Editor’s note: VTDigger is profiling each of the five leading candidates for governor over the coming weeks.Ask Peter Galbraith what drives him, and he’ll tell you he loathes bullies.
“I’m a kid of the ’60s, you know,” Galbraith recently said over tacos in Montpelier. “Power, I don’t like it. I don’t like people who throw around power. I’ve just always sided with the underdogs. That’s been my career.”
In his work as a diplomat, Galbraith has jousted with tyrants in six languages across several continents. Now, the Townshend Democrat rails against bullies closer to home in Vermont as he makes a bid for the governor’s office.
His first international tussle came as a staffer on the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. In the late 1980s, while the Reagan administration saw Saddam Hussein as an ally, Galbraith uncovered evidence that proved the Iraqi despot had gassed the Kurds. Along with other staffers, Galbraith hauled 14 tons of incriminating police documents out of northern Iraq.
“There is no doubt that trying to help people who are persecuted is one of the common denominators of Peter’s work,” said U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who traveled to the Middle East with Galbraith to interview survivors of Saddam’s brutality. “To the extent that he is brash in his approach, it is in hopes of getting the right thing done.”
Galbraith’s relationship with the Kurds spans decades. He helped negotiate political and economic autonomy for them as the Iraqis developed the country’s constitution in the early 2000s. In the past year, he has made four trips to advise the Syrian Kurds on how to force peace and defeat the Islamic State.
Galbraith has also offered humanitarian help to persecuted people in the small maritime state of East Timor. In the late 1990s, on a United Nations mission, Galbraith worked to help the
Timorese broker independence from a brutally violent Indonesian regime.
Galbraith helped guarantee generous oil rights for the government in East Timor. While he didn’t personally benefit from his oil negotiations there, he pocketed between $55 million and $75 million in a deal with a Norwegian oil company when he secured oil rights for the Kurds, according to The New York Times.
When asked about the Middle East deal, Galbraith said he was a private citizen when he negotiated it. He said the Times’ numbers are too high, and he cited a nondisclosure agreement when asked about how much money he made. In the spring, he released his 2013 and 2014 taxes to the public and listed $11 million in assets in Porcupine LLC, which has investments in Kurdish oil.
Galbraith said the oil deals for the Kurds and the Timorese have fueled economic independence in both places that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible.
Indeed, the Kurds have become one of the most successful fighting forces against ISIS in part because of their financial autonomy. The region, which hopes to become an independent state, has westernized with the oil money, building skyscrapers, universities and shopping malls in recent years. A fairly comprehensive universal health care system has been implemented.
“Peter was working for the Kurds when nobody had heard of the Kurds in the United States,” said Najmiddin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk, a Kurdish province in northern Iraq. “By his very nature, he is with the underdogs, and when he has conviction for something he really goes for it all the way.”
While Galbraith is running to be the Green Mountain State’s governor, it’s nearly impossible to ignore his past life abroad. He loves to tell captivating tales about his foreign adventures — which sometimes differ from other accounts.
In recent interview at a Mexican restaurant in Montpelier, Galbraith is supposed to be talking about his ambitious plan to offer four years of free public tuition at Vermont state colleges. But he opts to chronicle how he brokered peace in Croatia instead.
Galbraith was the first U.S. ambassador to Croatia and served a leading role in ending a bloody civil war after the country declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Galbraith helped draft the “Z-4” peace plan for Croatia, which worked.
Galbraith recalled a tense exchange with Milan Martić, a Serbian rebel commander who helped organize ethnic cleansing of the Croats.
Martić was brought to justice 11 years after Galbraith’s diplomatic work on the ground and was ultimately sentenced to 35 years in prison for war crimes after a 2007 trial at the International Criminal Tribunal.
When Galbraith testified in the case, he accused Martić of usurping power through sham elections. He described Martić as “a man of very limited intelligence.”
Galbraith’s story ended, the bully was in jail, and our Mexican food came.
The most personally gratifying Galbraith tales appear to be from early in his career, when he bounced from one constitutional crisis to another and was broadly praised for his humanitarian work. He shifted from official roles at the United Nations to work at his private consulting firm, then back to the United Nations.
But in his last UN mission, auditing the Afghan elections in 2009, Galbraith’s narrative of hero versus bully got complicated.
Former colleagues at the United Nations say he jeopardized the Middle East mission and was ultimately dismissed because he had backdoor meetings with leaders without permission and was unwilling to compromise with his colleagues.
About three months after Galbraith was fired, The New York Times reported that Galbraith profited from the Kurdish oil deal he had negotiated in 2005.
