vt politics | Broadsides

On ATVs: What Would Aldo Leopold Do?

SteamMillFallThe Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) and a department within it, Fish & Wildlife, have recently proposed to allow riders of all-terrain-vehicles (ATVs) access to trails that are on the state’s wildlife management areas, lands that have strict development restrictions and are supposed to be managed with wildness as the guide. The Agency has turned down similar requests in the past. But the ATV lobby keeps coming back, and it’s widely believed that they’re going to get the access they want this time.

In the great spirit of Senor Quixote, I rose to the occasion when ANR invited the public to provide commentary on its proposed rule. Today, I submitted the following comment to them:

I hike daily in a Walden section of the Steam Mill Brook Wildlife Management Area. It is a stunning testament to the possibilities in honoring and protecting our coveted wilderness. On a recent hike, I stopped to read your agency’s literature at the trailhead atop Rock Road. It was inspiring to read about the important work being done within these WMAs, and I was thrilled to see the “No ATVs” signs you have prominently posted.

I was also very pleased to see your tribute to Aldo Leopold and his land ethic, particularly your rightful declaration that his writings have “inspired the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department.” You write and post this at the trailhead: “A land ethic expands the way we view the land by including aesthetics and ethical considerations in land use decisions.”

Yes! I would only add this from Thoreau: “The most alive is the wildest.”

Now stop and consider what you’re asking the public to comment on: A proposed rule to allow ATVs to drive onto and over these sacred places. Frankly, given your proclaimed adherence to Leopold’s land ethic, it’s a bit shocking that you’re even asking the question. Where, exactly, does a loud, exhaust-spewing, fast, and planet-threatening parade of ATVs fit into such a land ethic? It doesn’t, especially when “aesthetics and ethical considerations” are included.

Again, back to your trailhead welcome note, where you state a clear goal with your wildlife management areas: “They are managed for the purposes of conserving and improving habitat for Vermont’s native plants and animals and providing opportunities for the public to ‘renew contacts with wild things’ through regulated and ethical hunting, fishing, trapping, birdwatching, hiking, and other wildlife based activities.”

Again: Yes!

Once again, however, my elation with your sentiment becomes perplexed by the reality of your proposed rule. Allowing ATVs on any land is not a question about whether or not the land will be damaged. It will be. The debate is about how much damage the ATVs will do and then trying to manage that damage, from erosion, compaction, noise, road kills, etc. This is in direct contradiction to your management goal of “conserving and improving” this land because ATVs provide neither in their inherently destructive tendencies.

Similarly, the use of ATVs can do little by way of your stated goal of renewing contacts with wild things, unless, of course, you’re referring to the contact being made between the wild things and the grills and wheels of the ATVs. These vehicles, with their speed and noise, terrorize wildlife and those of us trying to partake naturally – on foot! – within these protected places.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture and in a time when taming, conquering and even obliterating our wild places is the norm. It is seen as progress in a most myopic sense, one that is at near-complete odds with forest ecology and a Leopoldian land ethic.

Instead of allowing ATVs to rip and ride on our protected wildlands, I’d like to see your agency advocate for a speed limit that is respectful of — and in rhythm with — nature’s pace. That would mean walking, not riding; and hiking, not throttling; running, not racing. We should advocate being in the wild with an ethic rooted in reverence and lightness, all within nature’s speed limits. We should be good guests of the wild places, by observing, listening, and adjusting ourselves to its speed rather than using it as a speed bump.

Your agency and its leaders have given great lip service to being concerned about global warming. But talk is cheap. What the public needs – especially from natural resource agencies – is meaningful action. Advocating for and/or enabling recreational burning of fossil fuels for pure entertainment is exactly what the ANR should NOT be doing.

If you believe as you say — a belief I share — that global warming is real and, therefore, real action is needed to combat it, that our natural resources need strong advocates, and that a land ethic should be fostered and promoted based on the beauty, joy and mysteries of our most natural places, then you should know just how antithetical combustion-engine recreation is to those objectives.

Let me remind you: You are the Agency of Natural Resources and the Department of Fish & Wildlife. Your constituents are the wild things and the wild places. You are their most powerful advocates in the state. Please take it seriously by making our natural resources and our fish and wildlife your utmost priority. You are not the Agency of Fossil Fuel Consumption or the Department of Motorized Recreation. Please act accordingly.

There is talk among proponents of this new rule that they are only asking for “short connector trails.” But size doesn’t matter, the precedent does. And those of us who want to see our wildlands remain wild fear that this will only be the first step toward asking for more and more ATV access in the future. ANR’s current – and clear – ban on ATVs within WMAs remains the best and most easily enforceable rule.

