Deal of the Century

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(HOST) It’s time now for another installment of “Urban Troubleshooter” from commentator Philip Baruth. In this episode, Philip confronts the ultimate political nightmare: an open Vermont Senate seat.

(BARUTH) Way down deep, every urban troubleshooter knows that he was born to lose. One day, no matter how good he is, the lid on the political pressure cooker is going to blow sky high and that’s when the world gets to see what he’s really made of.

Take my beat, for example. Take Vermont. Do you think it’s some cosmic accident that a state winds up with a Republican governor, Democrats in control of the Legislature and a Socialist Congress- man? Does it seem just serendipitous that we’ve had one right- leaning Senator and one left-leaning Senator since John Travolta wore a white suit? That’s not chaos, that’s not even evolution – that’s intelligent design. That’s an urban troubleshooter behind the scenes cutting deals the way Dakin Farms cuts summer sausage, plate after plate after plate.

But at least once in his career, every urban troubleshooter sees trouble he can’t shoot. He sees his whole beautiful web of deals tattered and blowing in the wind. That’s what happened to me the morning Jim Jeffords announced his retirement. Within a half hour – literally, 30 minutes – Bernie Sanders had a press release out announcing interest in the not-yet-vacant Senate seat. Within an hour people below Bernie on the big ladder started putting out their own press releases.

Like being a lion tamer in the cage with 40 big well-trained cats, and then someone tosses in a side of venison. It got wicked ugly wicked fast.

But I did what I do in any lock-down type situation: I set up a war-room in the back room of the Orchid Chinese Buffet in Burlington. They know me down at the Orchid, and they keep the pots of green tea and the Moo Shoo Pork coming, night and day. I have four separate cell-phones there: one that speed-dials into the Democratic network, one for Republicans, one for Progressives. I make 98 percent of my deals on those three lines.

But the fourth cell phone I use to field calls from the wild-cards, the unaffilliated types with lots of money or lots of name recognition or just major chutzpah.

And on my three-dimensional situation map I’ve just finished doing the impossible: I’ve laid out the parameters of the grand, overarching deal that will bring all the pieces back together. It’s the political equivalent of running the Big Bang in reverse: Democrats let Bernie take Jeffords’ seat; Progressives let Democrats take Bernie’s seat; Jim Douglas sits tight; and so on, right down the line to the JPs and the High Bailiffs. It’s a miracle: a thousand hands, each one washing the other.

That’s when the fourth cell line rings, and it’s Tammy Fletcher, the blues singer. She’s just sounding out the possibility of a state-wide seat, she says, and a House seat for each one of the guys in her band, the Disciples. And I’m about to say no way, when she starts singing “Try a Little Tenderness” softly in my ear. And I’m jello. The woman sings like an angel. So I tell her I’ll do what I can, but no promises on the Disciples.

I hang up and put my feet up on the desk and I think, Baby, until you’ve shot trouble in the Green Mountains, you don’t know nothin’ about the blues.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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