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Trailing Bernie: Sanders unbowed after hitting rough patch out west

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The early weeks and months on the campaign trail for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders were relatively easy — thousands of adoring fans chanting his name and cramming into tight spaces to hear him speak. They opened their wallets, too, to fund his White House bid.

But the trail is long and winding, and Sanders has seen how even a division among progressives, who have flocked to him in droves, can cause headaches for a campaign on the rise.

Rough reception

Sanders appeared at the Netroots Nation in Phoenix this past weekend. What was supposed to be a pep rally of sorts for Sanders in front of a hyper-progressive crowd turned sour.

African-American activists took the stage. They wanted Sanders and fellow Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley to discuss the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and how they could advance it. Hillary Clinton skipped the event.

Both candidates stumbled. Those in the movement don’t want to hear about how Sanders marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington D.C., decades ago. Rather, they want to know why African-Americans are dying in American streets at the hands of police. But Sanders missed that point in Phoenix, and his natural, gruff demeanor didn’t help.

“Black lives, of course, matter. I spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and for dignity,” he told the gathering. “But if you don’t want me to be here, that’s OK. I don’t want to out-scream people.”

To be fair, Sanders has been speaking more about civil rights and equality on the stump. He began to include such issues in his remarks during a swing through Iowa in June, as the chorus grew in the media that he was avoiding it.

And, Sanders has done his best to recover since Netroots Nation.

‘It must stop’

On Tuesday, he expressed outrage when the dashboard video of Sandra Bland’s arrest was released.

Bland died in a Houston jail after being arrested July 10 after a traffic stop for a minor infraction.

The cop in the arrest video gets angry when Bland refuses to put out a cigarette and eventually tells Bland “I will light you up,” after withdrawing a Taser.

Sanders didn’t wait long to react after the video’s release, decrying “outrageous police behavior.”

“This video highlights once again why we need real police reform. People should not die for a minor traffic infraction. This type of police abuse has become an all-too-common occurrence for people of color and it must stop,” Sanders said.

Polls, schmolls

Sanders’ presidential campaign has raised $15 million, so far. OK, really about $13.5 million when you take out the funds he transferred from his Senate campaign account. But still, a respectable amount for a candidate many pundits believed would struggle mightily to connect with voters.

The self-described democratic socialist has spent about $3 million to advance his cause. But as The Huffington Post pointed out this week, he has spent a grand total of zero dollars and zero cents on a favorite of most campaigns — polling.

“If left to his own devices, he would not like to spend a dime on polling. I don’t think, as of this moment, we have convinced him of the merits of doing that,” campaign advisor Tad Devine told The Huffington Post. “I personally would like to, but I haven’t convinced him yet that we should. I’m hopeful I will.”

For a guy who’s been touting the same economic message for decades with little deviation, polling may not be a great investment. On the other hand, perhaps it could have helped Sanders get a better handle on how to work with the Black Lives Movement and expand his message to a wider, national audience.

Next up?

Sanders will continue his recent practice of visiting conservative states this weekend with a rally Sunday in Kenner, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans. He attracted thousands of supporters in Arizona and Texas at recent rallies.

—  Vermont Press Bureau

Sanders raises $15 million

MONTPELIER — Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign announced Thursday that he has raised $15 million for his White House bid since April 30 — an impressive number but far behind presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton.

According to Sanders’ campaign, the $15 million in donations came from more than 400,000 contributions from about 250,000 individuals. The average donation has been $33.51, and 99 percent of the donations have been $250 or less.

The fundraising haul is significantly more than most pundits expected, and ahead of the pace President Barack Obama set when he defeated Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary.

Sen. Bernie Sanders greets supporters at his new Iowa campaign office Des Moines on Saturday, June 13, 2015.

Sen. Bernie Sanders greets supporters at his new Iowa campaign office Des Moines on Saturday, June 13, 2015.

The self-described democratic socialist has been drawing enormous crowds on the campaign trail, including about 10,000 people in Madison, Wisc., Wednesday night. His poll numbers are on the rise, too, showing him surging in both New Hampshire, home of the nation’s first primary, and Iowa, home to the first caucus and first overall presidential contest.

In Iowa, a Sanders now trails Clinton by just 19 percentage points, according to a Quinnipiac Poll released Thursday. Clinton leads Sanders 52-33, but that is down significantly from May when she led 60-15.

In New Hampshire, a recent CNN poll showed Sanders with 8 percentage points of Clinton, 43-35 percent.

The campaign said it raised nearly all of its cash in online donations through Sanders’ campaign website. The numbers released Thursday will be used to filed required financial reports with the Federal Election Commission later this month.

Clinton’s campaign revealed Wednesday that she has received $45 million in contributions.

Sanders says he will win the presidency

Sen. Bernie Sanders told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in an interview Sunday on “This Week” that he will win the Iowa Caucus, New Hampshire primary, Democratic nomination for president and, ultimately, the presidency. Watch below:


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Watch: Report From Washington on Vermont PBS

Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami hosted “Report From Washington” this week with U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy. Watch the full program below.

