Off the Fifth Floor: Shumlin, salesman in chief

Rep. Oliver Olsen, left, goes on a test drive of a Chevy Volt with Gov. Peter Shumlin at the wheel at the Grand Opening of  Green Mountain Energy in South Londonderry Vermont. Photo courtesy of Fran Janik.

Rep. Oliver Olsen, left, goes on a test drive of a Chevy Volt with Gov. Peter Shumlin at the wheel at the Grand Opening of Green Mountain Energy in South Londonderry Vermont. Photo courtesy of Fran Janik.

It isn’t every day that a reporter gets to travel with the governor of the state of Vermont, and it’s rarer still for said reporter to let fly a critical column about the governor’s pressers in advance of such an invitation.

Though several of the governor’s staffers were irate, and I was summarily berated on the phone and in person, the governor never let on – he was gracious, funny and warm from the minute I joined his statewide tour last Thursday morning until well after supper. His only mention of the column was that night under questioning by Mark Johnson on Vermont Public Television’s live “Call the Governor” program.

“Mark, why’d you ask me about that – you know Galloway is sitting right there,” Shumlin said once the show was over. Then he shook hands with Johnson and coolly left the studio with Sue Allen, his press secretary, and his security officer tagging along behind. We drove off to our final destination – Montpelier – 12.5 solid hours after we started our tour from the state capital.

The 55-year-old governor kept the work pace of a 20-something the day we went out. He logged nearly 300 miles and made about a dozen phone calls (where cell service existed), kept up on the news via National Public Radio and his iPhone, read briefings, communicated with staff via email and signed documents and letters. Shumlin made five stops along the way (seven if you count the hotdog stand and a quick bite at a Mexican takeout joint). His visits to businesses were bookended by two press events.

It was, he assured me, a typical day. “We do the whole state every few days,” Shumlin said.

Between stop-off points at businesses in Vermont’s banana belt – the Upper Valley, Windham and Rutland counties – Shumlin worked out of his home office: one of four American-made sedans at his disposal. (This was just before he traded in his Douglas-era vehicles for two Ford Expeditions.)

Shumlin knows the mile markers along I-91 and I-89 by heart. We’d be driving along, looking at our cell phones, catch the SOS wireless sign on our devices, and the governor would remark that it would be a while before we had service again. Dodging communication black holes was as integral to the governor’s workday last Thursday as the latest information about the debt-ceiling debate in Congress, which he followed assiduously.

His schedule began at 9:30 a.m. and ended at 10 p.m., with nary a break in between. Aside from his constant, if resigned, frustration with the lack of cell phone coverage along I-91, the only thing Shumlin appears to complain about regarding his intense schedule is the off day when he can’t get a long run in.

Shumlin is on the road three to four days a week, and he said he keeps close tabs on his agency secretaries and department commissioners via cell phone and email.”

“I work 14 hours a day, and I still don’t feel I’m getting it all done,” Shumlin said. “I love it as long as I feel we’re making progress in terms of making changes that serve Vermont well.”

Despite the constant, on-the-go pace, the governor tries to make the ride comfortable for his passengers. He brought a bag of sweet cherries for us to munch on, and though he doesn’t appear to be a food snob, given the emergency hotdog stop at Papa’s somewhere near Londonderry (it was well past lunch and we were pushed for time), he encouraged us to eat healthy food.

Shumlin has learned a thing or two from his predecessor, Gov. Jim Douglas, who so perfected the art of retail politics with his constant glad-handing at events statewide that columnist Peter Freyne nicknamed him Governor Scissorhands. Shumlin appears to have assumed the same part. He, too, incessantly attends openings, ribbon cuttings and meet-and-greets. His time spent in the official office – the Fifth Floor of the Pavilion building – is kept at a minimum.

Shumlin is on the road three to four days a week, and he said he keeps close tabs on his agency secretaries and department commissioners via cell phone and email. He explained that he hired good people, and he doesn’t want to micromanage them.

