanced if the occupant of the Oval is a straight-up, law-and-order, bombing-begins-in-thirty-minutes Republican. tiny bushIt clarifies things for even the most left-leaning reporters: they can take notes dutifully during the first term – half-consciously enjoying the blunt style of a Nixon or a Bush – and then expose the bastard for who he really is during the second.

It’s a way for the press to have its cake and eat it to: to submit, and then to dominate, in a town where destroying people is a blood sport, as Vince Foster famously noted. There is a deeply familiar rhythm to it, like the seasons: reporters enhance the prestige of the office for a while (enhancing their own positions as well) and then tear it down in righteous anger when the President’s snake-bully act wears thin, when corruption becomes impossible to hide.

But a Democratic President – particularly a young, feel-your-pain Democrat – brings an unsettling sort of confusion to this cycle. Clinton received no honeymoon from the press, which was in keeping with the way he’d been treated throughout the primaries. It was open season from Day 1: Gays in the military, Hairgate, Nannygate, Nannygate II, etc.

Before Clinton had been in office 100 days, the press had ginned up nearly that many scandals. The (possibly liberal-leaning) media seemed almost offended that Clinton would try to assume the stern, commanding role of President, and they set about painting him as weak and vacillating from the start.

Which brings us to the implications for VDB’s 2008 picks.

We’ve put our money on McCain/(Jeb) Bush carrying the flag for the GOP; Gore strikes us as the most likely nominee for the Democrats, in a post-9/11 world and amid a primary field short on national security credentials.

So McCain v. Gore. One a confessed adulterer, the other popularly mocked as too wooden to attract a mistress. Which man gets attacked on character issues, for lax moral standards, given the above?

That’s right, baby – Albert Gore, Jr.

And all the while, McCain will be portrayed as strong when he’s bullheaded, and admirably flexible when he flip-flops. McCain’s past will be treated as the stuff of legend, and Gore’s as so much stuffing.

And that’s an inconvenient truth of another sort entirely.

July 15th, 2006

McKenna, Macbeth, and Rainville’s “Walking Shadow”

by Philip Baruth

Macbeth, and A Breach of Sacred Code at the Hamburger Summit

Is it right, fair, just and good to perform political stunts while eating grilled Italian or German sausage?

VDB has never thought so, and not only because of the potential for a wide range of after-effects, stretching from very mild nausea to aggravated projectile vomiting.

But especially we draw the line when the crowd eating the sausage is bipartisan in nature, and gathered to celebrate political common ground — like the crowd at the Hamburger Summit last Sunday.

Now, if you’ll remember, VDB teased the BBQ with a photo of the communications directors for both the US House campaigns — Andrew Savage and Brendan McKenna — hugging at a parade in Brandon the week before. It was a lovely photo, not unlike the famous shot of Sadat and Begin shaking hands after signing the Camp David Accords in 1979.

A picture that promised a brief cease-fire in the smouldering war over Vermont’s lone Congressional seat.

And McKenna did show — a genial, soft-spoken guy with a nagging resemblance to Trey Anastasio — and he did mingle and break bun with the mostly center-left crowd.

Brendan McKenna, contemplating mischief

But McKenna also took the opportunity to distribute the Rainville camp’s latest gambit: “Clean Campaign Pledge” cards, which render Rainville’s abortive campaign finance proposal down into three bullet points, and show Rainville’s signature above empty signature lines for Welch and a “Vermont Voter.”

Now, when McKenna laid one of these cards on us, even as we were flipping burgers, we were placed in a delicate position: if you’ll remember your Shakespeare, killing a guest in his home is Macbeth’s most heinous crime — greater than homicide, greater even than regicide.

In other words, we couldn’t say anything at the beach, because sacred and ancient codes of hospitality were in play.

But not no more.

The Rainville Camp’s “She Said/He Said” Strategy

To recap for those who might have missed either thrust or parry, the current sparring among the Welch and Rainville camps went down like this:

* Martha Rainville called on Peter Welch to limit campaign spending to $1 million dollars total, and to run a clean campaign, on the issues.

* The Welch campaign responded by pointing out that the NRCC had laughed off this cap, and vowed to do whatever needed to be done to take Bernie’s seat. In their turn, they proposed a series of “Conversations on the Green,” proto-debates that would give both candidates a chance to appear before crowds at a series of pre-primary forums.

* The Rainville Camp brushed off the debates, but pledged to deduct any outside expenditures from its $1 million dollar self-imposed cap.

* The Welch Camp pointed out that deducting up to $1 million would be worthless if outside campaigns spent $10 million, and that Rainville had already exempted various forms of campaign cash from her own pledge. They modified their own “Conversations on the Green” proposal to include Mark Shepard, Rainville’s primary opponent, and those events are slated to go forward in the coming weeks.

Clearly, both campaigns are pushing proposals closer to their own particular strategic needs: Welch has led Rainville in fundraising from the get-go and capping spending cuts into that advantage; Rainville, for her part, wants no part of debates that would dignify her competitor for the GOP nod, or sully her own image.

