Opinion: Why Vermont is different once again
As Vermonters, we are used to seeing ourselves compared to other states or regions of the country. Some positive, other negative, assessments.
We are usually associated with California as one of the bluest states in the union when talking about politics. Recent surveys list Vermont as one of the healthiest states in the nation. By contrast, national rankings also list Vermont as one of the most expensive states to live in based on our state and local tax policies and cost of living.
Nevertheless, Vermonters have tended to take pride in our history of being either the first in the nation or the last.
We were the first in the nation for any citizen to receive a Social Security check. That honor went to Ida May Fuller of Ludlow who got her first-in-the nation monthly check on Jan. 31, 1940 in the amount of $22.54. She had retired at age 65 as a legal secretary and lived to be 100 years old at her death in 1975.
As another example, Vermont and New Hampshire share the distinction of being the last two states in the country to elect a governor to a two-year term, with no term limit. In Vermont, at least, any effort to change the two-year term to a four-year term, which is the norm, appears dead on arrival based on repeated, failed, attempts.
Allow me to propose yet a new Vermont experience that may push Vermont, once again, into the limelight as a leading example for the nation as compared to the daily fare emanating from the current White House in our nation’s capital.
I am talking about how Vermont reporters are covering the COVID-19 crisis in Vermont and their interaction with Vt. Gov. Phil Scott, and how this compares to the White House and reporters covering the virus from a national perspective. The differing relationships provides stark contrasts for scholars to ponder in the future.
As John Dillon of VPR recently reported, the “last seven weeks have transformed Phil Scott’s job. In addition to managing an unprecedented health and economic crisis, the soft-spoken governor has become Vermont’s communicator-in-chief.” Scott has emerged into this role holding three-times a week press conferences for Vermont reporters. Most of them call-in from around the state, reporters asking questions of the governor and his top administration officials. The press conference is live for Vermonters who care to watch on-line on WCAX-TV or to listen to it on either VPR or WDEV radio, as well as Orca Media, a community television station in central Vermont.
I have watched most of the Vermont conferences and have been very impressed by the fact that reporters from all corners of the state actively participate online in the questioning, including many of the small community papers. The conferences, held on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 11 a.m., provide up-to-date information on all aspects of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Vermont.
Scott serves as the moderator and answers all the questions he can, but he is very quick to call to the podium key state experts to provide more detailed answers. Often these sessions last almost two hours, or a “marathon” as Scott described them. Recently, there were 26 reporters lined up for questions, often with a two-part question, or with a follow-up. Through Vermont reporters’ questions, we are given a valuable and broad perspective of the concerns of their readers or viewers. On other occasions, the reporters push the Scott administration to provide more transparency into the daily numbers coming from the health department. Veteran reporter Mike Donoghue has been a stalwart in pushing for more hard virus numbers for individual communities.
That said, I have yet to see Scott or his team display any irritation or anger at being prodded and pushed by the press to give out more information. If there is no immediate answer, the appropriate administration official will promise to get back with the data.
Scott has been consistent on one essential theme. He and his team will base all decisions on current facts and data, and not emotion or politics. Scott, a moderate, centrist Republican in a solidly Democratic state, says he is ready to take the heat for whether he has been too fast or too slow in his decisions.
Health Commissioner, Dr. Mark Levine, has emerged as a leading figure during these pandemic press conferences. His role is to just give the facts. It is to Gov. Scott’s credit that he consistently defers to him. The Governor says he makes every effort “to check his ego at the door” and is not to be viewed as the expert on all matters.
Vermont reporters are appreciative of the efforts by the administration to provide them with more detailed information, and they are not bashful is saying so. I don’t recall ever hearing so many “thank you’s” from the Vermont press for an administration as I have in the last few weeks.
Clearly, the Vermont picture described is in sharp contrast to the daily scene we observe coming from Washington. The Trump-led events are often more like campaign rallies then serious efforts to impart essential, and factual, information regarding the national pandemic. Unlike Republican Scott, the GOP President likes portraying the media as the “enemy of the people.” Trump is convinced this play well with his loyal supporters.
Unlike Scott, Trump is constantly trying to use his conferences to brag about himself or to berate and settle scores with the media at any opportunity during his staged virus briefings. Usually, any reporter asking the President a question he does not like, such as to whether he should take any responsibility for the pandemic virus disaster that is now the scourge of the country with no end in sight, is at best ignored, or more typically scorned.
By contrast, Scott has learned the value of and praises the media for its essential role in helping to inform Vermonters. As a result, he has stated that he intends to continue the practice of taking reporter’s questions from around Vermont at future press conferences.
In Vermont, the pandemic, so far, has not become an overly partisan issue, even though this is an election year. Recent surveys have shown, that by large margins, Vermonters approve the job being done by the Scott team. By contrast, in Washington, the political divide is so very evident, even to the point that many Republican lawmakers will not even wear protective masks as it provides a clear reminder of how bad Trump has mishandled the virus.
Unlike Washington with its polarized politics, Vermont is a civil place. Respecting its citizenry, by putting the common good of the state and community cooperation ahead of personal advantage, is still valued and practiced.
This civility is exemplified three times a week as Vermont reporters and the state’s current political establishment soberly deal with this devastating crisis. It is worth taking note.
The pandemic is altering our lives in substantive and potentially enduring ways. Hopefully, to some extent in Vermont, some good will result.
Stephen C. Terry is former managing editor of the Rutland Herald and a Middlebury resident.
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