Year in Review, Part 4: Politics

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(Host) There was other political news in Vermont this year besides Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. There are some familiar faces back in statewide offices, and others who are leaving their elected positions. Today as we continue this week’s series on “2004, the year in review,” VPR’s Steve Delaney takes us through the politics of the last 12 months.

(Crowd at political rally.)

(Delaney) Howard Dean won Vermont’s presidential primary two weeks after he had dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination.

In statewide races, it was a pretty good year for incumbents, starting with Governor Jim Douglas. Almost everyone who held a public office held onto it in the November election, often by wide margins. The glaring exception to that rule was State Auditor of Accounts Elizabeth Ready, whose campaign for re-election was reduced to efforts to explain why her academic credentials were exaggerated in official biographies.

(Ready) “I listed the three institutions that I attended and I should have listed just the one I got the degree from. And I also was not as quick to correct the errors as I should have been. And I have taken responsibility for that and apologized for it.”

(Delaney) In the end, voters withdrew their confidence after the issue was exploited skillfully by a credible challenger, Republican Randy Brock.

Civil unions opponent Nancy Sheltra of Derby also lost, by a few votes, to a Progressive. Hers was one of 14 House seats the Republicans could not keep in the November election. It was symbolic of the end of the political convulsion that brought Republicans to power in the House when so many civil union supporters lost in the 2000 election. This time the Democrats won a solid majority in the House, to go with a new veto-proof majority in the Senate.

Those numbers will matter when Republican Governor Jim Douglas brings his budget and his proposals to the Legislature.

(Douglas) “I really believe that the people of Vermont expect us to work together. They elected me. They’ve elected Democrats to control the majorities in the General Assembly. I don’t believe the voters expect gridlock. I expect that they want progress. They’re entitled to it. They’re entitled to public officials working together cooperatively. And although we may have different points of view on these issues, I think our task is to find common ground and make as much progress as we can.”

(Delaney) That came at the back end of an intense and often bitter struggle for office up and down the ballot. There was never any doubt that Jim Douglas would seek re-election or that the Republican Party would center its efforts on his campaign. The odds were always long for Peter Clavelle. The Progressive Mayor of Burlington carried the campaign to Douglas on two fronts, health care and George Bush.

(Clavelle) “Our differing stands on key national campaigns really do speak volumes about our political approaches and values. Indeed, Jim Douglas’ allegiance to the Bush agenda – on unfunded mandates for our schools, on energy, on prescription drugs – spells disaster for Vermont.”

(Delaney) He never persuaded the voters that Douglas, who ran far ahead of the president, was too much like Bush to suit Vermonters. And Clavelle’s health care plan blew up on him when he couldn’t explain its financing to reporters. That became the centerpiece of a TV ad campaign that questioned Clavelle’s credentials as a Democrat and portrayed him as a heavy taxer.

In the end Clavelle could not expand his base enough to unseat an incumbent Republican who had gone out of his way for two years to be seen by voters in every corner of Vermont.

Business interests in Burlington tried hard to get surrounding communities to support a new Regional Technical Academy, a $44 million replacement for technical courses now offered by Essex and Burlington High Schools. Fifty-five percent of the voters rejected it.

When it came to showing support for candidates, Vermont voters went all over the political spectrum and settled on some familiar faces from very different political traditions. Republican Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie ran stronger than expected against two challengers, and was re-elected. Independent Congressman Bernie Sanders coasted to victory over a Republican who tried to link him to child abusers. And Democratic icon Patrick Leahy was sent back to Washington for a sixth term in the Senate after a lukewarm challenge from Republican Jack McMullen, who couldn’t persuade the voters that it was time for a change.

The strong Democratic majority in the House was something of a surprise, even to the chief recruiter of many of the successful candidates. She’s Gaye Symington of Jericho. She’ll be the new Speaker of the Vermont House, and she’ll concentrate on health care reform.

(Symington) “This is one issue where we start from very different places and the only way we’re going to make headway is to be clear that we’re willing to work together and talk together and we make those efforts. But I can assure you that we’re not going to get bogged down if we don’t feel like progress is being made. We want to make progress on this issue.”

(Delaney) The real testing of bi-partisan good will would soon begin with a centrist Republican Governor proposing ideas and budget numbers to a new Legislature decidedly different from the last one.

For VPR News, I’m Steve Delaney.

Next in the series: Energy. Missing fuel rods, wind power and the high price of fuel.

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