And because both proposals have their origins in tactical considerations, the mainstream press has by and large treated them as mirror images of one another. They’ve contributed to developing a strong and false equivalency between the two.

But the two proposals are not equivalents. Far from it.

The heart of Rainville’s proposal — self-imposed caps of $1 million — is a pure figment of the imagination. Outside expenditures drive key races nationwide, and that fact of political life was underlined only weeks ago by the Supreme Court.

The polls and advertisements those expenditures buy tend, by design, to be negative and opaque in nature. The (not unpredictable) revelation that the national GOP dropped $21,000 in polling for Rainville recently is just the first of a host of such expenditures.

Whether the Legislature will ever be able to put the campaign spending genie back in the bottle is unclear; what is clear is that the genie is loose for this cycle, and the genie is prepared to rock and roll.

Rainville’s pledge, then, is a simulation (a “walking shadow,” as Macbeth would say). She knows, for a fact, that outside groups will fund her race. She knows they will run attack ads. She knows that those groups will obscure their connections to her campaign as effectively as they possibly can.

And she knows that she can always profess to be “shocked” — as she did over the NRCC’s $21,000 poll (and accusations of push-polling) — should those expenditures come to light.

In short, the “Clean Campaign Pledge” is a stunt in the worst sense of the word. It’s not even designed to be entertaining: its purpose is to systematically mislead voters into mistaking one of Peter Welch’s greatest strengths — his work on campaign finance in Montpelier — for something more like its opposite.

And that’s page 16 of the Karl Rove primer.

“Conversations on the Green” —
An Actual 3D Event Involving Actual 3D Voters

On the other hand, the Welch camp’s proposal — joint events involving unscreened questions from unscreened audiences — is real and fully enforceable in all of its particulars. Actual candidates agreeing to meet in three-dimensions with actual voters.

Not one single political analyst or commentator or journalist has argued, even once, that the Welch proposal cannot happen.

Because it demonstrably can, and will — with or without Rainville. And that’s why holding the two proposals in balance against one another is intellectually dishonest.

What Welch proposes is to bring the race live to town greens across the state, maximizing the democratic nature of the contest. Rainville’s push is not really to drastically limit expenditures, which the Supreme Court has loudly said may not be done, but to manipulate perceptions of the race.

Which leads to a final way in which the proposals are different in kind: Welch’s proposal actually includes Rainville’s — it provides her with an opportunity to bring her “Clean Campaign Pledge” to audiences state-wide. It offers her a chance to alter voter’s perceptions directly, but not in a vacuum: those voters must have a chance to speak back to any candidate, to challenge their representations of the race.

Rainville’s proposal, conversely, seeks to limit Welch’s painstakingly acquired funding advantage, an advantage produced by the contributions of over 3,000 Vermonters. Nearly 70% of Welch’s donors were Vermonters, and they’ve given specifically because they want Bernie’s reliably progressive seat to remain reliably progressive.

McKenna/Macbeth, and the Revenge of the Hamburger Summit

So just to be clear, we liked Brendan McKenna. He seems a decent sort.

But he also clearly couldn’t resist the urge to bait the liberals at the picnic with the cutesy pledge cards. Which begs the question: is it worth VDB taking him out with assassins or — worse — by having Lady VDB go in and finish the deed with their knives?

No. It was a small thing, like accidentally burning your thigh on the hotdog grill. You slap some butter on it, and you move on.

And next year, we will pack water balloons, and enforce rigorous discipline on anyone caught perpetrating such political stunts.

But the way that the media continues to portray the two camp’s proposals as dueling, equivalent propositions is not so easily brushed off. Because it conceals the fundamental difference between them, a difference in kind, of which voters should be made aware: Welch’s proposal engages reality, Rainville’s only the theater.

And it’s a poor player, at that.

July 13th, 2006

Andrew Savage is Just Fine — Stop Calling His House and Sending Flowers and Stuff

by Philip Baruth

Savage is okay. Really.Apparently VDB’s gentle humor occasionally goes awry, like a TOW missile that narrowly misses its military target, only to take out a Toys R’ Us store in the adjacent commercial block.

Which is to say that Andrew Savage, Communications Director for the Welch campaign, was not actually hospitalized for a “percussive gastric event,” as we reported in our BBQ round-up below.

That was a joke.

So please stop calling his house, and sending flowers to Fletcher Allen. VDB deeply regrets any pain or anxiety we may have caused Savage, his family, heirs or assignees.

July 12th, 2006

Don’t Forget the Donovan Sit-Down

by Philip Baruth

Wanted to make sure the BBQ madness didn’t overshadow the long interview with State’s Attorney-hopeful T.J. Donovan we put up on Monday. (It’s directly beneath the BBQ narrative, or click this link.) Not only is it the sort of probing, in-depth coverage you expect from VDB, but Mark Johnson reports that “I was still laughing hours later . . . I was unable to tell my wife about it — and the opening questions of your interview — without crying.”

Enough said. But here’s a photo of T.J. quarterbacking at the Hamburger Summit, in case any undecided types out there need additional proof of leadership ability.

