Thursday, May 15, 2008

Anthony Pollina in Barre: A Field Trip

Background: the Vermont gubenatorial contest is officially a three-person race. Incumbent Republican Governor Jim Douglas is seeking re-election. Progressive Party candidate Anthony Pollina, a policy advisor to then-Congressman, now-Senator Bernie Sanders and community organizer, is the third party candidate. Democratic Speaker of the House Gaye Symington threw her hat into the mix late in the game, on Monday, May 12th. Pollina has begun his campaign with a series of forum, with one in every Vermont county through the month of May. Last night, he held his Washington County event at the Old Labor Hall in Barre.

I must admit that going into this, I was very, very skeptical of Mr. Pollina. My impression of Progressives in Vermont is that they mostly share the same values as Vermont Democrats, but they either think themselves much smarter than the Democrats or they are so far afield politically that they would never be satisfied with the Democratic agenda. That's exactly what I found last night: a room full of very unsatisfied people, and a man (at least by his word) willing to give them a voice. I certainly prejudged him and his politics, and I'll admit it. Frankly, although I consider myself fairly liberal, the brand of liberalism that has taken hold in Vermont is sickening, like one of those too-sweet, girlie alcohol drinks you find in convenience stores. But, as Dr. Gonzo pointed out yesterday, we've come to an age where the media sucks, and I felt it was my duty to listen to the man and give him a fair shake. Thus, I went to the Labor Hall.

I arrived at the Labor Hall before six yesterday evening, and there were a few folks kicking around, talking about this and that. A pretty, college-age girl was working the door, taking names and contact information. Just as I got done filling out the usual contact information form, I got a phone call about a job opening, and I meandered outside, where it was quieter, so I could talk. I watched people trickle in. The mix was fairly standard for a politically liberal event in Vermont: a lot of working people dressed very plainly; a younger, well-dressed (yet casual) crew clearly playing with someone else's money, trustafarians as my buddy Rob likes to call them; the standard grey-haired older liberal crew; and then a few interlopers, like me, just there for the show and free food.

Pollina walked in around six and started working the room. The one thing that grabbed me immediately was how unremarkable he was. With certain politicians, when they walk into a room, they command your attention. I've seen it with city council members, state legislators, senators, and governors. They know they're a big deal, and so will you. Pollina was different. He was quiet, and it wasn't until someone engaged him that you saw him light up and engage. He seemed, well, normal, I suppose.

He worked the room for a solid half hour, and it seemed like he was trying to shake everyone's hand at least once while giving people who wanted to talk with him a chance to speak. He took the mic and began the show around seven, and his schtick was exactly what a candidate of his stature, and really any candidate anyway, should do. He let people talk to him.

The format of this show was simple. Pollina, taking center stage, spoke for a few minutes, and then his aides brought out a big tackboard. He asked everyone in the room to stand up and tell everyone else what they wanted to change in Vermont, every idea ended up on a piece of paper on the tackboard. The crowd was eager, and that's Pollina's hook. He gives people a chance to speak their peace. Everyone went for it. People wanted universal health care, with big applause when someone threw out the term "single payer." They wanted Vermont Yankee closed, again with huge applause. They wanted a local-based economy, a clean economy, and a liveable wage for all Vermonters. They hate George Bush. They wanted all money out of politics, though I have no idea what that means, really. They wanted better education for all, renewable energy (heard that one a dozen times), and they wanted the U.S. out of Iraq, to which Pollina promised to be a vocal critic of the war. The list went on.

The mood needs description. People were passionate, and there was a touch of anger and resentment. One woman's voice quivered when she spoke about her desire to end the war. A union man was forceful, direct, and point his finger when he spoke about workers being mistreated in Vermont. An internist could barely disguise his disgust when he spoke about his dealings with insurance companies. When the word corporation came up, it was hurled like a four letter word (which, to me, is a sign of ignorance, but that's another matter). Pollina didn't bring any power to the event; he didn't need to. He merely directed the current.

In the midst of all this, Pollina only really commented on what people had to say. Something here, something there. After a while, he asked everyone to get into small groups and talk about what was most important to us. We picked the economy, though the discussion wandered a bit. One woman threw out that she'd like to see state-run child care. Maybe no one informed her that is what schools are for nowadays. After a few minutes, we talked to the whole group and Pollina about our single biggest issue. When that was done, the event more or less ended, and Pollina stuck around to answer questions.

Pollina's show last night was, in my mind, kind of brilliant. He got on everyone's good side by letting them vent their frustrations. He gave them a focus for their anger without actually saying much himself. There was no multi-point platform, no scape goat, no anything, just a room full very vocal people, all liberal, speaking their minds. At the end, you could tell these folks felt satisfied, felt relieved, and they were on his side. This was cathartic for them, the liberal version of an evangelical prayer meeting. They were casting out their devils, and Pollina was their pastor. Because of this approach, Pollina comes across as a genuinely nice guy to someone like me who had never met the man before and never heard anything about his personality.

I approached Pollina after the show was over and I had finished my vegetarian lasagna (note: really folks, what the hell was the point of the veggie lasagna? It's effing gross!). I had two questions for him. The first relates to a story I'd heard from some Democrats. Back in 2002, when Pollina ran for Lt. Governor, he and the Democratic candidate lost to Brian Dubie, the Republican. Story goes that Pollina, smug as can be, showed up and partied down with Dubie at the victory party.

My question to Pollina: why the hell did you do that?

His answer? According to Pollina, he and the Progs were having their election party in the same Montpelier hotel as the Republicans. Rather than give Dubie a phone call, he walked over and congratulated him in person. He said that the media conflated the whole thing. His answer sounded simple, sounded reasonable. If anyone out there knows the real story, let me know.

My other question was one he's heard a thousand times: why are you running when it increases the odds of victory for the Republican governor, one many people, including Pollina, see as an essentially negative man who doesn't believe in taking risks and who doesn't really lead Vermont. Peter Freyne, the Seven Days political columnist, calls the governor Governor Scissorhands, cause mostly all he does is spend his time cutting ribbons. Pollina spent some time talking about a lot of things. He spoke about the Democrats' long delay in picking their candidate, how he'd tried to get the Dems to back him, and how there's just animosity on the Dems' behalf. He's running because he thinks he's the best candidate.
Then he slipped. Some of his ego showed.

He said that he thought the Dems feared Pollina would be the next Bernie Sanders - on their side, but not a Democrat, taking up high office, an immovable object that they really couldn't object to. It was the tiniest crack. Fifteen seconds in the five minutes of his time that he gave me, but it was telling. The guy really thinks he can do this, and he thinks pretty highly of himself.

I went home last night with a much higher opinion of Mr. Pollina than I had going in. Will I vote for him? No. He appears to be a coalition builder, a man who will listen to people, but I didn't see him as governor material, mostly cause I didn't see his ideas last night. He would be great in the legislature, great in the role of setting an agenda that would be sensitive to what everyday Vermonters want. But not governor, not in my opinion.


Dews said...

Pollina was always rumored to be the "High Times" dark horse candidate for VT.

The people I knew involved in the Dem party in the state always assumed he decided Vermont was the easiest place to finally have a legalization movement start (from his home in Masshole land at the time), so he decided to move there and start up the movement that he has (not that he started the "Progressive" party in the state though).

Dewey, Cheatem, & Howe said...

I think a lot of people move here to do something similar. You can become a big fish in this small pond kind of quickly.