[S]cott Milne will tell you he never intended to make it this far.
Gov. Peter Shumlin’s Republican challenger expected to lose in a competitive primary and then return to his travel business, his family and the things he considers truly important in life.
Yet here he is, one week away from the General Election with 35 percent support in the latest WCAX poll, compared to Shumlin’s 47 percent and 6 percent for Dan Feliciano, the Libertarian candidate.
Despite his apparent discomfort at public events and lack of policy or public appearances, a few weeks ago political observers said Milne had a shot. Now, they say, it might be too late for him to capitalize on Shumlin’s dip in popularity.
But Milne, a successful businessman who found a way to grow his mother’s travel agency in the age of the Internet, says he is within two degrees of separation from more than enough Vermonters to win.
Milne is an adventurer who has traveled to Africa, Jamaica and Europe, and hitchhiked three times across the United States. He is a loving father and an empathetic man who overcame his brother’s death, a divorce and a stroke, friends say.
But Milne has now voyaged from the private sector into the jungle of public scrutiny. Despite his family’s political past, he is a first-time candidate on a statewide stage facing a two-term incumbent who raised more money in a day than Milne did in two weeks.
At public events, Scott Milne appears uncomfortable pressing the flesh. At news conferences, he sometimes comes across as condescending. In debates, he falters.
Milne has a lot going for him and a lot working against him. Votes cast next week will prove which force is stronger.
[P]olitics was everyday life in the Milne household.
When Milne was 9, he and his older brother, Keith, would collect Christmas cards from politicians by writing to them. His brother had one from President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat. Milne had one from Phil Hoff, the first Democrat to be elected governor of Vermont (in 1962). They argued over whose autograph was worth more.
Scott Milne, now 55, was the “typical, sometimes overprotective big brother,” says his sister, Cathy Frey.
He was also a bit of a daredevil. At their sheep farm on 200 acres in a valley outside the town of Washington, he once climbed up into a tree to get what he thought was an abandoned hornet’s nest. Instead, live hornets came swarming out, stinging Milne as he fell from the tree.
The Milne family had two sheep, a cow and a goat that were intended for slaughter, but the family couldn’t bring themselves to eat them, Frey said.
Milne was ever the entrepreneur. As a boy he sold rabbits, then collies, worked at Price Chopper and worked summers on his cousin’s farm on Long Island.
“He’s one of those workaholics in that business is always on his mind, and (he’s) always multitasking,” said Frey, who lives in Barre Town. Their other sibling, Chris, lives in Massachusetts.
As an adult, Milne admits he still works a lot, and it cost him his marriage, he said. Milne met his wife, Deborah Kane, in California and they married when he was 27, he said. They divorced in Vermont, 20 years later.
Milne also lost his brother, Keith, when he died of a brain tumor at age 13. The family coincidentally stopped going to church after Keith died, Milne said. And this year, in the midst of his campaign, he lost his mother, Marion Milne.
“Tough things that happen in your life, when you look back on your life are some of the best things that happened to you,” Milne said. “They make you a more well-versed, deeper, thoughtful person, or something. Right?” he said.
At Spaulding High School in Barre, Milne continued his entrepreneurial gigs. He started a concert-booking business when the school banned dances his junior year. Garage bands needed a place to play and he scheduled them at the Barre Auditorium.
Milne was making money and saving for a trip to Europe, until his 25th show, when guitarist Joe Perry of Aerosmith was set to play.
Milne was on his way to a radio interview with Perry in Montpelier when the concert hall doors opened and 1,200 fans who were supposed to buy tickets at the door rushed in without paying. He lost all of his savings in one night, he said.
As a young adult, he was a rebel and a self-described “longhair at heart.” “I wasn’t a hippie, but I was pretty easy-going,” he said.
After Milne graduated from Spaulding in 1977 he attended the University of Vermont, and after one year he transferred to the University of Redlands in Southern California.
There was no great contemplation behind that decision, Milne says. For spring break he went to visit a friend in California and liked it. On the plane ride home, he filled out the top application in a stack he had grabbed. Redlands it was.
