Wednesday, September 21, 2011

THE VERMONT WAY: White House Dreams

So far, two people born in Vermont have become president of the United States. But others have made the attempt. The earliest was Mormon leader Joseph Smith, one of those restless Vermonters who struck out for the west in revival days. The next was Stephen Douglas, known as the “Little Giant,” who faced off against Abraham Lincoln. Then came Chester Arthur, who finally made it -- without actually running himself. And the second Vermonter to reach the White House - "Silent Cal" Coolidge, who also got the job when his predecessor died.

Silent Cal and Mother Jones talked politics in 1924.
Here's the latest excerpt from The Vermont Way, my upcoming book on Green Mountain values and history.

Previous excerpts

The Path to Marriage Equality

Voting Equality and the Hoff Effect

Mormons and the Presidency

How Vermont Went Republican

A Progressive Censors Red Emma

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Casualties of 9/11: Warning Signs

Casualties: Part Three

By Greg Guma

During the 20th century, humanity struggled through the early stages of a profound transformation. But after the dissolution of the "superpower" known as the Soviet Union, it became obvious that more than just a matter of one economic and social system prevailing over another was at stake. All systems began to experience severe stress. Alliances shifted unpredictably, ethnic and religious upheavals shook the world, and the planet itself shuddered under the threat of an environmental meltdown.

Before September 11, 2001, behind a calm and prosperous facade, US society was already in crisis, dancing on the Titanic while denying signs of chronic anxiety and dispiriting cynicism. Among the obvious symptoms: a preoccupation with disasters and scandals, nagging feelings of inner emptiness, repressed rage that led some to senseless violence, and insatiable appetites. Despite widespread doubts about the legitimacy of most institutions, not to mention the most recent presidential election, a defensive complacency allowed millions of people to continue ignoring reality.

Earlier in the year, when it was revealed that Henry Kissinger lied about his involvement in the overthrow of a democratic government in Chile two decades before, anger was quickly eclipsed by a handy rationalization. Now, at least, we knew the truth, and we certainly wouldn't be fooled again. But such a conclusion was naïve at best, and more likely another example of denial. Why? Because Kissinger epitomized a foreign policy apparatus that had changed little in more than half a century. To drive the point home, one of his leading proteges, John Negroponte, was shortly appointed US Ambassador to the UN. As one State Department official put it, "Giving him this job is a way of telling the UN: 'We hate you.'" Here was a stalwart imperialist, a man who had proven repeatedly that he was ready to act alone on behalf of US interests, and lie about it without blinking.

That Negroponte was the Bush administration's choice to represent the US at the UN spoke volumes about what to expect -- more jingoism, lies, confrontation, and a clumsy but persistent effort to manipulate reality. One clear example of the latter was the administration's position, dutifully parroted as fact in most press reports, concerning a UN anti-racism conference held in South Africa just two weeks before 9/11. The public was told that Secretary of State Colin Powell and the US delegation walked out as a protest in response to rhetoric directed against Israel. But the real fear, insiders knew, was that staying meant confronting US responsibility for slavery and, more pointedly, demands for financial reparations. The point of the UN gathering was to raise issues and stir conscience. The walkout, in contrast, was designed to muddy the former and divert the latter. Following hard on the end of the conference, the attacks on the US looked, at least in part, like a horrific reaction to US dominance and intransigence.

But when it came to distorting reality, the tactics and objectives were most ominously obvious in regard to the growing international movement against corporate globalization. As in every US political scare for the last 200 plus years, the attack on critics began by promoting the idea that political dissidents were dangerous threats to security and "order." The spin was well underway before the suicide attacks, with property damage by protesters providing the convenient rationale.

Denials to the contrary, the government was ready and eager to classify its opponents as terrorists or "fellow travelers." In May 2001, during testimony on terrorist threats before the Senate Appropriations Committee, departing FBI Director Louis Freeh helped light the fuse. "Anarchist and extremist socialist groups," he explained, "such as the Workers World Party, Reclaim the Streets and Carnival Against Capitalism, have an international presence and, at times, also represent a potential threat in the United States. For example, anarchists, operating individually and in groups, caused much of the damage during the 1999 World Trade Oorganization ministerial meeting in Seattle." In August, the FBI added Reclaim the Streets, which occupied roads with dance parties to protest capitalism and "car culture," to its list of "Threats of Terrorism."

The next, equally predictable move was to use public anxiety, heightened by a real (though anticipated) attack, to override rights like freedom of speech and assembly, privacy, and protection from cruel and unusual punishment. Obviously, the US isn't the only country vulnerable to such manipulation; only the most sophisticated, expert at concealing tyrannical impulses with facile excuses and a façade of well-honed platitudes.

