By SALLY WEST JOHNSON Herald Correspondent Harlan Sylvester is a hard man to find, which is just as he intends. The publicity averse investment banker rarely shows his face on the Burlington social scene, where the state’s economic and political upper crust mingle. When pressed, he reluctantly hands out an old snapshot of himself “because once you let one photographer through the door, you have to let them all in, and I just can¹t have that.” In fact, as much as possible, he doesn’t talk to the press at all. “I believe you never take credit for anything,” says Sylvester. “You can be much more effective that way.” What no one doubts is that Harlan Sylvester is effective. When Gov.-elect James Douglas was thanking people during one of the debates, Sylvester’s name was first on his list. That’s because in large part, it was Harlan Sylvester’s considerable influence and strategic skills that helped put the apparent underdog candidate in office. Sylvester says he decided on Douglas as his candidate of choice two years ago as soon as he knew Howard Dean would not run again — which was well before most people knew of Dean¹s decision. “I had known both Doug (Racine) and Jim (Douglas) for 20 years, and I thought Jim would provide better fiscal management of the state by a wide margin. I felt we needed balance — our congressional delegation is all what Jeff Greenfield called hard left — and I felt it was important to the outside world to perceive us as having balance.” “I could have supported Con Hogan,” he adds, “except that I didn¹t think Con had a shot at winning.” To hear Sylvester tell it, he was “a bit player” in a successful Douglas campaign strategy orchestrated by Skip Vallee, Mike Smith and Douglas campaign manager Neale Lunderville to “define Doug for the voters as the flip-flop candidate. It wasn¹t hard. Neale did the research, but we knew there had been a lot of flip-flops just in the last 18 months, and we felt voters needed to know that.” Douglas, on the other hand, after years of public service as secretary of state and then state treasurer, had virtually no legislative record, good or bad. As for Douglas’ record as state treasurer, Sylvester pooh-poohs any notion that his performance was sub-par, an allegation bandied about in Racine’s campaign ads. “Sure our pension funds lost money, but they did better than the national average,” explains Sylvester. “Jim did some good things as state treasurer, but that was all subtle stuff. He didn¹t have a legislative history to attack so it was hard for Racine to run against it.” Instead, Sylvester et al chose to portray Douglas “as an honest, sincere guy who would do the right thing — which is what he is. He dwelt on job creation, fiscal responsibility and permit reform, and Racine certainly didn’t have a track record on any of those issues.” Douglas’ other important platform item was to promote a law that would keep track of where convicted drug dealers make their home — in shorthand, “a Megan¹s Law for drug dealers.” Sylvester says his polling indicates that voters “supported it better than 3 to 1.” He personally had jumped on that train long before it ever left the station. “We can’t have economic development if the state has a reputation for drugs,” he says. “What business wants to relocate to a drug haven?” Unlike the media polls that had Racine ahead throughout the campaign, Sylvester¹s polling indicated that the race was tight, which verified for him that the strategy was working. “The last three weeks, we tracked every night,” he says, “so I knew the (Burlington Free Press) poll on Sunday (which showed Racine with a 10-point lead) was wrong. I knew it was weighted wrong -— they talked to too many Democrats and not enough Republicans. Besides, Friday and Saturday nights are bad nights to poll; everybody in politics knows that. The numbers I got Friday morning showed the race tightening up, and the Monday morning numbers showed it even tighter.” It is just that sort of inside-baseball knowledge and strategic thinking that have put Sylvester where he is today — at the head of a short list of the state’s most influential political go-to guys. Fred Hackett, the man many consider to be Sylvester’s political doppelganger, concurs with that characterization. “I’ve known Harlan for more than 30 years,” says Hackett, whose name in on that same short list and who is just as publicity-shy as his friend. “Harlan is an effective guy and a man of conviction who works hard to make Vermont a better place.” Luke Albee is more forthcoming. Albee’s boss, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., hails from the other end of the same Democratic camp as Harlan Sylvester, and Sylvester has been a Leahy supporter over the years, albeit an occasionally vocal one. “Harlan is all bite and no bark,” says Albee, “but we value his blunt, no-nonsense advice. His strength is that he¹s the same guy now as he was when he didn¹t have two nickels to rub together, which gives him a valuable Everyman quality. Politics attracts sycophants, and it’s important to have folks like Harlan who will be blunt.” Of the recent campaign in which Leahy strongly supported Racine, Albee won’t say that Sylvester cost Racine the election, only that “he’s a forceful and determined opponent. It¹s easier to be part of a campaign when he’s on your side.” The consistent theme of Sylvester’s long years as a political king-maker and economic policy guru has been his overarching concern for fiscal management. He has served on — or as chairman of — the Governor¹s Council of Economic Advisers under Govs. Richard Snelling, Madeleine Kunin and Howard Dean, and Jim Douglas has just renamed him council chairman. To his way of thinking, fiscal policy is the bedrock upon which all social policy must be built. Without money, he reasons, there is nothing with which to pay for social programs. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sylvester, 65, took up investment banking in 1966 and managed the Burlington branch of what is now Salomon, Smith, Barney for 28 years before relinquishing control five years ago to Mark McGinn, a fellow native of St. Albans. He’s a tall man who looks enough like Lyndon Johnson to play him in a TV movie if he put on 50 pounds. He gets to work at his office on Swift Street at 7 a.m. and turns on the television to keep track of stock quotes. The TV stays on all day. He goes home for lunch and a workout at noon, and returns to the office after 2 p.m., where he stays until after 6 each night. His long hours give him plenty of time to attend to both his business — he has 75 clients — and his politics. The windowsill of his sunny back-corner office is filled with framed photos of his two grandchildren and a plaque that records the most dramatic stock activity of the market crash on “Black Monday” — Oct. 19, 1987. His daughter gave it to him one Christmas, and he keeps it “as a reminder of what can happen.” It’s surprising that he would need to be reminded of the possibility of bad times to come; it seems to be something very much in the forefront of his vision. He chose Douglas as his candidate because he “saw clouds on the economic horizon” for Vermont. He was “on the drug thing since way before the campaign;” his concern was based on public hearings about drug use in Vermont that he and his wife Joan attended “way back when.” He’s concerned that the state hasn¹t done enough to create new jobs and that income-tax policies are driving the wealthiest Vermonters — some of whom are his clients — to set up their primary residences in Florida, depriving Montpelier of much-needed tax revenue. “We’ve got to put bear hugs on businesses that are still in the state,” he says. “We’ve got to help out as best we can with permits and such. UVM is a great resource, but it has barely been tapped. You’re going to see much closer contact between the university and the state from now on.” Mostly, though, he worries that the state is going to find itself without enough cash in the bank to pay the bills when the economy goes south — as it inevitably does. “I’m just a guy who things state government ought to pay its bills and have a healthy reserve before spending money on new programs,” he explains. “Otherwise, I¹m a pretty moderate guy. If you keep a reserve, when things go wrong, you don’t have to cut to the bone, hurting the people who most need the help — at least that’s what I try to explain to all my liberal friends.”

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