NO MORE MR. NICE GUY
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
September 4, 2008
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Voters here are being entertained by an unexpectedly passionate primary race.
On the surface, it's a small race. At stake are two seats for the Vermont House of Representatives from District 5, which includes Putney, Dummerston and Westminister West. Three Democrats are running - incumbents David Deen and Michael Mrowicki and former state Rep. Steve Darrow.
There's been angry talk of whisper campaigns. Signs have popped up on lawns all over the district. People are writing emotional letters to the paper supporting or excoriating their favorite candidates - and a few of those letter skirt dangerously close to libel.
Here are some excerpts; see if you can spot a theme:
"(Deen and Mrowicki) are two people who genuinely like each other and can work together and with others in Montpelier. The same can not be said of the 14 years that preceded... David Deen and Mike Mrowicki are approachable, friendly and nonthreatening."
And on the other hand:
"Steve's numerous articles on energy ... and his votes and positions taken while as a representative... makes him highly qualified to deal with Vermont's energy problems. He has the smarts to see through the self-serving machinations of (Entergy Nuclear) Vermont Yankee... We need somebody who will not be bamboozled by an energy lobby."
The race's subtext - likeability versus hard-edged competence with complex issues - has caught my interest. It's a perfect example of 21st Century American politics - do we elect the glad-handed, hail-fellow-well-met guy, the guy who has adopted "building relationships" as his middle name? Or the guy who might be thought a little bit odd, but who has energy policy running like blood through his veins?
Remember, America elected President George W. Bush because he was the guy they wanted to have a beer with. Look where that got us.
Of the three candidates, Deen is probably a shoo-in. He's the steward of our precious Connecticut River watershed. He's walked the walk and fished the fish. He's deeply respected as well as liked. He's wonky as hell, but his expertise and heart are needed.
It's the other two, Darrow and Mrowicki, who are really competing. Darrow had been a state legislator for 14 years when he got into trouble with some people in his district for reasons that no one has yet made clear or public - at least to me. Suffice it to say, a group went on the warpath and recruited Mrowicki to run against him. Mrowicki won. Now Deen and Mrowicki are running as a team, and Darrow is trying to regain his seat.
The most important issue is Vermont Yankee, Windham County's old and crumbling nuclear power plant. All three men want to see it closed, and it was designed to be shut down in 2012. But its owners, Entergy Nuclear, are applying for a 20-year extension. Worse, there isn't enough money in the decommissioning fund to close the site down properly. Worse, Entergy is trying to spin off Yankee into a separate shell company that will allow it to duck responsibility in case of emergency. And worst of all, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, this multi-billion-dollar industry claimed immediate bankruptcy for its Louisiana power company and walked away. Didn't even glance back.
This is not the kind of corporation you want to do business with, and the fact that our governor is in Entergy's pocket does not make for a warm and fuzzy feeling. Up in the northern part of the state, despite Mrowicki's warm relationships, few people care about Yankee. But most of District 5 is in the evacuation zone and a lot of worried people live here. It's going to take guts and smarts to checkmate Entergy, if it's even possible.
Then there's global warming, the need for alternative fuel supplies, peak oil, energy efficiency, universal health care, repairing the infrastructure, finding a way to support entrepreneurial businesses and protecting the environment.
Mrowicki, a warm and funny human services guy, says Darrow would be a one-issue representative. Darrow says that in the Legislature you have to specialize, and everything comes down to energy anyway. "Energy is not one issue," he wrote recently. "Energy is the overriding issue that affects everything."
Mrowicki may have built strong relationships in the House, but to what avail? In the past four years, the House has been spectacularly ineffective. The governor has turned the Legislature into his bitches.
The Lege passes a bill, the guv vetoes it, the Lege can't override the veto. Over and over again. When, exactly, do these hallowed relationships come into play?
Almost everyone who visits the Legislature comments on how much like high school it is. It's very clubby. Mrowicki, I'm afraid to say, gives the impression that he wants to take it to a new level and turn it into a frat party.
During this week's debate, Darrow offered creative energy ideas: taking by eminent domain the hydroelectric dams on the Connecticut and Deerfield rivers (we lost the chance to buy them thanks to the governor), retrofitting the flood control dams, and using wind. Mrowicki offered platitudes like wanting to "give voice to the voiceless." He offered a quote about people being good from Anne Frank - as if snagging a seat in the House is comparable to losing your life in a concentration camp.
Constituent service is a necessary part of the job, and Darrow could certainly improve his people skills. He could mend his bridges with Deen. He could improve his secretarial skills - he missed the filing deadline and has to run as a write-in candidate. But he's comfortable with the complexities of policy and isn't afraid to ask unpopular questions. He doesn't go along to get along.
We're dealing with a big-business governor who's been in politics for 35 years. He employs people who don't play nice, and they know every trick in the book. Turn the other cheek and they'll just whack it.
So take Mrowicki out for a beer and send Darrow back to the House.
A collection of Joyce Marcel's columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com. And write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.