TJ looks down field

July 12th, 2006

POLITICAL BARBEQUE ERUPTS ON NORTH BEACH; Officials Unable to Count the Injured and Disoriented; Welch Communications Director Hospitalized for “Percussive Gastric Event”; Odum Also Lost; Oh, The Humanity, the Humanity!

by Philip Baruth

The Curse, the Vision, and the Crew

Blogging is a brutal, lonely, cursed vocation.

Even your family and your few real friends pity you for chasing this illusion — for throwing hours each day down a digital black hole, for staring endlessly into a monitor and imagining that a crowd of readers is staring back.

And political blogging is even worse.

Every time you speak your mind, you make a friend in Richmond, and lose a friend in Rutland. Every night after midnight, mainstream journalists and pundits screech by your house on two wheels and throw dead rats on your doorstep.

And these dead rats have to be explained to your family, come dawn.

So a while back John Odum and I decided to circle the wagons, and cook up a bunch of meat, to bring all the isolated/hassled political bloggers together.

The Sign

But the idea was larger than just bloggers: we also wanted to draw in all the candidates and staff and alternative media types we know, as well as the loyal, regular readers that drive VDB and GMD on a day-to-day basis.

Everybody talking non-stop politics. Beautiful. A massive political free-for-all, as we imagined it.

makin' patties

Like a huge game of Twister, except with 80 people playing rather than 3, and everyone talking endlessly about NSA spying and the Connecticut River Dam situation — with touch football and burning beef thrown in for good measure.


Quickly we realized that the job was bigger than two people, and we roped in Neil Jensen, who held our spot at North Beach like an incensed pit bull while Odum and I cleaned out the Price Chopper out on Shelburne Road.


And Maggie Gundersen — shown above packing spatula — proved to be the sort of woman who steps forward when the flames drive more timid folk back. She was absolutely indispensable as Adjunct Grillmeister.

Only in the final stages did we realize that we were severely digitally-handicapped: with the exception of Neil’s $2 playtoy, we had nothing in the way of serious cameras.

Enter Anita Long, a fellow UVM type, and the ever mysterious Yusef (shown below with natty VDB-reader Don) who came packing the sort of lens that makes other men feel somehow subliminally inadequate. The images you see are their handiwork, and God love them both.

yusef, and don

The Hamburger Summit Goes Live

And as I said yesterday, the whole event just turned out to be a beautiful thing: the weather was choice, and the crowd was fascinating, by any standard.

scudderNearly all of the major campaigns turned out in force, with Parker and Welch and Dunne staffers blanketing the grass.

As far as Democratic politics went, it was a full-court press: with the exception of Bernie Sanders — Democratic brother-in-arms — all of the big contenders were present, and a sweeter slate you never met in your life.

And because the beach around us was full to bursting, the BBQ crowd and the larger crowd mingled nicely and naturally — a dream situation for politicos just a few months out from Election Day.

savageAndrew Savage, communications director for Welch, biked 65 miles early Sunday morning to prepare an appetite in line with the spread we’d put out. Sources said he planned to bike another 20 miles or so after the event, to work off the excess calories.

In hindsight the regimen seems to have been a poor decision.

Savage’s hospitalization early Monday morning — due to what the internists at Fletcher Allen termed a “percussive gastric event” — was unfortunate, but couldn’t be helped.

All politics is local, of course, but that’s really just a way of saying that all politics is personal. I’ll always be indebted to Scudder and his wife for coming first, playing hardest, and leaving last. They have my vote for the duration.

Scudder eyes the end-zone

In addition to quarterbacking a fairly impressive touch football game, Scudder found time to engage conservative blogger Charity Tensel in a Vulcan mind-meld conversation about the roots of liberalism, and the way that Jim Douglas dropped the ball on the Connecticut River Dam issue.

Charity/Scudder Mind-meld

At one point Peter Welch, Scudder, Odum and Welch’s dog held a four-way session that seemed — at least from a distance — to bear significant strategic fruit.

Odum fights off dog

Matt Dunne, John Tracy, and T.J. Donovan all waded in and pressed serious flesh.

And Charity was not the only conservative to hit the beach — Brendan McKenna put in an appearance, as did Vilassa Campbell, an old UVM friend now working for Rainville —
but she was certainly the most charming.

not what it seems

And although the optical illusion in the shot above is deeply unfortunate, the fact is she and I took to one another right off. You’ll see She’s Right listed prominently on the sidebar from now on.


The beauty part was putting faces to names.

the one and only brattlerouserBrattlerouser turns out to be this very soft-spoken person in a Hawaiian shirt who just landed a job at one of my favorite liberal clearinghouses, Raw Story.

(And of course, I’ve put in a word with Brattlerouser about shooting VDB the inside dope whenever possible.)

The Carpetbagger Report, a national Washington-themed blog I’ve read for years, turns out to be written by another thoughtful, cerebral type named Steve Benen.

carpetbaggerRecently, Steve wrote an intriguing article for the Washington Monthly on the Clintons, infidelity, and the double-standard for conservative adulterers called “High Infidelity.”