Even before the Twin Towers came down, the spin of the year was the suggestion that "stability" was seriously threatened by economic forces and "extremists" abroad and at home. But with those unconscionable bombings, the ultimate excuse for a political crackdown was provided. Would public anxiety and complacency persist, allowing repression to escalate and take hold? Or, would it turn into righteous anger at the erosion of democracy in the name of security? That became the $64,000 question.

Next: Surrendering Freedom

What the Frack… Are They Thinking?

Maverick Chronicles, 9/15/2011: A New Song by Dave Lippman, Hydraulic Fracturing, Poverty Rising, Pacifica Remembers 9/11, and Murdering Journalists. Burlington: The College, the Mayor and Lockheed.  Plus, Local Democracy and the Big Question: How Much to Buy Rick Perry?

The idea is to increase or restore the rate at which fluids – like oil, water, or natural gas – can be extracted from subterranean natural reservoirs. Hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – makes possible (and profitable) the production of natural gas and oil from rock formations deep below the earth's surface. What could go wrong?

This video takes on the issue with a catchy new song by Dave Lippmann. Dave –  also known as anti-folk singer George Schrub – will be opening for David Rovics on Friday night (Sept. 16) in Brooklyn at the Park Slope Methodist Church. The evening wil benefit SOA Watch/Brooklyn for Peace. That’s 7:30 PM, at 8th St at 6th Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn.

They want shoot us up with chemicals / I don't mean to be polemical
But shooting chemicals into rocks/
Is that really thinking outside the box?
From Dave Lippmann’s “What the Frack?"

The problem with fracking is its environmental and human health effects, which appear to include contamination of ground water, risks to air quality, migration of gases and chemicals used in the process to the surface, and the potential mishandling of waste. Let’s also not forget any costs associated with the environmental clean-up processes, loss of land value and impacts on humans and animals.

A 2010 EPA study "discovered contaminants in drinking water including: arsenic, copper, vanadium, and adamantanes adjacent to drilling operations which can cause illnesses including cancer, kidney failure, anaemia and fertility problems."

This struggle is proceeding on many fronts and across the country. Last week, for example, a new panel made up of natural gas drillers, environmentalists and government officials began to advise New York's Department of Environmental Conservation about fracking. The impact on drinking water is one of the most common concerns. 

In New York, both private and public drinking water supplies near potential well sites will be tested before future drilling permits are issued. The DEC recently released the final draft of its regulations. The department will accept public comments on the proposed rules for fracking until December 12.

Meanwhile in Montana, a statewide conservation group says a set of new regulations requiring the disclosure of chemicals used in fracking don’t go far enough in protecting the rights of nearby property owners. "We are not satisfied, " said Derf Johnson, speaking for the Montana Environmental Information Center, last Tuesday. “We're definitely happy that the state is finally getting around to doing this, but the current regulations are fairly deficient.”

Under new rules from the Montana Oil and Gas Board, which went into effect for wells on state and private land August 26, producers can disclose the chemicals used in fracking fluid either to the board or to a "national fracturing fluid disclosure database" maintained by 

And hydraulic fracturing isn't just a US problem. Food & Water Watch has brought fracking to the attention of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, which is currently considering a report on the human right to water and sanitation.

In a letter to the UN Human Rights Commission, Food & Water notes that the oil and gas industry has its sights set on fracking in Europe. The US energy information administration forecasts 187 trillion cubic feet of gas resources available in Poland, followed closely by France at 180 trillion cubic feet. In France, however, which has seen strong protests, there is currently a moratorium against fracking.
Record Number of Americans in Poverty

The poverty rate in the US soared to 15.1 percent in 2010, its highest level since 1993, according to a Census Bureau report released on Tuesday. Household incomes continued to fall sharply, amidst the worst jobs crisis since  the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the number of people without health insurance increased. Analysis beyond the mainstream by Joseph Kishore, Countercurrents.

