March 20th, 2007


by Philip Baruth

In Which a Battle-Scarred Senator Comes Back to Save the World — Whether the World Likes It or Not

Thursday the 15th of March, 2007, was a strange day to be in Montpelier. Suddenly-warm temperatures, on the heels of weeks of bitter cold, had experts warning that the ice on the Winooski River could easily crack and dam — a repeat of the situation that led to the massive flooding of State Street in 1992.

montpelier flood

But no one planned to get fooled again. This time, preparations were underway.

The Vermont Congressional Delegation was screaming, loudly, for FEMA to begin pre-positioning resources. Jim Douglas had authorized the mobilization of the National Guard. The city of Montpelier, having already tried spraying sand on the ice, began pumping a million gallons a day of “treated, disinfected effluvient” from the wastewater treatment plant, hoping to melt it that way. A wall of sandbags — twelve bags high, nearly five feet — screened the glass front of the Post Office.

It was like walking on to the set of a disaster movie, a film in which rising sea levels — or melting ice caps, or evil scientists with axes to grind — are preparing to overwhelm the merely human defenses of the city in question.

And that’s when I walked up the hill to the State House, to interview Peter Shumlin.

Shumlin did not seem concerned about the impending disaster. And that is to put it mildly: Peter Shumlin projects a confidence so all-encompassing that it almost tans your face as you shake his hand. In a state that often rewards smaller-than-life politicians — those physically small or mild enough to seem like regular folks — Shumlin is an undeniably larger-than-life figure, love him or hate him, for good or for ill.

He is a tall man, possessed of a nose so prominent, so sharp and so radical in its dimensions, that he had no choice but to make the silhouette the basis of his lawn-sign design, when he ran for Lieutenant Governor. Yet there is an inherent drama and even a glamour to the nose, positioned as it is in a face of more than passable looks.

Add this to the fact that Shumlin’s voice — like Pacino in The Godfather series — gets lower and quieter as he grows angrier and more impassioned, and you’ve got the makings of outsized political myth.

Then, of course, there are the things Shumlin says.

Again, it is as though the man cannot be contained by the boundaries of standard political speech. His talk is unvarnished, and scattered liberally among it are phrases that cannot help but cut someone somewhere: Governor Douglas is “schizophrenic on taxes,” Catamount Health is “a little pimple on the back of a hog,” and Democrats over the last four years have been “too willing to compromise what they believed.”

It isn’t as if Shumlin doesn’t know the effects of his bluntness; like any good politician, he will often circle back and attempt to mitigate the damage. Having called himself “arrogant” for seeking to return to the Pro Tem’s office, to take one example, Shumlin later argues that he is not an “arrogant person,” merely someone who saw a job that desperately needed doing, a job that only Peter Shumlin could manage.

And that may well be true; the legislative session has only just passed the half-way mark, and the reviews are still very much out. Ditto on his plans for 2008, though he certainly sounds like a candidate for Governor here.

But one thing is altogether certain: Shumlin has returned.

* * * * *

VDB: First things first. Recently our satirical team Audio Dream Theater went live with a piece called “Crouching Douglas, Hidden Shumlin,” in which you were portrayed as an all-powerful martial arts expert who had been secretly raised in a temple high in the mountains of Putney. Did you manage to listen to the piece, and did it ring true for you in any way?

Shumlin: I did listen to it. And it did ring true.

VDB: [Laughter] In what way?

Shumlin: [Not even a hint of a smile] Well, you know, I live on a ridge. I have a 220-year-old farm house that has the only — I suspect — the only top-loading underground cave, made of stone. This is true. And there are a number of theories on it.

Some people think it goes back to really early mankind, when the United States was attached to places that we’re no longer attached to, because of rising sea levels. Which you’re going to see because of global warming, again. Others think it was a place to hide slaves during the exit to Canada. Others think it’s a root cellar. But it’s actually [Lets the smile break] my cave.

VDB: Now what does “top-loading” mean?

Shumlin: It means that when you see traditional root cellars in Vermont, you usually go through a small door. This just looks like — from the exterior you’d never notice it except that the earth looks slightly mounded. And as you move toward it, if you remove three rocks, you literally drop down into the chamber from the top.

VDB: This is almost exactly like the moment in Batman Begins with Christian Bale, when he discovers the Bat Cave.

Shumlin: Exactly. So I did hear the piece, and I thought it was right on the money. And the Governor’s running for cover [Laughing].

VDB: Okay. A follow-up: we spent hours working on your voice, all three of us cutting audition tapes — and it got a little competitive I have to say — but it’s a very distinctive voice, and it just seemed like it was going to be so easy. Any tips on getting it right next time out?

Shumlin: [Considers it] I think you have to mumble.

VDB: Okay. And I can hear now that there’s a lot more gravel there than we thought.