Milne spent a semester in Washington, D.C., and another in Vienna, Austria. On the ferry from England to France, Milne and his friend were ripped off by a truck driver who told them he could get them a good currency exchange rate. The boys gave the man all their money -- about $300 -- and never saw it again.
In college, Milne had run-ins with the law. He was arrested twice for driving under the influence of alcohol, and once for possession of a small amount of marijuana and cocaine. Milne released this information in July, before he kicked off his campaign.
Milne said the arrests came during an “irresponsible” 18-month period. Shortly afterward, he decided to stop using drugs and to use alcohol in moderation, he said.
After living a few years out West after college, Milne was one of only a few of his 15 or 20 college friends to return to his home state, his friend, David Meeks, said.
“It speaks volumes of where his loyalties lie,” Meeks said.
Milne and Meeks are still close. Milne suffered a stroke in 2006 and Meeks had cancer around the same time. Those experiences changed their outlooks on life, Meeks said.
Meeks’ son went to UVM and wanted to stay in Vermont but couldn’t find a job so he moved to Colorado. That frustrated Milne; and Meeks believes that if Milne is elected governor, he would work to create more jobs for young people who want to stay.
“Scott is a good problem-solver,” Meeks said.
At home at the office
[U]ncomfortable on television and when facing down reporters, Milne seems most at ease in his travel offices. On a recent morning, he joked with employees at the Barre shop and strolled comfortably into his mother’s old office. Marion Milne started the company in 1975 and quickly made the travel agency a success.
Marion Milne also spent time under Montpelier’s golden dome. In 1994, she ran for the Legislature then served three terms in the House.
She was known in Montpelier for her independent thinking. She was one of only a few Republicans who in 2000 voted in favor of civil unions for gay couples in a divisive fight that ostracized her from the Republican party and cost her re-election.
Marion Milne’s campaign slogan was “I’m naïve enough to think I can make a difference,” and Scott Milne believes he is, too.
His mother was there, along with former Republican Gov. Jim Douglas and Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, as he kicked off his campaign in August. A month later, she died, leaving him alone to fight a difficult battle.
Marion Milne’s office at the travel agency has green shag carpeting and walls covered with maps, certificates and photos from her three terms in office and a big stereo, where she listened to WDEV. Scott Milne listens to Johnny Cash and Crosby Stills & Nash, and he still buys CDs.
His father’s office is in the closet behind Marion’s at the travel agency. Don Milne has had a political career of his own, one that also saw dark days.
As a freshman legislator in 1966, Don Milne, 32, was charged with embezzlement, attempted fraud and forgery for the use of his clients’ money while in private law practice. He was convicted and served several months at the state prison farm in Windsor before escaping, turning himself in and ultimately being paroled after 18 months.
Don Milne has been clerk of the Vermont House of Representatives since 1993 and is greatly respected by Statehouse mavens. Gov. Madeleine Kunin pardoned him in 1991.
The travel business
[S]cott Milne lived in Arizona for a few years after college then returned to Vermont when his parents asked for help with the travel business. In the early 2000s, Milne got used to “collective pity” at family gatherings about the advent of online airline reservations.
“More or less people thought we were dinosaurs, either aware or unaware of the impending ice age,” he said. Now they view him as a savant, he said.
Kind of like with climate change, Milne said, “we just knew something was coming and we figured out a plan to survive and, ideally, thrive.”
Through a combination of savvy acquisitions, long-term thinking and some mistakes, Milne outlasted other agencies to carve out a niche market, he says.
Milne over the years has purchased many other travel agencies across New England and now has 50 full-time equivalent employees, or 70 people total. Some have worked there for as long as 30 years, booking honeymoons for children whose parents they booked for a generation ago.
“A lot of companies talk about caring about their employees and taking care of their employees, and Milne doesn’t make a big deal of it, they just do it.”
“A lot of companies talk about caring about their employees and taking care of their employees, and Milne doesn’t make a big deal of it, they just do it,” said Pat Archambeault, who went to high school with Milne and said she has worked for Milne Travel for 23 years.