Pacifica Radio’s 9/11 anniversary special begins the way Sept. 11, 2001 actually began for many Pacifica listeners, with Amy Goodman reporting live from New York, just a few blocks from where the planes hit the World Trade Center towers. Now available as a podcast, it also includes Democracy Now! producers, along with Donald Rumsfeld, Chalmers Johnson, George W. Bush, Manning Marable, Christine Todd Whitman, rescue workers interviewed by Miranda Kennedy as well as Joe Picurro, plus Odetta, Rita Lasar and Masuda Sultan, Noam Chomsky, Terry Rockefeller (9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows), Alex Ryabov (Iraq Veterans Against the War), Seymour Hersh, Yanar Mohammed, and Afghan activist Rangina Hamidi. Click Pacifica on 9/11 for the podcast. Courtesy of Democracy Now!
Latin America: Deadly for Journalists 

Three journalists were killed in the space of a week in Brazil, Honduras and Peru, cementing Latin America's status as the most dangerous region for journalists in 2011.
On 8 September, Pedro Alonso Flores Silva, director of the news programme "Visión Agraria" in Casma, Peru, died two days after he was ambushed near his home. A hooded assailant got out of a taxi and shot him at least once in the abdomen, report the Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

According to Flores's wife, Mercedes Cueva Abanto, the journalist had been the target of frequent threats during the past three months for linking local mayor Marco Rivera Huerta to alleged corruption. The mayor, who had brought a defamation case against Flores, has denied any involvement in Flores's murder. This is the second murder of a journalist in Peru this year, both carried out in the north of the country.

In Honduras, there's Medardo Flores, a radio journalist who supported deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. On 8 September he was shot nine times in Puerto Cortés while returning home in his car, report the Comité por la Libre Expresión (C-Libre), the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), the International Press Institute (IPI) and RSF.

A week earlier in Brazil, Valderlei Canuto Leandro, a radio journalist known for his scathing critiques of the local authorities, was shot at least eight times by unidentified gunmen aboard a motorcycle. CPJ has documented an alarming rise in lethal violence in Brazil. Four other Brazilian journalists have been killed this year, and a blogger was shot and wounded.

According to IPI's Death Watch, Latin America is the deadliest region in the world for journalists in 2011, with at least 34 killings so far this year.  Full story from IFEX.


Michelle Bachmann isn’t famous for her accuracy, but she wasn’t making things up when she went after Lone Star candidate Rick Perry Last week. According to Democracy Now, newly disclosed records show that Ranger Rick has received more financial support from the drug giant Merck than he has acknowledged.

Perry came under criticism during a red meat Republican presidential debate last Monday night over his 2007 effort to force Texas schoolgirls to receive a vaccination for the sexually transmitted virus, HPV. A former top aide to Perry formerly worked as a Merck lobbyist, which stood to profit from the forced vaccinations.  Desperate to challenge the frontrunner and rescue her own campaign, Bachmann basically called out Perry as a drug company tool.

The debate was staged by CNN like a reality show, fueled by a raucous audience provided by its Tea Party co-sponsor, and stoked by incendiary charges. Perry tried to deflect Bachmann’s attack by saying Merck had only donated $5,000 to his campaign. "If you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended," he tried to joke. But the quip only sparked commentary on exactly how much buying Perry would actually take.

Well, according to the Washington Post, Merck has donated nearly $30,000 directly to Perry’s gubernatorial campaigns since 2000. Still small potatoes. But Merck has also given more than $380,000 to the Republican Governors Association, or RGA, since 2006 — the same year Perry began playing a prominent role in the group. He has served two terms as chair of the RGA, which in turn has given his campaign at least $4 million over the past five years.

So, that would be a total of $4.4 million. You can see why Perry was upset.  This guy is not a cheap date.
Other upcoming Dave Lippmann performances:

*Thursday, September 22:  Colors, 9-11 PM, From Palestine to Mexico: One Wall, One Struggle, featuring Son del Monton and Klezmer Musicians Against the Wall
*Saturday, October 22: People's Voice Café, New York, with Harmonic Insurgence, 40 East 35th St. 
*Thursday, November 10: US Labor Against the War fundraiser, New York,1199 SEIU Penthouse

As one of the country’s smallest schools approaches 40, it is dealing with enrollment and financial pressures on a large new campus.

The Burlington City Council has upheld Mayor Bob Kiss’s recent veto of an advisory resolution on community standards for climate change partnerships aimed at military contractor Lockheed Martin.

A new essay adapted from The Vermont Way: Restless Spirits and Popular Movements

COMING SOON: Vermonters and the White House

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

UPDATE: Burlington Council Sustains Mayor’s Veto

Burlington’s City Council backed its administration in a series of decisions Monday night, climaxing with a vote that upheld Mayor Bob Kiss’s veto of an advisory resolution on community standards for climate change partnerships aimed at military contractor Lockheed Martin.

The once and future mayors?
Prior to the decision on the climate change standards, the Council heard from Lockheed opponents during a public forum, and approved other resolutions to increase salaries and reclassify jobs in the Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO), Burlington City Arts (BCA) and the Burlington Electric Department.  A resolution congratulating BCA for its accomplishments over the last 30 years passed with only one opposing vote.