While these proposed connector trails may, indeed, be short, the future ramifications will be far and wide. The sound from the ATVs will be heard for great distances, a sound made louder by the recent trend in the recreational ATV world to modify the engines to increase power and noise. And it will give a nod of acceptance for an activity that should be discouraged in a time of climate change and an urgent need for a real reconnection with the wilderness.

This should be a no-brainer. Just ask yourselves this: What would Aldo Leopold do? And then do the obvious with a deep and satisfying nod to his true land ethic: Continue to ban ATVs from Vermont’s wildlands.

The Post GMD Didn’t Want You to See

[Editor’s note: Below is the piece I posted at Green Mountain Daily more than a week ago. As a result, the piece and my account were immediately deleted by GMD’s Odum. I also received phone calls and a personal visit by JD Ryan to my home last Saturday morning, whereby he asked me: “What can we do to make this go away?” Um, it seems like that was taken care of already — at least at GMD. I was told by one person — a self-described “anarchist/communist” who votes Democratic — that he didn’t get the angle of the piece. So let me be clear: The angle of the piece is to expose an underhanded and sleazy attempt to slime a candidate. It doesn’t seem that hard to understand. This is how the GMD crowd rolls — slinging slime while pretending to be in the church choir when they’re called on it. I thought it deserved a little spotlight. Enjoy.]

J.D.’s role in the Osman Loss

Back in August, after the Democratic Primary, I received a strange email from GMD front-pager, J.D. Ryan. Receiving an email from J.D. wasn’t strange because he regularly updates me on the inner-nonsense at GMD (and, in return, I pretend like I care).

But this time, he was getting way down deep into the political slime.

Here’s what he had to say:

As you probably know, I’m managing Donny Osman’s campaign. We either need to take out Doyle or Pollina. Pollina’s numbers were a lot stronger than I thought they’d be. This is a monumental uphill battle. I know how much you love Pollina… I can’t be direct in going after him, due to the fact that Senate campaigns in VT tend to be rather, uh, clean (why, for example, I can’t point out to people that Doyle’s got one foot in the grave).

What can we do? I’m not talking about shit on Broadsides… that’s not gonna reach the numbers we need to reach. I need stunts, bitch! You like stunts.

JD

Also…. can we please keep what goes on in our emails between us? I know how much you love to taunt the GMD’ers. but I’d really like to stay out of that. Hope all’s well.

My reaction went like this:

What in the fuck are you talking about?

Well, that and laughter and embarrassment for J.D.’s political childishness.

But J.D. kept it up. Sending this email next:

Just wanted to let you know that Donny doesn’t know I contacted you about this Pollina thing. I don’t want it blowing up in his face, so please, keep it on the downlow. Wes [Hamilton] is pulling for Pollina, so don’t mention it.

Or, you can just tell me to fuck off. Which is cool. I just know how much you LOVE Anthony.

Needless to say, I turned down his invitation to play in his political cesspool.

Shortly thereafter, GMD’s Odum penned a long and rambling piece trying to throw some slime on another one of Osman’s Democratic primary opponents, Laura Moore.

In it, Odum asserts:

While [J.D.] Ryan was Osman’s Campaign Manager in an unsuccessful bid for office in a previous cycle, Campaign Manager Charyk is – and has been – Osman’s only staffer for this election.

But let’s go back to J.D.’s words to me:

As you probably know, I’m managing Donny Osman’s campaign.

Sorry, fellas, but you can’t have it both ways.

It’s too bad Osman’s campaign was surrounded by such ninniness. And while I have had many political differences with Pollina, I commend him for running a fine campaign and staying away from the shallow end of the political pool so proudly occupied by GMD.

VT Politics: Doug Racine is a Pander-Bear (Part One: Health Care)

Doug Racine, the milquetoast Democrat who failed to defeat Republican Jim Douglas in his first effort to be Vermont’s governor in 2002, is now trying again. It’s a lot different this time around since Racine is facing a Democratic primary with at least four other gubernatorial wannabes, a far cry from the red carpet and silver-spooned treatment he got from outgoing Democratic Governor Howard Dean and the party in 2002 (“here, you are the chosen one.”).

Racine seems like a nice enough guy. You know the kind: Rich kid working in daddy’s business with access to the kind of Rolodex that screams “political future.” And he’s parlayed his fine lineage into creating a rather impressive political resume, including stints as Vermont’s Lieutenant Governor and many terms in the State’s Senate.