And of course the Clintons are a specialty/compulsion at VDB. So I’ll be blogging about it later in the week, if you haven’t picked it up yet and want to get the jump on it.

Candleblog guru Bill Simmon and Burlingtonpol’s Haik Bedrosian I recognized from their sites, and both were a lot of fun — real stand-up guys. The sort of imposing stand-up guys who look fully capable of kicking your ass but wouldn’t dream of it — those kind of stand-up guys.

mark larsenAnd I had a chance to introduce the rest of the blogosphere to some political friends from Burlington, like Representative and mayor-in-waiting Mark Larson, stand-up comic and State Rep. Jason Lorber, and my own city councilor, Russ Ellis.

And more than a few VDB loyalists were there, in spite of sometimes great distances: Maggie and Arnie Gundersen, Bill Haddock, Gregg and Nanci Meyer, Ed Adrian and family, to name a few.

Artist/Cartoonist Marc NadelBest of all, my neighbor Marc Nadel — VDB’s house cartoonist and caricaturist extraordinaire — made the scene with his wife Nancy, and it was nice to be able to point him out to readers who dutifully wade through the words at this site to get to the latest Nadel images.

And so the vision of all the area’s political bloggers coming together as a sort of de facto support group — in which we could compare the number and type of dead rats thrown by mainstream journalists on our porches — became reality. It was enough to put tears in your eyes, getting toward sundown.

The Good, the Bad, and the Bloggish
A motley but stalwart crew: (standing, left to right) Steve Benen, Eve Benen, Bill Simmon, Neil Jensen, Christian Avard, John Odum, Charity Tensel; (kneeling, left to right) Haik Bedrosian, Koko, and me.

In short, it was everything we imagined — but somehow greasier and more filling.

meatNow if I could, I’d like to conclude by asking that everyone pause for a moment in deep contemplation, to thank the various animals that supplied by-products to produce the processed meats we grilled with such abandon.

Until next year, many thanks to you all out there for what the Python boys would call a real mother of a blowout. We’ll do it again, next year, never fear.

what a day


Late Update, July 12, 10:26 am:

I would be remiss if I failed to point out that there are some really freaking weird BBQ photos over at Odum’s site — and I mean freaking weird. I mean, like, guys holding severed heads, preparing to barbeque them sort of weird. Neil’s got great photos too, all with the cheapest digital ever produced. And Haik goes arthouse, here.

Later Update, 11:08 am:

Jonas Galusha — the infamous anonymous political provocateur — has written in to say that he was in attendance Sunday, but incognito. Galusha claims to have been acting the part of a street person, collecting bottles at the fringes of the party. Anyone get a bead on his act?

July 10th, 2006

T.J. Donovan is No William Shatner (And That’s a Very Good Thing)

by Philip Baruth

Campaign Interviews 2006: T.J. Donovan Is No William Shatner (And That’s a Very Good Thing)

There are all sorts of occupational hazards for novelists who turn to political blogging — Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Multiple Personality Disorder — but the most serious is the grinding tension between narrative and news, fiction and fact. To ease that constant dissonance, I often find myself gravitating toward real news stories that have the power and the flash of fiction.

Which brings us to T.J. Donovan, Democratic candidate for Chittenden County State’s Attorney.

I met T.J. at a Democratic event a few months back, and liked him immediately: T.J. Donovanhe’s earnest, and good-natured, and talks compellingly about his work in law enforcement. Currently he’s locked in an epic primary battle for the Democratic nod, with two well-respected and well-financed opponents.

And almost immediately I found myself pulling for the guy.

But here’s the thing: when I really examined my feelings closely, I realized that part of the reason that I was pulling for the guy is that any guy named T.J. — especially one looking to serve as the county’s “chief law enforcement officer” and pledging to stay “on the front lines” — inevitably reminds me of T.J. HOOKER, William Shatner’s deliciously disastrous ‘80s sit-com. T.J. HookerAnd these two narratives — one about a serious prosecutor running a serious race for a real-world office, the other about a paunchy guy with badly-dyed hair boosting Heather Locklear over chain-link fences — kept mixing in my mind.

So I decided to sit down with Donovan and cooly sift these stories out. Who exactly is T.J. Donovan? Can he handle the rapidly expanding case-load in Chittenden County? And what, if any, relationship does he bear to Leonard Nimoy?

[In order to fully re-create the two-narrative mindset described above, you must go here and watch the T.J. HOOKER It’s classic Aaron Spelling: a wild mix of cheesecake and beefcake, with the occasional exploding car thrown in to raise the heat. Make sure to note VDB’s favorite moment: at one point, Hooker runs between two trees, and manages to dodge both — a harrowing stunt that Shatner apparently performed himself. It will be the comic highlight of your week.]

The upshot: I don’t think I’ve ever learned as much about law enforcement — and what is broadly referred to as restorative justice — as I did during my single hour with Donovan. He is supremely well-versed in these issues, a genuine pleasure to engage in conversation. And possessed of a real drive to find a way out of the sniping between Left and Right on enforcement issues, drawing on what Bill Clinton once called “The Third Way.”

