May 8th, 2012

LATE BREAKING NEWS: VDB Is Finally Home From The Political Wars, And Suddenly It’s Re-Election Time In Vermont

by Philip Baruth

It seems like a nanosecond since I came to you, hat in hand, to ask for your support in breaking into the Vermont State Senate. It was May of 2009, seventeen months before the general election, an admittedly crazy time to enter into a race that ordinarily took just five months to run its course. But the logic was simple: the campaign needed time to talk to Chittenden County voters at the pace the issues demanded. And competing against a long slate of folks whose names were already household words wouldn’t be easy, especially in seventeen towns simultaneously.

But hundreds of you stepped forward to help, some of you time and time again. You threw parties and buttonholed your undecided friends,

And astoundingly enough, it worked. That barn got built. And sitting in the Senate has been, honestly, like a dream.

I’ve spent the last eighteen months working very hard and very passionately on all the issues we’ve talked about on this site over the years. Universal broadband and single-payer health care have both advanced by leaps and bounds; neither job is finished, but the early dollars and the enduring frameworks are falling into place.

Farm to Plate is now well into its own implementation phase, with a Local Foods Coordinator connecting farmers to markets full-time, an outcome we labored over on the Agriculture Committee for months. And because you can’t preserve the landscape without working it, we also passed the Working Landscape Bill this past session, directing $1.175 million to infrastructure and businesses that keep fields and forests in healthy, productive use.

Along with Washington County Senator and lead sponsor Anthony Pollina, I co-sponsored a bill to increase coverage for young people with autism. Prior to this year, for no morally defensible reason, coverage ended at age six.

And we were told, initially, that nothing could change that state of affairs. But with strong support in the House (from people like Chris Pearson, Jason Lorber and Kesha Ram) and the autism advocate community, S. 223 has dramatically changed that.

And from 2012 forward, families with an autistic child will have coverage until age 21. Not a perfect world, but vastly improved.

Similarly, it used to be the case that your child could be denied state-subsidized Pre-Kindergarten, if your community offered it and 10 other people were ahead of you in line. But as of last year, we lifted the caps on Pre-K and early education, so that now any Vermont kid whose community provides pre-K can get Pre-K. Period.

That was the first bill I reported on the Senate Floor for the Education Committee, and I didn’t stop pushing until Governor Shumlin signed it at a daycare in St. Albans.

Through the Senate Education Committee, I was able to work very directly on the problem of student debt, one of the least appreciated financial threats of our time. But while we passed a bill out of committee that would have provided a year of Early College to needy Vermont students — cutting their potential debt by 25% at a stroke — that bill died later in the process. Still, we laid the groundwork for dual enrollment, which we’ll hope to fund next session.

As some of you no doubt remember, I did my best to speak out early and often against excessive executive compensation, at UVM in particular.

And on Vermont Yankee, when it looked like the Legislature and the courts were deadlocked for the forseeable future, I joined with citizen activists to send Entergy one of the most powerful messages to date.

There’s more, more that got done, and more that has to be pushed again and again until it does get done. But this is the wonder and the craziness of the two-year term: almost every elected official in Vermont needs to start running for re-election only a year and a half or so after making it into office. So here I am, again, asking for your help.

I went back and looked at the promises I made you a little under two years ago, and one stands out above the others: I promised you an outspoken advocate in the Statehouse, a Senator who’d be your eyes and ears, who’d take actual stands, and one who wouldn’t back down when it mattered.

And honest to God, I think I’ve delivered on that.

All a way of saying that the Act Blue site is up and running again — accepting donations in a very simple, very secure way — and if you can help us raise the barn again, we’ll be eternally grateful.
Not to worry: there will be a more formal kick-off to this campaign, a party on a sunny day not too far in the future. And I’ll be talking with many of you in living rooms and coffee shops in the days to come.

But this rainy, raw day today is the day to start the tough task of raising the money to get the message out, and it’s much appreciated that you made it to the end of this long post without clicking away into the ether. Will update you on our progress as details warrant.

But for now, good friends: game on.