Sanders makes his case on ‘This Week’

Sen. Bernie Sanders made his first appearance on a Sunday morning talk this past weekend as a declared presidential candidate. Vermont’s independent junior senator defended his brand of democratic socialism to ABC’s This Week host George Stephanopoulos. Watch his full appearance below.


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Capitol Beat 4-27-15

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Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami and VPB reporter Josh O’Gorman talk about the developments last week in the State House, including education, health care, vaccines and gun legislation.

Audit: Exchange remains high risk despite improvements

MONTPELIER — The state has been paying for work that hasn’t been performed and is at a high risk of failing to meet pending key deadlines in the development of the state’s online health insurance exchange, according to a performance audit released Thursday by State Auditor Doug Hoffer.

The audit also indicates growing unease by the state’s largest health insurance carrier, Blue Cross Blue Shield, over billing discrepancies amounting to millions of dollars in unpaid premiums on the company’s ledger.

The myriad malfunctions and setbacks associated with Vermont Health Connect have been well-documented since its bungled launch in October 2013. Key automated functions expected to be part of the online marketplace remain absent, and small businesses must still enroll offline directly through insurance carriers.

Doug Hoffer

Doug Hoffer

That is after nearly $200 million in federal funding has been spent by the state on planning, developing and implementing the exchange to meet requirements laid out in the federal Affordable Care Act.

Rather than rehash the exchange’s known shortcomings, Hoffer’s office spent the past several months reviewing the Shumlin administration’s response to those challenges and whether appropriate changes have been made to achieve the administration’s desired outcomes.

The results outlined in the report are mixed.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, a third-term Democrat, announced last month a new time frame for bringing key automated functions online. The ability to make online changes to one’s personal information, known as change of circumstance, will be in place by May 30, the administration now promises. An automated coverage renewal process will follow and in place by the fall — in time for the next open enrollment period.

Should those deadlines be missed, the administration said last month it will begin to transition away from its own exchange and attempt to migrate to one run by the federal government.

Hoffer’s report outlines several issues that makes meeting the deadlines questionable.

The state’s contract with Optum, the firm now developing VHC, contains no provision allowing the state to seek monetary consequences if it fails to deliver the missing functions. There are no financial penalties or liquidated damages like those in place with the state’s previous contractor, CGI, which the state parted ways with last fall. Nor is there a provision allowing the state to retain payment until the project is complete.

“Without these types of clauses, Optum has assumed little contractual risk and the State has limited its ability to seek recourse if the contractor’s performance is unacceptable. This seems to be a result of the State’s limited leverage to negotiate better terms,” the report states.

Meanwhile, the state does not have a contract in place to complete the second upgrade slated for the fall. If a contract is in place in the next couple of months then completing the project “is considered feasible,” according to the report.

Still, the state will not know if it has the funding to pay for all of the development work until it negotiates a price with Optum. The state would have to reduce the scope of work or find additional funding sources if the developer’s prices is higher than the federal funding available.

“According to an independent verification and validation contractor, as of April 3, 2015, the VHC development project has been in long-term “red,” or high-risk, status due to continuous contracting delays and unresolved agreement on the scope to support all VHC requirements,” the report states.

Hoffer’s report also raises concerns about competition for the staffing and technical resources within state government needed to meet the administration’s self-imposed deadlines. It notes that a March 16 internal project status report indicated that the resources to help meet those deadlines had not yet been confirmed. And there was a lack of agreement between various Agency of Human Services departments about which resources would be allocated to the VHC system development project.

Lawrence Miller, Shumlin’s chief of health care reform and the man charged with righting the ship, acknowledged the report is highly critical and lacks confidence in the administration’s ability to meets its deadlines.

Lawrence Miller

Lawrence Miller

“I don’t know that the track record of Vermont Health Connect has given anybody the basis for confidence,” he said in an interview before the audit’s release. “I think that the auditor’s assessment of the risk of completing the project on time is accurate. There is not a lot of slack in the schedule.”

Still, Miller said the administration remains confident the work will be completed on time.

“This has been done with a good, detailed project plan. Optum and the carriers are saying it’s achievable,” he said. “Things are happening on time.”

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Capitol Beat 4-6-15

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Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal P. Goswami and VPB reporter Josh O’Gorman talk health care, education, voter registration and the week ahead at the State House in this week’s episode.

Capitol Beat with the Governor 3-27-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin chats with Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal P. Goswami about the health care package in play in the House, new unemployment numbers and gun legislation that cleared the Senate this week.

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Capitol Beat 2-27-15 with Pro Tem John Campbell

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Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell sits down with Vermont Press Bureau Chief Neal P. Goswami to discuss the legislative session, the state budget and guns.

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Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell records Capitol Beat

Capitol Beat with the Governor 1-23-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin and Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami discuss a recent revenue downgrade, the president’s support for paid sick leave, gun legislation introduced in the Senate and legislators’ efforts to scuttle Vermont Health Connect.