Donovan is no William Shatner, in other words — and that’s an excellent thing.

* * *

VDB: First of all — and maybe most importantly — in the trailer for William Shatner’s post-Star Trek crime vehicle, TJ Hooker, Shatner jumps onto the hood of a speeding car and then tries to stop the car by caving in the window with his night stick. Question being: have you ever done this, and is it standard procedure in this situation, as you see it?

Donovan: Absolutely not. [Laughter] On both counts.

VDB: [Using follow-up questions to nail the issue down once and for all] Have you ever seen TJ Hooker?

Donovan: When I was a kid.

VDB: Did you ever meet William Shatner? See him in person from a distance?

Donovan: Absolutely not.

VDB: So there’s no connection there, of any sort —

Donovan: Absolutely not. No connection.

VDB: [Slowly, as though not quite convinced that no Shatner connection exists] Okay, fair enough. [Looks through questions] I wanted to start actually by asking you about restorative justice. You talk at several points about that on your website, and I like the idea of it a lot. Is your work with Burlington’s Dismas House a part of that?

Donovan: Dismas House is transitional housing for people who are released from jail. And the mission of Dismas House is to reconcile former prisoners with their society, and the society with the former prisoners. And it’s a great program, because it’s about community.

If you commit a crime, you should be held accountable, and you’re going to be punished. And if you go to jail, you go to jail.

But after you go to jail — you do your time and your sentence is up — it’s in our society’s best interest to bring you back into the community. To make you a productive member of that community, reconcile those differences. And that’s what Dismas is about. And it’s about preventing crime.

You know, from a common sense standpoint, if you come out of jail and you’re ostracized because of your past conduct, you have no support. There are no services there for you, there’s no jobs, no housing — the basics people need to succeed in this world. And you’re more likely to commit crime again.

And that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about being proactive on crime, and building partnerships, and being smart on crime. We’re going to hold people accountable, and if jail’s appropriate, they’re going to go to jail. But in order to reduce crime and prevent crime, we need to be proactive and get people the services and support so they don’t commit crime in the first place.

That’s what Dismas is about. You’re restoring the broken relationships in the community.

VDB: Okay, let me just zero in there. How exactly do they do that? I know you’re on the board of Dismas. Do you go there and work, in a room, with offenders and members of the community?

Donovan: In terms of the community, every night — and you should really go up there, it’s on Buell Street, it’s great — volunteers from the community come in and cook dinner. And every night the residents of the house — and it’s not just former prisoners, there’s students, there’s volunteers from Justice for Peace — sit down with these people from the community and have dinner. And it’s a communal experience. So people from all walks of life, judges, lawyers, students, they come and cook dinner and sit and talk with these people.

And it’s about family, you know? And I think when you feel part of something, and you have the support, you’re more likely to become a productive, law-abiding person.

There are two houses right now, one in Burlington and one in Rutland. At the Burlington fundraising dinner in early May, Sister Helen Prejean from Dead Man Walking was the keynote speaker, and she was great. You know, the message is about reconciliation, and it’s a pretty powerful message when you really start to think about it.

VDB: Let me get to a specific case now —

Donovan: [Leaning forward and putting up a hand] I just wanted to follow up quickly with one thing there: Sex offenders are not allowed in Dismas House, and that should be made clear. Because I don’t want anyone to say, “Hey, you’re bringing sex offenders into the community.”

VDB: Right. Okay, let’s take the case of Doug Chioffi [A man recently brought to court for frightening his neighbors, once by waving a gun at some boys taunting him].

Donovan: Yes.

VDB: This case seemed to me a good illustration of some of the things you’re talking about. Can you talk a little bit about his case, and what the balancing point there was, between his needs and those of the community?

Donovan: Let me start by saying that everybody involved in this case — the neighbors, the police, probation — they all have legitimate concerns about safety. People have a right to live free from fear. In their house. On their street. In their back yard. And that’s the first priority, so when you talk about balancing, the first priority is public safety. And the scales will always be tipped in favor of that.

Now Doug, I want to — I represent him, so I want to choose my words carefully, and actually I’m going to court on him later today — but, you know, Doug is a Vietnam veteran. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from his service there. And I think as a result of that, he acts out. And his acts as alleged by the state are criminal acts. And he should be held accountable if he’s scaring people in the neighborhood.

But the underlying cause of his acts, I believe, is his mental illness. And I think that the best way to prevent future acts is to get him treatment. Because he’s not going to be in jail forever, he’s going to get out, and he’s going to go back to his house. And if we want to stop this, we gotta get him the services he deserves.

In my view, if you serve our country in our time of need, in a time of war, well, our country should serve you in your time of need. This is Doug’s time of need.

And, you know [chopping the air with a hand] I get frustrated. Because this is a guy who did serve. I didn’t serve in the military, and I have the utmost respect for anyone who did. And it just, it gets me frustrated that we’re fighting so hard to get him the services. Partly because he’s in and out of jail, and I’m not excusing or condoning his behavior.