Despite Milne’s hard work, the business hasn’t been without difficulty. Company profits took a hit in the early 2000s as online travel services eroded traditional agencies.
A 2003 deal to buy six American Express Travel offices that was expected to bring in at least $200,000 instead lost $700,000 in five months, he said.
For the past two years, Milne had been working on a major deal that would triple the company’s revenue. He had the phones and IT systems upgraded and planned to hire 35 new employees. But just as those people were about to give notice at their other jobs, the deal fell through.
Milne says when the deal fell through it was fortuitous: “Failure is fertilizer for future success,” he said.
Because he created a four-person team to manage the anticipated new business, he said he could step away from day-to-day operations and run for governor.
These days, he answers work emails at 5 a.m. and then hits the campaign trail. Although his daily schedule is packed with campaign stops, Milne rarely seems visible. He held his first news conference Oct. 15, less than three weeks before the election.
[F]ormer Gov. Jim Douglas, Milne said, is the person who convinced him to run. Douglas said Milne has what Vermont needs.
“He’s got political blood flowing through his veins,” Douglas said “He’s a successful businessman and has interacted with government from that perspective, so I felt he would have a lot to offer.”
It’s true Milne hesitated before jumping in – waiting till the last day to file his paperwork to run – but that’s healthy, Douglas said.
“I prefer a candidate who hesitates and considers it carefully before taking the plunge,” he said.
Another political adviser Milne consulted before entering the race is Richard Wobby, who works for the Associated General Contractors of Vermont.
Wobby and Milne went to school together and their families both owned businesses on Main Street in Barre.
“Scott’s one of those guys you can go three years without seeing him and pick up the conversation you were having,” he said.
Wobby said Milne’s intelligence sometimes works against him.
“He spends a lot of time in the weeds. Where he’s good is at bringing in the right people to accomplish the right job,” Wobby said.
Wobby, who donated $250 to Milne’s campaign, said he believes his friend can win.
“If he made a few good moves between now and the election he could win,” Wobby said two weeks ago. Milne is smart to run a friendlier, more “intimate” campaign than that of Brian Dubie, who narrowly lost to Shumlin in 2010, he said.
Milne doesn’t have to go far in Barre to find others he knows. Wayside Restaurant & Bakery owner Brian Zecchinelli is a friend of Milne’s who once worked at the travel agency. The Wayside donated $2,000 to Milne’s campaign and Zecchinelli and his family donated another $2,000, according to campaign finance reports.
Zecchinelli’s cousin is Phil Scott, the incumbent Republican lieutenant governor. Milne is Zecchinelli’s high school friend and the pair have traveled to Scotland, Mexico, Canada and Jamaica together.
“He’s one of the smartest guys I’ve met,” Zecchinelli said. Book smart, street smart, he’s all kinds of smart, he said.
In addition to his lifelong friends, Milne treasures his family. He is thrilled that his daughter and son came back to Vermont to help run his campaign.
“That was Elise, she’s working on policy stuff,” Milne said the other morning after his phone rang at 7:50 a.m. As he sat down for breakfast at Soup n’ Greens in Barre, Milne recognized the two diners sitting at the next table, old friends.
He said hello to them, and chatted, but did not greet others in the restaurant. He asked the waiter’s name, as if almost to mention that he is running for governor, but didn’t.
But speaking one-on-one, Milne seems determined to win.
“I got a chance of winning,” he said.
Milne has a habit of giving away his strategy, erring on the side of honesty. He knows he’s supposed to list reasons why he is running for governor that don’t have to do with Shumlin.
Instead, Milne says, “I’m mostly drawn into it because I think Shumlin is a really bad governor.”
Originally, Milne said, he wanted to run on a platform of making state government more efficient, but political advisers told him that wouldn’t appeal as widely to voters, he said.
Milne has strong opinions about other areas of state government, too. He had a run-in with Act 250 that has changed the way he sees the impact of the land-use law on developers.