Now largely shut out of the world of foreign diplomacy, Galbraith insisted he won’t miss his foreign work if elected governor, but acknowledged there weren’t a whole lot of opportunities left for him to serve abroad.
“In order to be a diplomat, someone has to be using you as a diplomat, and the market for diplomats who make a stand is finite,” he said.
Home in Vermont, Galbraith, 65, has spent the past few years pushing for progressive state policies, including in two terms as a state senator. While he has an acerbic intensity that some Vermont politicians appreciate, others say he uses the tactics of a bully to defend his positions.
“Nobody ever took my lunch money, just to be clear,” he said.
A Sandersesque platform
On a recent hot Thursday, Galbraith stepped out of his car at the McDonald’s in Berlin to demand higher pay for middle-class Vermonters and fingered another kind of bully: a high-paid CEO.
Standing in front of the yellow arches, Galbraith declared that Steve Easterbrook, the company’s chief executive, took in $7.9 million in 2015 while full-time Vermont employees of the fast-food chain earn just $19,900 a year.
Exhibiting a Bernie Sandersesque attention to numbers, Galbraith said the median income for fast-food employees is just “two-tenths of 1 percent of what the McDonald’s CEO makes.”
“Nobody who works 40 hours a week, full time, should be making so little that they require public assistance,” he added.
Like Sanders, Galbraith has made raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour a centerpiece of his campaign. As governor, Galbraith said, he would push for the state to immediately increase the hourly rate to $12.50 before phasing it to $15 by 2021.
Galbraith’s stance on the minimum wage is in keeping with liberal ideas that were shaped by his experiences as a young political aspirant.
One of his defining political experiences came at 19, when he worked on Gov. Phil Hoff’s unsuccessful 1970 bid for U.S. Senate. Hoff, a bold thinker, returned Democrats to power in Vermont after a 108-year dry spell. Galbraith was inspired by Hoff’s determination to bring progressive thinking into the political dialogue.
Galbraith served as a national delegate to the presidential convention for George McGovern in 1972 and supported Ted Kennedy’s 1980 attempt to unseat President Jimmy Carter.
In his late 20s, Galbraith ran the Vermont Democratic Party for two years before leaving to work in the U.S. Senate, where he was a staffer for the Foreign Relations Committee.
Shortly after his Afghanistan mission, he returned to Vermont politics and served two terms as a Windham County senator between 2011 and 2015.
In the Legislature, Galbraith championed progressive fixes before “Feeling the Bern” was in vogue.
Colleagues say he was principled about his policy proposals but was often seen as a source of strife in the sedate Senate. He had a tendency to fiercely attack anyone he thought was wrong — including fellow Democrats.
He strongly resisted Gov. Peter Shumlin’s establishment of the Enterprise Fund, which allows the governor to dole out cash to companies with no strings attached. Galbraith also opposes other programs he considers corporate welfare, including the Vermont Employment Growth Incentive, in which the state gives companies cash in exchange for meeting job creation targets. He has promised to eliminate both economic development programs as governor.
Unlike his Democratic primary opponents Matt Dunne and Sue Minter, Galbraith isn’t afraid to give the sitting Democratic governor a hard time. Earlier this year, Shumlin awarded $1 million to GlobalFoundries as a reward for agreeing to take over an IBM plant in Essex as part of a $1 billion deal. Galbraith slammed Shumlin in the comments section of VTDigger.
As senator, Galbraith introduced the only comprehensive legislation to pay for single-payer health care, a priority of Shumlin’s that the governor jettisoned after he determined the state couldn’t afford to shift to a publicly funded tax-based model. (Galbraith’s plan relied largely on a 2 percent payroll tax on employees; employers would pay 11 percent).
While one of his Democratic primary opponents, Dunne, has made a big issue out of banning corporate campaign donations, Galbraith advocated for it years in the state Senate before Dunne adopted the position.
When Dunne, a former Google executive, announced he would be returning $16,000 in corporate cash in March, Galbraith — who hadn’t yet announced his run — was standing next to Dunne at the podium in an implicit sign of respect.
Galbraith took his time pondering a gubernatorial bid, entering the Democratic primary race six months after Dunne and Minter declared their candidacies. He said he decided to run because his Democratic colleagues are not progressive enough.
Arguably, his presence in the race has pulled it to the left.
“I’ll feel a sense of accomplishment that whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee is going to be a more progressive Democratic nominee than otherwise would have been had I not run,” Galbraith said.
Galbraith is more aligned policy-wise with Vermont senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders than with his fellow Democrats in the Legislature and the Shumlin administration. He shares a similar passion for the issues, and he demonstrates a deep understanding of the wonky intricacies of tax policy and special-interest loopholes.
Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, said Galbraith was referred to as the “senator from Texas Instruments.”
The reference to the computing company was, as Baruth recalled, “because he does have a calculator-like ability to compute as he goes through an argument for the cost of something.”
Galbraith has an encyclopedic grasp of issues whether he’s speaking about sectarian struggles in the Middle East or the potential savings generated by closing specific tax loopholes. In hours of discussion over a few days, Galbraith went deep on every subject — and always had the last word.
Senate colleagues say Galbraith can be unyielding and often isn’t given to compromise despite his career in diplomacy.
He quickly dismisses ideas divergent from his own as “baloney.”
“If he doesn’t feel your bottom line on a policy is more astute than his own, he’s not going to follow,” said Baruth. “But that’s true of two-thirds of the people in the building.”
Baruth, a close friend, referred to Galbraith as “a reformer, somebody who wants to make things better” and said he could also be “a turbulent presence.”
“If you are a voter who’s looking for somebody who is unorthodox and has a constitutional bent to buck the system, I think Peter Galbraith is your sort of candidate,” said Baruth, who is not endorsing any primary candidate.
Galbraith admitted he can be hard-nosed, if not strident.
“The impression in diplomacy is that it’s somehow everyone being polite and everything,” he said. “But the reality is setting objectives and being persistent. These are things I learned from my father.”
Galbraith is heavily influenced by his father, famed liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith. The elder Galbraith was one of the 20th century’s most influential liberal thinkers, an ambassador to India and a close adviser to President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson.
One quote of his in particular seems to sum up his son’s reputation for being stubborn. “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, everyone gets busy on the proof,” the quote reads.
Friction in Afghanistan
Eight years after President George W. Bush sent troops into Afghanistan, in 2009, Galbraith went on a mission for the United Nations to oversee the Afghan presidential election.
After 80 days on the job, Galbraith was sacked because his superiors became increasingly frustrated with him, according to former UN colleagues. Kai Eide, the man in charge of the mission who had worked with Galbraith in years earlier in Croatia, became his chief opponent.
Although it was Afghanistan’s second presidential election with a Western-style constitution, the voting on Aug. 20, 2009, was far from a fair process.
U.N. officials were expecting fraud and looked to minimize it. Still, ballot-stuffing was documented, as were bribes for votes and armed coercion. In his work on the ground, Galbraith focused on “ghost polling places” where votes came in from polling locations that did not even exist.
Although many candidates were involved in fraud, UN officials said much of it was perpetrated by bureaucrats who served President Hamid Karzai.
Initial vote tallies had Karzai winning by more than 50 percent, but the muddied results made it impossible to immediately declare him the legitimate winner.
With rampant public frustration around the fraud, the U.N. and other election monitors began developing methods to identify and nullify fraudulent votes.
“The key issue was not that fraud did take place and the election should be de-legitimized, but instead is the amount of fraud greater than the margin of victory,” said Scott Smith, who served in Afghanistan under Eide as his special assistant.
As UN leaders started to undertake an audit — which eventually took Karzai below 50 percent and spurred preparations for a runoff election — officials said Galbraith spurned his orders and instead advocated discrediting the results and forcing an immediate runoff election.
Smith said Galbraith’s frustration with the fraud was warranted but that he engaged in cowboy diplomacy — offering polarizing and unrealistic proposals.
One example Smith cited was Galbraith’s plan to oust Karzai by asking Vice President Joe Biden to persuade President Barack Obama to pressure him to resign.
Galbraith also approached Karzai’s challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, with plans that differed from official U.N. talking points, which confused negotiations, Smith said.
He further charged Galbraith with leaking sensitive on-the-ground details to the press, calling the maneuvers an “act of sabotage of an extremely delicate process on which the whole fate of the country depended.”
“I felt that whether it was for lack of effort or ability, he never came to grips with what Afghanistan was,” Smith said. “That affected his analysis of the election, and that affected the positions that he took. He was surrounded by people who were very knowledgeable, but I think he was resistant to being taught.”
Galbraith offered a different portrayal of the situation. He argued that the election had been marred by wholesale fraud and that, without a runoff, the Afghani government would be delegitimized and chaos would result.
“I’m not interested in getting little somethings,” Galbraith said. “It’s not about getting little somethings, it’s about the mission.”
A distilled version of Galbraith’s defense was published in The New York Times in 2009.
In it, he alleges that Eide was involved in covering up the fraud and was too close to Karzai. Eide alleged Galbraith was bent on getting Karzai out of power, and, in a 2009 New York Times interview, said that he was the one in line with the institutionalized election process.
