Politics

Jim Barnett returns to Vermont politics, putting his ‘nasty’ touch on Milne’s campaign

Jim Barnett and Scott Milne
Jim Barnett, left, a longtime Republican strategist who employs "vintage Karl Rove" techniques, has been a behind-the-scenes force in Scott Milne’s campaign for lieutenant governor. VTDigger photo illustration

On Oct. 8, Molly Gray, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, called for a truce with her Republican opponent, Scott Milne, in an attempt to end negative personal attacks that have dominated the race.

During a televised debate hosted by NBC5, Gray made a pledge to stop “nasty” tweets, press releases and emails and committed to focusing her campaign on policy issues. 

Milne refused to make a similar pledge. He said Gray's promise was disingenuous and pointed to a pro-Gray political action committee actively attacking him through TV ads. 

Learn more about the candidates — and how to vote — in VTDigger's 2020 Voter Guide.

“I’m looking forward to a robust dialogue about facts,” Milne said. “Sometimes the truth hurts.”

The Milne camp had maintained a consistent attack on Gray's trustworthiness and character for six weeks prior to the televised back-and-forth over the tone of Vermont’s lieutenant governor campaign. 

The negativity has only picked up the pace since. On Tuesday, the Milne campaign questioned Gray’s tax filing record.

“Given her history of being evasive and dishonest with Vermonters, including repeatedly claiming to have voted in Vermont in 2016 and erroneously attacking Milne and his record, we can’t take Molly Gray’s word for it,” Corey Parent, Milne’s campaign manager, said in a statement. 

The personal attacks on Gray, a first-time candidate and assistant attorney general, coincided with Milne hiring Jim Barnett, a well-respected Republican political operative who is roundly reviled in Democratic circles. 

Barnett specializes in making the “truth” hurt for his Democratic opponents. Barnett played an integral role in former Vermont Republican Gov. Jim Douglas’ ascendancy to power in the early 2000s. He has since moved to the Washington, D.C., area and in the intervening 20 years has been largely absent from Vermont politics.

Back on the scene

Barnett quietly reentered the state political landscape in late August. But behind the scenes, he has been deeply involved in Milne's campaign strategy meetings and has personally pestered members of the Vermont press corps.

The 44-year-old Barnett and 61-year-old Milne have known each other for decades, and both have roots in Barre, where Barnett captained the football team at Spaulding High. In 2014, the two met to discuss the potential for Milne to mount a challenge to Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin. During that discussion, Barnett told his friend that he believed Shumlin was vulnerable.

Milne went on to come within 2,434 votes of unseating the two-term incumbent governor.

Barnett is particularly at home working in historically blue or purple states, his colleagues say, and he is a skilled opposition researcher who specializes in getting Democratic and independent swing voters to support Republican candidates. 

Barnett declined an interview for this story, but responded to questions in writing.

“In deep blue states like Vermont,” Barnett wrote, “Democrats would like nothing more than to run campaigns where all voters know about them is the letter next to their name, and they get very agitated when they receive scrutiny that might provide voters important, factual, relevant information about their records.”

In Vermont, Barnett's unique skills are highly valued by the GOP, which lacks a bench of operatives with comparable talents and tenacity.

Republican Scott Milne, left, and Democrat Molly Gray participate in a Lt. Governor's candidate debate sponsored by VTDigger at the Mad River Barn in Waitsfield on Thursday, September 24, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

‘He knows how to win’

“He knows how to win a campaign and there’s not a lot of people in the Republican world in Vermont that know how to win,” said state Sen. Richard Westman, R-Lamoille. 

If winning means pointing out potential contradictions in the opponent’s record, Westman says, Barnett is more than willing to make sure that information goes public. 

“He’s not afraid to poke at somebody in their soft spot and in Vermont you can't be really dirty. Vermonters don’t like that, but if they think somebody is playing fast and loose, that’s not good either,” Westman said.

Barnett was Douglas’ right-hand man in his successful 2002 and 2004 gubernatorial campaigns and heading up the New Hampshire effort for the late Sen. John McCain’s failed bid for the 2008 presidential election. 

