July 26th, 2007

Class Action Suit Targeting “Shumlin Whiplash” Goes Forward in Superior Court; Thousands Claim Necks “Fucked Up Real Bad” By Oddly Abrupt Policy Reversals

by Philip Baruth

Maybe it’s VDB. But Peter Shumlin is one very tough customer to follow. You can injure your neck permanently trying to keep your eye on his every ideological move, because he favors big, odd, brassy, sweeping, untelegraphed pivots — pivots that must be nearly impossible even for Shumlin to execute, and he knows they’re coming.

shumlin takes the oath

Impeachment. School funding caps. The Yankee tax. And now same-sex marriage. [Photo: Rutland Herald]

Back at the start of last session, Shumlin took some early heat for immediately shutting down discussion of same-sex marriage. And so I asked him about it in my long sit-down with him in early December.

After a modest attempt to avoid the question by talking at great length about global warming, Shumlin reluctantly returned to same-sex marriage, only to lay most of the responsibility for his then-current position with others.

But for good or for ill, I thought I knew where Shumlin stood. Which was why it was interesting to discover today that Shumlin no longer stands there, not by a long shot.

Here is that sequence of the interview in full. Interesting to read it again in light of yesterday’s Burlington press conference.

* * *

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.

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.

* * *

Good luck, indeed.

Look, I favor same-sex marriage, and I did last December. Most of the people I know favor it. So for me, at least, the point here has nothing to do with this particular policy push. Push away, for all of me.

But the larger problem is that President Pro-Tem Shumlin makes it all but impossible for Democrats and Progressives to pull behind him. I argued again and again, for instance, that H520 was good policy on climate change, and ultimately a good message to send to Entergy and its supporters.

Many people I know got behind Shumlin last spring because they want Yankee shuttered. And they were gearing up to pull with all their might.

And then the announcement went out that the windfall-profits tax was being stripped out of the bill. Eventually that proved unfounded, but the damage was done. Nearly every activist I know threw up their hands in disgust.

On this last pivot, on same-sex marriage, it may make more sense to do it now than last December. It may be that with climate change and campaign finance crippled, Shumlin and Symington want to change the subject. Maybe they want to reinforce their relationship with the base.

Many possibilities, but only one certainty: this leadership team has begun to look like a pair of bobble-head dogs perched in the rear window of Jim Douglas’s Buick Skylark, heads spinning this way and that with no apparent logic, no apparent force of will. No sense that they stand at the head of a very potent majority.

And finally, Shumlin and Symington have no one to blame but themselves.