Shumlin: There’s a lot of gravel. And, you know, it’s just the way it was created. No, I thought it was a great piece, and I laughed like hell.

VDB: On a more serious note, you surprised a lot of people by returning to the Senate and reclaiming the President Pro Tem’s office. At least half of the smart money was on John Campbell, whom you narrowly aced out. That’s not martial arts, but it was artful.

Other than the fact that Campbell is a good man, and you were honored to have the support of your caucus, what can you tell us about the actual inner dynamics of that leadership process? Things like, who and what helped when, and looking back, what was the clincher if there was one?

Shumlin: I’m not very good at looking back. I look forward. I think if I had looked back carefully enough, I never would have come back, to be honest with you. Because I’m someone who loves the policy, who looks at the big picture, and I find the day to day pettiness of the job extraordinarily taxing. Those are the parts I forgot when I was away. Those battles tend to be inside baseball in which the outcome is always a mystery. I had no right to run against John Campbell —

VDB: Interesting. Why do you say that?

Shumlin: There’s no precedent. I would wager that there’s no precedent in any state legislature for some person to be on the streets for four years, never set foot in the State House, get re-elected and come back and say, “I want to be the boss now,” and then win. [Photo: Rutland Herald]

shumlin takes the oath

VDB: Okay.

Shumlin: So the way I felt about it with John was — and frankly, I bet more like 90% of the money was on Campbell, for a smart bettor, there’s no question. And I’ve learned why there’s no precedent for it, which is that I’ve been on a learning curve like you wouldn’t believe. It isn’t about the policy, although there is some of that.

It’s about the inner mechanics of the building, and how people relate to each other, which is what successful leadership is all about. Getting people to do things they don’t necessarily want to do. So the long and short of it is I’ve been on an extreme learning curve over the last eight weeks, and, you know, I’m catching up, but I’ve been rusty.

VDB: I’m interested in that idea of having a “right” to do something politically, because of a question I’m going to ask in a minute. I think it’s interesting you say you didn’t have the right to run against him. Because there are a couple of different takes on politics, one being that it’s a ladder and there are places on it — the other being that there is no ladder, only a finish line, and some people are just more likely to reach it than others. So in that sense you had the right because you won the race.

Shumlin: What I mean is that in many ways it was an arrogant move. This is a guy — here’s John Campbell, who been the Majority Leader successfully, had carried a huge load of water for the Pro Tem because Peter Welch was dealing with the death of Joan [Smith, Welch’s wife]. And then Peter was running for Congress, which meant that John had to pick up the slack. And then some guy comes along and says, “You know, I had that job, and I want it back.”

And I think it was presumptuous, frankly.

Now, I did it not because I’m an arrogant and presumptuous person, but because I felt I could offer a quality to the leadership here that I thought was desperately lacking. And John may well have done a better job than I. I think if you were to talk to him, he’ll say that his particular style is different than mine, so that the relationship we have with him as Majority Leader and me as Pro Tem was the right decision. I think he’d say that now.

But he has been a real friend, ally, and — you know, I judge someone when the chips are down, not when things are going well. And he came up to the plate and said, “I’ll be your Majority Leader, and I’ll be as loyal to you as anybody if you’re loyal to me.” And that’s the relationship we have. He’s been an incredible help to me.

Having said that, my feeling about the Democrats in the Legislature for the last four years is that they have been too willing to compromise what they believed in order to be seen as working with the Governor. And I think the result has been that there’s been very little policy over the last four years that we should be truly proud of. And my style is different. I will agree with the Governor when I agree with him, but I will actively disagree with him when I don’t, and that’s most of the time.

VDB: We’ve jumped ahead to where I wanted to go later, but that’s fine, it’s a beautiful lead-in to this. And I’m talking about the so-called “framework,” that you and Gaye Symington and Governor Douglas came out and announced at a press conference.

And — frankly as a framework it was less stable than it might have been, but it was a good start. One of the things that struck me about that press conference was you saying, very flat out, “There’s no more taxing capacity to reduce Vermont property taxes . . . . we don’t believe Vermonters have the additional earning capacity to keep up with school spending.”

Now that leapt out of that article to me. It was the buried lede in the story, because it seemed to me that a critic might say that you were coming to Governor Douglas’s position right at the beginning of the session. So I began to think about why I thought you were doing that, and I came up with my own theory. But what’s your take on that?

Shumlin: Sure. It’s the truth.

VDB: Okay.

Shumlin: There are times I’ll agree with the Governor, and I’ll tell you when they are. That’s one of them. First of all, let’s talk about the problem.

The problem with property taxes that we’re all trying to identify has been elusive. In other words, this is the first time in any school funding formula debate in the history of Vermont that no one is walking around with a bill in their hand, to change the existing funding system. Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Progressives, no one has a plan. Now, you gotta ask, “Why is that?”