May 8th, 2008

So Douglas Thinks He Can Veto the VY Decommissioning Fund Bill and VDB’s Going To Sit Back And Take It? Well, Put This in Your Dry-Cask and Store It.

by Philip Baruth

We asked a simple but unanswerable question last week: would the presence of Anthony Pollina in the Governor’s race, particularly in the absence of a declared Democratic candidate, be enough to scare Governor Jim Douglas straight on the Yankee Decommissioning Fund bill. Well, the question is pretty answerable now. No, in a

For those of you who missed it, the bill would have forced Entergy, in the event that they spin off another fledgling company to hold the bag on their unregulated nuclear assets, to substantially strengthen its financial committments in the area of decommissioning.

But Douglas, who has consistently shielded Entergy from aggressive oversight, seems to have made a very clear-eyed decision: that having given Pollina six months to firm up his reliable 25% of the vote, and having waited until early May to begin organizing behind Symington, Democrats are in no position to make him pay substantially at the polls.

And maybe so. But maybe not. This is an issue that won’t go away, especially since as the ball game goes forward, Entergy will need Douglas to set more than a few more gubernatorial picks. And each time, as we go forward to November, more and more people in the stands will be paying attention.

But what can we do in the meantime?

the league of 2 xtraordinary gentlemenWell, this whole issue has us waxing nostalgic for the Audio Dream Theater trilogy that we turned out last year with sound wizard Alex Ball and aspiring voice deity Neil Jensen.

The premise? Douglas and Dubie are two hapless superheroes, just muddling along trying to raise corporate profits and sully the environment, when suddenly they’re drawn into an epic battle with their worst Democratic nightmares.

And Episode III: Statehouse of the Living Dead, prophetically enough, features a battle to the death between Douglas and Gaye Symington.

Think Firesign Theater meets Monty Python meets, like, the Rutland Herald. It’s full-tilt audio, with some of the best and snarkiest humor you’ll hear on an overcast Thursday morning in May.

If you’re new to VDB, and you managed to miss these productions, they’re listed on the right sidebar under “The Jim Douglas Trilogy.” But here’s the first to get you started. And remember, no politician truly fears for his political life until the jokes start. Enjoy.

June 4th, 2007

NOW PLAYING: The Long-Awaited Conclusion to Audio Dream Theater’s Douglas/Dubie Trilogy! Starring Real-Life Actress Kathryn Blume! Have Mercy!

by Philip Baruth

We know: you’ve got a crazy life. Kids, job, pick-up basketball, poisoning the squirrels nesting in the attic, obsessively checking your credit report for signs of identity theft. It’s a lot to manage.

the league of 2 xtraordinary gentlemenAnd somehow you managed to miss the previous two installments of The League of Extraordinary Republican Gentlemen.

That would be the story of two increasingly lonely and luckless GOP superheroes, Governor Jim Douglas and his youthful ward Brian.

Not to worry: the first two installments are available on VDB’s sidebar, under “Full-Tilt Audio Satire.”

What are the critics saying about the series?

A direct quote from Vermont’s Senate President Pro Tem: “I did hear the piece, and I thought it was right on the money. And the Governor’s running for cover . . . . I thought it was funny as hell.”

Say no more.

Now, at long last, we bring you the conclusion of the trilogy, a wrap-up of this year’s legislative session like you’ve never heard before, and will never hear again:

Statehouse of the Living Dead.

We went the extra mile on this one. Along with Alex Ball’s audio genius and the voice art of Neil Jensen, this installment showcases the work of Kathryn Blume, VDB’s favorite real-world actress.

In short, it’s candy for your ears.

The embedded player is directly below, and the script follows. As always, we recommend headphones. And a seat-belt. Enjoy.


LXG Episode Three: State House of the Living Dead

Voice Over:

With the end of the Legislative session looming, Jim Douglas faces the ultimate indignity: a threat to cut nine of administration’s fourteen public relations experts. And for the first time, Douglas realizes that he and his youthful ward can no longer go it alone. But summoning reinforcements will require the use of a power even Douglas shudders to contemplate. We join them now, in the Cave with the Golden Dome. [Water dripping; bat wings, etc.]