The problem with Racine – well, other than he’s boring – is that he’s got a political backbone akin to over-cooked pasta (read: limp). To steal a great line from Ann Richards, that’s what happens when “you’re born on third base and think you hit a triple.”

Worse, instead of fighting for something he believes in, Racine panders to those he thinks will fall for his thinly-veiled pandering. In other words, all talk and no action – which explains nearly twenty years of political service with little more than platitudes to show for it.

Take, for example, the health-care debate. Racine has been the chairman of the Senate’s Health and Welfare Committee for years, years which have been rife with talk and an urgent need for action on the issue of health-care reform. But Racine has done little more than punt and otherwise pass the buck when meaningful reform (read: universal health care) came before his powerful committee.

But, Racine is quick to add, he “understands” the need for change. I doubt it. Because I doubt anyone in his family has ever faced the prospect of choosing between paying the energy bill, the grocery bill or the health care bill (but not all three).

Last year, Chairman Racine punted on the health-care issue by declaring that President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress would get the job done for us, a decision that has resulted in yet another wasted year since it’s clear whatever Obama/Congress does on health care won’t be nearly enough. Meanwhile, those of us without the luxury of “waiting” are now paying the 10% increases to our premiums this year – waiting always seems to work best for those with the most, huh?

This year, with his candidacy for governor in full swing, Racine is now talking tough again on health care. Single-payer advocates have convinced him to hold a hearing tomorrow night in Montpelier on the issue, and many have touted his willingness to hold the hearing as some kind of endorsement for meaningful health-care reform this year.

Not so fast, my friends. Because, while Racine is enjoying the fawning recognition from the health care advocates (naive, for sure), he’s making it clear that tomorrow night’s hearing and this year’s legislative session in general is meant to only “move the conversation forward” on the health-care issue. And when WDEV’s Mark Johnson asked Racine last week if any legislation was expected out his committee, Racine was quick to return to his noncommittal “move the conversation forward” goal.

For those asleep at the political wheel, “moving the conversation forward” is political speak for “jerking your chain.” And there’s nothing more that Candidate Racine wants to do than jerk your chain, Vermont voters. If it sounds a lot like the Obama candidacy, it should. Been there, done that.

But Vermont voters and health-care advocates need to smarten up on this one. Instead of rushing to embrace Racine’s hearings-to-nowhere we should be demanding that he commit to real and meaningful health-care reform this year – if not right now. What more do we need to discuss? How much more time and money are we going to offer to the health care criminals running the insurance corporations?

If Racine wants the support of health-care advocates, Racine should be forced to deliver the health-care goods. He is, after all, the Chairman of the Senate’s Health and Welfare Committee. And that doesn’t mean mere “conversations” (we’ve been doing that in this country since 1918 on health care), it means action – as in: votes, bills, and laws.

It’s really quite simple: If Racine, as the Democratic Chairman of Vermont Senate’s Health & Welfare Committee, can’t move forward with meaningful – and universal – health care coverage during this legislative session, he’s not fit to be the party’s gubernatorial candidate in November.

That’s the message health-care advocates should be bringing to the hearings tomorrow night. It would be a lot more effective than cheering Racine’s near-endless (and privileged) pursuit of mere “conversations.” Because it’s time for action. Now.

Rolling in Republican Love (and other lessons from Montpelier)

Rolling in Republican Love

I guess it was that August photo of Governor Douglas and me. Yeah, you remember that little bit of fun, don’t you? And about that announcement…

Because the Vermont Republican Party is sending Broadsides some link-love this week. In his email newsletter to the mouth-breathing core of the Vermont Republicans, Chairman Rob Roper opined a bit about the Montpelier money snafu and then all but invited himself onto my lap with these words:

The scandal prompted liberal blogger Michael Colby to write, “But the reality here is that Mayor Mary Hooper must go…. Because this mistake, its non-disclosure, and the awkward, unconvincing and – frankly – insulting manner in which Hooper has tried to spin it, is a huge mistake that will have a tremendous economic impact to Montpelierites. It’s sadly ironic that the “good liberals” in Montpelier have been deafly silent on what is already being called Hooper’s Watergate. That’s what happens when party loyalty usurps better judgment: you start to ignore gross neglect when “among friends.””

It’s a good line — ignoring gross neglect among friends.

And if I were a good Republican, I would have charged him for using MY good line. But, being the good Republican that HE is, he didn’t offer a penny. Or something like that.

But really, what’s this “liberal blogger” shit? Watch it, Robbie, I’ve got a reputation to maintain – and it’s not as a liberal.