Well, the reason is that when we talk about frustration with property tax, we’re talking about a much bigger problem. We’re talking about the fact that the middle class in Vermont is being squeezed to death, just as they are in America.

What’s that mean? They’ve watched their fuel bills double or triple over the last three years. When they go to the gas pump to fill up their cars, they’ve seen the same damn thing. They’ve watched their health care premiums go up twenty, thirty percent a year, consistently. And they just keep rising.

They’re being squeezed from every sector, and then you have the property tax.

And I actually think that the frustration people are feeling is that their incomes are not keeping up with their spending. Their incomes are not keeping up with inflation. And then you top it off with watching our Federal government spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a war that we had no right to be waging. Tremendous frustration with our government, on all levels. And we express that in Vermont by talking about our frustration with our property taxes. That’s the first thing I feel strongly about.

The second is, if you look at the history of school funding formulas in Vermont — Morse-Giuliani, Foundation, the Miller Formula, Act 60, Act 68 — we’ve always been able to raise significant cash from some Vermonters and send it to other Vermonters. We just don’t have that luxury this time.

Now, I don’t mean that we couldn’t raise 5, 10, or maybe even 15 million dollars, perhaps 20 to help reduce property taxes. We could. But would Vermonters notice it? Absolutely not.

Do the math for a minute. We’re spending 1.2 billion dollars, roughly, to educate our 94,000 students — and dropping. Okay? If you were to reduce Vermonters’ property taxes by 20 or 30 percent, they’d say, “Uh, you did okay,” there’d be no ticker-tape parade.

The math is simple: you’d have to raise between 230 and 360 million dollars to reduce their property taxes 20 or 30 percent. And we don’t have it anyway. We’re maxing out, mostly, the income tax, the sales tax, the rooms-and-meals tax, the cigarette tax, the beer tax — you name it, we’ve done it.

VDB: Let me just stop you there, if I could. Because immediately, and I mean within hours, a bill was moving through committee —

Shumlin: The farm bill.

VDB: Exactly. And it had to do with —

Shumlin: Getting money to dairy farmers.

VDB: A little over three million dollars. I think it was 3.4 million or thereabouts.

Shumlin: Right.

VDB: And Jim Douglas immediately said, “Look, it was barely 24 hours [since Shumlin and Symington took taxes off the table], and see, they just couldn’t help themselves.” And so that’s where my question really goes. You had to know at that press conference, I would think, that that was going to be the frame the Governor would then use. So I’m wondering, how did that figure into your calculations, the way that Jim Douglas would construe your words?

Shumlin: Well, I was pretty clear in my press conference with the Governor. I said point blank, Vermonters do not have the 230 to 360 million to reduce property taxes. We don’t have anywhere near that kind of taxing capacity. I never said that we could not raise small taxes to take care of pressing problems for Vermont.

In that particular case, I proposed raising the property transfer tax by a one quarter of a percent on non-residential property — that’s second home owners, folks who are coming up here and spending one, two million dollars on their second, or third or fourth homes. I felt they would probably embrace making a contribution to help save Vermont dairy farmers, who were going out of business as we sit here by the week.

The Governor had gone out the week before and said he thought dairy farmers were all set, that we’d solved the problem, that milk prices were up. What he failed to see was that feed prices had gone through the roof.

But I think the question’s a good one, and I think the answer is I never said, nor would I, Vermont has no tax capacity. What I have said is that to solve this property tax problem we do not have the tax capacity that we would need to make Vermonters happy, and therefore the only answer is to cut spending in a thoughtful way.

VDB: Right. So —

[A woman enters Shumlin’s office, taps his shoulder.]

Woman: [Whispering] Excuse me, we’re talking about the Amtrak proposal, and buying new Amtrak cars. And they just sent me down to see if you could join us —

Shumlin: Okay, I’ll be down. Tell them I’ll be down there and join them just as fast as I can. Maybe half an hour?

Woman: Thank you.

Shumlin: Where were we?

VDB: Who was that, by the way?

Shumlin: That was Sherrie. She’s a staffer for the Transportation Committee. Don’t worry about it. I always should be somewhere I’m not. [Thinks a second] I’m trying to remember where we were.

VDB: We were at your word choice during the “framework” press conference.

Shumlin: Right. Well the Governor’s obviously going to play a lot of politics, and — you know — in the end, we will too. Bottom line is he understands, we understand that we have a spending problem this time. If spending continued to rise over the next ten years as it has over the last ten, you’d see property taxes double in Vermont. And that’s simply not sustainable. So we got a problem to solve.

VDB: Okay, moving from there to what’s become your other signature issue this session, and that’s fighting global warming.

Shumlin: Right.

VDB: Obviously the same dynamic comes back to bite that, in the form of the bill that’s moving through committee now, with the intention of creating another organization like Efficiency Vermont, and there’s a fuel surcharge being proposed to fund that. Now, you have editorial boards that are in favor of it, like the Rutland Herald, who have said that the Governor’s immediate attack on the surcharge was unfounded. But again I’m wondering, was this part of your overall calculation —

Shumlin: Yes.