“I’ve just found the amount of work that gets done in the office is pretty limited, and I have the best team you can ask for to help get things done, and I trust them,” Shumlin said. “I get more done by being out there, talking to Vermonters and hearing what’s on their minds.”

When Shumlin wasn’t immersed in his work in his office on wheels – communicating virtually with staff or constituents on two different cell phones – he joshed his compatriots in the vehicle or entertained us with a story. There was chitchat about his search for a house in the Montpelier area (he wanted to move to Hardwick, my hometown, but his security detail balked at the commute); he talked with “Toddsy” his security detail about the possible reasons why the air conditioning stopped working (after a brief attempt at poking around under the hood, his theory was a loose connection); and he passed around a card from constituents in St. Johnsbury who thanked him for helping them restore their flood-damaged house.

The governor’s destinations included Lebanon, N.H., where we stopped for coffee at a McDonald’s before an hour-long meeting with the editorial board at the Valley News. The governor struck up a conversation with the two black women at the counter and asked where they lived. When they responded “New Hampshire,” he exclaimed, “You should move to Vermont – it’s better over there.”

At the Valley News, the governor answered questions about the Hartford Police Department’s alleged excessive force abuses; the new public records law; the Vermont Yankee lawsuit; broadband deployment to the most rural areas of the state; his single-payer health care plan and corrections reforms.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, center, stand between Sen. Peter Galbraith, left and Rep. Oliver Olsen at the Grand Opening of Green Mountain Energy VT in South Londonderry Vermont

Here’s a sampling of his responses:

On Entergy’s case against the state of Vermont: “I have a lot of confidence in Judge Murtha. I have to be careful about what I say because I’ve been named in the suit. I’m letting Bill Sorrell (Vermont’s Attorney General) do the talking until the case is decided. Entergy Louisiana isn’t above the law.”

“Entergy Louisiana has such a broad case that if it were to prevail, it would have huge ramifications for not only Vermont, but the other 49 states. Basically, it would suggest, or make clear, that energy policy has been removed from the states — that’s whether it’s land use, price, environmental considerations or all the other issues that states consider in regulating generators of electricity — (and) that they are abrogating that responsibility to the federal government. That’s a huge shift in the history of state’s rights, so I just think we’re in good shape, and Entergy Louisiana is going to have to comply with Vermont laws just like Vermonters do.”

On the Hartford Police Department: “I come from a community (the Brattleboro area) that dealt with similar accusations and challenges and the best thing that can happen is having the community get involved in a process where they get to understand law enforcement. If you bring people together, you make progress, and if you don’t, problems continue.”

On access to public records
: “We put the burden of proof on government entities to have to pay legal fees if it’s determined that they didn’t disclose information they should have disclosed.”

On hospitals suing the state of New Hampshire over the provider tax
: “We’ve been following that closely. Our challenge is – forget the provider tax – this system is broken and if we continue to have our heads in the sand, the system will fall apart. It will bankrupt us and hurt job growth if we are unable to get (spending) under control.”

“By 2015, health care will cost $2,500 more per person in Vermont – at current rates of growth – for people, who on average, haven’t seen income growth in 10 years. You can sue all you want, the system is broken.”

On MVP Health Care’s website statement about self-funded businesses leaving the state
: “One of the first things that we are going to do is take the profits that MVP and other insurance companies are making and spend it on health care, so they are hardly going to be out there with a banner and saying, ‘Hey, folks, sign up for this, and let’s get Gov. Shumlin re-elected.’ ”

Shumlin tries to see newspaper editorial boards around the state once a quarter. Last month, he had already visited the St. Albans Messenger and the Rutland Herald, and he was scheduling in other appointments with editors around the state.

“We routinely do editorial board meetings and let them ask questions,” Shumlin said. “It’s a good way of informing them of what we’re up to. One of the problems we had was having to pack a whole lot into a short legislative session. … I recognize when you get into trouble in government is when you get too far ahead of the people who put you in the job. I do feel we were close to the line there. We’re doing big stuff. … It’s one of the challenges of being a first term governor.”