Milne and a college roommate, David Boies III, have invested $4 million in a 136,000-square-foot commercial and residential village called Quechee Highlands just off the I-89 interchange in Hartford.
The $30 million project stalled when the local district environmental commission denied it a permit.
Milne has said the denial of an Act 250 permit for the project is illustrative of wider problems with the Shumlin administration’s approach to regional planning. Milne has appealed the denial to the environmental division of the state Supreme Court.
Still, in a recent interview, Milne praised the land-use law. Although state government right now should not take major risks, “Act 250 was a risky thing that was very good,” he said.
Pundits have criticized Milne for slamming the governor without offering concrete policies of his own. Shumlin’s work for the Democratic Governor’s Association has been a favorite target of Milne’s.
“I’ll be flying around the country to go talk to to corporations who want to do business here before I’m going around doing fundraising for people that want to expand their national marijuana business or give me money to fight a lawsuit against Monsanto because of a poorly written GMO bill,” Milne said in an interview in July.
Milne also at times says things about his campaign that contradict each other.
At breakfast he said he has several “well-known progressive senators in Vermont that are helping me.”
The Senate’s three Progressives – Tim Ashe, David Zuckerman and Anthony Pollina, all denied helping Milne. Milne later said he misspoke: he has two “well-known liberal senators” helping him, he said. He won’t name them.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t want to be publicly supporting me that are supporting me,” he said.
But unless those liberals and many others, whether or not they put up a green and white Milne lawn sign, check the “R” box Nov. 4, Shumlin will be back for a third term.
“You only have to be ahead on one day,” Douglas, the former governor, said.
Milne makes it clear he never planned to win the primary. He assumed Randy Brock, who ran against Shumlin in 2012, or Heidi Scheuermann, a state representative from Stowe who considered a run, would beat him.
“I would have had a good time running a primary and talking about issues and probably lost,” Milne said.
He’s not the only one who thinks that. Eric Davis, a Vermont politics expert and retired political science professor at Middlebury College, said Milne has not been able to capitalize on Shumlin’s weaknesses.
Brock or Scheuermann would have been stronger candidates, Davis said. They know how to run a campaign, raise money and appeal to voters. Scheuermann would have closed the gender gap.
Milne has not been able to come close to Shumlin’s fundraising prowess. As of Oct. 15, he had raised $146,000 to Shumlin’s $777,000.
Milne has his family and the Boies family to thank for much of his comparatively meager war chest. Milne loaned himself $25,000. Milne’s parents and other family members have donated a collective $18,200.
By comparison, fellow Republican Phil Scott, running for re-election as lieutenant governor, has raised the second most of all the candidates for the top two offices: $254,000.
Without money, Milne should solicit free advertising by holding news conferences and other events daily, Davis said. So far, he has held only two news conferences.
“I see Scott Milne’s campaign as struggling,” Davis said.
Milne admits he made some “rookie mistakes,” but said he is more concerned with telling the truth than repeating a stump speech.
Campaign manager Brent Burns resigned in September, two months after signing on.
In debates, Milne struggled repeatedly. One mishap scored him a mention on the Daily Show’s “moment of zen,” when Milne seemingly forgot he was born in Brooklyn, New York, not Vermont.
When news broke this week about IBM’s sale to GlobalFoundries, Shumlin held a news conference and politicians of all stripes weighed in. Milne didn’t email a statement to reporters until 5:37 p.m., well after the TV news deadlines.
Davis predicted Milne will capture around 40 percent of the vote and Shumlin’s lead will be about 10 points. In 2012, Shumlin had a 20 point lead over Brock, he said.
“Shumlin is a vulnerable candidate who does not generate strong grassroots support, but Milne has not been able to capitalize on Shumlin’s weaknesses,” Davis said.
If nothing else, the public sphere of meet-and-greets, back-slapping and money asks have proved challenging.
Meanwhile, others think he’s got it. Two weeks ago, he released an education plan. Last week, he released a jobs plan and a second TV commercial.
Douglas thinks Milne’s timing may be perfect.
“I think he’s building a crescendo that’s at the right pace,” he said.
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