In early August, after more than six months of study and local debate, the City Council adopted a community standards resolution, largely in response to public criticism of a partnership agreement signed with Lockheed Martin by the mayor last December. More than 50 local residents testified on the issue during public meetings, all but a few opposing the deal.

Kiss called the standards that emerged “bad public policy” and questioned whether most city residents actually support what he called a “restrictive and regressive approach.” In the veto message issued on September 6, he added that while the policy adopted by the Council may have contributed to Lockheed’s decision to pull out of the Burlington agreement, it is “a sorry achievement” that runs contrary to “building respectful municipal partnerships.”

The anti-Lockheed turnout at Monday’s session was considerably smaller than at prior meetings that have focused on the issue. Anti-Lockheed organizer Jonathan Leavitt attributed the low attendance to the fact that Kiss issued his veto only last week. Others noted that the standards were only advisory and echoed the platform of the local Progressive Party, and several expressed disappointment with what they consider an anti-democratic action.

Some Council members were offended by public comments that questioned the ethics of anyone who voted to uphold the veto, as well as suggestions that backing the mayor represented support for a “rampantly corrupt norm.” In a letter read to the Council, Burlington Rep. Kesha Ram, the youngest member of the state legislature, argued that “community standards are what democracy is all about.”

Progressive Councilor Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, who originally introduced the resolution, said the issue goes beyond one military contractor and charged that Kiss has provided “no real explanation” for his decision. Democrat David Berezniak concurred, pointedly telling the mayor that “this isn’t political theater.”

But Kiss found support from some Republicans and Democrats on the Council, including potential GOP mayoral candidate Kurt Wright, who also questioned whether the standards represent local opinion. In the end the vote was again 8-6, more than a majority but not enough to override the veto.

The resolution celebrating Burlington City Arts was less contentious, with only Democrat Ed Adrian declining to express appreciation for its 30 years of work to make the arts "available to all regardless of 'social, economic or physical constraints'." Two other Council members joined Adrian in opposing resolutions to upgrade several positions on the BCA staff.  He also opposed the creation of new positions in the Community Justice Center and salary adjustments for top staff in the Fire Department.

“We’re creating a cycle where people argue about who is getting raises,” Adrian said. Concerning BCA, he pointed to the absence of “reasonable explanations” about how public and private funds are handled. On the other hand, he acknowledged that “City Arts is just as important as the Fire Department.” Kiss called BCA a public-private partnership success story.

The Council’s vote upholding the mayor’s community standards veto is a setback for the “No Lockheed” movement that has emerged since the deal was announced. Last week, after Lockheed Martin said that it was pulling out of the arrangement, opponents held a meeting to celebrate their victory over the corporation. The next day Kiss issued his veto.

Thus far, local criticism has focused on the deal signed by Kiss and the support of Vermont’s congressional delegation for Lockheed’s F-35, a controversial and expensive aircraft that might be bedded at Burlington International Airport – if it is finished. Less has been said about an emerging, low-profile partnership between Lockheed subsidiary Sandia labs and Vermont schools and businesses.

According to Sandia spokesmen, US Senator Bernie Sanders has been working with them for several years to develop a partnership focusing on smart grid technology, solar energy and cybersecurity. So far, Sandia has received about $1 million in Department of Energy funding for Vermont student internships and visits to its home base in New Mexico by eight UVM professors. However, the financial benefits for Lockheed could be far greater in the long run as relationships develop with Vermont energy business, state government and UVM. Vermont recently received a $69.3 million e-Energy American Recovery & Reinvestment Act grant to fund a smart meter implementation program. 

While Sandia proceeds to develop projects and a satellite lab, however, the City of Burlington is having difficulty deciding how it should address climate change. Kiss has made it a priority and argues that companies like Lockheed have a role to play in reducing the US carbon footprint. “Lockheed was reaching out to work with a local municipality,” he wrote to the Council last week. “The failure to define and pursue potential climate change solutions is a lost opportunity far more than a moral victory.”

For opponents, on the other hand, one of the country's biggest military contractors, in the past accused of “systemic, illegal, and fraudulent behavior” by Sen. Sanders, is not an acceptable partner, and the mayor’s decision to veto the Council’s guidelines only makes matters worse.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Daily Show Special: Why Rick Perry Could Win

Quite a week in the US of A: a Republican debate and the President's jobs speech to congress. Yawn. Still, Jon Stewart broke down the GOP dynamic and, more to the point, why Rick Perry could be the next president. Ranger Rick isn't appealing to our heads but to a place a bit further south on our anatomy. Hilarious yet chilling analysis of the choice ahead in 20212. Check out the video below.