He also led Scott Brown’s unsuccessful 2012 campaign against Elizabeth Warren for a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts, when attacks on Warren's claim of Native American ancestry first emerged. He has also consulted for politicians through his organization Battleground Strategies. 

Before joining Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s successful reelection campaign against Democrat Ben Jealous, Barnett worked for Definers Public Affairs, a group of elite GOP strategists known predominantly to represent companies in the tech sector.

In 2017, the firm ran opposition research to discredit Facebook’s critics. And according to an expose by The New York Times, Definers has worked to create an “echo chamber” on conservative news sites by publishing stories on the NTK Network, a right-wing news organization managed by Definers.

‘A nasty guy’

Barnett began his political career as an opposition researcher for the Republican National Committee during the 1998 and 2000 election cycles. 

He went on to work as deputy associate director in the Office of Presidential Personnel in the George W. Bush administration and came to admire Republican strategists Lee Atwater — who orchestrated Ronald Reagan’s two election wins before masterminding President George H.W. Bush’s 1988 victory — and Karl Rove, the man behind George W. Bush’s electoral success.

In 2002, Barnett found himself working for the Douglas campaign — headed by another young Republican operative, Neale Lunderville (now the CEO of Vermont Gas and a board member of the Vermont Journalism Trust, VTDigger’s parent organization).

Lunderville and Barnett, both graduates of American University in Washington, hit it off immediately as the two went about managing Douglas’ gubernatorial effort.

“Jim brought this sort of tenacious political instinct to it,” Lunderville said in a recent interview. 

Douglas — with Barnett and Lunderville at the controls — staged a come-from-behind victory over Democratic Lt. Gov. Doug Racine. Polls had Racine leading by 10 percentage points just prior to the election. Douglas won by 3 percent.

“Jim Barnett deserves a big share of that, just really having a very clear-sighted view of the things that our campaign needed to do to make progress in the polls and ultimately pull out the win,” Lunderville said.

But while Lunderville remembers long hours and the excitement of working with Barnett, Racine recalls a different experience of dealing with Douglas’ campaign duo.

“It was pretty ugly,” Racine said of his experience in the 2002 race.

Racine, who served in the Vermont Senate for a decade before becoming the lieutenant governor, said in an interview this month that the Douglas campaign used character assassination to discredit him and his candidacy.

Racine, like Gray now, was forced to fend off criticism that he was untrustworthy, and he said false accusations were circulated among reporters. Racine puts the blame squarely on the then-26-year-old Barnett and Lunderville.

Racine says that while Douglas and Lunderville acted “friendly and affable,” Barnett “was a nasty guy” to bump into at debates or at other events where both Racine and Douglas were present.

“I was constantly on the defensive having to say, ‘no, that’s not true,’” Racine said of the 2002 race.

‘He was only amplifying the truth’

The major story he was forced to respond to was an accusation that he had lied about his involvement with his family’s business, the Willie Racine’s Inc. Jeep dealership, where he served as vice president.

The former lieutenant governor, who has formally endorsed Gray in 2020, said reporters said they had heard he had lied on his financial disclosure statement about how involved he was in the day-to-day operation of the business.

“I was actively involved in my business,” Racine said. “I was lieutenant governor, so I wasn’t 40 hours a week, but I was still a part of my business.”

Lunderville said he cannot remember all the details of the 2002 campaign, but said Barnett has always been a person of “great integrity and great honesty.”

“When thinking about putting together anything political, you make sure that you are mooring it in things that are true,” Lunderville said.

“I’m not trying to open any old wounds,” he said. “I would just say that, in all the times where I saw Jim Barnett in action, he was only amplifying the truth.”

Barnett joined his former campaign colleague and said he has only ever dealt in facts.

“Doug Racine was a terrible candidate who took both sides of every issue. That’s why Democrats didn’t bother to renominate him when he ran again in 2010. Nearly two decades later and it seems he still hasn’t come to grips with that,” Barnett said.

Lunderville added that Barnett is looking at a candidate's record and making sure that, if there are points in that record that seem out of place, he’s willing to offer that contrasting view.

