In Vt., politics gets more warlike, less truthful

By Dave Gram
Associated Press Writer / October 10, 2010

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MONTPELIER, Vt.—There was Democrat Peter Shumlin, saying in a national television interview in March that Germany gets 30 percent of its electricity from solar energy. It's actually around 1 percent.

There was Republican Brian Dubie, saying through much of the fall campaign that Shumlin planned, if elected governor, to lay off 300 Vermont Corrections Department workers. Shumlin has never said anything like that.

If war is just politics by other means, and truth is the first casualty in war, it may make sense that in a 2010 gubernatorial race that has been unusually nasty by Vermont standards, truth would take a beating.

Shumlin's mistruths have tended to be about the state of the world, or just being a bit fast and loose with the facts.

His "Vision for Vermont" campaign blueprint says the average Vermont family of four spends $32,000 a year on health coverage. That would be more than three-fifths of the state's average household income for 2008, according to the U.S. census.

Shumlin campaign manager Alexandra MacLean said the number was calculated by dividing Vermont's population into its total health care bill. Economist Art Woolf of Northern Economic Consulting said there are several things wrong with that approach, among them the fact that the size of the average Vermont family is not four, but 2.7.

Then there's Shumlin's use of one of the most often misattributed quotations in recent American political history. Talking about keeping Vermont taxes low so the state remains competitive with New Hampshire, Shumlin has said repeatedly in debates: "Sarah Palin said, 'I can see Russia from my house.' Well, I can see New Hampshire from my house."

Sarah Palin didn't say that. The comic actress Tina Fey said that while spoofing Palin on "Saturday Night Live." What Palin said was: "You can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska."

Linda Fowler, a Dartmouth College professor of government who has written on ethics in campaigning, said such straying from the facts is forgivable.

"These kinds of factual things are easy to mix up. You've got all this kind of free-floating information out there. It's easy to make these kinds of factual errors," she said.

Dubie's mistruths have tended to pack more of a wallop, because they've come in the context of harsh criticisms directed at Shumlin.

At a debate in Bennington, Dubie repeated his claim that Shumlin's plan to trim corrections costs would result in 780 offenders being released to menace Vermont, and said he had obtained a list of the inmates from state Corrections Commissioner Andrew Pallito.

On a video provided by CAT-TV, the Bennington public-access cable station, Dubie can be seen brandishing a list as he says, "These are the 780 individuals that are on that list. On this list, there are people that deal with pornography with children, there are drug dealers, there's a comprehensive list of who these people are. That's what my ad says; that's what the list is."

But Pallito later said -- and Dubie's campaign acknowledged -- that it was not a list of inmates. Rather, it was a spreadsheet listing crimes for which inmates might or might not be eligible for early release under a program already approved by Gov. Jim Douglas and the Legislature.

Both Fowler and Garrison Nelson, a political science professor at the University of Vermont, likened Dubie's brandishing of the list, and inaccurate description of it, to the famous 1950 footage of Sen. Joseph McCarthy waving in the air a list of alleged Communists he said had infiltrated the U.S. State Department.

"That starts to get closer to the line," Fowler said of Dubie's performance in Bennington. But he didn't cross it, she said. "It's dubious but not over the line, because he could have been given the list without the proper background from his staff. You don't know what his motivation is there."

Nelson was less forgiving. "You're knowing full well because you've got the list in your hand" that it didn't contain names of inmates, he said. "That's being deceitful."

Also on the crime front, a Dubie radio ad issued last month said in part, "The meth epidemic has come to Vermont. And more meth brings more crime, threatening our quality of life, threatening our children."

State Police and Vermont Drug Task Force Capt. Glenn Hall said Friday that police are indeed keeping an eye out for methamphetamine and have made a handful of busts.

"I would still say it's not an epidemic here," he said, though.

On one thing both candidates appear to agree: Don't listen to the other guy's description of my proposals.

Shumlin has insisted Dubie's analysis of his corrections proposal is all wrong, going so far as to run an ad likening Dubie to Pinocchio. And Dubie this past week said Shumlin got it wrong when he tried to apply Dubie's promise to hold annual state spending increases to 2 percent to the popular Dr. Dynasaur children's health program.

Sometimes the candidates get it wrong just by stumbling over their own words. Dubie's campaign was quick to correct the record when he said that to cut the state budget he would "target the most vulnerable," though Shumlin's campaign maintains that's what Dubie's budget proposals would do.

Dubie described himself as "pro-life" in the Bennington debate but did not answer a question about whether he would support a ban on abortions in cases of rape or incest.

Shumlin, a staunch defender of abortion rights, got his own position exactly backward:

"Therefore, the question is, if you are going to have a bill like that weakens a woman's right to choose show up on your desk, Brian, would you veto it, or would you sign it? I would sign it, as quickly as I could," he said.

Nelson said all the negativity and truth-stretching hasn't worked well in Vermont in the past. He pointed to the 1990 U.S. House race in which independent Bernie Sanders beat one-term Republican Peter Smith.

Smith launched an ad late in the campaign linking Sanders, who has long described himself as a democratic socialist, to Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

"It backfired terribly," Nelson said. Smith ended up getting less than 40 percent, to 56 percent for Sanders, in a four-way race. "He was crushed. He was the worst defeated incumbent that year."

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