But when you balance it, when you forge that middle ground between protecting the public and helping treat the offender, then the third way, the middle way is: what can we do to prevent this behavior from happening again. And that’s where I see our criminal justice system hasn’t worked as well as it should.

VDB: Okay, I fully agree with you, and I think most Democrats do. But as you well know, there’s a political problem: Republicans have made punishment and enforcement their watchwords, and Democrats have tended to be associated with treatment. It becomes a question of strength in the public mind, who’s stronger on crime, who’s tougher on crime.

Donovan: [Nodding] Yup.

VDB: How do you — looking ahead to the general — you’re running against a Republican, John St. Francis, who’s already talking about an “epidemic” of drugs, and that language sounds to me very reminiscent of the very deft way that Governor Douglas painted Doug Racine as soft on drugs, soft on crime. How do you think those things through, the politics of it and the policy?

Donovan: Well, I want to say that I’m not going to get involved in partisanship and say, “This is the Democratic way” or “This is the Republican way,” because we all live in this community, and we’re all affected by crime.

It’s in our collective best interest to prevent crime, and I don’t want to quote Bill Clinton here, but I will: it’s about the third way. Because at the end of the day, what we’ve done in the past hasn’t worked. Anybody who says that being tough on crime, building more jails, sending more people to jail, is the best way to protect the public is wrong, or they’re naïve. And here’s why.

Jason Lorber, who’s a State Representative — I just read a quote from his report that in the last ten years there’s been a 600% increase in incarceration for women.

VDB: Wow. Nationally, or in Vermont?

Donovan: Vermont. Now, the crimes aren’t going up, more women aren’t committing crimes, but more women are being sent to jail, okay? And you need to start thinking about this as a global problem. The first priority is public safety, and punishment is appropriate. And deterrence is appropriate.

But again, the third way is saying: what do we do to prevent crime?

Now, if you want to talk about talking points, whether it’s from Republicans or Democrats, talk about money. Republicans own that issue, right? Well, it’s not fiscally responsible to continue to do what we’re doing with corrections. Corrections has a higher budget in this state than higher education.

That’s wrong. It costs $42,000 a year to incarcerate a man, and it costs $74,000 a year to incarcerate a woman in the state of Vermont. And the recidivism rate, according to the Department of Corrections, is 58%. So over half the people we’re sending to jail within one year are going back. One year.

That’s just not fiscally responsible. It’s wasting money. Let’s take some of that money and be preventive, be proactive, get the services and the support up front.

VDB: You have experience not only as a Deputy State’s Attorney here, but as an Assistant District Attorney in Philadelphia.

Donovan: Yup.

VDB: Philadelphia then becomes the background for your experience here, and I know the day to day realities are unbelievably different —

Donovan: Yeah.

VDB: But I was wondering if you could talk about your time in Philly, and what things there really marked your approach, and then if you could talk about your move back here and what you saw by way of difference.

Donovan: I grew up in Burlington, and, I mean, this is the best place to live. That’s why you and I are both here. And I went to Philadelphia because I wanted the experience [laughing to himself a bit] and I got the experience. I mean, you’re in court every single day, dealing with gun cases, drug cases, sex cases, every single day.

And from a professional standpoint, it was the best experience of my life. Because you learn through trial by fire, on your feet every day. You gotta be prepared, and you gotta know the law, and you gotta know the facts.

But the biggest impact on me was my personal experience. I can remember, you had to go to district courts around the city of Philadelphia, and I can remember going to one in North Philadelphia, up past Temple University.

And it was a blighted area. No businesses, buildings burnt out, there was no hope.

And I walked into court and I had this realization. Here I am, I’m a white kid from Vermont and I’m prosecuting all minorities from North Philadelphia. And I just had a realization that something’s seriously wrong with this picture, you know? And again, I’m not condoning any of those people’s acts.

But it came to me: why are these people here? Well, if you have no hope, no opportunities, you don’t have a chance to succeed, you do what is deemed acceptable in your community. It was shocking to me. It was shocking to me.

VDB: And then when you moved here, you were the first Chittenden County Deputy State’s Attorney to work in the Drug Court. Obviously, there are differences, but what’s the main set of differences in working here on those issues, as opposed to Philly?

Donovan: Well, in Philadelphia, you are really dealing with some serious crime. But you know, the funny thing was that when I came back here, I still saw the people that were coming into [the Courthouse at] 32 Cherry Street were from the same circumstance, if you will — no opportunity, generational poverty, lack of opportunity.

Now, the Drug Court is really an innovative program. Because it’s a program that was designed organically. It wasn’t from a federal grant, where we had to go with these federal mandates. It was started by Judge James Crucitti, on his initiative here in Chittenden County.

And what the court does basically is it brings people in who have cases that are drug-related — it does not mean that they’re there for selling drugs or even for drug possession. Really, it was a lot of young women, who had property crimes — bad checks, retail theft, other crimes they were committing in order to feed their habits.

VDB: I see.

