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Mixed reactions to Scott’s ‘no fraternization’ with lobbyists, lawmakers

By   /   February 14, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

Photo: Down Home Kitchen

FRATERNIZING, MONTPELIER STYLE: Lunch-time diners at the Down Home Kitchen on Main Street in Vermont’s state capital. How realistic is Gov. Scott’s request to end after-hours socializing between staffers, lawmakers and lobbyists?

Republican Gov. Phil Scott reportedly has directed staff and administrative personnel to avoid fraternizing after hours with legislators and lobbyists, but some observers say the directive is unrealistic in tiny Montpelier.

According to a Vermont Press Bureau news report, chief of staff Jason Gibbs said he and Scott began talking about the “informal directive”  before the January inauguration.

The governor is especially concerned about socializing in Montpelier’s bars and restaurants by staff members, administrators, lawmakers and lobbyists.

Many states, such as Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey and Tennessee, to name a few, have codes of conduct for state employees and officials to follow regarding lobbyists, as do the federal government and the armed forces.

But how realistic is Scott’s directive, issued last week, given the long tradition of lawmakers, lobbyists and state officials rubbing — and bending — elbows together after hours?

Everybody knows you

When it comes to partisans intermingling socially, Montpelier’s chummy bar and restaurant scene is not unlike the fictional TV tavern Cheers, the quintessential New England bar “where everybody knows your name.”

According to former state Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury, the state capital is just another small Vermont town where, sooner or later, you’ll meet all kinds of folks, from legislators and citizen activists to lobbyists and reporters.

Nuovo, the recipient of numerous accolades for her public service over the years, spent three decades in the House until she retired in 2016. The ex-lawmaker told Watchdog that she believes the new governor is being unrealistic about the fraternizing rule.

“There are only so many restaurants in Montpelier. Sometimes you’ll say a mere ‘hello, how are you?’ It’s really a small town. You simply can’t miss running into people. There’s no other place to go to, so you’re going to see these people,” Nuovo said.

However, unlike Nuovo’s negative reaction to the directive, registered lobbyist Annette Smith of Vermonters for a Clean Environment says Scott’s new charge is just what the doctor ordered, especially after years of stories about the the Shumlin administration’s cozy relationships with fellow Democratic legislators and lobbyists.

“I think it’s a very good thing,” Smith said. “You should have seen the fraternizing that went on in the Montpelier bar scene during the Shumlin administration. All you had to do was check out the Three Penny Tap Room on Main Street after hours.”

Smith, a prominent environmental activist, was named Vermonter of the Year by the Burlington Free Press in January. She believes that she was shunned during the Shumlin years, thanks in part to after-hours pub gossiping among legislators and officials. As a result, her access to key lawmakers and members of the administration was diminished at the time, she said.

“There was a campaign to discredit me,” Smith told Watchdog. “This is what goes on outside the Capitol building, in the local bars. They all have access and it can be extremely damaging to people like me. I think it’s unhealthy. … I think it’s wise to rein in this (behavior).”

Scott vs. Shumlin

By population, Montpelier is ranked as the smallest state capital in the country, so it’s not unusual for state officials, lobbyists and journalists to be seen having a beer together in a local tavern or talking about pending legislation over lunch and supper.

So Scott’s approach to tamping down on socializing past closing time appears very button-down.

For example, in 2012, Shumlin granted the request of a pharmaceutical industry official to be seated next to him at a dinner party for ready access.

“Over the years, we attended many parties on the Capitol Plaza, hosted by various political organizations, and even the governor would attend. You got to know everybody,” said Nuovo, who served as a representative during the entire Shumlin administration.

According to Mary Alice Proffitt, owner of the popular Down Home Kitchen Restaurant in downtown Montpelier, such political fraternizing is her bread-and-butter.

“Gov. Scott is one of the few people who, at the Capitol and as far as I know, has never been to my restaurant,” Proffit told Watchdog. “So, my guess is that it’s relatively easy for him to make this statement, which may look good in the eyes of voters across the state, because he personally isn’t making much of a sacrifice in changing his own social habits.”

Proffit noted that many local businesses thrive on Capitol folks getting together after hours.

“For the rest of us folks, socializing before and after work is, I believe, one of the main reasons everyone appears to talk to each other pretty well in Montpelier,” she said. “I think if D.C.’s Republicans and Democrats ate pancakes, drank beer and played pool together as well as we Vermonters do, they might get something useful passed in Congress without always acting like such toddlers.”

Vermont Watchdog contacted Rebecca Kelley, the governor’s communications director, for details about the “no fraternization” directive. She did not return our inquiry. When contacted by Watchdog, Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, the state’s largest lobbying organization, said his organization had “no comment” to make about the governor’s directive.

Top 10 lobbying groups and lobbying expenditures in Vermont (2015):

  1. The Vermont Public Interest Research Group — $339,000
  2. Vermont State Employees Association — $204,000
  3. Altria Client Services — $188,000
  4. Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems — $173,000
  5. Vermont League of Cities and Towns — $139,000
  6. Green Mountain Power — $134,000
  7. Bi-State Primary Care Association — $112,000
  8. United Professionals AFT Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals — $106,000
  9. AARP-Vermont — $91,000
  10. Beverage Association of Vermont — $88,000

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Lou Varricchio is bureau chief for Vermont Watchdog. He has 20 years experience in print and broadcast journalism, including newspaper work in Pennsylvania and also in Vermont, where he was formerly managing editor of multiple New Market Press newspapers. He was a senior science writer at the NASA Ames Research Center in California, and appeared as the co-host on “Our Changing Planet,” a mini-series produced by the Upper Midwest Aerospace Consortium and distributed by Prairie Public Television. Lou has written, produced and hosted several science documentaries distributed nationwide through Public Radio International and American Public Radio. He is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors.