MONTPELIER — In just nine days, Vermonters will elect a U.S. senator, a congressman and a governor. Yet all eyes Nov. 6 will be on a down-ticket race for treasurer.
The vast sums of money flowing into a cutthroat contest between incumbent Democrat Beth Pearce and Republican challenger Wendy Wilton underscore this race’s status as the highest-stakes match-up of 2012.
The intensity of the media gaze is attributable in part to the lack of suspense at the top of the ballot. But harsh rhetoric from both candidates, and some jaw-dropping allegations from one, have heightened the electoral drama in what is generally a sleep down-ticket affair.
Asked to explain the outsized profile of their race, Wilton and Pearce offer differing theories.
Wilton says she’s been targeted by a power elite that views her emphasis on fiscal “transparency” as a threat to its reign.
“It’s really not so much a partisan issue as I think the small number of people who are completely in power in (government), who hold all the keys — they want to hold onto that,” Wilton said last week. “This piece of transparency threatens the status quo and that’s why I think the race has heated up.”
Pearce credits the state’s first conservative super PAC — which has spent well into the six figures on Wilton’s candidacy — for corrupting the integrity of a race that has strayed from the issues.
“I think the change has been Citizens United and the ability of a super PAC to come into Vermont and for one individual … with an extreme position to have an influence on Vermont’s election,” Pearce said Friday.
Whatever the reason for the drama, it’s still anyone’s race, according to polling data obtained by the Vermont Press Bureau. A survey of 501 voters commissioned by Democrats in late September showed Pearce winning 37.3 percent of the vote to Wilton’s 34.3 — a statistical dead heat.
The most important piece of information from the poll: more than a quarter of the electorate, 23.6 percent, remained unsure.
For nine days, Pearce, Wilton, and the outside forces aiming to influence this race will be working hard, and spending heavily, to win over the undecideds that will ultimately determine Vermont’s next treasurer.
The Wilton offensive
A series of blows from Wilton had the Pearce campaign fighting from the ropes for much of the fall. The attacks began in early October, when Wilton said Pearce’s status as a renter called into question her “personal commitment” to Vermont. They culminated last week when, during an afternoon press conference in the Statehouse, Wilton suggested that Pearce supporters had abused their influence at the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank to undermine the Republican’s candidacy.
At a meeting in mid-June, the six-person board that oversees the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank voted to place Rutland City on a so-called “monitoring list,” which includes communities with fiscal situations deserving heightened attention.
Wilton told reporters that the timeline raised some troubling questions.
“I announced I was running for state treasurer in the middle of May, and then come June, at the next Vermont Municipal Bond Bank meeting, there’s this action, where the board, which includes several supporters of Treasurer Pearce, and contributors to her campaign, make the decision to develop this internal list, not shared with the communities affected,” Wilton said.
Pearce sits on the board and recused herself from the vote, as did board member John Valente, a resident of Rutland City (board members, as a practice, don’t cast votes that might directly impact their communities).
The remaining voters included at least two contributors to Pearce’s campaign. David Coates, a noted economist and longtime member of the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors, dismissed as “ridiculous” any suggestion that he’d abuse his role on the board for Pearce’s political gain.
Coates has donated $2,000 to Pearce for Treasurer.
“It sounds to me like it’s getting to the end of the campaign and Wendy seems to be pulling out everything thing she can,” Coates said Friday.
Bob Giroux, executive director of the bond bank, said he was there for the vote.
“My observation of this board is they have very high ethical standards, and the fact that Rutland was put on the list had nothing to do with Wendy running for treasurer.” he said.
Giroux said Rutland’s inclusion on the monitoring list was due solely to its unfunded pension liability. When the city was placed on the list, the pension for public employees was 72 percent funded.
“And we just wanted to monitor that over time,” Giroux said.
Wilton proceeded Thursday to charge Pearce and Gov. Peter Shumlin with a breach of fiduciary trust — she also suggested possible violations of federal law — for revealing publicly that Rutland City was on the monitoring list.
When Pearce in a debate last Monday disclosed that Rutland City was on the list, it was news to Wilton, who had not been informed of the development by the bond bank. Pearce, as state treasurer, had ready access to the information.