Douglas: Brian, we need to have a talk.

[No response from Dubie, but we hear a snippet of the “American Idol” theme playing in the background.]

Douglas: Brian! Turn off that damn television! [Sound of television snapping off]

Dubie: [Losing it] Don’t make me deal with reality, Jim! The Democrats are all over me at the Statehouse . . . [Voice full of horror] I feel their sharp little teeth on my ankles every time I walk down the hall —

Douglas: Snap out of it, man! [Meaty Slap] It’s not just global warming legislation anymore. No, now they’re coming after my spin doctors, Brian! Do you understand what that means?

Dubie: [Indignant] Yes. [Immediate collapse] No.

Douglas: With Randy Brock gone, the spin doctors were our last line of defense. But now when we raid the Catamount Fund, it’s going to look — like we’re raiding the Catamount Fund! Shum-lin could attack at any minute. [Slightly ominous music comes up] Forget the eerie monotone. We need real power now. Although I swore nothing would ever drive me to it, you and I are going to have to engage [Music swells, then stops] in a little bit of necromancy.

Dubie: [Very reluctantly] Well, okay, Jim. [Pause] But I thought we were against civil unions and stuff!

Douglas: No, necromancy, you fool! Black magic! Raising people from the dead!

Dubie: [High-pitched scream]

Douglas: Years ago, when I was a student at Middlebury College, I was visited in my dorm room late one night by the Prince of Darkness himself. It was 1972, as I recall.

[Flashback music gives way to the sound of a small transistor radio playing “Close to You” by the Carpenters; we also hear Young Douglas’s pencil scratching across a page, and Young Douglas humming, singing along badly just under his breath. Then comes a knock on the door.]

Young Douglas: Oh for crying out loud! Dirty hippies. I told you, I’m not interested in sampling your brownies!

[Sound of door opening, closing, footsteps. Then we hear Reagan’s voice]

Reagan: That’s right, Jim. Avoid the brownies. Or next thing you know you’ll be teaching Sociology at Berkeley.

Douglas: Huh? Who are you? How did you get in here?

Reagan: Well, Jim, I’m the Devil. And of course in a few years I’ll be President of the United States. But I’m here tonight to make you a bargain: the power to raise and command the dead in exchange for your immortal soul.

Douglas: Never, you fiend!

Reagan: Suit yourself. But in about 35 years you’ll be Governor and your only Republican ally will be a man named Brian Dubie.

Douglas: [Immediately] Okay, it’s a deal.

[Flashback music brings us back to the present]

Douglas: All these years, I’ve been terrified to use that dark power. But now, with Al Gore on the Democrats’ side, there’s no other way.

Dubie: But how do you raise the dead, Jim?

Douglas: First, we light this candle [match scratching sound], next to this copy of the Federalist Papers. Okay, now join hands, and chant after me: [Both chant] “Red Rover, Red Rover, Send Nixon Right Over!”

[There is a sound like the whirlwind in the Wizard of Oz, and then a sound like a body falling to the floor]

Dubie: [Gasp] I think that’s really Richard Nixon, Jim!

Nixon: [Sound of Nixon brushing off his suit] Boy, this one’s a real Mensa candidate, isn’t he, Jim? No wonder you need reinforcements.

Douglas: It’s an honor to have raised you from the crypt, Sir.

Nixon: Well, of course it is, goddamit! I’m Dick Nixon. Now if you want real muscle, I’m gonna Haldeman, and Kissinger. Oh, and Marilyn Monroe.

Douglas: But why Marilyn —

Nixon: [Harshly] Because she belongs to Kennedy, that’s why, goddamit! Now, do you want to keep your spin doctors, or don’t you?

[Chanting takes over: “Red Rover, Red Rover, Send Henry right over!” Whirlwind sound; Kissinger muttering to himself]

Kissinger: Wait a minute . . . what am I doing here? I’m not dead yet. I’m still relevant, I’m still influential.

Nixon: Oh, suck it up, Henry.