Which brings me back to my primary interest in covering this story: The hypocrisy of the starry-eyed party followers.

In this version of the never-ending story that blinders built, it happens to be that the Democrats are the “devils” and the Republicans are the “angels.” Thus, the Democratic faithful are ignoring it and their Republican counterparts are seizing on it as if the Holy Grail of political moments has been found (Read: We are superior because the other is stained.),

But-oh-how-quickly they could all be changing their tunes. Imagine, for example, if the Montpelier government was controlled by Republicans. Trust me, the little Dem yap-dogs over at places like Green Mountain Daily would be beside themselves. Conversely, the Repubs would be making excuses (They tried! They’re hurt!) or ignoring it.

Repeat as necessary. And welcome to political dysfunction, Small Town America Style.

If you want to know how far from reality the Dem faithful will go in their current roles as the great ignorers of scandals (because they are the deeds of our friends), consider this obfuscating line of the moment being spewed by the Dem apologists: The Montpelier government HAD to keep the matter quiet because they didn’t want to jeopardize the secret re-payment plan (yes, the secret plan they made with the man who robbed them).

But wait. For that excuse to really work, the secret re-payment plan would have had to work. And it didn’t. Swing – and miss.

So, to recap, the Montpelier Democrats want you to back off because the plan was to protect the plan that did not work. Because if the plan was not protected, it would fail.

But it did.

And, worse, what was being “protected” was the silence. Let me remind you: Montpelier’s elected officials acted to hide essential information about a serious error from the citizens of the town.

It shouldn’t matter which party you voted for in the last election to know that the actions by Montpelier’s elected officials are unacceptable. Because there should be no secrets when it comes to our governing bodies – local, state or federal. And we must not allow petty party partisanship to cross-pollinate the stark differences between right and wrong.

But, for now, I’ll take the praise where I can get it. So thank you to my new Republican friends. The disgust with liberals can, indeed, make strange bedfellows.

VT Media Watch: The Lazy Press Bureau Boys

The Vermont Press Bureau’s “Capitol Beat” column in Sunday’s Times Argus made an effort to cover the Boots Wardinski campaign for lite-guv. Well, actually, effort might not be the right word since much of the piece is little more than a shallow cut and paste from Shay Totten’s Seven Days blog post on Friday. They did, however, manage to stick to the Bureau’s apparent unwritten rule to cover political campaigns without mentioning a political issue. High five!

But, seriously, at what point in the political campaign process are issues allowed to be covered? Apparently we’re not there yet. Because in the several hundred words they gave to Wardinski’s recent decision to run as a Prog in next year’s primary, they didn’t mention one issue, instead getting bogged down in rhetorical gamesmanship like this:

“No sooner did State Rep. David Zuckerman, a prog, say he might run for lieutenant governor as a Democrat – while hoping to win the Progressive primary as a write-in candidate — than perennial candidate and protester (or maybe it should be perennial protester and candidate) Boots Wardinski announced he was running, too.”

Cute.

But I’d call Boots a “constant” protester – ever seen how the fella lives? – and a regular political participant. You know, kind of like what we used to think of as a functioning citizen back in the good old days.

By ignoring the issues and labeling Boots as a “perennial” candidate, the Press Bureau basically gives itself a free pass to skip out on its job. High five!

Besides, don’t they know that snarky writing and skipping out on journalistic responsibility is for bloggers? Yo fellas, you’re reporters.

Interestingly, media bias also comes into play in the Press Bureau’s short piece on the Wardinski campaign. There are six other politicians and/or past candidates for public office mentioned in the article, but only Wardinski got the dismissive “perennial” tag. Um, how about Anthony Pollina? Or Martha Abbott? They’ve both ran for office on many occasions and are the in same position as Boots: On the outside looking in.

Worse, not only does Abbott get away with dodging the “perennial” tag, she also gets to accuse Wardinski of “marginalizing” her party’s statewide efforts. Despite being inadvertently funny (how do you marginalize a zero-percent success rate on statewide elections?), I think it’s Pollina who ought to be getting the blame for marginalizing the Progs. It was Pollina, after all, who’s lost every statewide Prog race he’s entered and then ditched the party last time around to “better his electoral changes.” Yo Tony, how did that work out for you? Ouch.

It’s also a shame that the Press Bureau allowed the Abbott dig to go unchallenged from Wardinski. But, then again, that would require actual reporting work and, damn it, it was a Friday deadline and it was a lot easier to cut and paste Totten’s work than to make a couple of phone calls. Three Penny Taproom, here we come! High five!