Wilton said Thursday the cities on the list were subject to protection from disclosure, and that by peddling in “insider information,” Pearce and Shumlin may have undermined Rutland’s fiscal health, and the soundness of its bonds, by leaking the information “for political gain.”
“This is not just political rhetoric,” Wilton said. “These disclosures are bound to a higher standard, is my understanding, through the SEC and the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank’s own policies.”
Giroux, however, said that’s not true. The monitoring list is a public document unprotected by any exemptions and available to anyone who asks to see it, he said Friday.
Giroux also said a municipality’s inclusion on the monitoring list has no material affect on its bond rating, or its fiscal standing on any other front, for that matter.
“This is not a penalty of any sort,” Giroux said. “We just want to make sure we’re fully informed and watching them play out the plan put in place to mitigate this unfunded liability. Everything we do is public.”
Through either her own campaign or Democratic surrogates, Pearce spent the last week trying to retake upper ground by unleashing her own flurry of attacks.
The assault began with the got-ya moment on the WDEV debate in which Pearce revealed to the radio audience that Rutland City had been placed on the monitoring list.
Giroux said that list in no way reflects on the financial management of the city.
Pearce followed it up by accusing Wilton of misleading voters by blaming the state treasurer’s office for a fiscal transparency rating handed down earlier this year by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. In fact the D-minus grade, Pearce said, was assigned to the Department of Finance and Management. The USPIRG report assailed the state for a fiscal opacity over which Pearce says the treasurer’s office has no control.
“You continue to talk about a D-minus rating that has nothing to do with the treasurer’s office, and I can’t quite figure out whether this is disingenuous or if you do not understand the role of the treasurer’s office,” Pearce said during a debate broadcast on Vermont Public Radio on Friday. “What are you going to do about these misstatements?”
Wilton said Pearce was seeking to exculpate herself by drawing arbitrary lines between government bureaucracies. As treasurer, Wilton said, she’d use the treasurer’s office to instill a culture of transparency across state government.
Pearce’s supporters, meanwhile, launched their own offensive. Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding cut a pro-Pearce radio ad that was later aired by the liberal super PAC Priorities PAC. Key Democratic senators last Tuesday convened a press conference to pillory Wilton’s record as an “extremist” senator. She was one of only a handful of conservative lawmakers to vote against raising the minimum wage and instituting Catamount Health.
Wilton represented Rutland County in the Vermont Senate for a single term in 2005 and 2006.
Wilton said last week that her legislative record should have no bearing on her candidacy for treasurer — a position she says should be devoid of policy advocacy.
The money rolls in
Over a 13-day period this month, the GOP super PAC Vermonters first, funded by Republican benefactor Lenore Broughton, invested nearly $110,000 in Wilton’s candidacy. The expenditures came in the form of radio and television advertisements and statewide mailings.
When it comes to outside spending on Wilton’s candidacy, that may be only the tip of the iceberg.
The same super PAC in September spent nearly $150,000 on television ads, many of which featured Wilton (itemized expenditures on specific candidates before Oct. 7 are difficult to track, since Vermont law requires mass media disclosures only within 30 days of an election). The super PAC also sent Wilton mailings prior to the 30-day mass-media-disclosure window.
Wilton’s own campaign, meanwhile, has raised about $75,000
Pearce has benefited from some outside help, though expenditures by the left-leaning Priorities PAC, about $16,000 to date, pale in comparison to Vermonters First.
But, astoundingly, Pearce’s own campaign managed to out-raise Republican gubernatorial candidate Randy Brock last month. As of Oct. 15, she’d raised $186,000 from nearly 1,000 donors.
The incumbent Democratic governor, meanwhile, had as of Oct. 15 spent $160,000 on his candidacy. Brock had spent about $585,000 (with only $110,000 left in the bank). And the governor’s race has been virtually ignored by the kinds of outside groups that spent so heavily on the top of the ticket in 2010.
Given the neck-and-neck polling numbers especially, there’s no reason to think that Broughton won’t continue to spend heavily until Nov. 6. Vermonters First commissioned its own $17,500 poll on Oct. 11, the results of which the Press Bureau was unable to obtain.
By the time it’s all said and done, money spent on the treasurer’s race could rival total expenditures in the race for governor.
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