Pelham: Words and facts collide

Editor's note: This op-ed is by Tom Pelham, Finance commissioner in the Dean administration, Tax commissioner in the Douglas administration, state representative serving on the Appropriations Committee, now a founding member of Campaign for Vermont.

Taylor Dobbs, reporting for VTDigger, might use his recent article covering Campaign for Vermont as a teachable moment about poor journalistic technique. Dobbs, a recent graduate of Montpelier High School and candidate for a BA in Journalism from Northeastern University next January, chose the easy but less informing route. He gathered up the observations and quotes from a handful of insider politicos, namely Jake Perkinson from the Vermont Democratic Party, Jack Lindley from the Vermont Republican Party, political commentator Eric Davis and Montpelier lobbyist Kevin Ellis and presto, he had a political story to tell.

Dobbs' slant on Campaign for Vermont is that we are not only about politics, but about Republican politics and more, about conservative Republican politics and his politically oriented but fact-challenged sources, not surprisingly, affirmed this perspective.

Dobbs does a disservice to the mission of VTDigger “to create a platform of consistent delivery of fact-driven reports on matters of public interest and to serve as a catalyst for more open debates on key issues that impact Vermonters’ daily lives” and to those seeking informed, balanced reporting rather than slant. In the same way that VPIRG and VNRC are policy-driven organizations focused largely on environmental issues, Campaign for Vermont is a policy-driven organization focused on the future prosperity of Vermont.

Questioning whether or not Campaign for Vermont, at its core, is about politics or public policy is fair game. Like Gov. Shumlin, Bruce Lisman is a wealthy individual who could mount a substantially self-funded effort for elective office. For those who primarily view the world through the prism of politics, like those interviewed for Dobbs’ article, the clear answer is that Bruce, despite his statements to the contrary, has political aspirations.

Leaders at the Vermont Symphony Orchestra or the Shelburne Museum or the Boys and Girls Club or the Preservation Trust of Vermont or the Board of American Forests or the University of Vermont or Champlain College, among others (and all of which are referenced in Bruce’s bio) might offer a less political view and provide observations on Bruce’s service and generosity from a civic responsibility and engagement perspective.

But Dobbs could have, and probably should have in the name of balanced reporting, reached more broadly beyond Montpelier political circles to other sources that can reflect through direct experience on Bruce’s efforts. Leaders at the Vermont Symphony Orchestra or the Shelburne Museum or the Boys and Girls Club or the Preservation Trust of Vermont or the Board of American Forests or the University of Vermont or Champlain College, among others (and all of which are referenced in Bruce’s bio) might offer a less political view and provide observations on Bruce’s service and generosity from a civic responsibility and engagement perspective.

These folks might say that Bruce’s service and generosity simply comes from the fact that he was born and raised a Vermonter, loves his home state, did well in the world of business, and has a strong desire to share his prosperity. But then again, the observation of these folks might not fit Dobbs’ political storyline. Instead, Mr. Dobbs relies on armchair observers such as political pundit Eric Davis, who has never met Bruce Lisman as of the writing of Mr. Dobbs article but confidently tells Dobbs, “[Lisman] would like to see Randy Brock elected for governor, but he cannot say in his commercials ‘vote for Brock’ or ‘vote against Shumlin,’ because such an ad would trigger campaign finance laws.” Let’s hope such unstudied commentary is not frequently employed by Professor Davis.

Further, Mr. Dobbs works the storyline that Campaign for Vermont (aka Bruce Lisman) is not only political, but a sidekick to the Republican Party. Here again, Mr. Dobbs’ reach is limited. His slant is inconsistent with political contributions, readily found on the web, to Democrats Senator Leahy, Congressman Welch, Susan Bartlett, Matt Dunne, Chris Dodd, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Howard Dean, Tom Daschle, Bill Clinton, Bill Bradley, Charles Schumer and Joe Lieberman, as well as an array of Republicans. Certainly there are questions to be explored given the breadth of these contributions but the answer is clearly not in the direction of conservative Republicanism that Dobbs takes his readers.

Regarding Bruce’s business career, those who need to see the world only in black or white will hold tightly to their ill-considered opinions, but there is nothing to be found that taints Bruce’s career in financial markets. There are tens of thousands of people employed by banks and investment firms with hundreds of these once laboring at Bear Stearns; among them good apples and bad apples.

Unfortunately, the financial leverage of Wall Street has allowed the bad acts of the bad apples to ripple through our economy.

When visiting the bond rating agencies in New York’s finance district with Gov. Dean, I and the rest of the governor's staff were treated to lunch by the governor’s father, a Wall Streeter. The work of investing the assets of Americans and their retirement funds is a necessary, interesting and honorable pursuit and there is no reasoned basis to smear either the Dean family or Bruce Lisman’s connections to the financial world.