“I cannot be a political freelancer,” he said. “I have a mandate which is serious and I do take it seriously. The disagreement [with Galbraith] was whether to respect the Constitution and respect the process in place.”
Whether Galbraith or Eide was more prudent in approaches to the Afghan election fraud is not an easy question to answer. The conditions on the ground were incredibly complex, and each side offers compelling and, sometimes, conflicting details.
While Eide had supporters, Galbraith also had fans, including a handful who resigned after he was fired.
One U.N. official who worked with Galbraith in Afghanistan said he was “probably the best direct manager I’ve ever had.”
The official, who still works for the U.N. and asked not to be identified, acknowledged that although Galbraith was outraged by the election fraud and that was inspiring, his demeanor seemed inappropriate for his position as deputy special representative for Afghanistan.
“In the United Nations, at that level, you aren’t supposed to be an advocate,” the U.N. official said. “You are not supposed to wear your heart on your sleeve.”
Smith holds a similar view. Galbraith, he said, was pushing for sweeping changes in a political atmosphere where only incremental improvement was an option.
“He is much more of an activist than a diplomat, or even a politician,” Smith said.
In the end, Karzai was re-elected after his main challenger, Abdullah, backed out of the runoff election and conceded.
Galbraith left Afghanistan a bruised and divisive figure after a previous string of foreign achievements.
Former colleagues say that although his approach in Afghanistan may have been right, Galbraith did not work well with others, and he isolated potential allies by refusing to consider other ideas.
The stakes weren’t quite as high when Galbraith looked to shake up the Statehouse, but he again faced criticism for ideological inflexibility.
Sen. Jeanette White, a fellow Windham County Democrat, said she reached out to Galbraith when he first arrived to help him settle into the Senate.
According to White, Galbraith said he already knew what he needed to do and that he was going to “show us how to do it in Vermont because we didn’t know how to do it.”
“His policies are the same positions I would take,” White added. “But because he has to have all the answers, I think he can’t work well with people.”
But while Galbraith made some enemies in the Statehouse, he also forged friendships.
A number of senators have offered both praise for and frustration with Galbraith, including Sens. Anthony Pollina, Dick McCormack and John Campbell.
Baruth said Galbraith took his work very seriously and that his progressive bona fides are unquestioned.
“He wants change, and he wants change quickly,” Baruth said. “The risk there is that you alienate the current power structure and don’t get as much done or as smoothly.”
One such instance where Galbraith’s hard-charging approach failed was when he and Baruth became allies pushing a ban on corporate campaign contributions in 2013.
By using a filibuster, and engaging in unorthodox maneuvering to get the bill on the floor, Baruth acknowledged, Galbraith lost a number of supporters, and the legislation failed on its final reading.
“It’s an example where Peter’s approach produced initial results, but they didn’t make it all the way to final legislation because he had raised some hackles,” Baruth said.
Asked if residual animosity would remain in the Senate should Galbraith become governor, Baruth said, “Yes.”
Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, who chaired Senate Finance when Galbraith was on the committee, said the Windham County senator never disrupted the panel’s work, though he acknowledged Galbraith was sometimes “stubbornly liberal.”
“He has a very sharp and quick ability to cut through the political bluster and see the various elements of state laws, including the tax code,” Ashe said.
As for Galbraith’s unpopularity in the Senate, Ashe said, “from the point of view of the voters, I’m not sure how much I would care how many legislators endorsed Peter or if 10 lobbyists said he wasn’t a charming person.”
On that front, Galbraith also lines up with Sanders, who received just one U.S. Senate endorsement throughout his presidential campaign. Galbraith can be bossy and assertive and his ideas can seem lofty. Compromise is not a word he lives by.
But Vermonters are contrarian and sometimes elect iconoclasts like Sanders, who got 86 percent of the Vermont presidential primary vote in March. With no recent polls gauging the gubernatorial primary contest, that landslide win may spell good news for Galbraith.
Plus, Galbraith supporters point to instances where he has been willing to give a little.
His friend the Kirkuk governor, Najmiddin Karim, said Galbraith “was instrumental in bringing Kurdish and Arab sides together” during the constitutional drafting process in Iraq in the early 2000s.
Rep. Van Hollen pointed to Galbraith’s work drafting the Prevention of Genocide Act of 1988, a tough economic sanction bill on Iraq that received U.S. Senate support from staunch conservative Jesse Helms of North Carolina.
“That legislation went through the Senate with bipartisan support and is a tribute to Peter’s ability to bring people together,” Van Hollen said.
I, too, found Galbraith capable of concession.
After indicting the corporate practices of McDonald’s, Galbraith was in a hurry to get to his next event. He walked across U.S. Route 302 for a quick bite — at Burger King.