[Security Alert sounds]

Douglas: Not a moment too soon! The security cameras show Shum-lin and the Democrats massing on the State House lawn. Everyone outside!

Nixon: Come on, you dirty liberals! You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore!

[Sound of doors opening, feet running; battle noise; first strains of Wagnerian opera divas screeching, continues very softly under the following dialogue]

Douglas: And so, the battle is joined, eh Shum-lin?

Symington: Actually, Peter’s not here today.

Douglas: Gaye Symington! What are you doing here? Where’s my nemesis?

Symington: Peter said the battle had to start in the House first.

Douglas: [Taken aback; opera screeches to a halt; disappointed noises from the zombies] Really? In the House, eh?

Symington: That’s what Peter said. And my suggestion is that we all calm down and try, for once, to act like adults and conduct the people’s business.

Douglas: But Shum-lin and I are supposed to be having our climactic battle to the death! How am I going to battle to the death with a . . . well, you know.

Symington: With a what?

Dubie: With a girl.

Symington: Oh, I see. [Seductively, until the last word] Well, what about a girl wearing a pair of . . . these!

Douglas: [Gasp] The Birkenstocks of Death! Run, Brian!

[Sounds of a roundhouse kick; meaty sound of Birkenstock on face; martial arts noises; zombie noises; Wagnerian screeching kicks in again, going up and down in volume as voice exchanges come in and out]

Gore: Governor Douglas, I believe you and I have some unfinished business. I’m still livid about you trying to kill the New England Wilderness Bill, frankly.

Nixon: Oh, yeah? Well, let me make one thing perfectly clear, Gore: you gotta go through me to get Douglas.

Gore: Well, if it isn’t Tricky Dick himself!

Nixon: Ain’t it the inconvenient truth.

Gore: Hey, look behind you! I think that’s John Dean over there!

Nixon: That son of a bitch Dean! Where? I don’t see any — [Turns, and we hear the sound of Nixon being sucker-punched]

Gore: That’s for assaulting my reason . . . Dick.

Douglas: Damn! Nixon and his boys are out of commission. And so’s Brian. But this is one fox they’ll never catch. Let’s see, where’d I put those extra ketchup packets I promised Brian from the Burger King Drive-Through . . . just squirt these on my shirt [sound of ketchup squirting], and then I’ll lie here next to my own ribbon-piercing scissors. They’ll think old Jim finally bought the dairy farm.

[Sound of running feet; then the running stops, and we hear Gore gasp]

Gore: [Gasp] Oh my Lord. Gaye! Over here. [More running feet, then stopping] I found him. He’s . . . he’s dead, Gaye. He fell . . . running with his own scissors.

Symington: If only he’d listened to me. I tried to get him to stop the nasty press conferences, tried to get him to step out from behind the spin doctors and really put some ideas of his own on the table. And now [hint of tears] it’s too late. Well, we’ll find a foster home for you, Brian —

Dubie: Thanks, Gaye. [Almost sobbing] He was a beautiful man. A beautiful man with a beautiful monotone.

Symington: — and we’ll bring the body into the State House where it can lie in state. Everybody grab hold. One, two, three, heave! [Straining] Okay, who’s got the ribbon-piercing scissors? Brian?

Dubie: [Straining] I thought you had ‘em.

Gore: [Straining, but voice horrified] Gaye, I hope I’m incorrect, but I think the scissors are in the Governor’s hand. [Complete silence] And it’s moving.

[Strings from Psycho, volume high enough to make listener jump]

Voice Over: Tune in next time, when we’ll hear Ronald Reagan, Prince of Darkness, say:

Reagan: What the heck is Douglas trying to pull here? This thing was supposed to be a human soul!

Voice Over:
Same Audio Dream time, Same Audio Dream channel.


Alex Ball: Sound engineering; voice work
Philip Baruth: Script; voice work
Kathryn Blume: Voice work
Neil Jensen: Graphics; voice work

May 25th, 2007

COMING ATTRACTIONS: Audio Dream Theater and The League of Extraordinary Republican Gentleman, Episode III

by Philip Baruth

Reviews of this legislative session have ranged from lukewarm praise to cold disdain. All VDB knows is that it was non-stop action from beginning to end.

the league of 2 xtraordinary gentlemenAnd Audio Dream Theater — our audio satire conglomerate — was there for you, covering the Legislature as it’s never been covered before.

