Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Going to the Candidates’ Debate

"The candidates in the governor’s race consist of five liberals and a Dubie. From my experience, that doesn’t usually turn out to be very productive.”

- Leicester resident Tony Bates, in last weekend’s “Vermont Sketches” at Town Hall Theater

Sitting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon
Going to the candidates debate
Laugh about it, shout about it
When you've got to choose
Every way you look at it, you lose

You couldn’t blame them if the words to “Mrs. Robinson” were on the minds of the 200 Democrats who spent a lovely spring afternoon in the gloomy confines of Dana Auditorium last Sunday. Listening to the five Democratic gubernatorial candidates during their debate, the readily acknowledged question was, “Which one of these people can beat Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie?” the sole Republican in the race.

But the unspoken question among the party faithful was, “Are going to lose this one, too?”

Vermont Democrats have watched in anguish as one challenger after another has lost to Republican Gov. Jim Douglas of Middlebury. Now that Douglas is retiring, the Democrats think this just might be their year. Or not.

Will one of these five capable candidates emerge from the pack to give this very liberal state a Democratic governor?

Or will the five hopefuls simply tear each other apart between now and the August primary, while Dubie bides his time and hoards his campaign dollars for a fall tidal wave that will stem the Democratic tide?

The candidates have done these debates something like 18 times. But for Addison County residents, Sunday’s pow-wow was probably the only time we will see the Fantastic Five Road Show.

The hopefuls span the spectrum from the earnestly boring Susan Bartlett, a centrist and longtime Lamoille County state senator, to the occasionally snarky and unabashedly liberal Peter Shumlin, the president of the State Senate.

Between them Sunday, both physically on the dais and in their styles, were former Windsor County State Sen. Matt Dunne, Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, and Chittenden County State Sen. (and former Lt. Gov.) Doug Racine.

It’s hard to handicap this race in the relatively early days of the campaign. But a few things were obvious after Sunday’s debate.

First, it’s striking to see how ideas that are regarded as slightly dangerous by most Americans – gay marriage and reducing global warming, for example – are simply part of the Democratic orthodoxy in Vermont.

There are certainly nuances among the Fantastic Five. But nobody raises an eyebrow when a candidate calls for single-payer healthcare.

The two most interesting candidates are Dunne and Shumlin – Dunne for his background and a couple fresh ideas, and Shumlin for being the hottest head and most quotable personage in the room.

Shumlin led the charge in the Senate that resulted in the overwhelming rejection of Vermont Yankee’s application to continue operating its ominously aging, Entergy Louisiana-owned nuclear power plant in Vernon. He wears that as a badge of honor, boasting, “I’m the number-one enemy of Entergy Louisiana in America.”

Asked how to help dairy farmers, he replies that as governor he’ll go after “those crooks in Texas who are stealing our farmer’s milk.”

And Shumlin is not above taking a shot at his fellow candidates – taunting Racine, for example, because of his loss to Douglas in the 2002 governor’s race. Even Shumlin notes that one of his friends told him, “You look like one of those slick out-of-staters.” And indeed he does, though he is a native Vermonter.

Markowitz has earned the admiration of those who closely follow state politics, for her capable administration of the secretary of state’s office. But she failed to impress many of us on Sunday.

She might be a strong candidate in the general election, having won statewide election six times, yet she seems unlikely to get that far based on Sunday’s performance. Despite her current lead in fundraising, it’s hard to imagine that Markowtiz will spark the kind of fire in her followers that will be necessary to win an August primary. At that time of year, all but the most dedicated among the electorate will be politically snoozing through summer.

As for Racine, well, give him points for having a strong Chittenden County base and being right up there with Bartlett on the Earnest Meter. Plus he touched a chord when he portrayed the urgent need to close Vermont Yankee as a moral issue. We should not, he asserted, pass to future generations the responsibility for turning away from nuclear to cleaner and safer forms of energy.

It’s always refreshing to hear a Democrat who’s not afraid to talk about morality now and then.

The cipher in this race is Matt Dunne. Will he fade, or catch fire?

Dunne’s strongest suit is his intriguing professional experience which, in contrast to the other four, reaches well beyond the bubble of Vermont politics.

Having been elected to the Vermont House from his hometown of Hartland as a 22-year-old, Dunne served 11 years in the Legislature. He was then director of the national AmeriCorps VISTA program. These days Dunne runs community affairs for Google, working remotely from White River Junction.

In a time when Vermont truly does need 21-century answers to its many challenges, Dunne’s more varied experience will appeal to many, and rightly so. He’s especially passionate about the need to revamp healthcare. He also talks about “leveraging our extraordinary environmental brand” to promote Vermont’s businesses, and drawing on biomass for energy production to make things better “in the plant and in the woods.”

Whether Dunne can triumph over candidates with better name recognition is an open question. But he’s already begun to attract key supporters including Bill McKibben, the author and 350.org leader. McKibben’s letter supporting Dunne, which appeared last week in this newspaper, is now a prominent piece of Dunne’s campaign literature.