VDB: — knowing that you were going to have to raise revenue if you were actually going to fight global warming, actually going to —

Shumlin: Actually going to do anything. Yes, absolutely. I mean, again, I’m saying that we do not have the 230 or 360 million that we would need to slightly reduce Vermonters property taxes. We can’t just keep throwing more money in the pot.

That’s a very different statement than saying, “Government should shut down — we can’t do anything.” Global warming . . . I guess I look at that from a very different perspective.

We have about a ten year window to significantly change the way we’re leading our lives as a society. Now, I’m not in la-la land; I understand that if you entirely shut down the state of Vermont, it wouldn’t significantly reduce the emissions of the world. But I also understand that Vermont has led the way historically, and when we have they’ve followed.

We were the first state to outlaw slavery; we were the first to act to significantly protect our natural resources — and I’m talking about Deane Davis, not about recent Governors. We were the first to lead in civil rights, and pass gay marriage, or civil unions. I think if we can lead on global warming, other states will follow with really tough legislation that makes a difference.

I think the other piece is that there’s a huge economic opportunity here for Vermont. The Governor talks about losing young Vermonters to other states because they can get better economic opportunities there — and he’s right, that’s been a problem for as long as we can remember. His solution is to give scholarships to Vermont kids and then tell them that if they take the money, they have to stay here for three years.

I mean, Martha Stewart got a shorter sentence than that.

And, you know, stay here for what? If they don’t have good jobs, then they’re prisoners in their own state. My feeling is that if Vermont gets just a small little bite out of the next economic revolution, which is going to be climate change related technology, we will have the jobs and the economic opportunities for the young people — not only that are born and raised in Vermont, but they’ll be flocking in from other states. There’s a huge economic opportunity there.

There are reasons that Vermont’s already ahead of the curve. So if we can do some out-of-the-box thinking and pass incentives — I’ve talked to the President of UVM and the Chancellor of the state colleges, and I’ve argued that we should be the first state in the country that offers a climate-change degree, a combination of engineering, of science, of business.

We should be the first that gets Vermont Tech to give students who aren’t necessarily going to get a B.A. a degree in installing climate change technology, which is a huge problem, if you go and talk to Go Solar and others.

There’s so many opportunities: reducing regulations on hydro, finding ways to make capital available to incubators of global-warming technology. The possibilities are endless.

VDB: You mention Deane Davis, a Republican Governor —

Shumlin: Yup.

VDB: Not only the Bottle Bill but Green-Up Day, those were two of his initiatives. One of the things that always amazed me about the first Green-Up Day and Deane Davis is that he closed the Interstate, and flew over it in a helicopter, to observe the whole thing. And that move of closing the Interstate seemed to me, especially for a Republican Governor, a really powerful statement that there are times when the environment has to take precedence over an immediate return on business investment.

Shumlin: Right.

VDB: So you’ve talked about two main global warming initiatives, one being the efficiency piece that’s moving through committee now, and the other is transportation. And you’ve said that that last is going to be the more difficult of the two. At this point, if you had to bet, what is that transportation piece going to look like?

Shumlin: You know, Vermont’s emissions are coming from two places. Roughly half is leaking out of our homes, the other half is from transportation. I’m still struggling to get through the part that’s going to help to make savings in heating our homes.

I gotta tell you that the challenge in this building here is no different than the challenge outside the building: there are some who don’t believe that global warming is happening, that it’s not really a problem. There’s a huge education curve ahead; this is a huge bite we’re taking of this apple.

We spent the first three weeks of the session trying to educate legislators about the problem; some got it more than others. And when lobbyists and the special interests and the oil companies and all the rest pile into this building, it’s quite a challenge getting the first half accomplished.

Having said that, the second is going to have to be accomplished with a much better infrastructure for public transportation, incentives for buying low-emission cars, and everything else creative that we can think of. It’s a bigger challenge in Vermont than it is in other states, because we’re a rural state, and we live at the end of dirt roads.

VDB: So, you championed the global warming issue very early, and it seemed to me that you caught the imagination of the state with that push. And it helped that it was December, and people were wondering why it was 55 degrees outside.

Shumlin: January even.

VDB: Right. So on that you came in with what would be a traditional Democratic/Progressive issue. Then on same-sex marriage you moved, equally quickly, to squelch the debate. And I’m wondering, is there any connection there? You talked about Democrats during the last four years, and what they had and hadn’t accomplished. How does your approach to those two issues begin to describe your tenure here?