In the past, where Shumlin as a senator might have been more colorful in his rhetorical flourishes (he is famous for his one-line zingers), as governor he seems to have tamed his inner Jon Stewart. Whether he was talking to the press, groups of business people or ordinary Vermonters, he appeared to have sworn off whiplash, headline statements. His responses were measured and on message, rote renditions of what he has said previously – from the campaign trail going forward.

His responses were measured and on message, rote renditions of what he has said previously – from the campaign trail going forward.”

Shumlin’s next three stops were at businesses – old and new – and it was in these settings that he seemed most at home. He cut the cord for the state’s first plug-in electric vehicle “charge-up” station at a converted snow board shop in South Londonderry.

The governor was in his element. The event combined three of his favorite things – cutting edge green technology, a celebration of entrepreneurship and an opportunity to smile at the cameras. He quipped as the lenses snapped, “This is the hardest thing about being governor – which camera do you look at?” (Sue Allen took photos, too, with her cell phone and took down the names and email addresses of the several dozen people Shumlin hugged that day and promised to send them images.)

About 40 locals, including Rep. Oliver Olsen and Sen. Peter Galbraith, were on hand to mark the first “pumping” at the Green Mountain Energy store and watch the governor, with the two lawmakers in tow, drive off in a silent and fully charged Chevy Volt.

Shumlin told the crowd, “I’m convinced our best days in Vermont are ahead of us, not behind us. As we work on energy efficiency, other people in other states are going to say they’re getting it right in Vermont and they’re making money. What are we doing?”

As we left, local growers handed Shumlin pints of cherry tomatoes and raspberries.

In North Clarendon, the governor got a tour of Pellergy, a wood pellet plant that processes local softwood trees into small pellets that can be used to fuel woodstoves. He talked with the owners, log haulers and factory workers, all the while extolling the virtues of pellets as a renewable fuel that can help Vermont wean itself off of heating oil.

Shumlin also visited the Vermont Country Store where he learned about the mail-order company’s complex ordering and shipping operation and its efforts to recycle cardboard, steel and plastic. He talked with about a dozen employees (Sue Allen shooting pictures all the while) and packed a box for shipping.

Though the day was filled with grip-and-grin events, Shumlin made an effort to connect with people. He patiently listened to their concerns about high utility costs, workers’ compensation rates and his single-payer health care plans. He referred them to members of his “team” in state government and generally attempted to allay their fears about the uncertain economy.

Then he climbed back into the car to make more phone calls, and to make the pitch to more companies, new and old – that Vermont is the best place to do business.

Anne Galloway

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  • Dave Larsen

    Author Galloway’s inclusion of the skin color of the two women in the Lebanon McDonald’s was both ill-advised and irrelevant.

  • Alex Barnham

    How come the Governor of Vermont has to be referred to as Schumlin? What? We have Bernie Sanders, Pat Leahy, etc. Why not Peter? What, too biblical? Why be so posterior?

  • Alex Barnham

    I would like to have a Ford Expedition if you could afford it.

  • George Cross

    “….Vermont is the best place to do business.” It is great to have a Governor who speaks positively about Vermont!

  • Alex Barnham

    I like the energy thing…he’s full of energy…excited to do his job.

  • Dan Allen

    Terrific, revealing portrait. Fascinating that Peter puts so much time into traveling around, covering the state so thoroughly and so frequently, relying on telecommunications to do his job.

    I can see both Anne’s and Peter’s staff’s sides on the subject of in depth Q&A at press conferences. With the immense commitment put forth by The Boss and his staff to communicate and connect, it evidently feels like an unfair and cheap shot to pick on Peter for not providing the time and depth Anne, a uniquely inquisitive member of the public, seeks in press conferences. Simultaneously, Peter’s relentless schedule and circulation among the public can understandably fail to satisfy the legitimate curiosity of Vermont’s premier investigative journalist.

    I am still betting that Anne’s recent column will lead to improved opportunity for Anne to dig with Peter. I know Peter can handle and constructively respond to the heat.

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