Plus, it includes the zeitgeist moment of the 2012 race so far -- hundreds of charged-up Republicans in the Reagan library, huddled below Air Force One, erupting into cheers and applause at the mention that Perry has executed more people than any modern governor. PS He wasn't one bit embarrassed.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Burlington College: Forward into the Past

It’s been about 30 years since I last taught at Burlington College. At the time it had a different name, Vermont Institute of Community Involvement, also known as VICI, unusual for a college and somewhat misleading – if you assume involvement means an engagement with local issues.

What VICI’s founder actually had in mind was more modest, mainly the use of local venues – libraries, galleries, public buildings, other schools and such – as meeting spaces for classes. Involvement was primarily a question of location for what was called “a school without walls.”

After its first four years, the college had about 100 students, 15 faculty members, and an annual budget of under $200,000. In addition to using existing community spaces for classes rather than focusing on bricks and mortar, VICI also allowed students to design their own academic experience, and used qualitative, written evaluations rather than grades to assess student performance.

But in 1976 enrollment in the school’s associate degree program dropped for the first time. Steward LaCasce, a professor of literature who had launched the college with a small group of friends in 1972, attributed its financial troubles to a decrease in the number of veterans enrolling and a delay in degree-granting privileges for its new B.A. program.

The main building on a new campus
Faced with a growing deficit, LaCasce told the Board of Trustees in February 1977 that either staff salaries needed to be cut or the school might be forced to close. VICI survived that early brush with insolvency and won full accreditation in 1982. Over the next 20 years it became Burlington College, bought property on North Avenue to accommodate its growing staff and provide in-house classroom space, and more than doubled its student body. This year it moved to much larger facilities on land purchased from the Catholic Diocese for $10 million.  

In an exclusive story for vtdigger, I discuss the current challenges confronting the school. See Burlington College Grapples with Growing Pains. In the meantime, here is the story of how I left VICI back in the late 1970s:

The original idea was to attract non-traditional students, those who felt uncomfortable with conventional academic restrictions. About a third of VICI’s first students were young Vietnam era vets. Others were single parents and “adult learners,” people returning to school after a break. That contrasts with today’s younger student body.

At the 1976 annual meeting, held at the Baird Center in October, I joined the Board of Trustees as one of two elected faculty members. There were also two student seats on the Board at that time. After approving a series of bylaws amendments, the group voted to have the chair set up a special committee to evaluate the president’s performance, since he was coming to an end of a five-year term.

Shortly after that, I was elected to the executive committee, which led to an unusual assignment. I was to complete an analysis of the college’s administrative structure and processes, in line with other bylaws changes being considered and, especially, concern that the school might be facing budget cuts. I reviewed documents, observed meetings, and conducted extensive interviews with the staff.

The result was a report, issued in early January 1977, concluding that the administration was divided, morale was low, and the president was seen as mistrustful and isolated. The problems had been brewing, but this put them on paper. My concern, noted at the end of a seven-page report, was that “organizational health may soon be jeopardized.”

A month later, as Lou Colasanti became the school’s first recipient of a Bachelor of Arts degree, LaCasce responded with an analysis of his own during a “special meeting” of the trustees. He acknowledged an atmosphere he described with words like “conflict, demoralization and confusion.” But his main point was that fewer vets were applying and the Associate Degree program had been neglected in favor of new psychology and self-designed B.A. programs.  The result was a serious, survival-threatening situation:

As LaCasce presented it in his February 5 report, there were three choices:

1. Cut all staff salaries by 10 percent, but increase a half-time institutional services position to full time to improve morale. That would mean work over the next months to balance the budget.

2. Eliminate almost all staff positions, with the president and a few others taking on more tasks. This could be even more demoralizing, he admitted, and would require that the Board of Trustees  begin fundraising, or

3.  Close the College on June 30, 1977.

Unless the school was closing, he added, he wanted “the authority to suspend the current College committee structure until the Spring Meeting of the Board.” It was a bold move, designed to preempt the growing discontent among faculty and students.     

Two days later he asked me into his office. I was being fired, he explained, for three reasons. First, during the previous week I had participated in a student meeting that he considered disruptive. Second, I’ had said at a meeting that I was willing to accept a reduced salary due to the budget problems. This undermined other staff members, he charged. And finally, unity was necessary and other staff members didn’t trust me.

Afterward, I asked around and learned that his decision had been completely unilateral. No member of the staff or Board had requested that he fire me. In fact, the core staff disagreed.

Over the next few days a petition began to circulate and a community meeting was announced.  The idea was to combine my firing with some pro-active ideas, including a fundraising project and more student involvement in recruitment, curriculum and development.  In the meantime, LaCasce sent me two letters. The first was an immediate dismissal, although it ended with this:

“I’m extremely sorry that things have worked out this way, and I believe that many of your ideas will, in time, be incorporated as part of VICI.”

