Thom Lauzon, a staunch Republican, stood with his party and did everything he could to elect his friend, Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, to the governor’s office two years ago.
He donated money; he appeared on tour; and finally, the colorful Barre mayor stood in front of the political press corps and leveled what is conceivably the worst accusation in politics at Peter Shumlin, the Democratic contender: Lauzon accused the then-state senator of proposing to release convicted murders and rapists from jail into the countryside.
Lauzon not only led the charge at that 2010 press conference in Williston, he also drilled that message home with 75,000 robotic calls to voters. Shumlin’s plan was to provide transitional housing and programs for the early release of nonviolent offenders who have drug and alcohol addiction problems. Lauzon alleged at the time that 20 percent of those convicts were dangerous criminals.
When the election was over six weeks later, Shumlin called Lauzon and the two men met for lunch at the mayor’s house.
“We talked about a few things and when he wanted to have lunch with me in a private setting, I thought here we go, it’s going to be robo call revenge,” Lauzon said. “I was struck at how anxious the governor was and how sincere he was to work with me. He said, ‘Look campaigns aside differences aside, I want to make things better I want to improve the life of the average Vermonter and I’m here to work with you so if you need anything let me know’.”
The two men couldn’t have had more dissimilar views on politics, but they share “an executive temperament,” as state Rep. Paul Poirier who is also a member of the Barre City Council put it, and a propensity to wheel and deal.
They also share an interest in bringing the Granite City back from an ongoing economic decline that had devolved into a serious drug problem with the accompanying crime-related issues. Lauzon had long wanted to stem the tide of Department of Corrections parolees and furloughees; Shumlin wanted to deal with the root causes of recidivism among nonviolent prisoners in Vermont, which in his view was part of a vicious cycle of drug and alcohol dependency.
In short order, Shumlin sent his special assistant, Susan Bartlett, to Barre to begin a yearlong process of creating a new program to support former convicts who were trying to become integrated into the fabric of the city’s community life. Eventually, the state gave the city $100,000 to hire an “interventionist.”
Meanwhile, the mayor was pushing three other projects — an $18 million “big dig” downtown, a new office space downtown called “City Place” that would house 200 state workers, and a transitional housing project for former convicts — all of which have been embraced by the Shumlin administration.
What a difference two years’ worth of gubernatorial support for Lauzon’s favorite city makes.
“People say he’s bold, people say he’s ambitious,” Lauzon said. “That’s exactly what I look for in a leader. I don’t think I want a governor who is meek. I don’t think I want a governor who’s not willing to reach a little bit to improve the life of average Vermonters.”
On Monday, it was Lauzon’s turn to return the favor. He not only personally endorsed Shumlin, he also pulled together seven of the state’s eight mayors for a press conference to publicly thank and support the governor. One after another, the mayors of Rutland, St. Albans, Burlington, Montpelier, Newport and Winooski extolled Shumlin’s commitment to help them with the devastating flooding in 2011, economic development and drug-related crime. Only the part-time mayor of Vergennes wasn’t present, according to the Associated Press.
Lauzon is the only Republican mayor of the set. Four of the seven are Democrats, and two are independents. (Chris Louras, a former Republican representative, declared himself a “nothin’” and said the only R after his name was Rutlander.)
Despite his status as a significant player in the Vermont GOP, Lauzon made no bones about slamming Republican gubernatorial candidate Randy Brock during the formal endorsement event for Shumlin.
“No, quite frankly, that is the race when I met with high-ranking Republicans, well, almost a year ago now, quite frankly I thought they should have taken a pass on the governor’s race. I thought the governor was doing a great job, I thought we should be concentrating on other areas, I thought we should be concentrating on the Senate and the House.”
Lauzon told reporters the Franklin County state senator’s race for governor was “ill-advised.”
That assessment, however, didn’t deter Lauzon from giving money to Brock ($4,000 from he and his wife) to appease the Republican Party.
“One of the things you can always get from me is the truth,” Lauzon said. “I received a call from Mark Snelling. He said, ‘Republicans are very disappointed that you endorsed the governor.’ I said, ‘I understand you’re disappointed.’ He said, ‘If you can send $4,000, you’re off the hook.”
Lauzon told reporters his contribution didn’t signal support for Brock.
And the final blow? “I think Randy Brock is a fine man but I think quite frankly this was an ill-advised campaign and people are going to spend a lot of money to try to replace a leader who doesn’t need to be replaced,” Lauzon said.
So what accounts for Lauzon’s change in loyalties and uneasy alliance with a Democratic governor?
The mayor says he is supporting Shumlin because “he’s responsive.” Lauzon says he and the governor began to address Barre’s public safety concerns in the first few months of his administration. Until then, he said the Department of Corrections and the city had put the proportionally large population of furloughees and parolees in “a position to fail.” Bartlett, Lauzon, Poirier and a group of concerned citizens created an intervention program for former inmates who are adjusting to life outside prison.
“We were washing out about 70 percent of those people — we weren’t doing a good job,” Lauzon said. That percentage has been cut to 50 percent in less than a year, he said. The interventionist connects the former inmates with housing, food, substance abuse treatment and employment.
Lauzon said the governor also came up with a loan program for Barre businesses hit by the May 2011 floods. “We were turning those funds around in 48 hours,” Lauzon said. “That was pretty impressive.”
These programs aren’t handouts, Lauzon says. He asserts that the city has worked very hard to get state support for the economic development projects now under way. “I don’t live in the easiest community to govern and a lot of our success in Barre I attribute to two things: If you give people the opportunity they will pull themselves up, but most importantly it’s the support of a great administration. I call the governor on weekends, and they pick up the phone.”