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Rutland County sees high voter turnout

Rutland County voters were chomping at the ballot during Tuesday’s midterm elections, and town clerks reported high voter turnouts and long lines.

Wells Town Clerk Nora Sargent said 384 voters had hit the Wells Town Hall by 3:30 p.m., hours before closing.

“We had 112 absentees today,” Sargent said later. “Five-hundred and one out of 904 voters! That’s a lot for us!”

Secretary of State Jim Condos said though the results remain unofficial, voter attendance appeared high for a midterm election and should be a source of pride for voters in the Green Mountain State.

“Clearly many Vermonters are tuned in, and actively engaged in our democracy ... It’s possible that this year a record number of voters cast ballots for a midterm election,” he said.

Condos said that though the numbers are still being finalized and will likely change, statewide turnout safely hovered between 55 and 58 percent, with around 276,818 votes unofficially reported in the governor’s race out of about 486,752 total registered voters, Condos said.

“Election Day here in VT was a shining example of what healthy democracy looks like,” Condos said in a statement Wednesday. “The civil discourse among candidates, high voter turnout and implementation of policies and practices that preserve voter rights and access that we saw yesterday are all reasons we can be proud.”

Pittsford saw 60 percent of its voters participate: 1,287 of its 2,299 registered voters showed up to the polls.

“We had quite a bit higher turnout yesterday,” said Pittsford Town Clerk Helen McKinlay. “We had a very steady crowd all day.”

She said Tuesday’s turnout marks a 24 percent increase from the 2014 midterm elections, where 976 showed up.

“I think there’s a lot of issues,” McKinlay said. “I think there’s so much going on right now, between school safety, high taxes and health care, it’s got everyone wanting to participate.”

Rutland Town saw 63 percent of its registered voters participate, 1,963 total, and Castleton reported 1,537 voters turned out for Tuesday’s midterm polling after 523 showed for the primaries in August.

“It was high for us,” said Castleton Town Clerk Nedra Bowen.

Both Fair Haven and Poultney saw 54 percent of their registered voters take part, when both saw only 42 percent participation for the last midterm elections.

“We’ve certainly been busy,” said Fair Haven Town Clerk Suzanne Ducharme, who said they reached 600 voters before 4 p.m.

West Rutland saw half of its 847 voters at the polls, up from 39 percent during the 2014 midterms, while Proctor saw 58 percent of its voters — 692 people — come out.

“It was probably all the focus on the national level,” said Killington Town Clerk Lucrecia Wonsor, whose town saw 58 percent participation — 12 percent higher than in 2014. “With everything that’s going on in general, I think people had a high motivation to vote this time.”

Rutland City’s four wards saw an overall 54 percent turnout on Election Day, with residents overflowing polling stations that quickly became standing-room only, City Clerk Henry Heck said.

Ward 1 at the Godnick Center on Deer Street saw 61 percent turnout with 1,897 voters, while Ward 2 at Christ the King School saw 1,446 voters, 53 percent of its total registered voter population.

Ward 3 at the American Legion on Washington Street saw 45 percent turnout with 978 voters, while Ward 4 at the Calvary Bible Church turned out 1,358, 53 percent of their voters.

“Its the biggest midterm I’ve done since I’ve been here,” Heck said. “My day started at 5 a.m. It was a 19-hour day for me, but those are election days.”

Heck said he expected a bigger turnout than the 5,679 voters, attributing the lower afternoon turnout to the wind and rain.

“From 7 a.m. on, there were just lines and lines out the door, consistent throughout most of the day,” Heck said. “This was a very political election — very R and very D. People voted with their party.

“There’s unrest,” Heck said. “It’s not as commonplace friendly: before, you could go out and get in a fight, dust each other off. Now, it’s more hatred.”

In the years since he began as clerk for Rutland City in 2002, Heck said the biggest turnout he’d seen was in 2008 when 7,800 turned out to vote, with a close 7,000 returning to the polls four years later.

“I think more people responded to this election,” Heck said. “It was a politically-driven election. More people across the country are getting out and voicing how they think our government should be run ... I think that in 2020, if Trump runs, it will be like the year when Obama ran. I think people will think ‘this is our time.’”