“What Jim does is ultimately bring that record to the front,” he said. “Jim does that well.”

Racine puts it another way. “It was all about who I was; it wasn’t about the issues,” he said.

“It was a constant drip, drip, drip, that ‘Doug Racine is not to be trusted. He lies about this, he lies about that, he lies about the other thing’ — that’s what they did. That was Messrs. Barnett and Neale Lunderville,” he added.

‘It was all about smearing’

Former Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle in August 2020. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Peter Clavelle, the former mayor of Burlington and longtime ally of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said he faced similar treatment in his 2004 challenge of Douglas.

Clavelle, a longtime Progressive who ran for governor that year as a Democrat, described Barnett as “Douglas’ hitman” and said photographs of Clavelle participating in a march celebrating the ousting of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle were used throughout the campaign.

“He did his best during that campaign to label me as a left-wing extremist,” Clavelle said of Barnett. “It was your classic red-baiting that’s been tried time and time again and sometimes it works.”

“It didn’t matter what the truth was,” he added, “they just threw stuff at you and hoped that some of it would stick.”

Lunderville, as with the 2002 race, said he wasn’t interested in relitigating campaigns from almost 20 years ago.

“I mean I don’t know that I would agree with that characterization,” he said of Clavelle’s description of attacking him for being a communist. “But I’m not really looking to get into that discussion 16 years after the fact.”

Barnett said Tuesday the only person who made Clavelle appear like a communist was Clavelle himself.

“If Peter Clavelle is upset he looked like a communist, he only has himself to blame for marching in a parade celebrating the communist takeover of Nicaragua,” he said.

Clavelle admitted that Barnett was a skilled opposition researcher and was gifted at finding information that made his candidate look good, often at the expense of their opponent. But Clavelle said it was almost entirely about the personal, and nothing substantive about policy platforms.

“It was all about smearing,” he said.

Douglas soared to reelection that year, winning 58% of the vote while Clavelle managed less than 38%.

‘I would watch my back’

The two Douglas campaigns, his admiration for Republican strategists Atwater and Rove, and Barnett’s subsequent work as executive director of the Vermont Republican Party, earned him the moniker of “Mad Dog,” coined by the late Seven Days columnist Peter Freyne. The acerbic Freyne described the Lunderville-Barnet duo as "The Nasty Boys."

Clavelle sees the hand of Barnett in the current lieutenant governor’s race. “I’m not an insider, but I’m following it close enough to see his fingerprints on it.”

Racine was less willing to say whether the Barnett he dealt with almost two decades ago is the same Barnett who is now working for Milne. “Does he do the same stuff now? I don’t know,” Racine said. “But if I was Molly Gray, I would watch my back.”

State Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, said during Barnett’s time as head of Vermont’s Republican Party, Barnett was working around the clock and was unapologetically aggressive in his work for the organization and its candidates.

Brock said it’s the job of Barnett, and others in his profession, to push narratives that make their candidates look more favorable, adding he had always been highly impressed with Barnett.

“Let me emphasize that I never saw Barnett engage in any dirty tricks or anything that I would consider improper for someone in his role to do,” he said.

Going negative in LG race

Throughout the general election campaign, the Milne camp has repeatedly criticized Gray for her failure to consistently vote throughout her lifetime — declaring that the Democrat is untrustworthy and has not earned Vermonters’ votes.

Milne’s salvo has kept Gray on the defensive, as she has been forced to confront the charges, even as Vermont’s mail-in voting has been underway since late September.

Democrat Molly Gray, right, and Republican Scott Milne during a Lt. Governor's candidate debate sponsored by VTDigger at the Mad River Barn in Waitsfield on Thursday, September 24, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Days after the Vermont Secretary of State announced ballots had gone out to all Vermont voters, NBC5 aired a story about how Gray had allegedly been conducting campaign activity — in the form of tweeting — during the workday hours at her state government job with the attorney general’s office.

Gray did not respond to the questions about whether she had indeed written the tweets, but said campaign staff had access to her social media at the time.

“What I can say is my opponent has a history of attacking opponents,” she said. “This is just another attack.”