Shumlin: I can’t emphasize enough how strongly I feel about global warming. I came to this — you know, if you’d asked people about my past political history here for 13 years, and asked, “Is Pete Shumlin a strong environmentalist?,” they would have said, “He’s not bad. He’s got a good voting record, but it’s not his top issue.”

shumlin works the crowd

And what happened to me was — I had the distinction at age 50, and I don’t think there’s very many people left who were raised and go to work every day on the same piece of land where they were born. And that’s my story. The reason is that my business is in a cow barn next to the house where I was born. [Photo: Peter Freyne]

So I go to work every day there. And then the land, we farm, it’s connected to a Jersey dairy farm. And so when I’m not working in that barn, I’m out doing everything from picking rocks and cutting wood and hunting — I know Democrats aren’t supposed to hunt, but I do — and fishing and running and cross-country skiing on that land. And I started to look at the changes that are taking place in that valley in the last 50 years, and it started to blow my mind.

Couple of examples. I was sitting there looking out the window, and I was watching the airplanes come over, spraying the sugar bush for the third time here in a row, to try to kill the caterpillars that were destroying the maple trees, because of climate change. I was watching my nearest neighbor tap out in January and February, last year. He made syrup. My next neighbor up, who waited for traditional Town Meeting Day, he found the season too short, and too warm.

VDB: To go back to the other part, the marriage issue —

Shumlin: On the marriage issue, my feeling was, in speaking to the Speaker, and she agreed with me, that we — now this is a direct quote from the Speaker, she said to me, “Listen, from our perspective, we just did civil unions. Because we lost the House over civil unions, and we just got it back four years ago. And we’re not ready to take it on again.” I listened to that advice and I said, you know, that makes sense.

Let’s get out in Vermont, let’s start talking to Vermonters about it, let’s educate people about the fact that we frankly already have gay marriage, we just don’t call it that, and let’s prepare them for the change. It will come.

But I didn’t think, with everything else on our plate, that we could realistically accomplish that. And by the way, neither did anyone else, almost nobody else in the building. And look, I tend to tell you what I think, and it’s not always political.

VDB: Let me just draw together some of the strands you’ve laid out here. You said that over the last four years, Democrats had been giving up their principles a little too quickly, to be seen working with the Governor. You said that Democrats don’t hunt, or aren’t supposed to hunt, but you do. You championed global warming, and moved away quickly — for fairly strategic reasons — from the same-sex marriage debate. An outside observer would begin to see a sort of centrist pattern to this, for lack of a better term —

Shumlin: [Laughing] Good luck.

VDB: At least there are aspects of the profile that might be attractive to both sides of the spectrum. And that gets me to where I have to go — I don’t have a choice — which is the 2008 Governor’s race. The day after the 2006 election I got four or five emails, within hours of the race concluding, asking who seemed to me to be the Democratic frontrunners for the Governor’s race.

Shumlin: Sure, because they were so disappointed by the results of the election. In that race.

VDB: Part of the reason, sure. I think it also has to do with the fact that the news cycle has accelerated here, as it has nationally. So that takes us to your own plans along these lines. How open are you at this point to the possibility of a run at the Governor’s seat?

Shumlin: [Long pause] I guess I’d be honest in telling you that I’m surprised at the amount of speculation about my running, or not running, for Governor. And to get to the first part of your question, which I think is important, I’m not a politically scheming person. I really care about the policy. And I am a bit of an aberration on the issues, but it’s not politically calculated.

You know, I’m a rock-ribbed Democrat. I grew up in a family that didn’t have that much, but I also have had some ability to build businesses, and so now, compared to most Vermonters, have a lot. And that gives me a really interesting perspective. I’ve been meeting a payroll since I was twenty-three years old. I’ve done start-ups, and I’ve built up existing businesses. All in Vermont.

But I come from a family — my mom immigrated to this country when she was 19 years old, she grew up in a Protestant family. My dad’s a third-generation Jewish immigrant from Russia, who was the first in his family to go to college, because of World War II and the GI bill. They moved to Vermont before I was born.

So I have an interesting perspective in that I am a Vermonter, my wife goes back so far in Vermont that she has Native American Vermont blood in her, her great-grandfather was full-blooded.

But all of that has made me someone who’s probably pretty hard to predict politically. I’m almost a Libertarian on issues of personal choice. I voted against seat belt laws; I think people should make their own decisions on that. I think that many of the popular restrictions that we’re putting on teen drivers right now are idiotic.

There’s a huge push to legislate adolescence now, and I think you can’t do that. Adolescence is by nature a transition between childhood and adulthood, and they’re going to make good and bad judgments, and you can pass all the laws you want, but you can’t legislate common sense.

VDB: What about adults? What about hands-free cell phones only while driving?

Shumlin: I really feel strongly that it’s for Vermonters to decide about the safety of using a cell-phone when they drive. And we can’t make those decisions for them, nor should we.

So there’s an example of me probably way to the Right of my party. On environmental issues, and social issues that matter, you know, I’m probably way to the Left. On tax issues, I tend to be very moderate, because I’ve seen it from both sides.

