Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo Kathie McClure, of Atlanta, Ga., sits on the steps of her modified bus in Montpelier on Thursday. McClure has been traveling the country working for health care reform and was in Vermont to protest outside the home of conservative super PAC funder Lenore Broughton in Burlington.
Was it a healthy display of political activism? Or a strong-arm tactic designed to intimidate?
A protest held outside the Burlington home of the lone contributor to a conservative super PAC has sparked a debate over whether freedom of assembly should extend to the private properties of political donors.
Longtime GOP patron Lenore Broughton has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars this fall on advertisements and mailings aimed in part at dampening public support for single-payer health care.
Peter Sterling, executive director of Vermont Leads, the pro-single-payer group that organized Thursday’s protest, said the only physical trace of Broughton’s super PAC, called Vermonters First, is a post office box in St. Albans.
“We cannot very well take our message to a P.O. box in St. Albans,” Sterling said. “Lenore Broughton has chosen to wade into a very political fight. … We all believe Lenore Broughton has the right to spend her money any way she wants to influence the battle of ideas, but we don’t think her vision for Vermont is appropriate.”
Tayt Brooks, treasurer for Vermonters First, which has also run TV and web ads touting Republican candidates for treasurer and auditor, said in a written statement that Sterling’s group “should be ashamed of itself and its leaders for staging an angry protest at the private residence of a respected Vermont citizen.”
“This action is not only threatening but it is clearly meant to intimidate and silence a citizen,” Brooks said.
Brooks’ news release also included a written statement from Broughton, who until Thursday had yet to comment publicly on her expenditures.
“I support Vermonters First because I believed outside groups were coming into our state and drowning out the voices of the people who actually live here,” she said.
Broughton was alluding to the out-of-state funding source of Vermont Leads; the organization has been underwritten entirely by the Service Employees International Union, which has no members in Vermont.
“Now I know it for a fact. They’re outside my house,” Broughton said. “We should not allow ourselves to be bullied in our state, and I’m sure Vermonters won’t.”
Kathie McClure, a health care advocate from Georgia who was in Vermont on Thursday as part of a 50-state tour championing reform, was among the handful of protesters who marched outside Broughton’s home.
“It’s not my goal to be impolite to anyone,” said McClure. “I’m just one person using my voice, and I know she’s using hers in a different way because she has a whole lot more money than I do to spend on it.”
Jeff Wennberg, executive director of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, said McClure and Sterling are trying to glorify thug tactics that shouldn’t be welcome in Vermont.
Wennberg has refused to identify the donors to his group, and Thursday’s protest, he said, is a perfect example of why.
“This is not an example of Vermont’s traditional tolerance of differing views. This is intimidation and bullying,” Wennberg said. “It’s fine to have differences in the arena of ideas, but I think most Vermonters view your home as private and somewhat sacrosanct, and that political differences and discussions, they belong in the public square.”
Republican candidate for governor Randy Brock had a more positive view of Thursday’s march.
“America is a free country and people have the right to picket and to show their opinions and to demonstrate them,” Brock said. “Vermonters First has a right to advertise, and people have a right to picket. That’s what being a free country is all about.”
The late-afternoon protest drew about 15 people, who marched from a nearby park to the road outside Broughton’s home. Sterling said the sidewalk outside the residence had been torn up for a public-works project, but that demonstrators walked past the house.
Broughton didn’t come out to greet them. Sterling said he left a letter in her mailbox inviting her to “talk with us about why we believe single-payer is necessary.”
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