Elected politicians mentioned in the article who also dodged the “perennial” tag included Zuckerman and Peter Welch, two fellas who have certainly been constant candidates for years (Zuckerman) and decades (Welch). Of course, the use of the word “perennial,” based on the words definition, has nothing to do with success – only effort. Unless, of course, you’re a lazy political reporter who wants to signal a dismissive tone without doing your homework. High five!

Whatever.

At least they spelled Broadsides correctly.

Gay Marriage Vote Postmortem

First off, congrats to Vermont for successfully overriding Governor Jim Douglas’s veto of the gay marriage bill. It’s now law – officially kicking in on September 1st.

While the clear “winners” in this victory are the gay and lesbian couples who can now get married and – hopefully – aim to do better than the 50% failure rate of man/woman marriages, there were also a number of political winners.

Beth Robinson, for example, the head of VT Freedom to Marry Coalition, was simply superb. She kept her coalition on message and, most impressively, rose above the angry mob of gay marriage opponents who all but taunted them throughout the public hearings. How, for example, they could remain cool, calm and collected while their opponents compared gay love to man/horse love or man/boy love or father/daughter love is beyond me. But they did. And they deserve credit for it.

The other political winner is first-year House Speaker Shap Smith, my representative by the way. Smith and Senate President Peter Shumlin did a masterful job of orchestrating the timing and the logistics of this bill. But Smith’s job was a whole lot more difficult than Shumlin’s since the Vermont Senate is a whole lot more liberal and smaller (read: manageable) than the House.

As you’ll recall, Shumlin and the last House Speaker, Gaye Symington, tried to get bold with their “super-majorities” in the last session on issues like global warming and taxing the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant but Symington failed to deliver the House. The reason she failed became clear when she decided to challenge Governor Douglas for his job: Symington’s a terrible communicator and leader.

Smith, on the other hand, is at least able to both articulate a thought and also be persuasive enough to bring along enough votes to win the day. That’s refreshing. And it’s also exactly what’s needed in this rare time when the Democrats have veto-proof majorities in the legislature.

Now let’s get to the losers. The person put first on every such list so far has been Governor Douglas. And I agree, but for different reasons. The conventional wisdom says that Douglas lost because his veto was overridden. True enough. But, for me, Douglas is a real loser on this issue for doing what he always does with tough issues: Play politics while pretending not to. It’s about as transparent as transparent can get – but it doesn’t stop the Vermont’s lapdog media from regurgitating his dopey proclamations (i.e. “gay marriage is a distraction).

I think Douglas got exactly what he wanted out of this issue. He got it off the legislative radar in a non-election year by having his veto overridden and he got to throw a bone to his right-wing Vermont base and growing national Republican base by issuing his veto. Mission accomplished, indeed.

But he’s still obviously the biggest loser for playing the highest-stakes game of politics with an issue that is truly about civil rights, civil compassion and simply providing some joy in a time of great civil strife.

Remember, Governor Douglas’ primary opposition to the gay marriage bill was based on the fact that it was “a distraction” to the more pressing matters that were facing Vermont, particularly the economy. But let’s see if he speaks up to scold the right-wing gay-bashers who are now frothing at the bit over their calls for “revenge,” “constitutional amendments,” and promises to “repeal and revolt” over the legislature’s actions.

Speaking of the gay-bashers, let’s delve deeper into the loser list. Next up, Steve Cable of Rutland, the self-anointed leader of the “oh-my-god-we’ll-die-if-gay’s-are-legitimized” crowd. Here’s how Cable described the mood of his shrinking number of followers to the Vermont Press Bureau after finding out – once again – that they were losers:

“[They’re] blood shooting out of their eyes mad.”

Wow. That’s dramatic. But the real question is: Will Cable continue to quote the Bible in defeat as he did during the entire time during the battle? I guess not:

“This isn’t about moving on,” Cable said. “This is about getting even.”

I guess Cable’s Bible doesn’t include that whole “turn the other cheek” reference.

Speaking of the Bible, the other major loser in this fight was the “Rev.” Craig Benson, another Rutland man who apparently loves to spew hate in the name of the Bible. Please, can someone find the passage in the Bible that glorifies hate, paranoia, false-judgment, and mean-spirited revenge? Because the “Rev.” Benson can’t.

Instead, the “Rev.” Benson joins his fire-breathing hate-monger, Steve Cable, in declaring a massive miscarriage of justice by those seeking love and justice. Go figure. Specifically, Benson mashed his sour grapes with this nonsense:

“Our side was outspent 20-1…and, given that, we were lucky the vote was so close.”