Donovan: And in order to be eligible for the program, the offer from the state had to be jail time. And if you took the program, you would go into the Drug Court, where there were incentives and sanctions.

And the biggest incentive was that if you go through the program — about a year, year and a half, where you’re going to get tested weekly, but you’re also going to get the support and services and counseling — the incentive is that you’re not going to go to jail, and you’re probably going to get a probated sentence.

So it was the carrot and the stick. You’re taken off what I’ll call the criminal track, the trial track. What we did in that court was look at people and say, “Why are you here? What do you need? Here are the services, the mental health services. Get a job. Keep working. Stay in the program.”

VDB: And it works.

Donovan: It does. I gotta tell you one story about that Drug Court. There was a young woman who was friends with Crystal Jones — the girl who was murdered down in New York, grew up in the Old North End, was brought down there, and forced into prostitution and murdered. And one of her friends who also grew up in the Old North End was down in New York with her, and thankfully she survived.

When this girl came back here, she was arrested and charged with conspiracy to sell cocaine, I believe. And she was 17 at the time. She wasn’t selling cocaine, in my view, for greed or for profit. She was selling cocaine because this 25-year-old guy she thought was in love with her told her to. She was charged, it’s a felony, and the state wanted jail time.

Judge Crucitti overruled the state, and said, “I want her in the Drug Court program, because I’ve known her since Day One and she’s never had a chance. Her family’s been in court, whether it was family court or district court, since she’s been a child.”

VDB: Which is a really, really tough political call to make.

Donovan: That’s right.

VDB: You look at what happened with the judge in the Cashman case. A judge can get crucified for that sort of intervention.

Donovan: That’s right. So she goes into the Drug Court, and she does great. And I see her a couple weeks ago, and I talk to her, and she’s taking classes at CCV, she’s working now. And she’s sober. That’s success.

VDB: Now, coming out of the Drug Court program, do they step down the testing? Like go to monthly screens, and then yearly or something?

Donovan: Yeah, there’s different levels, and you graduate. When you come in it’s much more intensive, but based on your track record of success, you graduate. I think there are four or five different levels. The higher the level, the less supervision. I use that story often because I think it demonstrates the potential we have, with the people here in our community.

VDB: And again, not to sound overly cynical or jaded, but there’s the Willie Horton problem. And Michael Dukakis found it out to his eternal regret. It’s possible to take a program like the Drug Court — or in Horton’s case, a furlough program — and to find one person who commits a crime while on the program, and to demonize the whole effort.

And it seems to me that’s what you’re proposing a way out of, a way to get away from the sniping between the two parties on the issue, by focusing on something like the Drug Court, which uses enforcement in the service of treatment.

Donovan: That’s right. Participants in the Drug Court go to jail if they fail, having had the services they need. That’s how the public good is served. This is why I talk about the third way, because it’s not the extremes.

VDB: One more component of the third way, or at least your thinking about how you’d pursue this job. You say on your website, “My broad experience in the criminal justice system has taught me where to close the loopholes in case management.” Give us one gaping loophole that you’ve got your eye on closing.

Donovan: It’s all about resources. You can never have enough. With that job, it’s all about the volume of cases coming in, in that you really need to set priorities. When I talk about closing the loopholes — I don’t want a possession of marijuana case, or a drunk college student disorderly conduct case to take up our time for nine months.

I want to focus on pedophiles, I want to focus on rapists, I want to focus on drug dealers.

I’m not saying let’s not hold these others accountable; but let’s get ‘em in and out, and let’s look toward alternatives. Let’s use the community reparative boards, again a restorative justice model. Because let me tell you: those community reparative boards are fantastic, and they are going to hold those people more accountable.

VDB: How exactly do reparative boards work? How do they function?

Donovan: It works a couple different ways. You can have referrals to these community boards from the police, say. These boards are citizen groups, and they hold offenders accountable for their crimes.

VDB: But do these civilian groups decide whether you’re guilty? Or you’re already judged guilty?

Donovan: You have to admit to [your crime]. Two ways you can get to the reparative boards: you can get there by direct referral from the police — so you’re not even in court, and you’re never convicted in court, because it doesn’t warrant the court’s time — or you can go to these boards as a condition of probation.

I’ve observed a couple of these boards, and the example that stands out in my mind is a case of a kid, a 17-year-old, eating lunch at Appleby’s with his buddy. And they ran out on the check. And one of the kids got caught.

Incredibly stupid, okay? They should be held accountable. But is it in our community’s interest to convict the kid of theft of services, at 17, and make his life extremely, extremely difficult? Who’s going to hire someone with a theft charge?

VDB: And why should we take up a couple of weeks of the system’s time over it.

Donovan: That’s right, that’s right. Now what happened was, he went to the community rep board, and it was [searches for the exact word] amazing. He had to listen to the waitress, who confronted him in front of this community board, and told him that she lives on tips, told him how his actions impacted her, that she had to pick up the check.

And let me tell you something: that kid learned a lesson. And that’s all about accountability.

