Rep. Jim Eckhardt, a Republican from Mendon, lost his seat by 37 votes last Tuesday to Democrat Anne Gallivan. The one-term lawmaker blames his loss on “garbage politics.”
Eckhardt says the Vermont Democratic House Campaign distorted his record in a mailing that was sent to constituents the day before the election. The postcard was mailed to voters in Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon last Monday.
Because of the timing, the self-employed businessman says he didn’t have a chance to respond to the negative attack.
The postcard, a black-and-white no-frills political mailer, features a photo of Gallivan with her family and the slogan “supporting our schools and small businesses should be a full time job.”
The “full time job” tag seems extraneous — until you flip to the backside of the mailer.
The Vermont Democratic House Campaign accuses Eckhardt of receiving “full pay for 4 weeks during which he admits he was not in attendance in the legislature.”
Eckhardt says he took five days off from the Legislature in 2011 and seven days off in 2012 to be with his children during school vacations. Eckhardt was paid, according to records from the Department of Finance and Management, for the days in question. He did not receive a standard per diem payment of $1,209 for housing and meals for a week during the 2012 legislative session in which he was out of the country.
The postcard says Eckhardt missed “a total of 35 votes” or “nearly a quarter of the votes taken during his time in office.”
Eckhardt disputes the Dems’ accusations. “I don’t know where they came up that number,” he says. “I missed five bills not five votes.” One of those bills was the single payer health care legislation passed in 2011. Eckhardt speculates that the Vermont Democratic House Campaign is counting amendments that accompanied the bills.
“I don’t mind suffering a loss if I felt that the loss was justified,” Eckhardt said. “I think this dirty, dirty last minute BS they pulled just blew me out of the water. I had no time to respond to their crap.”
Nick Charyk, the head of the Vermont Democratic House Campaign, said he knew Eckhardt’s time off would be an issue in campaign. He wanted the information to come out in an article in the Rutland Herald, which was published on Oct. 31, but he said Eckhardt “wasn’t honest with the reporter.”
“If it was nasty garbage politics it wouldn’t have resonated with the district,” Charyk said. “The Vermont Democratic Party didn’t decide who won that race — his constituents did.”
Rep. Oliver Olsen, a fellow member of the GOP who is retiring from the Legislature this year, said what happened to Eckhardt is similar to a “hit piece” he says Todd Bailey, the former executive director of the Vermont League of Conservation Voters, released a few days before the 2008 election. Rep. Judy Livingston, R-Manchester, lost her seat, he says, as a result of the mailer.
Bailey says the mailer that went out just before the 2008 election cited Livingston’s environmental record. The League gave the Manchester Republican a 19 percent lifetime score for her five terms in the Legislature.
Olsen says the incident was never reported on because the press corps was too tired after the election to pay attention. “It’s old news at that point,” Olsen says. “You go through an entire election cycle and GOP are the evil guys, then this happens and they (the Dems) never get reported on because it’s at the last minute.”
The tactic is particularly rich, Olsen says, coming from the people who are “shocked and aghast at the negativity of a campaign super PAC.” He says he’s not aware of any GOP PACs launching a negative attack at the 11th hour.
“It’s one thing to challenge someone’s record and give them a chance to respond,” Olsen said. “It’s quite different to go out deliberately to issue a mailer in a manner in which there is no opportunity to respond.”
Olsen says he finds the Eckhardt mailer frustrating “because it’s a direct attack on a candidate who is an endangered species — someone who is actually working for a living with a family.”
“When in you’re in the Legislature full time and have a family it is incredibly hard,” Olsen said. “The average voter thinks legislators are well paid. There’s a token stipend. You don’t go into this for the pay. Anyone who thinks they’ll be compensated for the work they do would be in for a surprise because most of the work we do goes uncompensated. Add up all the hours of constituent work outside the session during Irene — that’s all volunteer time. When you’ve got a school vacation in the middle of a legislative session it’s tough — what are you going to do?”
Olsen said the Dems should be careful what they wish for. If parties start attacking lawmakers because they’ve missed a few votes or a few days in the Legislature because of real world commitments like running a business or raising a family “we’re going to find it difficult to recruit anyone — be they Democrat, Republican Progressive.”
“If go down that path, are we prepared to have a citizen legislature of trustifarians and retirees?” Olsen said.
House Speaker Shap Smith, who holds down a full-time job with a law firm, says he has never taken a school vacation with his children in the 10 years he’s served in the House in spite of the fact that he “gets a lot of flak” from his family.
“There are a lot of people who work for a living who end up being there most days,” Smith said.
Smith said he didn’t see the postcard before it went out. He says he was in the middle of a trial and focused on his own race the last two weeks before the election.
Eckhardt originally took the Rutland-Windsor-1 seat in 2010 from Megan Smith, a Democrat. Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed Smith as commissioner of the Department of Tourism that year. The district was previously held by another prominent Democrat, Dr. Harry Chen, who is now the commissioner of the Department of Health.
Eckhardt, an independent turned moderate Republican, says he believes he was attacked because he questioned the need for a new immunization requirement introduced by Chen last session. He also questioned portions of the omnibus single-payer health care bill.
“I will not vote on ideology, I want fact,” Eckhardt said. “If you say it’s going to save us money, show me. I need to know how much it costs, who pays and how much they’ll pay.”
“If you want to know why they targeted me my guess is because I’m very vocal,” Eckhardt said.