New York Times columnist David Brooks reminds us in a recent piece entitled “The Service Patch” that “It’s worth noting that you can devote your life to community service and be a total schmuck. You can spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero.” Leveraging ones gains from Wall Street to maximize personal consumption and greed may qualify one a schmuck. However, sharing one’s gains with the likes of the Boys and Girls Club, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, the Shelburne Museum, UVM and the Campaign for Vermont certainly does not.

As for me, I’m described by Mr. Dobbs as a “prominent conservative” yet was never interviewed for Mr. Dobbs' story. Dobbs did leave me a phone message at 9:37 a.m. on May 30 which I returned later that afternoon only to find the Dobbs had already published his story. If we had talked, I would have gladly profiled my political views as reflected by my political experiences.

While living in Somerville, Mass., during the ‘70s and ‘80s, I played a leadership role in the 11 mayoral campaigns of Democrat Mayor Gene Brune (now the Democratic Register of Deeds for Middlesex County) and was Somerville’s coordinator for Democrat Mike Dukakis’ runs for governor and Democrat Tip O’Neill’s 1982 Congressional race, when Republicans felt he “had lost his touch” and were trying to unseat him as Speaker of the House. It wasn’t that Tip was in jeopardy of losing his seat, but his political folks felt he needed a show of force by keeping his victory margin over 70 percent. I understand the utility of political engagement in the pursuit of desired public policy outcomes and all these officials were good for Somerville. For example, it was Tip O’Neill who led the charge in Congress to allow states to use a portion of their allocations of federal highway trust funds to support the construction of environmentally friendly mass transit facilities such as the Davis Square Red Line station now in Somerville, a project with which I was deeply involved and which Mike Dukakis supported.

Upon returning to Vermont in 1989, I pretty much stayed out of politics until I successfully ran for state representative, as an independent, in 2002. Other than that, I was pleased to contribute my public management skills and affection for my home state through service to both Govs. Dean (a tightwad like Mike Dukakis) and Douglas. I’m certain they would both affirm that I served them and my state well and successfully. So, if I am a “prominent conservative” as Dobbs alleges because I worked for a fiscally responsible Democrat Howard Dean as his Finance commissioner and a moderate Republican Jim Douglas as Tax commissioner and was elected to our Legislature as an independent, that’s more a commentary on the leanings of Mr. Dobbs and his sources than it is about me.

Finally, Mr. Dobbs has it bollixed relative to Campaign for Vermont’s stands on the issues. He declares that we advocate for “conservative economic policies” such as opposing the cloud computing tax. Yet, our position and Gov. Shumlin’s on this matter are exactly the same. Dobbs has us “against the health care exchange,” when, in fact, we openly support the exchange as proposed by Obamacare. What we don’t support is Vermont’s unique restriction that small businesses must buy insurance only through the exchange while large business and organizations like labor unions are not so required. He writes that we are “against the potential impact of high costs associated with renewable energy on consumers and businesses.” Well, there is no “potential” about it. GMP estimates that the first 50 MW of feed-in-tariffs approved by the Legislature will cost-shift onto customers $17.3 million annually and with the expansion of this program during the most recent legislative session to 125 MW, this cost-shift is certain to rise significantly. Campaign for Vermont supports investment in renewable energy but not at the ever increasing rate that the Legislature is now putting into law and placing on ratepayers.

Since last November, Campaign for Vermont’s list of founders and partners has expanded from three to almost 150 and our email list is now over 6,000. We are a growing organization because of our hopes for Vermont prosperity and our fears that we are now moving in the wrong directions.

Shared prosperity is thwarted by an education system among the most costly in the nation but with only mediocre outcomes for Vermont’s children, leaving them job insecure. ( http://www.aefpweb.org/sites/default/files/webform/

Shared prosperity is challenged by electric rates ranked sixth highest in the nation and a strategy to subsidize high cost solar and wind producers by cost-shifting onto ratepayers, especially when natural gas is fast becoming the fuel of the future.

Shared prosperity is at risk by a state budget growing at a 6.3 percent rate while our population growth and employment levels are nearly stagnant.  ( http://www.leg.state.vt.us/jfo/appropriations/fy_2013/FY09_-_FY13_Appropriations_History_final.pdf

Shared prosperity is not promoted with a legislative approach to health care reform that undermines the positive features of Obamacare, especially the health care exchange, centralizes decision making in Montpelier while refusing to provide citizens with budgetary information that profiles the costs and taxpayer burdens of the Legislature’s “reforms.”

All of the above are major forces in Vermont’s economy affecting the future prosperity of Vermont.

Many of us believe our state government is pushing too many risks on too many fronts. Absent change to a more moderate course, Vermont will face tough and expensive times ahead. Campaign for Vermont seeks to avoid such barriers to shared prosperity and promote paths that will lead to prosperity.


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