 

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Slideshow of Inauguration Day

Photos of Inauguration Day at the Vermont State House by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur

VIDEO: Protesters stage a sit-in inside the House chamber

MONTPELIER — About 100 single payer advocates, gathered in the State House Thursday afternoon to demand forward movement on a universal, publicly financed health care system, disrupted some ceremonial proceedings before a smaller group staging a State House sit-in were removed by police at 8 p.m.

The Vermont Workers Center organized demonstrations Thursday afternoon that took place in the House chamber, outside the entrance to the chamber and in hallways throughout the State House while Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin was being sworn in and delivering his inaugural address.

“Ain’t no way we’re backing down, we’re rising up, the time is now,” they chanted at one point.

The protesters who staged the sit-in in the well of the House into the evening said their intention was to extract a commitment from Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith for a public hearing on a public financing plan and report prepared by the Shumlin administration.

No such commitment was made.

Smith said Thursday afternoon that hearings will take place in the House Health Care and House Ways and Means Committees, but did not promise a public hearing.

“I think this was an incredible example of the openness of our democracy. In the people’s house people are allowed to petition and I would expect that over the coming weeks we’ll talk with people about setting up hearings,” he said.

The Vermont State Police, along with Capitol Police began arresting protesters one-by-one shortly after 8 p.m. A Vermont State Trooper asked them several times to leave before the arrests began. Most walked out escorted by officers. At least one was dragged.

Montpelier Police were staged outside the State House to assist if needed.

Vermont State Police Col. Thomas L’Esperance, who stayed at the State House all day as the sit-in continued, said troopers began communicating with a spokesperson for the group to explain “the rules of engagement.”

“It’s been a peaceful protest, so no headaches there,” L’Esperance said. “Some chose to leave and others chose to be arrested.”

One woman refused to standup and was dragged out of the House chamber by police. The woman screamed that she was being hurt as police applied “control and restraint techniques.” L’Esperance said officers were using as little force as necessary to remove people.

There were no disruptions while the governor was delivering his address, but immediately following his address a group of protesters blocked the entryway to the House chamber while others attempted to enter the gallery. Protesters unfurled banners at least twice that were quickly pulled down by State House staff.

As the Rev. Robert Potter was delivering the benediction protesters began to sing. Barre Mayor Thom Lauzon, a Republican, attempted to remove one man who was singing from the gallery, but eventually relented. The man continued to sing while Potter spoke. Lauzon and Rutland Mayor Chris Louras, who once served in the Legislature as a Republican, blocked the doorway preventing others from entering the chamber.

Single payer advocates have been demanding the state move forward with public financing of a state-run health insurance program since Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin decided to abandon his own long quest for such a system last month. Shumlin, in a surprise announcement, declared the cost too high for the state at this time.

The protests, especially the disruption of the benediction by a popular reverend, did not sit well with many lawmakers.

“I think they should get a job,” Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex/Orleans, after leaving the House chamber.

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, said he was disappointed with the actions of the Workers Center and told Executive James Haslam that in a brief exchange Thursday evening. He said Vermonters have a long tradition of disagreeing respectfully.

The speaker declined on Thursday to say if the protesters went too far.

“I love the fact that we live in a society where we have the opportunity to freely express ourselves. There’s always a balance between free expression and decorum in ceremony. We air on the side of openness,” Smith said. “What I would do and what they would do are probably different things, but you know what, I’m just a guy from Wolcott, Vermont.”

Haslam, meanwhile, said his organization made a strong show of support for a single payer health care system.

“We, I think, have seen people in Vermont rejecting business as usual, that we’re not going to let a system … put this Green Mountain Care financing report on a shelf and just continuing with the current system, which is very good for the health care industry but is not good for people who need health care.

The disruption of Potter’s benediction was not planned and not condoned by the Workers Center, according to Haslam.

“I think that there was some confusion and definitely some people that were acting spontaneously. There were other people saying that’s not a good idea. I think people thought after the governor ended his speech that it was over and didn’t realize who was speaking,” Haslam said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Capitol Beat on ORCA

Watch the Vermont Press Bureau’s Capitol Beat on ORCA, a periodic show on politics, policy and government in Montpelier.

Milne launches TV ad

MONTPELIER — Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Milne has launched his first television commercial as the primary approaches next week.

The ad, which will be running on WPTZ, Fox 44/ABC 22 and WCAX through the primary, features footage from Milne’s campaign kickoff event last month in Barre. Former Republican Gov. James Douglas is prominently featured, calling Milne the next governor of Vermont.

“Internally, I think sort of the campaign family, we’re stoked about it. I think it’s very, very good and I’m appreciative of all the support from Gov. Douglas,” Milne said Tuesday.

The commercial also shows footage of Milne’s mother, former GOP state Rep. Marion Milne, who passed away on Aug. 11.

Milne said his campaign is spending just over $20,000 on the commercial through next Tuesday.