That didn’t prove to be true In fact, as VICI became BC it dropped some of the elements that had made it different than other colleges. What elements? Consider Article III from the original by-laws, concerning the powers of the Trustees.

The President, although having extensive authority, was treated somewhat like an elected official. In Article III, one section outlined what should happen before the president’s “term of office” expired. A nominating committee “shall be established to solicit names of possible candidates, and to submit to the trustees its choice of the best candidate.” The committee itself was to be composed of both trustees and others “nominated by the Policy Committee and ratified by a majority of the students and faculty.” That’s community involvement in an important institutional process.

On February 10, 1977, a day before the community meeting, I received another letter from LaCasce. “Many of your friends and students have asked me for specific details to support my decision,” he began. “I have said that I thought you could not work constructively within VICI this spring to help us reorganize the College and reach the goals that our trustees set at their February 5th meeting.” But he was willing to attend the meeting, he added, and would be more specific in public. It was an offer I could not refuse.

To be continued...

Monday, September 5, 2011

Intelligence Gap in a "Wonderful World"

The shape of 2012 Republican politics -- a brief musical interlude, based on the classic song by Sam Cooke, the King of Soul.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Libya Revisited: Images from Better Days

Muammar in Paris, talking revolution
Here is a rare collection of photos, with annotations, that give a sense of Libya before Cold War II, Reagan's enemies list, and the search for new designated enemies when the Soviet Union collapsed. Some are from a large format yearbook that was passed on by a prominent Republican in 1980. Though clearly propaganda it expressed a revolutionary spirit and commitment to "liberate man from all subjugation, backwardness and exploitation." It talked about "the Arab man," socialism, international solidarity and the role of sharia, with a large emphasis on rapid growth, industrial revolution, and universal health care and education. Clearly, the vision of a madman. CLICK HERE to see all seven images and related notes.

Lockheed Loses Burlington Showdown

Deal Derailed by People Power;
Reveals Prog Identity Crisis

By Greg Guma

As progressives around the country salivate at the possibility that Bernie Sanders, US Senator and Independent Socialist, might consider running for president in 2012, residents of the Vermont city where he made his political breakthrough have roundly rejected the approach he and his local allies have been taking to military contractor Lockheed Martin. On Sept. 2, the defense contractor backed out of a deal signed with the mayor in an e-mail message to the Burlington Free Press.

City Hall Auditorium was packed.
On Monday August 8, after more than six months of local debate, Burlington’s City Council voted 8-6 in favor of nonbinding community standards for proposed climate-change partnerships, prompted by an agreement between the city and Lockheed Martin. The resolution calls for standards which, if followed, would exclude working agreements on climate change with weapons manufacturers and polluters. 
Three weeks later, Rob Fuller, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin, explained, "While several projects showed promise initially and we have learned a tremendous amount from each other, we were unable to develop a mutually beneficial implementation plan. Therefore Lockheed Martin has decided to conclude the current collaboration." It read like a Dear John, and a silent bow to public pressure.

The latest developments represent a rejection of the deal signed with Lockheed by Mayor Bob Kiss last December. Kiss defied public pressure and the City Council, whose authority over such partnerships was called into question. After the Council vote the mayor's response was defiant. Discussions with the corporation would continue, he said. A few weeks later they were over.
Throughout the dispute Sanders refused to comment on the deal. Yet his typical views on corporate criminals and wasteful military spending are part of what makes him such a compelling potential alternative for the 2012 presidential race. Consider his fiery speech in October 2009 on the floor of the US Senate, taking on Lockheed Martin and other top military contractors for what he called their “systemic, illegal, and fraudulent behavior, while receiving hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money.”

Among other crimes, he mentioned how Lockheed had defrauded the government by fraudulently inflating the cost of several Air Force contracts, lied about the costs when negotiating contracts for the repairs on US warships, and submitted false invoices for payment on a multi-billion dollar contract connected to the Titan IV space launch vehicle program.

Sanders labeled the corporation a “repeat offender” that rarely faces serious penalties. “It is absurd that year after year after year, these companies continue doing the same things and they continue to get away with it,” he said.

Yet he and Mayor Kiss both invited the company to Vermont. For two years Sanders has been working with local energy companies and the University of Vermont to bring a satellite of the Lockheed subsidiary Sandia Laboratories to the state, while simultaneously welcoming the prospect that Lockheed-built F-35s might be bedded at the Burlington International Airport.  As Sanders has put it, if F-35s are going to be built and deployed, he prefers to see the work done by Vermonters.

