by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
September 12, 2008
THE LEAN MEAN PROPAGANDA MACHINE
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Vermont's unemployment rate is the highest it's been in the last 14 years (and remember - "Jim equals jobs"). It has made no progress on developing new energy resources. It's barely put a Band-Aid on health care reform. There's a gas price crisis now and one looming for heating oil this winter.
What has Republican Gov. James Douglas done about solving Vermont's problems? Practically nothing.
What has he been doing, then? Well, for the past seven and a half years, Douglas has been supporting his friend President George W. Bush, even though the state hasn't benefitted at all.
And adding insult to injury, at the Republican National Convention, he beamed at Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin - who believes the Iraq war is "a task that is from God" - and said she shares many of the values that Vermonters hold dear.
You'd think ditching this turkey of a governor would be a piece of cake. Yet three worthy Democratic opponents, Doug Racine, Peter Clavelle and Scudder Parker have gone down in flames while trying. Two more are now running against Douglas, Democrat Gaye Symington and independent Anthony Pollina. Either one would make a better governor than Douglas. In fact, I have house plants that would make a better governor. So why is it so hard to unseat him?
For one thing, in one form or another, Douglas has been on the Vermont ballot for 15 consecutive elections. That gives him the kind of name recognition most politicians would die for.
For another, as Chris Graff, the former Montpelier bureau chief for the Associated Press, wrote in this month's Vermont Business Magazine, Vermonters alternate between progressive, expansionist governors and conservative, retrenching ones.
But there is another, darker reason which is just now coming to light: Douglas' lean, mean, taxpayer-funded propaganda machine.
Although there's been a lot of good reporting done on this issue, I wasn't fully aware until I talked to Michael Carrese, Symington's communications director. Vermonters have a high degree of respect for the office of the governor, he said.
"They're very honored if the governor shows up to their event or conference," he said. "He is a good speaker. He is affable. You leave with the impression that this is a nice guy, a funny guy, a guy who's doing responsible things. Add up thousands of personal appearances, that's also a tremendous advantage."
In this way, Douglas has been able to soften his edges, Carrese said.
"People don't see him as a controversial guy," he said. "He's not hard-charging. He doesn't try to move the ball on big issues in a way that alienates or angers people. That's a good strategy if you want to last a long time in office. It may not be a best strategy if your goal is to make progress for the state."
The real problem, though, is that Douglas has become obsessed with public relations. Every governor has a press secretary, but Douglas has installed PR people in every important state department, and they control public access to information. Anything positive is trumpeted, anything potentially controversial is buried, and all the rest is spun.
Vermonters got an inside look at how important these "communicators" were when Douglas tried to cut some child care services out of the budget in order to keep them - at a cost between $400,000 and $1 million of taxpayers money, which would buy a lot of mammograms and heating oil.
"It's undeniable that public relations is more important than public policy and public service," Carrese said. "People in the Legislature have recognized it for years, but it's hard to get it out to the public."
It became easier with the recent e-mail scandal. The governor and the Legislature were forced to cut 400 jobs because of the budget crisis, but the cuts were not supposed to directly affect human services. The Vermont State Employees Association requested the Administration's e-mails to see how the choices were made.
When they made the e-mails public, we learned that the main idea wasn't service for Vermonters but protecting the governor from political fallout.
So, for example, Administration officials talked about changing social workers' job titles to "accountant," "human services case aide" and "child benefit specialists" in order to disguise the cuts.
In the end, they didn't act on this idea, according to the governor's press secretary, but it still illustrates the way this Administration thinks.
"Even the non-PR staffers are making substantive decisions based on public relations concerns and making sure the governor doesn't look bad," Carrese said. "That should be very troubling to Vermonters. This is not about how many ribbons he cuts. This is about decisions on providing public services. People need to hold him accountable for this and say it's enough."
Another disturbing fact is that Douglas has introduced the
Karl Rove playbook to Vermont politics. The recent discovery that his
aides videotape all of Symington's public appearances is just another
example of Big Brother in government. Because the Douglas campaign
distorts its opponents positions and tries to demonize them,
Symington has gone so far as to add a Fact Check page on
A collection of Joyce Marcel's columns, "A Thousand Words or Less,"
is available through joycemarcel.com. And write her at