The Milne campaign followed up after the press coverage with a statement saying that Gray “declined to take any responsibility” for her actions.

Another theme of the Milne campaign has been Gray supposedly losing support from Democrats — Milne is banking largely on winning the “Phil Scott moderates” to beat Gray.

At the end of September, both VTDigger and Seven Days published articles about social media comments from Rachel Nevitt, the wife of Lt. Gov. David Zuckermam, who is running for governor.

Nevitt called Gray “lying, manipulative, self-serving” and “power-hungry,” and expressed her frustration that Gray may replace Zuckerman.

Zuckerman said his wife didn’t speak for him, but sidestepped a direct question about the Gray campaign’s honesty — a fact quickly seized upon in the Milne campaign’s messaging.

“Hypocrisy and dishonesty have been unfortunate hallmarks of the Gray campaign, which is why so many Democrats refuse to support her and even her own running mate won’t defend her character,” Mike Donohue, Milne’s communications director, said in an Oct. 7 press release.

Gray has tended to refrain from personal attacks, though she has ramped up her criticism of Milne for publicly stating in 2016 that if he was elected to the U.S. Senate that he would support Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for majority leader.

She has also criticized Milne for failing to enthusiastically support Proposal 5, a constitutional amendment that enshrines an individual’s right to reproductive health in the state’s founding document.

Gray has accused Milne of orchestrating a Sept. 1 public records request to the Vermont attorney general’s office made by Jeff Bartley, a former executive director of the Vermont Republican Party, asking for her official calendar, reimbursement receipts for food and travel, along with other internal communications and documents.

“If somebody from my campaign submitted that request, I would know about it,” Milne said during a Sept. 24 debate.

The Gray campaign has not mentioned Milne’s two arrests for driving under the influence and once for possession of a small amount of marijuana and cocaine that took place about 40 years ago. The Republican had released this information proactively during his 2014 gubernatorial run in an attempt to diminish the chance his rival could use his arrest record against him.

“We haven't contemplated any personal attacks in any medium,” said Samantha Sheehan, Gray’s campaign manager. “That’s not what we're about.”

However, the pro-Gray super-PAC, Alliance for a Better Vermont Action Fund, has gone on the offensive, claiming inaccurately that Milne misled the public about his own history of voting in his adult life.

The political action committee has also released an advertisement criticizing Milne for being backed by a national Republican organization funded by “corporate tobacco, the NRA, Koch brothers and Trump donors.”

The organization in question is the Republican State Leadership Committee, which has spent more than $200,000 on media buys for Milne. The Republican’s campaign has also spent $16,000 with Harris Media, a firm that specializes in online Republican campaigning and messaging.

The Milne campaign maintains it has run an overwhelmingly positive campaign highlighting the candidate’s business bonafides as president of Milne Travel, which has offices in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont.

“Any critique he has raised about Gray was first raised by her fellow Democrats, reported by the press, or otherwise part of the public record,” Parent, Milne’s campaign manager, said in a statement in response to questions for this article.

“Democrats have buyer’s remorse because they have learned Molly Gray is a bad candidate with a bad record, and she has no one to blame but herself," Parent added.

Milne's campaign manager Corey Parent, right, and communications director Mike Donohue, at a campaign press conference in Montpelier on September 15. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Whether the latest campaign of criticisms worked won’t be seen until Nov. 3. According to a September poll conducted by VPR-Vermont PBS — the only independent survey of the race — the race was a toss-up with just over a month to go before the election.

Russ Schriefer, a veteran Republican strategist, said Barnett is at home in hostile territory.

“Jim is really good at, in some ways what I think is the most difficult of tasks, which is going into the sort of blue and purple state and figuring out how to get a Republican elected really where Republicans have no business getting elected,” said Schriefer, who got to know Barnett during Maryland Gov. Hogan’s 2018 re-election campaign.

While Schriefer says the campaign was mostly positive, the Hogan team did attack Democrat Ben Jealous for his stance on criminal justice reform, claiming that the candidate wants to “release thousands of violent and dangerous criminals into our neighborhoods.”