Sanders visited Sandia headquarters in New Mexico in 2008. In January 2010 he took the next major step – organizing a delegation of Vermonters. The group included Green Mountain Power CEO Mary Powell; Domenico Grasso, vice president for research at the University of Vermont; David Blittersdorf, co-founder of NRG Systems and CEO of Earth Turbines; and Scott Johnston, CEO of the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, which runs Efficiency Vermont.

Despite concerns about Lockheed’s bad corporate behavior Sanders apparently doesn’t think that inviting a subsidiary to Burlington means helping them to get away with anything. Rather, he envisions Vermont transformed “into a real-world lab for the entire nation” through a partnership. “We're at the beginning of something that could be of extraordinary significance to Vermont and the rest of the country,” he said.
Sanders painted a rosy picture. Businesses, ratepayers and researchers would get a boost. A $1 million DoE planning grant was arranged. More support from the Department of Energy is expected as the project gains steam. Sandia Vice President Richard Stulen has confirmed Bernie’s pledge that no weapons development work will be involved. The focus, he promises, will be cutting edge research on cyber security, specifically a “smart grid” and stopping hacker attacks.

Sandia sees Vermont’s energy infrastructure as an “ideal place” to create a model for the rest of the country. The Department of Energy is reportedly impressed with work underway in the state on forward-looking renewable energy technology, as well as a willingness to “tinker with related policies and regulations.” True to the Lockheed playbook, Sandia has defined the lab’s mission as energy “security.” But the big carrot is the prospect of not only some jobs but a chance for Vermont businesses to get a “global competitive edge.”

The letter of cooperation between the city and Lockheed backed up this argument. Lockheed Martin Corporation Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Dr. Ray O. Johnson stressed national security and “the economic and strategic challenges posed by our dependence on foreign oil and the potential destabilizing effects of climate change.” The Burlington partnership, he said, would “demonstrate a model for sustainability that can be replicated across the nation."

On December 20, 2010 the Burlington mayor’s office announced the results of Mayor Kiss’s negotiations, begun at billionaire Richard Branson’s Carbon War Room. It was a “letter of cooperation” with Lockheed Martin to address climate change by developing green-energy solutions. The plan is vague, mentioning “sustainable business models” and analysis, and “energy and transportation technologies,” but Kiss envisions more fuel efficient vehicles, improving the use of steam from the city-owned generating station, and generally turning “swords into ploughshares.”

Anti-Lockheed organizer Jonathan Leavitt testifies.
The conflict between years of anti-corporate, peace movement rhetoric in the city and the decision by the two main elected leaders of the state’s progressive movement to make research and development deals with a powerful corporation – especially one that activists considered a war profiteer and corporate criminal – has since set off a local revolt and a moment of self-assessment.

Defense contracts represent less than five percent of state GDP, but substantially more in the Champlain Valley, home base for the two largest companies, General Dynamics and Simmonds Precision. Between 2000 and 2011 around 600 companies received $7 billion in contracts. Chittenden County was the big winner but there were smaller businesses employing people in almost every county, producing guns, ammunition, “quick reaction” equipment, explosive components, missiles and aircraft parts. The main Congressional booster for military jobs is Vermont's senior US senator, Patrick Leahy, who frequently makes appearances at factories to announce major contracts.

On the other hand, Burlington has a rich history of social activism, and has developed a series of foreign policy initiatives over the last three decades. As Ken Picard has explained in Seven Days, the city’s successful left-leaning weekly, the debate touches on “a bigger issue about Burlington identity and the corporations with which it chooses to associate: Given the dire predictions about imminent and catastrophic climate change, should the city accept Lockheed Martin’s technical help, and ample dollars, in the interest of achieving the greater good?

“Or, should Burlington refuse to lend its name and reputation to help burnish the image of the world’s largest maker of weapons of mass destruction? In short, is Lockheed Martin ‘beating swords into ploughshares,’ as Mayor Kiss had characterized it, or engaging in corporate greenwashing at Burlington’s expense?”

Those questions have not yet been resolved. The initial opportunity to discuss them came on February 7, 2011. City Hall Auditorium was crowded that night as the City Council considered the mayor’s arrangement with the company. In a scene reminiscent of the early days of the Sanders era, dozens of local citizens told their leaders why they didn’t approve of the deal. The August 8 meeting attracted a similar audience and the same sort of concern.

UPDATE: Corporate Person Martin Lockheed's speech at a Burlington Public Forum / "...Don’t be swayed by prejudice against corporate people. We deserve rights, just like everyone else. And we have so much to offer. Of course, we can’t talk about some of it. You know, National Security."