Like some wild cross between CSPAN, Marvel Comics and Firesign Theater.

The League of Extraordinary Republican Gentleman is the story of two lonely GOP superheroes: Governor Jim Douglas and his youthful ward, Brian Dubie.

Blessed with powers arguably not much beyond those of mortal men, Douglas and Dubie fight the Democratic waves that seem to break higher each cycle at the State House.

In Episode One, it was the New England Wilderness Bill.

Episode Two saw Douglas battling not only Shum-Lin, his arch enemy, but Al Gore on the signature issue of our time: global warming.

(If you’ve yet to listen to Episodes I and II, they’re on the sidebar under “Full-Tilt Audio Satire.” You’ll want to bring yourself up to speed, if only for the origin stories of Douglas and Dubie.)

And now, Episode Three is coming.

The long-awaited conclusion of the LXRG Trilogy. A battle to the finish. A satirical wrap-up of the Legislative session like none you’ve heard before: martial arts, impeachment, Nixon, black magic, and the coming of an entirely new hero.

It’s the blockbuster of the summer.

Episode Three: Statehouse of the Living Dead.

Coming this week. But not to worry: we’ll let you know when to throw the Orville Redenbacher packet in the microwave.

May 15th, 2007

Something Shumlin This Way Comes: A Vermont Daily Briefing Character Study

by Philip Baruth

I’ve been both a novelist and a political junkie for as long as I can remember. At least as early as 1976, at age 14, I was doing both simultaneously: writing a staggeringly bad book of fiction, and placing last-minute get-out-the-vote calls during the presidential campaign that put Jimmy Carter in the White House.

shumlin takes the oath

Now, at age 45, that schizoid rhythm marks the official structure of my life. By day, I write, read and teach novels; at night, I live-blog debates and primaries, and read online newspapers into the small hours.

But of course the two worlds cannot remain distinct. Far from it.

As the years have accumulated, my fiction has been markedly colored by politics. And because of my day job as a fiction writer, I have evolved into a very particular kind of political junkie.

I like complex political characters, in short.

Take George W. Bush. Long story short, I don’t like him.

But part of the reason I don’t like him — the deepest reason of all maybe — is that he is badly drawn, as a human figure. The man is as nearly two-dimensional as it is possible for a living person to be.

Of course, lacking a third dimension helped immensely post-9/11: it made Bush seem a character straight from the pages of DC comics, a superhero, a graphic creation defined at its most basic level by flatness.

(At the risk of stating the obvious, Bush could never cut it in the Marvel universe, where heroes brood and wrestle inner demons.)

Once Iraq exploded, though, Americans became nostalgic for depth.

But even then Bush’s two-dimensionality came in surprisingly handy. When out of his depth at press conferences, Bush could always do the rhetorical equivalent of turning sideways — repeat five or six untethered phrases until reporters quit in disgust — allowing him to all but disappear.

Bill, UnleashedYou want a complex character? Bill Clinton was a complex character.

What Clinton and Dick Morris would eventually label “triangulation” was first and foremost a strategic imprint of Clinton’s own psyche: here was a kid who had lost three fathers by the time he reached the age of 35, and for whom elections and polls would always supply an obsessive need for approval.

Again and again, this need for approval led Clinton to shuffle as close to the Republican Party as he could get without being physically repelled.

Clinton explained with great patience that he was merely shop-lifting as many GOP issues as he could fit into his pockets, as a way of winning re-election, which would give Democrats their first two-term President in decades. And these moves eventually secured Clinton approval from 60% of the American people, just enough to see him through the trials of impeachment.

But it was more than strategy.

The truth is that Clinton couldn’t abide the thought of the remaining 40%, the followers of Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey, the millions who despised their President.

And so he was constantly using one excuse after another — re-election, the budget standoffs, reaching across the aisle — to give Republicans what they wanted, without quite losing his loyal Democratic base.