VDB: Let me just go with the “way to the Left” part for a second. How do you feel about the Jefferson Manual impeachment resolution —

Shumlin: I support it. And I have publicly.

VDB: I know that you signed an online petition —

Shumlin: I support it. There’s no question that the President and the Vice President lied about the weapons of mass destruction, lied to the American people about the reasons to go to war. And if you can be impeached for a personal indiscretion, as they did to Bill Clinton, then there certainly should be impeachment hearings over lying to the American people that results in death to our citizens. And hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. And a budget mess that our grandchildren will be paying for. It’s an outrage.

When I first left this office, when I lost the race for Lieutenant Governor, Bush was marching to war in Baghdad. And I called several of my colleagues in the State Senate and begged them to pass a resolution condemning this war.

And at that time, Walt Freed was the Republican speaker, Jim Douglas had just been elected Governor, and I thought, what an opportunity to do the right thing in the Democratic Senate.

I couldn’t prevail. But to answer your question, I think it would be a great thing for Vermonters to move forward on the impeachment process.

VDB: Fair enough. If we could, I’d like to just go back to the looming specter of a Governor’s race.

Shumlin: You might have noticed I got away from that —

VDB: [Laughing] I did notice that. I helped you out a little. Let me put it to you this way. Suppose you were not running for Governor, and suppose you weren’t even occupying the Pro Tem’s office, but someone who was in leadership in the Legislature was running against Jim Douglas. And let’s say that this person was either the Speaker of the House, or the Senate President Pro Tem. What would be your advice to them about how to run against Jim Douglas?

Shumlin: My advice would be, first of all, stop doing what you’ve been doing. Stop criticizing this Governor for going out and cutting ribbons, and for being out in public, because frankly that’s his strength not his weakness. And don’t try to paint him as something other than a nice guy that people like, because he’s perfectly likeable.

The truth about Jim Douglas is that he is a person who has been in government all of his life. He’s an example of the worst of what happens when you’ve been in government all of your life. He doesn’t know how to manage, and he has no vision. If you can’t manage, and you have no vision, you have no right serving as Governor. It’s that simple.

I have been shocked by the mismanagement of this Administration, mismanagement that I’ve learned about in the last 9 weeks. Let’s start with small things, like the Bennington Office Building. You’ve got seven employees —

VDB: Not really a small thing.

Shumlin: Well, small things in terms of what most Vermonters are thinking about. I’m not talking about health care, property tax, global warming, dying dairy farms, I’m talking about things most Vermonters aren’t focusing on.

You’ve got seven employees down there who are forever ill — it doesn’t go away. You got a Governor who’s sitting up there, who’s known about this problem for his entire administration. If we hadn’t taken action and turned the heat up, he would have left those employees in that building, there’s no question in my mind.

They hadn’t done anything. They were sitting on their heels. There was absolutely no plan to cope. Together, the Republicans and the Democrats in the Senate, we put pressure on him and he finally had to move.

Example two, the State Hospital, another issue most Vermonters aren’t focusing on. We have our most vulnerable Vermonters, sitting in a facility in Waterbury, and we should be embarrassed about the services we’re providing, because of the leadership, not because of the state employees themselves.

The Governor comes in and says, “We’re going to build a hundred million dollar facility — three million dollars a bed — in Chittenden County, the most expensive real estate in Vermont, and that’s the only option we have because of Federal regulations.” He never went to the Legislative delegation — Leahy, Jeffords and Sanders — and said, “Hey, can you guys get us a waiver from these ridiculous regulations that were written for states as large as California and Illinois?”

How much imagination would that take?

We come and look at the situation, the Speaker and I, and we go to the Legislative delegation, and they say, “We’ve never been asked.” And we’re now — last week the Senate voted unanimously, Republicans and Democrats together, to take the million dollars the Administration was using to plan for the Hospital, and we’re having to do it ourselves, because there is no viable plan that they’ve come up with in four years of leadership.

And then the big picture. You know, I personally think — with all due respect to AARP and the photograph of the Governor with the cows in the field, [smiling] I didn’t see the catamount in the picture — but the Catamount Health Plan, in terms of taking care of the health care problem in Vermont, is a little pimple on the back of a hog. It takes care of 6,000 to 8,000 uninsured Vermonters.

And the Governor’s already robbed 3.6 million dollars from the tax he passed on small business to pay for those 6 to 8,000.

VDB: This is the raid on the Catamount Fund, that was reported in the Rutland Herald a month or so ago.

Shumlin: Yeah, he’s raided it. After telling me he wouldn’t, telling us he wouldn’t, they’ve raided it for 3.6 million dollars.

VDB: So just to make it clear, the Governor’s explanation of that is that the 3.6 million is still going to pay for health care costs of one stripe or another, and these needs are all inter-related, so anyone who says it’s a raid on the fund is shockingly uninformed about the nature of long-term health care.

