• Bearing up
    May 01,2012
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    Do the right thing and it comes back to smack you in — the whatever.

    That is the lesson that Gov. Peter Shumlin might have drawn from recent events that have ranged from the ridiculous to the remarkable. It’s enough to test one’s sense of humor.

    What could be more emblematic than the governor’s close encounter with the bears? Doing the right thing in this case involved bringing in his bird feeders. Animal specialists tell us that when bears are becoming a nuisance in your neighborhood, removing feeders that attract them is the right thing to do.

    The bears were not amused, and from the point of view of the bears, one could understand why. There they were, minding their own business, having a late-night snack, and what did they meet but a naked hairless (relatively) mammal making off with their hors d’oeuvres? They gave chase, as any bear would, forcing the hairless mammal to retreat, rapidly, into his house.

    How do we know these things? Shumlin, feeling relaxed with the editors of The Valley News, told the story on himself. It’s the kind of self-deprecating, funny story politicians like to tell, provoking a laugh, making them human. Shumlin is good at that sort of thing, and Vermonters usually enjoy stories about wildlife, even if they’d prefer not to picture Shumlin’s particular encounter.

    The bears did not manage to get their claws into Shumlin’s posterior, but the story has had a life of its own. Cartoonists have had their fun with it, and now Shumlin’s presumed opponent, Sen. Randy Brock, has decided his campaign mascot will be someone in a bear costume. Shumlin may conclude that his story about the bears was not so funny after all.

    And when it comes to doing the right thing, Brock’s bear will bear another uncomfortable reminder: a sign saying “$21 million.”

    It seemed like the right thing to Shumlin — the deal brokered by Public Service Commissioner Elizabeth Miller about the takeover by Green Mountain Power of Central Vermont Public Service. GMP would have to return $21 million to ratepayers who had provided CVPS with a like amount when the company was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The deal allowed GMP to take $21 million from ratepayers that it would then invest in energy efficiency projects, returning a value to ratepayers of $46 million. It seemed to make sense.

    But that $21 million has become the issue of the year, tapping into widespread public anger at all kinds of corporate scheming and government complicity. After four years of hard times because of the behavior of corporations treating the public like a colony to be exploited, Vermonters are not so keen on serving as a compliant source of cash for the utility, even if they will make out better in the end.

    The deal has come back to smack Shumlin in a bloodier fashion than the bears did. The House has turned back an effort originating in the Senate to force the Public Service Board to reject the GMP merger unless it forswears the $21 million it plans on taking from the public. But Brock now senses he has found a political issue.

    It is a remarkable turn of events that business-friendly Republicans have taken up the anti-utility rhetoric surrounding the merger deal, along with Progressives and some Democrats. Democrats now are vulnerable to the charge that they are too cozy with the utilities.

    Shumlin has always been good with a quip, able to home in on an opponent’s weaknesses and to turn aside attacks. He may admire the humor of Brock’s $21 million bear while also worrying that, unlike the bears at the bird feeder, Brock’s bear may have an instinct for the jugular.

    Shumlin will no doubt be sharpening his own claws in an effort to persuade voters that doing the right thing with regard to GMP really was in the public interest, even if $21 million and a man in a bear costume are telling them otherwise.
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