A small crowd of protesters funneled through the streets of Burlington’s Old North End on Thursday, heading to the Henry Street home of Lenore Broughton, who has backed Vermonters First, a Super PAC.
In the face of accusations that they were trying to bully the conservative political financier, the protesters said they simply wished to talk her out of financing a campaign against a single-payer, publicly funded health care system.
No discussion ensued, however, because Broughton did not come to the door. The house appeared empty, save for a lone traffic cone by the front entrance and electric orange construction tape lining the porch.
With protesters peacefully brandishing pro single-payer signs on the street, Peter Sterling, director of the single-payer advocacy group Vermont Leads, walked up to Broughton’s doorstep and left a letter.
“We believe the current system relying on private insurance companies is failing our state as evidenced by the 47,000 uninsured Vermonters and the additional 120,000 under-insured Vermonters,” read the letter. “We ask you to sit down and talk with us about stopping your campaign that will have very serious financial and health consequences for almost every Vermonter.”
Broughton is the only known contributor to the Vermont-based, conservative super PAC called Vermonters First. As of September’s campaign finance filing, she had donated $100,000 in funds and $34,000 in services. Based on a VTDigger investigation with the Investigative News Network, she is also the sixth top political donor in the state.
Thursday’s protest came almost one month after the super PAC aired its third television advertisement, which warned Vermonters that shifting to a single-payer system would cause the largest tax hike in state history — a claim that VTDigger and Seven Days’ “Fact Checker” found to be true.
Organized by Sterling, the demonstration began at Pomeroy Park, just off of North Street, and finished at Broughton’s home around the corner. Only about 15 protesters showed up and the media cavalry that ensued rivaled that number.
“I asked everyone to come out today not to protest Ms. Broughton’s right to participate in the political process,” said Sterling. “It is her radical agenda for health care reform that I think needs to be publicized. Ms. Broughton wants a future without public health care, instead relying on private markets to provide affordable health care.”
VTDigger was unable to reach Broughton for comment.
The protest featured speeches from Sterling; Mari Cordes, president of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals; and Kathie McClure, known nationally as the “Purple Bus Lady.”
Sterling is the founder of Vermont Leads, a 501(c)(4) advocacy group funded by the SEIU, a national union, that has launched a media and grassroots campaign for a publicly funded health care system. Cordes has been an outspoken single-payer health care activist associated with the Vermont Workers Center.
McClure, who is a licensed attorney from Georgia and a blogger for the Huffington Post, has traveled roughly 30,000 miles over the past four years, advocating across the U.S. for more affordable health care. And she has done so in her little purple bus.
McClure took to the road and formed the nonprofit VoteHealthcare.org when her epileptic daughter and diabetic son’s health insurance costs shot through the roof.
“As our kids got to the point where … we couldn’t keep them on our policy, we realized they were headed into the health care buzz saw,” she said. “They were going to face a lifetime of unaffordable premiums that were probably going to hamstring them for the rest of their lives.”
She realized that there were scores of families in the same situation as hers, and her family couldn’t change the health care system on its own. So, one night, she turned to her husband and told him she wanted to hit the road to advocate for health care reform across the United States. The only thing she needed, she said, was a bus. McClure found a bus and painted it purple. Since 2008, she has visited 38 states.
“I think you’re doing a great thing here in Vermont, and I’m glad to see you’re moving toward a single-payer system,” she told the Vermont crowd. Then, she made for the bus and hopped behind the wheel.
Driving slowly down the street, the protesters followed her to Broughton’s house, while small children looked on wide-eyed from nearby windows.
One of those protesters was University of Vermont senior Emily Reynolds, who majors in biochemistry. She plans to practice medicine and hopes to do so on the platform of a reformed health care finance system.
“I’ve been volunteering in hospitals since I was 15, and I’ve just seen too many people die because they couldn’t get health care,” she said. “It’s really sad for providers; it’s really sad for communities; and it’s costing us a fortune. This woman (Broughton) is using a lot of money to put up a lot of bad publicity and smear the (single-payer) campaign … and I think someone needs to stand up to that agenda.”
Reynolds said that while studying comparative health systems in Norway, she was extremely impressed by the Scandinavian nation’s single-payer model.
“If you look at single payer over there it’s just so much less expensive,” she said. “Sometimes we spend up to 30 percent of a health care budget on administration. That’s just absurd. In a functioning system you spend 5-10 percent and a lot more money would go to actually treating patients. Right now, a lot of it is going to making a lot of CEOs a lot of money.”
More than 30 minutes before the protest began, the founder of Vermonters First, Tayt Brooks, issued a press statement criticizing Vermont Leads.
“Vermont Leads should be ashamed of itself and its leaders for staging an angry protest at the private residence of a respected Vermont citizen,” he wrote. “This action is not only threatening but it is clearly meant to intimidate and silence a citizen. … These types of gatherings are better suited for the streets and public facilities and should never be used to bully another in their home.”
In Brooks’ press release, he quoted Broughton, who took a jab at Vermont Leads for receiving funds from out-of-state groups.
“I support Vermonters First because I believed outside groups were coming into our state and drowning out the voices of the people who actually live here,” said Broughton. “Now I know it for a fact. They’re outside my house. We should not allow ourselves to be bullied in our state, and I’m sure Vermonters won’t.”
Sterling said that this isn’t an incident of bullying, but rather a group of people practicing their democratic right to assemble in a public place. Due to the cloaked nature of super PACs, representatives from Vermont Leads thought this would be the most effective method for protesting Vermont First robotic calls, mass mailings and a television ad that aimed to create a “scare campaign” around a single-payer system, Sterling said.
“If any corporation were running a similar ad campaign, we would go to their corporate offices and hold a rally with the exact same event, saying: ‘We believe health care reform is too important to be left to for-profit corporations, public health care is important,’” he said. “Now, we can’t do that in the case of Vermonters First. You can’t protest outside of a P.O. box.”
Chris Curtis, chair of Vermont Leads, brushed aside the comments about bullying.
“This is all about an important public policy issue and it’s not about personalities,” he said. “It’s part of our mission to provide education and outreach, so making public statements and standing up for single payer is an important part of what we do, and that’s what we’re doing here today.”
Brooks and Broughton weren’t the only ones to question Vermont Leads’ tactics. Kristin Sohlstrom, who works in the private health insurance sector, told VTDigger that she too feels bullied. What she’s particularly bothered by, she said, is her inability to comment or interact with others on Vermont Leads’ Facebook page. When she sent Sterling a message about the issue, she said he didn’t get back to her.
“I have no idea what has gotten me censored because there has been no response,” she wrote via email.
When Sterling was asked whether his organization censors its Facebook page, he said it does, but within reason.
“We have had to censor people who use profanity — people who are really vexed. There is a difference between having a discussion of the role of private sector in providing health care and calling people names like fascist or socialist,” he said. “For those people, yeah, we have not allowed them to participate in the discussion because it just drags it down.
“As the old saying goes: The problem with fighting with a pig is that you both get dirty, but the pig likes it.”
Correction: The protest was held on Thursday.