Bob Kiss is considerably less popular as mayor than he was two years ago. Major financial trouble have been uncovered in the financing and operation of Burlington Telecom, one of the major initiatives of the city’s Progressive administration. City government spent $17 million to build a system to deliver Internet, Cable TV and telephone services in the city. It also borrowed $33.5 million. But it hasn’t been able to handle the payments and the lender is threatening to repossess millions in equipment.

The city has defended Chief Administrative Officer Jonathan Leopold, first appointed to local office by Sanders more than 25 years ago, and itself in state investigations and a lawsuit filed by two taxpayers who want the enterprise sold off to help retire the debt.* Burlington Telecom is under interim management and actively looking for a private partner. But the prospects for finding a “white knight” while holding onto a minority stake aren’t bright, and the scandal has badly damaged the mayor’s reputation, not to mention the future prospects of the local Progressive Party.

The arrangement with Lockheed reinforced local anger. Left-leaning residents were shocked and angry that the city administration wanted to partner with a corporation that Sanders himself considers one of the biggest corporate perpetrators. In various speeches he has noted, for example, that it is number one in contractor misconduct, having engaged in 57 instances since 1995 and paid $577 million in fines and settlements.

In February, after more than an hour of public comments, the City Council instructed Mayor Kiss to put his arrangement on hold until they had more information and a public hearing was held. The resolution also called for serious effort on climate change and city standards for companies hoping to work with the city. However, a city attorney argued that since the mayor didn’t need Council approval to sign the agreement, he isn’t bound by its decision.

Sanders declined to be interviewed about Lockheed, the F-35s or his work with Sandia on a regional lab, except to say that any work done in Vermont will not involve weapons research or development. But when caught at a speech in Boston a few days after the February City Council vote and asked about local objections in Burlington, he told a journalist testily that he was misinformed. There was no opposition in his home town, Sanders said.

Mayor Bob Kiss and Kurt Wright.
Be that as it may, the City Council had voted to set standards that would clearly exclude Lockheed. Opposing the decision were a coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans, including potential mayor candidate Kurt Wright. That puts a leading local Republican on the same side of the issue as Mayor Kiss, a Progressive at the end of his second term. But the anti-Lockheed resolution was proposed by another Progressive, Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, and was backed by the only other City Council Progressive and most Democrats, including Ed Adrian, a leading critic of the Kiss administration who had earlier proposed outright rejection of Lockheed.

The dynamic dramatizes the rift that has developed between the grassroots progressive movement in Burlington and its own political leadership. Sanders’ name never came up at the August City Council showdown, but most people in the room were aware that their famous Senator has helped Sandia get a Vermont foothold, and also backs F-35 deployment at the airport despite substantial community opposition.

Mayor Kiss has insisted that the climate crisis requires radical action, while Sanders feels comfortable ignoring local opponents. According to recent polls, the 70-year-old Independent Senator is a prohibitive favorite for re-election next year – unless, of course, he’s serious about a possible presidential bid. He is, after all, a great admirer of Eugene Debs.

The outcome in Burlington, central base of the Vermont progressive movement for more than 30 years, is less certain. After experimenting with instant runoff voting, city residents repealed that initiative in 2010, largely at the urging of Wright, who almost defeated Kiss in 2009. Now that the old system has been restored, a mayoral candidate only needs to run first with at least 40 percent to win. That’s how Sanders did it in 1981, becoming mayor with slightly over 40 percent and a 10-vote margin.  

Based on his past performance Wright is within reach of victory, especially now that Kiss has alienated the progressive left wing and scandals like Burlington Telecom have soiled the administration’s image. Even if Kiss opts not to run again, or is rejected at the Progressive caucus, his party will need to heal its divisions and agree on a candidate capable of beating ambitious Democrats and Republicans, who smell victory for the first time in years. 

The best hope for Burlington Progressives at the moment is a Democrat sympathetic to their basic ideas. If they don’t strike a bargain with one, the coalition movement that launched Bernie Sanders, but has been losing momentum for several years, may be entering its final days.

The Burlington City Council; Progressive Emma Mulvaney-Stanak at far right.
In July Leopold explained under oath the city’s rationale for not revealing to the state the improper use of $17 million in general city funds to keep Burlington Telecom afloat in 2008 and 2009. The plan was to get new commercial financing for BT — which would allow repayment of the city money — and then announce the violation of the municipally owned utility’s state license to the Department of Public Service. “We would address the issue of non-compliance,” Leopold said, “when we felt we had a cure.” But the plan failed in late 2009 when the City Council, newly alerted to BT’s financial troubles, refused to authorize new debt.