Jealous retorted the attack was nothing but a scare tactic, linking it to racist electoral tactics used by Atwater in President George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign.

Schriefer said Barnett excels at getting “swing” Democrats and independents to vote for the Republican candidate — a skill that helped Hogan win re-election by a margin of 12 points in 2018.

“You’re always playing at a disadvantage,” Schriefer said of GOP campaigning in purple and blue states. “The registration tends to be against you. Culturally, Republicans are not perceived as fondly as they may be in Alabama or Mississippi.”

“Jim is a pro and he’s not only well sought after but well respected,” he added.

Role in Warren Senate campaign

In 2011, three years after Barnett headed up McCain’s New Hampshire strategy, he became Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown’s campaign manager for the contest that pitted the incumbent against Elizabeth Warren.

Brown and Barnett went on to lose that race by more than seven points. It was during this campaign that the press first reported on Warren’s claim of Native American ancestry, which she has since apologized for.

Brown repeatedly attacked Warren for being listed by Harvard University as a minority when she was a member of the faculty, attempting to make a campaign issue about whether it helped her win academic positions because of affirmative action.

The storyline that began in 2012 has gone on to be used by President Donald Trump to dismiss Warren, calling the Massachusetts senator “Pocahontas” despite criticism he was being racially insensitive.

Mike Lux, a political strategist who was a Warren adviser in 2012, said he believes Barnett was integral in the strategy to focus on Warren’s Native American claims, both through members of the press and frequent, direct attacks from the candidate.

“It’s safe to say that probably the whole attack on Warren and the whole Indian controversy was probably a Barnett creation because that is vintage Karl Rove,” Lux said, adding the critiques were distinctly personal.

Eric Fehrnstrom, a top political adviser to Brown, said the Native American claims came to light because of reporting done by the Boston Herald, and it “became an issue during the campaign, just as it has been an issue in every campaign that she’s run.”

“The fact that she eventually apologized proves that we were right about her unwarranted description of herself as a minority,” Fehrnstrom said.

Barnett was unequivocal in his denial that he played a role in ginning up coverage of Warren’s assertion. “No,” he said. “Elizabeth Warren was responsible for the story about her claim of Native American ancestry.”

Fehrnstrom added, that unlike some campaign managers, Barnett was heavily involved in the political strategy for the campaign and said Barnett has an uncanny ability to outperform expectations in Democratic strongholds.

“That is why Jim is a cut above the average campaign operative,” he said.

Eight years on from that 2012 contest, Warren, Barnett’s foe from a past battle, has endorsed Gray in Vermont’s lieutenant governor’s race. (Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has decided to stay out of the fray, at least for the time being.)

After the Massachusetts senator threw her support behind Gray, Donohue — Milne’s communications director — contacted VTDigger, requesting that a statement be added to a brief news item on the endorsement.

“I think a lot of Vermonters must be scratching their heads asking what business Sen. Warren of Massachusetts has, interfering in a race for Vermont lieutenant governor,” Donohue said.

“I guess since Molly failed to secure the endorsements of fully one-third of the Democrat/Progressive caucus here in the Vermont Senate, she had to go fishing for support in other states," he added.

Barnett insisted that only Gray was to blame for critiques about her being dishonest or inauthentic. And he stressed that Gray — like Warren in 2012, with her claim of Native American ancestry — is the victim of their own choices.

“Molly Gray was not honest with voters about her record,” he said. “Her own running mate, David Zuckerman, wouldn’t even come to her defense when a reporter asked him if he agreed with his wife’s assessment that she was dishonest.”

Clarification: This story was updated to more precisely describe Neale Lunderville's view of Peter Clavelle's characterization of Jim Barnett's role in the 2004 campaign between Clavelle and Gov. Jim Douglas.

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Kit Norton

About Kit

Kit Norton is the general assignment reporter at VTDigger. He is originally from eastern Vermont and graduated from Emerson College in 2017 with a degree in journalism. In 2016, he was a recipient of The Society of Environmental Journalists' Emerging Environmental Journalist award. Kit has worked at PRI's weekly radio environmental program, Living on Earth, and has written for the online news site Truthout.

Email: [email protected]

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