Hey, Hey…Let’s Do the Shumlin Shuffle

By Kevin Joseph Ryan

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, while reelected with a comfortable 20 point margin on Election Day, is still filling out the final days of his first term, and will not begin his second until January 2013. However, he is busying himself already with setting the tone for his second term, which frankly, looks a lot like it will be similar to the first one. There will be a few changes, such as a change-up in his senior staff of seven key employees. The highlight there of course will be that Chief of Staff bill Lofy will be leaving to work with the Democratic Governors Association, to be replaced by Commissioner of Public Service Liz Miller and Deputy Chief of Staff Alex MacLean will be leaving, having served since Shumlin’s 2010 election campaign. This shuffling of the decks was announced at a press conference in the Governor’s Offices at Montpelier’s Pavilion House Tuesday, November 13.

However, what is not generally known outside the Vermont press corps who attends such conferences, is that this meet-up and announcement was originally scheduled for the following morning, Wednesday , November 14. Late Tuesday afternoon, Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding’s Office issued the monthly Vermont Revenue Report for October, which the Associated Press covered as a Wednesday story and might have come up during the Governor’s Q&A. This report showed personal income revenue as down 4% for the year and the insurance premium sector down by 17% for the month, although on target for the year. The Governor luckily did not have to address this when the meeting got moved. Could this have been part of the Shumlin Shuffle?

This Governor is certainly quick on his feet. During the recent campaign, the Governor wooed environmentalists at the Sheraton Renewables Expo with a story about how well he gets along with bears. “I love bears.” Shumlin said. “Bears love me. I do things with bears no other Governor does.” This all an obvious reference to a spring incident wherein the Governor described himself as having a very personal nighttime encounter with a bear in his backyard, at close range, while trying to move bird feeders.” More recently, at this Thursday’s Vermont Statewide Housing Conference, the Governor took a surprisingly long time to get to the stage once announced from the podium. There‘s should be no doubt that Shumlin was not late to the event, but let the audience of housing experts know, with a humorous quip, “Hey, thank you all for the extraordinary work that you’re doing, here, but I was trying to get a cup of coffee.” Whether it’s running from bears or dashing to the podium with a joke, Peter Shumlin is so deft he perhaps aught to offer dancing lessons.

The gathering of over 300 Vermont housing experts was to review and plan for the future of housing needs, and included nearly every housing organization statewide, from the Burlington based Committee on Temporary Shelter to the Brattleboro Housing Authority. What the Governor did offer, while not dancing lessons, was a shuffle worthy of Dancing with the Stars. He managed to shoehorn every policy goal of his administration into the heading of ending homelessness and creating increasing housing availability….including a few that don’t hold up under the microscope.

“We all know that our goal is, in this administration, I’m sure across all Vermont, is to end homelessness. My crusade to put them out of business, we want to close them down together.” The Governor began. “What’s driving homelessness? We know what’s driving homelessness…its education, its economic opportunity….its also a lack of health care…people make terrible choices for health care.”

Regardless of whether you believe that health care is human right or not, one must stretch to conclude that a lack of health access causes homelessness.

Shumlin then moved on to the economic factor, which while it may be a driver of homelessness, was presented curiously. Shumlin explained, “At a time when employers tell me all over Vermont, Governor, the last two years we’ve seen some changes, things are looking better. When I came on two years ago, employers were looking at their boots, and saying, hey governor, were thinking of doing a layoff, or we are doing a layoff. Now we cant find enough employees to do the work that we have.” Shumlin may not have checked with either Energizer or GE Healthcare before reporting this news. Both companies have announced Vermont layoffs this past week, totaling over 200 jobs lost.

Shumlin then cited his successes over the past two years in the realm of mental health, moving from a central state hospital to regional and mostly outpatient treatment. “Mental health patients are no different than people suffering from cancer or kidney disease, they don’t want to be treated away from home…they want to be treated close to home. Together were building the best community based mental health system in the county , where you can get service close to home….so, you don’t have to get to the stage of acute care where you need the most acute hospitalization.” The Governor may need a reminder that beginning with the community based California mental health system begun in the 1970’s, homelessness actually increased. Nowhere in Vermont is this more visible than Burlington’s own Church Street, which suffers from a terrible overrun of mental health outpatients who routinely menace visitors.

The Governor wrapped up his policy two-step with an opportunity for questions and comments from the crowd. None were forthcoming, despite Shumlin’s final retort of the morning. “There’s no press here, so you can say whatever you want”, he told the group. Had he noticed True North Reports in the back of the room? He told this reporter he was kidding afterwards, but does he think he can waltz by that line?