Hence Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Hence Mend It Don’t End It, Clinton’s patchwork on affirmative action. Predicting Clinton was a fool’s game. And policy-wise, it was maddening.

But it was fun to play, even so. Which brings us to our own complex political character: Peter Shumlin.

Shumlin began this legislative session with a move so bold it scrambled every political calculation instantaneously: he placed meaningful legislation on global warming at the top of his Senate to-do list.

Suddenly, everyone — Transportation, Natural Resources, Economic Development, Gaye Symington, Jim Douglas, everyone — was forced to regroup.

And almost immediately thereafter, Shumlin staged a press conference with the Governor during which he agreed with Douglas that the property tax conundrum could not be solved by raising new revenue. It was a spending problem, first and foremost.

In other words, only days into the session, Shumlin had placed everyone in the State House in a very tight box, made up of walls sacred to the Left and to the Right. And most of the work attempted or accomplished this session occurred within the tight confines of that strategic box.

No one was more inconvenienced by Shumlin’s pincer tactic than Shumlin, of course.

The friction between global responsibility and local frugality was inevitable, and that heat occasionally forced Shumlin into damage-control.

After arguing that the tax burden on Vermonters was already punishingly heavy, for instance, Shumlin was forced retroactively to argue that he’d never meant to say he couldn’t raise “small taxes to take care of pressing problems for Vermont.”

Still, on balance, Shumlin’s moves were bold enough, popular enough, and unpredictable enough to play havoc with the Governor’s center of gravity.

And partially as a result, Douglas looked as unsteady this year as he has since coming into office.

Then came impeachment.

It began directly enough. In no uncertain terms, during a long interview in his office at the Statehouse, Shumlin told me that he supported impeachment, supported it eagerly: “I think it would be a great thing for Vermonters to move forward on the impeachment process.”

Without rehearsing the minor variations of the rhetorical dance that followed, it’s fair to say that Shumlin then reversed positions twice, vehemently in each case, finally coming 360 degrees back to the position he quitted for no apparent reason when it became clear that an impeachment resolution could originate in the Senate as well as the House.

Predicting Shumlin, then, was a fool’s game.

But one interpretive frame works as well or better than any other: all of Shumlin’s moves this session dovetail with a statewide run for Governor, up to and including the final pirouette on impeachment.

shumlin works the crowd

Having double-crossed activists, only to serve then as their imperfect champion, Shumlin came as close to making the issue a wash as he was humanly able.

And not every mainstream Democratic politician has been or will be so lucky.

Still, the back and forth had the potential to make you a bit nauseous — or a bit nauseated, depending on your political persuasions. Watching Shumlin work was like watching Clinton work, which was always like watching an exotic dancer work: there was always something simultaneously artful and accomplished and undeniably seamy about it.

But the last, greatest miracle of Bill Clinton was that just when you had all but given up on him, he would produce something truly fine in the way of public policy, or an appointment to the Court like Ruth Bader Ginsberg, something well worth the price of admission in and of itself.

Shumlin is no different. Here in the last weeks of the session, he constructed one of the most ingenious interlocking strategies in modern legislative history. His last best hope for meaningful global warming legislation — an expansion of Efficiency Vermont to target fuel savings in buildings — Shumlin proposed to fund with a windfall profits tax on Vermont Yankee.

Given that Shumlin has also proposed moving Vermont Yankee nuclear waste to the state’s most populous counties — as a way of fomenting opposition to the plant’s relicensing in 2012 — the windfall profits tax seems like an elegant solution to two intractable problems.

It will expand an energy-efficiency program praised on both sides of the aisle; the newly expanded agency will help Vermonters lower their fuel costs; energy efficiency will significantly reduce Vermont’s carbon signature; and the only people who will pay through the nose are those running an aging nuclear plant that should have been shuttered years ago anyway.

It’s brilliant. Complicated and more than a bit tricky, but brilliant.

And in the final analysis, that’s all I’ve ever asked from any political character.

[This piece appeared first in the Vermont Guardian.]