Senate choices
No clear patterns in county Senate vote

Gov. Phil Scott won every single town in Rutland County.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., almost matched that feat, but was edged out by Republican Lawrence Zupan in Mount Tabor (31-30) and Clarendon (519-440). Clarendon also kept Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., from a clean sweep, as the only town in the county to go for Republican challenger Anya Tynio (479-473).

The race for Rutland County’s three state Senate seats — in which Republicans Sen. Brian Collamore and James McNeil won alongside Democrat Cheryl Hooker, leaving behind Democrats Greg Cox and Scott Garren as well as Republican Ed Larson — was far less monolithic.

The Republican primary, in which five candidates vied for the three spots on the ballot, seemed to point to a division between the city and the outlying towns when Larson, a retired police officer and former Rutland City alderman, only managed to edge out Poultney Selectman Terry Williams because Larson’s lead in the city made up for Williams’ advantage in the rest of the county.

The general election painted a much more complicated picture. Larson came in fifth in the city, about 150 votes behind Cox, a farmer from West Rutland and president of the Vermont Farmers Food Center. Larson outperformed Cox in the rest of the county, but failed to pick up enough votes to make it past fourth place.

Larson and Cox could not be immediately reached Wednesday.

Collamore, the sole incumbent, won the most towns of the six candidates and was in the top three in every town that wasn’t swept by the Democrats. McNeil, co-owner of McNeil and Reedy, was in the top three almost as consistently as Collamore and even outpaced his fellow Republican here and there.

Hooker, a retired teacher who has served in both houses of the Legislature, won the city and performed well enough in the county that she still would have been in the top three even without her early lead. She came in second overall, winning Brandon, Wallingford, Killington, Sudbury and Tinmouth in addition to the city.

Several towns turned in votes along party lines. Rutland Town, Pittsford, Clarendon, Castleton, Fair Haven, Mendon, Danby, Mount Tabor, Wells and Ira all went for Collamore, McNeil and Larson, though not necessarily in that order. Democratic sweeps were rarer and confined to smaller towns — Pittsfield, Sudbury, Middletown Springs, Pawlet, Shrewsbury.

Cox won Poultney, Pittsfield, Middletown Springs and Pawlet, but only managed third place in his hometown of West Rutland, outpaced by Collamore and McNeil.

Garren, who had the least name recognition on the ballot, won his hometown of Shrewsbury, but otherwise trailed. In the other towns the Democrats swept, he came in third. In the rest of the towns he was almost always in last place.

“It was very evident, when I was out canvassing and honking and waving with Cheryl and Greg — lots of people were smiling and waving and recognizing them,” Garren said.

Collamore said the result showed the voters’ faith in him and otherwise said a leftward shift was evident. McNeil said he thought the results had little to do with geography or party politics.

“I think Rutland County voted for experience,” McNeil said. “Brian Collamore — four years experience. I had five years in the House and Cheryl had House and Senate experience.”

Hooker said experience was probably a factor, but also offered her own take on the result.

“I think people perhaps were looking for change, for diversity in the delegation as far as gender and certainly some diversity as far as party,” she said.


Jeff Sessions pushed out after a year of attacks from Trump

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions was pushed out Wednesday after enduring more than a year of blistering and personal attacks from President Donald Trump, who inserted in his place a Republican Party loyalist with authority to oversee the remainder of the special counsel’s Russia investigation.

The move has potentially ominous implications for special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, given that the new acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, until now Sessions’ chief of staff, has questioned the inquiry’s scope and spoke publicly before joining the Justice Department about ways an attorney general could theoretically stymie the probe.

Congressional Democrats, concerned about protecting Mueller, called on Whitaker to recuse himself from overseeing the investigation in its final but potentially explosive stages.

That duty has belonged to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller. Rep. Jerry Nadler, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said he wants “answers immediately” and “we will hold people accountable.”

The resignation, in a one-page letter to Trump, came one day after Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives and was the first of several expected post-midterms Cabinet and White House departures. Though Sessions was an early and prominent campaign backer of Trump, his departure letter lacked effusive praise for the president and made clear the resignation came “at your request.”

“Since the day I was honored to be sworn in as Attorney General of the United States, I came to work at the Department of Justice every day determined to do my duty and serve my country,” Sessions wrote.

The resignation was the culmination of a toxic relationship that frayed just weeks into Sessions’ tenure, when he stepped aside from the Russia investigation because of his campaign work and following the revelation that he had met twice in 2016 with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.