Proof on the spending? None. And for those of us who were “lucky” enough to receive all those calls from the out of state gay-bashers, I’d seriously question his spending accusation.

But what’s easy to dispute is Benson’s laughable claim that the votes were “close.” Since when did votes of 23-5 in the Senate and 100-49 in the House get considered to be “close”? Those votes are what the sports world would call “blow-outs.” And they were.

We can only hope that in the election season of 2010 Jim Douglas will be forced to join Cable and Benson in their caves of irrelevance. There may not be term limits in Vermont but there are limits on how long bigots can swim against the stream of justice – just ask all those Republicans in the 1950’s and ‘60’s who opposed giving civil rights to African-Americans. Yes, indeed, Jim Douglas is our George Wallace.

But let’s end on the positive note: Vermont rose to the occasion and, like its stand against slavery in the 18th Century, Vermont will be forever recognized for its courageous stand. Congrats.

Mark Johnson: The Vermont Power Elite’s Toadie

I’ve been homebound a bit more than I’d like lately. First, with a hideous chest cold and now to avoid the soggy ground and attempt to get some inside work done. And being inside for me usually means being a slave to the radio – talk radio to be precise.

In Central Vermont, local talk radio means WDEV to me. But I’m not sure how much more I can take – especially in the morning – as Mark Johnson of the not-so-cleverly-named “Mark Johnson Show” seems hell-bent in his milquetoast pursuit of playing the media lapdog to Vermont’s power elite.

If you’ve ever listened to Johnson, you’ll know what I’m talking about: He approaches his media role not like a probing reporter but more like a member – if not a leading member – of an insider’s club of Vermont’s media, economic and political elite. In other words, Johnson takes the exact opposite path of what the late, great Joseph Pulitzer saw as the true goal of the “fourth estate’: To have no friends.

For two hours a day, five days a week, Johnson brings forth a steady stream of his fellow club members, exchanging pleasant guffaws with them and lobbing softballs in their general direction, seemingly not bothered by the shallowness of it all. It is, after all, what maintains his membership to the “club.” Because we all know the quickest way to get kicked out of the Vermont media and political elite is to actually ask some tough questions of your fellow members. Bye-bye invites to “Vermont This Week,” for sure. And so long to those 15-minute puff-pieces with Leahy/Sanders/Welch/Douglas where allowing them to regurgitate their talking points masquerades as an “interview.”

If Johnson ever does demonstrate disdain for anyone, it’s usually the poor fool who dares to call into his show and criticize the media. Johnson will not tolerate it. Never mind that the Vermont media is an atrophied shadow of what the media really should be (and getting worse by the week given the layoffs and cutbacks), Johnson will not let even the mildest media critique get by without either a hang-up and/or a stern rebuke.

Most recently, for example, the leader of the Vermont Senate, Peter Shumlin, was a guest on Johnson’s show to discuss the Democratic leadership’s decision to put gay marriage on its priority list for this current session. The all-too-frequent and curmudgeonly old-guy callers (do these guys ever work?) to his show bombarded Shumlin with the Republican talking points, declaring that the gay marriage issue was a “distraction” to the real matters (read: economic) facing the state.

Shumlin hung in there quite admirably, trying – time and time again – to point out that the gay marriage bill wasn’t really taking up much time and, nevertheless, was merely one bill among dozens and dozens that the legislature was more than capable of considering.

But Shumlin crossed the Johnson line when he dared to venture into even the mildest of mild media criticism. “Well,” declared an almost exasperated Shumlin, “we held a press conference yesterday about our latest economic plan but you wouldn’t know it because the media didn’t cover it.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” interjected Johnson, “before you start criticizing the media…”

And Shumlin, being the good club member himself, knew that he had to back down, allowing Johnson’s rebuke to stand while shelving his very reasonable critique of the Vermont media and allowing its embarrassingly shallow coverage of the Statehouse go unchecked.

But Johnson’s at his all-time worst when he’s interviewing a fellow media club member. Take, for example, his interview today with WCAX’s Marselis Parsons. Johnson invited Parsons on after he read the news that Vermont’s own media dinosaur was considering retiring. The ensuing interview was little more than a mutual admiration love-fest: “Don’t you love what you do?”

Um, excuse me fellas, but you’re members of the media. So why don’t you loosen up your lover’s embrace long enough to ask a hard question in these incredibly hard times. You know, something like: How did the Vermont media completely blow it when it comes to the economic crisis? And why don’t we hold some of our life-long political figures accountable for fiddling while our economy burned?

