Editor’s note: This story is by Eric Bloklund and Stephen Connor II.
BURLINGTON — More than 100 Vermonters marched through downtown Burlington Wednesday night to protest the appearance of Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, at a fundraiser at the Hilton Hotel for the Vermont GOP.
As head of Wisconsin’s Republican Party, Priebus was integral to Gov. Scott Walker’s election as Wisconsin’s governor in January. The governor introduced legislation curtailing the collective bargaining rights of state employees.
The Vermont Democratic Party joined forces with the state’s biggest unions on Tuesday and issued a call to its members to participate in a protest against Priebus’ Burlington appearance.
The protesters represented Vermont’s labor unions: the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Teachers/UPV, the Vermont Teamsters, the Vermont Building Trades, the Vermont NEA, the Vermont Progressive Party, CCTA bus drivers and the Vermont Peace and Justice Center.
“Reince Priebus is one of the master planners in a hateful attack,” warned Mari Cordes, a resident of Lincoln and president of 5221, a nurses union at Fletcher Allen Healthcare, as she addressed the crowd. “We will not allow Wisconsin to happen to Vermont.”
Tracey Tapley, an employee with the Agency of Human Services and clerk for the Vermont State Employees Union, said she was at the protest to stand up for unions’ rights. “They’re trying to take away our collective bargaining, our seat at the table, and our voice,” said Tapley, who lives in Plainfield. “Our voice is the only thing we have left.”
Protesters, lured by samba band Sambatucada’s percussion, massed at the top of Church Street and marched west on Pearl Street to a police roadblock allowing demonstrators to cross traffic into Battery Park. Backed by Sambatucada and fervent trumpet blasts from Cordes, protesters lined Battery Street across from the Hilton, chanting “Priebus! Priebus!”
Inside the Hilton at the annual Vermont GOP fund-raiser, Priebus asked Republicans to rally around what he called a “Battle for Freedom.”
Priebus, in a reference to the protest declared (to applause) that: “In Wisconsin, We’re used to protests of 70,000, I call this is a coffee klatsch.”
Priebus was chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party and has close ties to Walker, who is now synonymous with the legislation in Wisconsin that sought to limit some public employees’ collective bargaining rights in the name of fiscal austerity. The constitutionality of the legislation has since been called into question.
The Republican National Committee chair opened his speech with the declaration: “I’m here for one reason, and one reason only, and that’s to ensure that Barack Obama is a one-term president.”
Priebus said his objective was to turn Vermont, a notoriously blue state in presidential elections, red. He attacked Obama, claiming that the president was a “very bad leader for our country,” who is “driving up the deficit” and “driving Medicare and Social Security to bankruptcy.”
Obama would incur more debt than “any single president before him combined,” Priebus said. He described the president as a “leader who was in love with rhetoric, distorting reality, and being a master of misrepresentation. He is a liberal dream come true.”
Vermont Republican Party Chairman Pat McDonald, State Auditor Tom Salmon and Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott all made brief speeches preceding Priebus, with the slogans of “Freedom and Unity,” and “Freedom and Opportunity” as common themes.
In his brief address to the crowd of 220, Scott said it was inappropriate for the Vermont Democratic Party Chair to call for a protest of the GOP event. He accused the Dems of “using the opportunity to score political points,” and that such actions demonstrated a “lack of respect for competitors.” He called for increased civility, pragmatism and fiscal conservatism from both sides of the aisle.