We’ll see what the future brings for Dunne and the others. The Democratic primary campaign could results in fireworks among the Fantastic Five, which will temper the winner into a formidable force November.

Or it could turn into a war of attrition – the Democrats’ nightmare -- that leaves the winner exhausted and broke and facing a tanned, rested and ready Brian Dubie in the general election.

-30 -

Friday, April 02, 2010

How It Sugars Off in Starksboro, with John Elder

You’re in for a muddy ride this time of year, if you turn up onto Big Hollow Road off Route 116 in Starksboro.

There's a short stretch of pavement as the road climbs steeply out of the valley. But it's all dirt from there.

As on so many of Vermont's less travelled roads, a surprising number of people live back in the hollow.

Just about when you think the settlements will give way to untouched forests, you arrive at the optimistically named Hillsboro Manor mobile home park.

The children who live there know that however muddy things might be in the spring -- and however isolated they might feel up there in the big hollow -- this season is the time for a special visit to the sugar shack up the hill. There's a nice older couple doing the boiling on weekends. They can be counted on to give young visitors a warm welcome and the taste of a doughnut with fresh maple syrup drizzled over it.

The Maggie Brook Sugarworks is deep in the hills, but those kids from Hillsboro Manor aren't the only visitors. There is, for example, a man who lives in Huntington but spends most of his days walking through the woods on Sugar Hill, whatever the weather. He can be counted on every year to drop in and buy a couple quarts.

Many other adults make the trek, too -- drawn as much by the owners as by the sweet syrup itself.

Bristol residents John and Rita Elder, you see, aren't your usual sugar makers.
Rita taught for 25 years in Lincoln before retiring a couple years ago. John is approaching the end of a 37-year career of teaching at Middlebury College, the Bread Loaf School of English and Bread Loaf Writers Conference.

He's the author or editor of several volumes, including the especially fine Reading the Mountains of Home. The book explicates a Robert Frost poem, "Directive" and relates Elder's exploration of the wild mountain woods around Bristol.

Though John and Rita are originally from California, they sank their family roots even deeper in Vermont a decade ago when they decided to take up sugaring.

John and his sons Matthew and Caleb, adopting what John calls "a Thoureavian approach," invested plenty of sweat equity but only a few hundred dollars in building the structure that houses the sugar works. The original operation was similarly spartan -- strictly gravity-fed and built using what John calls “the jerry-rigged technology of sugaring,” with the sap boiled off by wood heat.

The sugar shack has grown from its original form over the past 10 years. The Elders have added a wood- storage area on one end and on the other, housing for the sap tanks.

These days, too, a generator hums in the background as the sap boils in the foreground.
The generator creates a vacuum that helps draw sap down through the tap lines strung on the steep hill above. With climate change making sap runs less predictable, the vacuum provides for sap on marginal days. The generator also powers a blower that makes the wood burn more efficiently.

For much of this season the Elders have been burning poplar -- not the best wood for converting 40 gallons of sap into a single gallon of syrup.

But when one of the Elders' sons built his house near the sugarworks, he had to take down two large poplars. So poplar it is, until that's gone and they can again turn to better-burning hardwoods such as red maple and oak, harvested from their 142-acre plot.

Though most of the snow was gone from Sugar Hill when I visited last Saturday, there was still some ice in the puddles. Down in the Banana Belt of Bristol and parts south, most sugar makers were done for the year. But the sap was still coursing in this cold hollow.

At my request, Caleb Elder picked up a distinguished-looking banjo that rested on a chair in the sugar house and played a few bars. It's a banjo he made from cherry wood, with an oak-leaf motif at the top.

I commented that he obviously knows his way around a banjo fretboard, given that the instrument was fretless and therefore provides few clues on where to place the fingers of the left hand.

"With the banjo," Caleb shrugged, “if you’re off by a little bit, you just keep wiggling your fingers."

It’s the kind of “good enough is best” approach that serves sugar makers everywhere. The only perfection is the end result.

Last Saturday was going be a long day and night for Caleb. With the last run of the season likely approaching, he and his brother -- the younger Elders -- were planning to spend all night sugaring.

Hundreds of Vermont sugar makers boil and toil in obscurity, but not the Elders.
John told the story of starting Maggie Brook Sugarworks in The Frog Run, an essay collection. A few years ago, the New York Times reported on efforts by Elder, joined by local writer and UVM faculty member Amy Trubek and others, to determine whether it could justifiably be claimed that Vermont maple syrup exhibits different characteristics depending on where it is created.

Could maple syrup, like fine French wine, claim to be influenced by terroir?

Elder says the jury is still out. We will, in the vernacular, have to see how that sugars off.

But he swears he can identify maple syrup made in Starksboro because it has a hint of vanilla.

"And of course," he adds with a smile, "Starksboro maple syrup is the best."

-- 30 –