Instead, we got things like: “Wow, you’ve been there for 42 years?” “I’ve only been around for half that time.” “Does it feel like it’s been that long?” “Tell me about your favorite interview?”

That, my friends, is how you remain in the club: lob softballs at your fellow club members, make no waves, and fantasize about all the accolades that might come your way after 42-years of doing little but shilling for the power elite. Oh yeah, Mark, you’re halfway there…

If Johnson ever does show disdain, it’s almost always for those who dare to criticize the media or hold Vermont politicians accountable. Instead of probing the power elite, Johnson acts as a firewall to seemingly protect them – thus assuring more bland interviews with his clubmates. “Tell me, Senator Leahy, how does it feel to be so powerful?” Yawn.

The only disdain Johnson ever shows is almost exclusively for those who dare to put a spotlight on the miserable state of the Vermont media. He simply won’t tolerate it. Much like he won’t tolerate any true people-based attempt to hold his poltical friends accountable for their dithering and/or outright assistance in bringing about the mess we’re currently in as a state and a nation.

Sadly, Johnson’s a proud member of the insider’s club and he’s not going to risk his next attempt to crawl into the laps of fellow members by – gasp! – asking some uncomfortable questions of them. There are rules, you know.

Johnson, of course, is no different than almost all of his fellow Vermont media brethren. They know how to keep buttering their bread, even if it means totally and completely bastardizing the real role of the media: Standing outside of the club so as to ask the tough questions and demand the real answers.

But one thing is for sure: Johnson gets his phone calls returned, especially when those on the other end know that little more than lobs will be coming their way. “Tell me, Senator Sanders, how does it feel to be so popular?”

Or maybe he’s just being honest because, after all, it is called the “Mark Johnson Show.” And it is, indeed, all about Mark Johnson and his cozy friendships with those who are willing to trade back-scratches and belly-rubs. Anything, that is, but make waves….

Sorry, Mr. Pulitzer, it’s a whole different era.

Food & Water’s Memory Lane: The Ben & Jerry’s Campaign

Well, what do you say we continue the walk down Food & Water’s memory lane? As some of you will recall, after we secured our “popularity” in Vermont by highlighting Cabot’s use of rBGH, we turned our attention to Ben & Jerry’s refusal to go organic – a stand that they still hold to this day. Hmm, is there another “victory” lurking? I doubt it.

Food & Water held several meetings with Ben & Jerry (yes, the individuals), in 1996 and 1997 in an effort to convince them to single-handedly revolutionize Vermont agriculture by beginning the transition to organic dairy production. At the time, hundreds of Vermont farms supplied the popular corporation with the cream they required to meet their growing needs.

But Ben & Jerry refused to budge, claiming that they “couldn’t figure out a way to maximize their profits” via organic production. And so we gave them one more chance: Begin to move toward organic or Food & Water would publicize the fact that, despite the corporation’s rhetoric, it was sanctioning the use of toxic pesticides that threatened Vermont’s environment and the consumers of its ice cream.

Ben Cohen’s initial response was to offer me a job in their public relations department. I refused. Then he took us to a closet full of Ben & Jerry’s paraphernalia and told us to take whatever we wanted. I remember he was particularly proud of the “hippie ties” – yes neckties – that were recently made in his and the Grateful Dead’s honor. Take whatever you want, he declared.

“Thanks,” I remember replying, “but we’ve told you what we want: We want you to begin moving your farm suppliers toward organic dairy production.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Ben replied.

And so, the campaign was on. And so, too, was the liberal elite pushback. Big time. Whatever.

Our first shot across the Ben & Jerry’s bow was an ad that featured a cartoon family in a Vermont-like setting with a giant ice cream cloud lingering over them. The headline was blunt: “Ben & Jerry’s want to save the world. But who will save us from Ben & Jerry’s?”

The text below explained Ben & Jerry’s refusal to go organic and highlighted the thousands of pounds of carcinogenic Atrazine that was used on the Vermont dairy farms that supplied cream to the ice cream mavens.

Sure, we got our asses kicked in the media and within the nonprofit and funding community. I can remember one call I got from a significant funder and friend of Ben Cohen’s who began her conversation with, “You can’t do this.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because Ben’s a nice guy.”

Ben’s affability was never a part of the campaign, I pointed out to her. But I don’t think she ever heard me because the phone soon went dead, as did her support for our campaigns that she had previously declared as “visionary.” I’ll let you decide who went blind, however.

Shortly after the launch of our Ben & Jerry’s campaign, I was invited to speak at an anti-nuke rally in Brattleboro. The person inviting me, Deb Katz of the Citizens Awareness Network, wanted me to be a part of the rally but was nervous about the fact that Ben & Jerry’s had not only given money for the event but the two of them would also be speaking.