Shumlin: [Rolling eyes, searching for the right words] That’s like George Bush saying he’s winning the war in Iraq. I just want to be clear how outrageous that is. It’s like George Bush going out two weeks ago and saying, “We’re making progress in Iraq.”

Bottom line is, there is no refuting the facts: Jim Douglas and the Legislature turned to the business community and said, “We are going to assess those who do not insure a 360$ a year charge, to pay for the new Catamount enrollees that are currently uninsured, that are now going to have insurance,” there’s no refuting that. He can try to spin it any way he wants.

If he had said to the business community, “We’re going to assess this tax on you, and we’re going to use it for general health care needs, Catamount and pre-existing needs,” the business community would have said forget it, and he knows it as well as you do.

So he is both taking credit for a plan that I think isn’t very great, and trying to use the money to balance a terrible budget that he’s passed in the Legislature, which is underfunded by about 20 million dollars.

The big point is the idiocy of the way Catamount’s being implemented. The numbers in the enrollment keep dropping. They thought it was going to be 25,000, but now they’re saying 10, or it might be 6 or 8,000. And yet he’s going to farm these uninsured Vermonters out to the private insurance companies, 2,000 here, 2,000 here, and 2,000 here.

We’re insuring 120,000 Vermonters in various programs right now across the street, we have Dr. Dinosaur, you name it. If you like catamounts — I happen to, I look for them all the time when I’m hunting — call it Catamount. But the bottom line is, if you came to me at my business, you were working for me, and you said, “Peter, we got a problem. We have 6-8,000 uninsured Vermonters we need to take care of.”

And I said to you, “Philip, go out and design a plan and come back to me with a proposal,” and you came back to me and said, “We’re covering 120,000 right now, we’ve got 6,000 more to take on, but we’re going to create this whole new bureaucracy and ship ‘em out to the private insurance companies and call it Catamount Health,” I’d say, “Philip, get a sunny room down at the retreat, they’re short on patients anyway, we’ll get you a south-facing one, and when you feel better, come out and let’s talk again.”

My point is that this guy is not a manager.

If Democrats want to beat Jim Douglas, they have to simply point out that he has no vision, he has no imagination, and he has no ability to manage.

You can go through all the sectors of state government and see the evidence, and Republicans and Democrats in this building seem to agree. That’s why they had to take over the state hospitals, that’s why they had to take over the Bennington Office Building problem, that’s why, before we’re done, we’re going to have to do surgery on Catamount.

VDB: Just to draw the inference, if you were to run for Governor and win, if you were to step into that office, I’m imagining you’d shoot for a different relationship with the Legislature.

Shumlin: You have to work together with the Legislature. The problem we have now is that Vermonters have given us a divided government. And you’re not going to get great results from a divided government, any more than you do in Washington with a Democratic Congress and a Republican President.

Jim Douglas twice chaired George Bush’s campaigns for President, and his proposal for property tax is to impose arbitrary caps on spending, on school budgets, that are similar to those Richard Nixon proposed on the United States economy when Jim Douglas was a student at Middlebury chairing Nixon’s campaign. That’s how old that idea is. It didn’t work.

VDB: And to get out of the cap, you’d need a super-majority at Town Meeting Day —

Shumlin: [Waving a hand] Yeah, super-majorities, and if your budget increases more than 4% then it doesn’t matter about extenuating circumstances, you have to pay more. And if you’re a low-spending town, who are the people we obviously want to reward — let’s say you’re spending $6,000 per pupil — well, you know that 4% of $6,000 is a much lower number than 4% of $14,000, which is what my town of Putney is spending.

So the low-spending towns are the ones you’re penalizing, and the high-spending towns can spend a lot more before they hit the cap. Even the Republicans aren’t proposing it, there’s no bill in this chamber instituting the Governor’s idea.

And the Governor won’t sell it outside this building. I’ve said this to him. I’ve said, “You know, Governor, you’re schizophrenic on property tax. You want to tell folks outside the building that we can solve the problem but the Legislature won’t, but then you won’t talk about your own caps outside the building because they’re so damn unpopular it’d look like Bush’s war in Iraq.”

VDB: Okay, I have to ask this, because I’ve been doing an hour a week on WKVT’s “Live and Local” show down in Brattleboro, with Steve West and Gorty Baldwin, and I’ve really gotten religion on the Vermont Yankee issue from working with them. I’m wondering if you can detail your stance on Yankee for us.

Shumlin: Well, here’s my position on Vermont Yankee, it’s so simple. I was raised in the county where they built the only nuclear power plant in Vermont. When we accepted that plant, against our better judgment, it was on one simple premise: that it would be closed down in 2012, and that the Federal Government was going to take away the waste.