VDB: Okay, let’s go back to the pure politics angle, and the politics of this race. This race is like a rugby scrum — you had six people in it originally, now it’s down to four. And you have two opponents in your primary alone. Anything you can tell us about the way you’re managing the primary process? It can be a harsh process, but it doesn’t seem to be moving that way thus far. And how are you thinking about that quick pivot into the general election?

Donovan: I think in this county, in this race, in this year, my sense is whoever wins the Democratic primary will mostly likely win in November. I think so because of Chittenden County; it’s a Democratic county.

So I’m focusing on the primary. And the way we’re proceeding is grass roots. As you’re aware, I’m trying to be everywhere at once, which is impossible, but I think I’m doing a pretty good job of it. Knocking on doors, calling people, reaching out and identifying voters, and making sure they vote on September 12th.

VDB: Does it ever get uncomfortable out there [on the campaign trail], because you’ve worked with the other guys, at some level. They’re attorneys too.

Donovan: It has, but I will say this: everybody in this race is a good person. And we all have relationships, and we all are committed to winning but doing it the right way. I do not expect, certainly not from my side, any negativity.

VDB: Now you’re looking to replace Bob Simpson [current State’s Attorney], who has made a decision not to endorse. I assume that’s because he’s also faced with a lot of competing interests —

Donovan: I can’t speak for him, but that would be my presumption, that — Look, Chittenden County is a small community to begin with; the Democratic community is even smaller; and the legal community is smaller still. So there’s a lot of relationships and it’s probably uncomfortable for some people, and they’re just saying, “I’m not getting involved.”

And I respect that. I wish I could say it was only about the issues, because I think my message resonates with a lot of people. The trouble is, how do you get that message out there to the Democratic voters in Chittenden County?

VDB: Of course, the key there is political blogs.

Donovan: [Cracking up, knocking on the conference table] You got that, my friend! That’s why I’ll be out there eating a hamburger at North Beach this Sunday afternoon [a reference to VDB’s First Annual Political Barbeque and Hamburger Summit]!

VDB: Just to follow up on the Bob Simpson connection, you’ve worked as a Deputy in that office —

Donovan: He hired me.

VDB: Right. Am I right that there are 14 Deputies in all?

Donovan: Fourteen in all.

VDB: Are any of the other guys running former Deputies?

Donovan: No.

VDB: So it would seem to make a nice transition to move a Deputy State’s Attorney into the top spot.

Donovan: [Smiling] I think so. Absolutely.

VDB: What’s the best thing you take away from working with Bob Simpson?

Donovan: Work ethic. He’s a professional. It’s about leadership — he’s the first one in the office in the morning, and he’s the last to leave. Tremendously hard-working. Just a great boss. He would never ask you to do something he wasn’t willing to do himself. I would hope to emulate him on all those levels.

VDB: Okay, you’ve made this absolute decision not to put your face on a bus [use bus-side ads with photos]. Why is that? What line is crossed there for you, first of all?

Donovan: [Clapping his hands, and laughing] Well, I do have bus signs! But no picture. You know, those pictures may be very smart politically, I don’t know. Some have indicated that. But I don’t think it’s the accepted practice here, in Vermont politics.

And — I’m not comfortable with it. Hey, I don’t want to see my face on a bus ten times a day. I’m okay with my name! But not my face. Not the face. I’m just — [Holds hands in the air, brow wrinkled, searching for a phrase] I’m just finally not comfortable.

VDB: Fair enough. But I got a commercial idea for you. And I want to end the interview by running this by you.

Donovan: Okay, shoot.

VDB: You take the intro montage from T.J. Hooker, which I’m going to have up on the web site. And what we do is, as it’s running, we stop it and then pull back — and it’s you standing beside a television monitor, pointing at the screen. And then you point out the actual legal problems with all the things William Shatner and Heather Locklear are doing. It’d be brilliant.

Donovan: [Laughter]

VDB: And at the end, we cut and there’s a fade, and the tagline comes up, and it says, “TJ Donovan: Keepin’ It Real.” What do you think?

Donovan: [Laughter subsiding] I like that. That’s good. If you’re willing to pay for that, let’s do it. Let’s absolutely do it.

July 10th, 2006

BBQ Narrative Coming Soon

by Philip Baruth

The First Annual VDB/GMD Political Barbeque and Hamburger Summit was a beautiful thing, and we’ll be writing it up at length tomorrow and the next day, when the various digital images stream into headquarters.

But suffice it to say, for now, that we’re deeply indebted to a long list of people for their help in making it fly.

It goes without saying that John Odum and the Green Mountain Daily folk moved heaven and earth — but very special thanks also to What’s The Point’s Neil Jensen, who did yeoman’s work from beginning to end, managing all the while to keep up a running commentary about the netroots, the genesis and apocalypse of the Dean campaign, and early Steve Martin stand-up.

Maggie Gundersen, who stepped in when the grill was hottest and all hope seemed lost, also deserves special early thanks. As do the campaigns that sent candidates and staffers: the Parker, Welch, Rainville, Dunne, Tracy, Lorber operations, to be specific.

Pictures and stories to follow. Again, deepest thanks to all.

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