“I want you to speak, too,” Katz told me. “But you have to agree that you won’t mention Ben & Jerry’s.”

I told her I’d think about it. And after about ten minutes of thinking about it and laughing rather hysterically with my trusty colleague at the time, Michele Kirchner, I called Katz back: “It’s a deal.”

You see, we made a quick plan.  Sure, I’d appear at the rally – right before Ben & Jerry – and I wouldn’t “mention” the company.

And now, for the “rest of the story,” below is an excerpt from an article from the Boston Globe’s Sunday Magazine that featured the work of Food & Water. It was written by Sally West Johnson, who followed me around for days while researching her piece, including a trip to the Brattleboro anti-nuke rally. You can read the entire piece by clicking here.

We had fun. Because, as my activist mentor, Wally Burnstein, taught me: What’s the point of activism if you’re not having fun? Indeed. And people often thought we were devastated by the attacks we were so often under. Hardly. We were laughing. We believed in what we were doing and we were determined to have one hell of a good time in the process.

Here’s the Boston Globe’s description of our day at the Brattleboro rally:

Michael Colby’s time in the sun has arrived, and he’s ready for it. Striding up to the stage on this warm August afternoon, Colby, executive director of a political action group called Food & Water, has a small paper bag clutched in his left hand and mischief in his gray-blue eyes.

Colby is a scheduled speaker at an antinuclear gathering on the Brattleboro Common, a rally organized by the Citizens Awareness Network, based in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, in Washington, D.C.

He is well known in the leftist community for his sharp tongue and his no-sacred-cows approach to politics. In an age when much of mainstream political activism has adopted the vocabulary of mediation and compromise, Colby is a pit bull — one with wit, but a pit bull nonetheless.

His bark and his bite have drawn him national attention, including appearances on three network evening news shows, CNN, ABC’s 20/20, and Phil Donahue’s talk show.

Lately, one of the targets of Colby’s bark has been Ben & Jerry’s, the Vermont ice cream makers who are known for their liberal activism.

Colby’s Vermont-based group demanded that Ben & Jerry’s stop buying milk from farmers who feed their cows grain treated with the herbicide atrazine, a suspected carcinogen.

Ben&Jerry’s argues, as do a number of environmental watchdog groups, that atrazine in cattle feed does not show up in the milk supply and that organic corn, raised without weed-killing chemicals, is too expensive to find a market.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of Ben & Jerry’s are at the rally today to join in the antinuclear speechmaking, and the organizers have extracted a promise from Colby that he will not say anything about Ben, Jerry, or the atrazine controversy, but will stick to nuclear reactors and nuclear waste.

Colby takes the stage along with his assistant, Michele Kirchner. He opens the bag, extracts a pint of nicely softened Chubby Hubby, one of Ben & Jerry’s best-known flavors, pulls out a spoon, and begins to eat.

“Doing bad and feeling good about it,” Colby intones between bites of ice cream. This is a phrase that appears often in the Food & Water advertising campaign against the ice cream maker, and many of the 100 or so activists in the audience appear to know that. Others seem intrigued.

“Doing bad and feeling good about it,” Colby says again, pausing for another spoonful of Chubby Hubby. “Doing real bad, and feeling real good about it.”

With that, his microphone goes dead. The audience begins to buzz; people ignore the next speaker’s arrival, flocking to Colby and Kirchner as they descend the steps at the back of the stage.

Was Colby deliberately cut off, people want to know. Yes, he was. Well, why? Doesn’t he have aright speak his mind? Colby now has the platform he was looking for, albeit not an official one.

“Six hundred farmers are using a carcinogenic herbicide,” Colby tells the crowd gathered around him offstage, “and Ben &Jerry’s won’t stop buying the milk made by cows that
eat that corn.”

Debbie Katz, president of the Citizens Awareness Network, defends the decision to shut Colby down. “We said that going after Ben & Jerry’s was unacceptable, and he agreed three times not to do that,” she says. “His issue is real and should be brought up in a different forum — just not here.”

Others aren’t so sure “I don’t believe in censorship,” says Bill Addington, an antinuclear activist who has come from Texas to speak against the location of a low-level nuclear waste dump – a destination for Maine and Vermont nuclear waste — in the remote Texas town of Sierra Blanca. And Mardie Ratheau, of Brattleboro, calls the episode a “serious infringement” of Colby’s right to free speech.

It has been a moment of pure street theater: short, punchy, and effective, just the way Michael Colby likes it.