Douglas issues apology for remarks

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas issued an unusual apology this week after he vented his frustration with the media and his political opposition.

The governor’s remarks came as his administration faced criticism over a computer security breach and a sick building in Bennington.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Typically, Governor Douglas projects a very calm and cool public persona. He’s quick with a smile and a joke, and he seems to have a ready answer for every question from reporters.

That’s why it was surprising this week when the normally unflappable governor got a little tense at his weekly news conference.

Douglas seemed to imply that the problems at a state building in Bennington were partly the fault of the Howard Dean administration, because complaints had first surfaced in the 1990s.

He also said that his political opponents are exploiting the situation.

(Douglas) “There are obviously people who are not interested in my political success, and they’re certainly exercising every opportunity to try to act on that belief this year.”

(Dillon) And Douglas also suggested that the media are feeding the political fires.

(Douglas) “‘ll be perfectly honest, some of the questions I get from the media sound like some of the emails that come out of the other party headquarters.”

(Dillon) Douglas later held an unusual makeover news conference to say he really didn’t mean it.

(Douglas) “It’s not characteristic, as I think all of you know I reacted to a question earlier in the press conference that, frankly questioned my integrity.”

(Dillon) That first question that got under his skin was about a campaign contributor whose company got part of a state contract for new offices in Bennington. Douglas said he didn’t know about the contribution.

A sometimes testy relationship between governors and reporters is nothing new, and it may be linked to the executive’s time in office. Steve Kimbell is a Montpelier lobbyist who worked for Governor Madeleine Kunin.

(Kimbell) “The old saying, familiarity breeds contempt’ has been around long enough that it probably has got some truth to it. Governors become more vulnerable as the press gets to know them better.”

(Dillon) Kimbell says governors are actually less in control of events than the public may think.

And this week, there wasn’t much good news. Douglas had to tell Rutland residents that there wasn’t enough money for road projects. He went to Bennington and got an earful from state employees who are worried that their workplace is making them sick. And a state computer security breach exposed the financial records of thousands of people.

(Kimbell) “There’s a piling on effect. You can manage one crisis and you can start to manage the second one. Pretty soon your crisis management capabilities start to run thin, whether it’s just people who are advising you how to respond on your own emotional ability to take a hit and take another hit.”

(Dillon) Middlebury College Political Science Professor Eric Davis says Douglas’s comments were notable because they were out of character.

(Davis) “Douglas’s performance yesterday certainly was nothing like some of Howard Dean’s encounters with the press, much less Dick Snelling. But still, it was a different Jim Douglas than we’ve gotten used to seeing over the last four years as governor.”

(Dillon) Douglas says he wasn’t trying to blame anybody else. And Davis says the governor is probably feeling pressure from both a bad week of headlines – and a strong Democratic majority in Montpelier.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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