Today the deal is that we send more juice through an aging plant, number one. Number two, that we run it for 20 or 30 years longer than it was designed to be run. And number three, that the high-level nuclear waste is stored on the banks of the Connecticut River, for which there could not be a worse location, geologically speaking, because of lots of issues.

And with climate change, and rising water levels, it’s going to be even less appropriate.

So my position is simple: if you can get every single ounce of waste off the banks of the Connecticut River, and take it somewhere else, and get a truly independent assessment of that plant to see whether it’s viable to run for another five years, I would favor it. Short of that, you must close it down. And there is no middle ground for me.

Now, people say, “Well, taking the waste away isn’t possible, because Harry Reid won’t take it in Nevada.” I don’t blame Harry Reid. But what they don’t understand is that sitting in this office right now [Waves hand to indicate Pro Tem Office] is someone who feels as strongly about not having the waste on the banks of the Connecticut River as Harry Reid feels about not having it sited out at Yucca Mountain. Period.

Just one more thing about Yankee: there’s one other compromise that I would go for, in terms of the waste. And it’s very simple, and I told IBM this yesterday.

The Speaker and I went up to talk to them, because it’s the state’s largest employer, and we want to keep it strong and healthy. And they said basically, “You know, we’ve gotta have that juice [from VY],” and I said, “You know, we’ve got to get the waste off the banks of the Connecticut River,” and they said, “Well, that might be impossible.”

And so I said, “Well, I’ll give you a second position. If we can’t hook the trucks up and haul it down to some other state, I would be willing to go along with a proposal where we would move that high-level nuclear waste for storage in different regions of Vermont, starting with the most populous county and moving to the least populous. That’s the other position I would accept.”

VDB: [Laughing] You mean, as a way of increasing the pressure —

Shumlin: No. I mean, if we’re going to have it, if the Federal Government’s not going to take it, it’s now Vermont’s waste, then Vermont should share it. It shouldn’t be the burden of just one county, anymore than siting wind turbines should be the burden of just the Northeast Kingdom.

VDB: I’m just talking about politically. Do you think that sort of proposal would bring to critical mass —

Shumlin: [Face still straight] Well, I’d sure like to see Chittenden County site a high-level nuclear waste storage facility. They’re having trouble right now siting a land-fill, for their own garbage, and it has no nuclear waste in it whatsoever.

VDB: Last question, and I’ll keep it real brief. You took a couple of low blows this week, from the Dwinell Report. And I’m wondering if you have any message for them.

Shumlin: You know, the part of politics that I didn’t miss was the politics. And so, you know, it’s welcome back.

The bottom line is that I have probably been more open about my life than most politicians, and perhaps that’s not wise. But it’s no secret that my marriage went through a very difficult time five years ago, and my wife and I were separated for a year. We’ve been together twenty-two years. We have two daughters, family means everything to us.

And I think when you don’t maintain a marriage, it’s no different than not weeding the garden. You don’t have much to eat in the winter time.

And we sort of found ourselves running on empty. And we separated. And unlike a lot of couples who separate, it gave us both time to look at what we had lost, what we were missing, and why we were there. And we did the hard work.

We went to therapy — this is two Vermonters who thought that therapy was for people who were in real trouble, we’d never done it. We were in real trouble.

And the happy part of the story is that we not only did the hard work — and I gotta tell you that there were times during that process when it would have been a lot easier just to move on — but we did it, and we’re happier than we’ve ever been. We love each other deeply, and our kids, and we couldn’t be happier.

I don’t know what other part of the story there is. If Vermonters feel that anyone who’s had difficulty in marriage shouldn’t serve in public life, then they’ll vote for someone else.

VDB: And of course under that rule it would be a pretty empty chamber.

Shumlin: [Nodding] It would be a pretty tough chamber, I would imagine.

3 Responses to ' SHUMLIN RETURNS: The VDB Sit-Down '

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  1. on March 20th, 2007 at 10:18 pm

    […] Sure, there’s lots of great stuff in VDB’s mighty long interview with Peter Shumlin. But here’s the most important part… VDB: First things first. Recently our satirical team Audio Dream Theater went live with a piece called “Crouching Douglas, Hidden Shumlin,” in which you were portrayed as an all-powerful martial arts expert who had been secretly raised in a temple high in the mountains of Putney. Did you manage to listen to the piece, and did it ring true for you in any way? […]

  2. on March 23rd, 2007 at 4:06 pm

    […] 1) If you’ve yet to wade through the long sit-down with Senate Pro Tem President Peter Shumlin, it’s perfect for a lazy Saturday afternoon. In it, Shumlin pulls very few punches, and you get a clear picture of what the 2008 Governor’s race will look like, no matter who challenges Douglas. […]

  3. on March 27th, 2007 at 5:43 pm

    […] I know I’m late posting this. It came in last week when the Shumlin interview was in the final stages, and then a trip out of town intervened. But it is truly not to be missed. […]