Trump blamed the recusal for the appointment of Mueller, who took over the Russia investigation and began examining whether Trump’s hectoring of Sessions was part of a broader effort to obstruct the probe.

The investigation has so far produced 32 criminal charges and guilty pleas from four former Trump aides. But the work is not done and critical decisions await that could shape the remainder of Trump’s presidency.

Mueller’s grand jury, for instance, has heard testimony for months about Trump confidant Roger Stone and what advance knowledge he may have had about Russian hacking of Democratic emails. Mueller’s team has also been pressing for an interview with Trump. And the department is expected at some point to receive a confidential report of Mueller’s findings, though it’s unclear how much will be public.

Trump had repeatedly been talked out of firing Sessions until after the midterms, but he told confidants in recent weeks that he wanted Sessions out as soon as possible after the elections, according to a Republican close to the White House who was not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations.

The president deflected questions about Sessions’ expected departure at a White House news conference Wednesday. He did not mention that White House chief of staff John Kelly had called Sessions beforehand to ask for his resignation. The undated letter was then sent to the White House.

The Justice Department did not directly answer whether Whitaker would assume control of Mueller’s investigation, with spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores saying he would be “in charge of all matters under the purview of the Department of Justice.”

Rosenstein remains at the department and could still be involved in oversight.

Without Sessions’ campaign or Russia entanglements, there’s no legal reason Whitaker couldn’t immediately oversee the probe. And since Sessions technically resigned instead of forcing the White House to fire him, he opened the door under federal law to allowing the president to choose his successor instead of simply elevating Rosenstein, said University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck.

“Sessions did not do the thing he could have done to better protect Rosenstein, and through Rosenstein, the Mueller investigation,” Vladeck said.

That left Whitaker in charge, at least for now, though Democrats, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer, said he should recuse himself because of his comments on the probe.

Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney from Iowa who twice ran unsuccessfully for statewide office and founded a law firm with other Republican Party activists, once opined about a scenario in which Trump could fire Sessions and then appoint an acting attorney general who could stifle the funding of Mueller’s probe.

In that scenario, Mueller’s budget could be reduced “so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt,” Whitaker said during an interview with CNN in July 2017 before he joined the Justice Department.

In a 2017 CNN op-ed, Whitaker wrote, “Mueller has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing.”

Trump’s relentless attacks on Sessions came even though the Alabama Republican was the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump and despite the fact his crime-fighting agenda and priorities, particularly his hawkish immigration enforcement policies, largely mirrored the president’s.

He found satisfaction in being able to reverse Obama-era policies that conservatives say flouted the will of Congress, encouraging prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges they could and promoting more aggressive enforcement of federal marijuana law.

He also announced media leak crackdowns and tougher policies against opioids, and his Justice Department defended a since-abandoned administration policy that resulted in migrant parents being separated from their children at the border.

But the relationship was irreparably damaged in March 2017 when Sessions, acknowledging previously undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador and citing his work as a campaign aide, recused himself from the Russia investigation.

Trump repeatedly lamented that he would have never selected Sessions if he had known the attorney general would recuse himself. The recusal left the investigation in the hands of Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller two months later after Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey.

In piercing attacks, Trump called Sessions weak and beleaguered, complained that he wasn’t more aggressively pursuing allegations of corruption against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and called it “disgraceful” that Sessions wasn’t more serious in scrutinizing the origins of the Russia investigation for possible law enforcement bias — even though the attorney general did ask the Justice Department’s inspector general to examine those claims.

The broadsides escalated in recent months, with Trump telling an interviewer that Sessions “never had control” of the Justice Department.

Sessions endured most of the name-calling in silence, though he did issue two public statements defending the department, including one in which he said he would serve “with integrity and honor” for as long as he was in the job.

Sessions, who likely suspected his ouster was imminent, was spotted by reporters giving some of his grandchildren a tour of the White House over the weekend. He did not respond when asked why he was there.

Vermont Legislature
Democrats, allies appear to gain veto-proof majority

MONTPELIER — Democrats and their allies in the Vermont Legislature made gains in Tuesday’s elections, and are claiming a veto-proof majority in the House and Senate that could make it easier for them to pass liberal legislation that has been vetoed by Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

Preliminary results from Tuesday’s voting show that Democrats and their Progressive Party allies appear have reached a veto-proof majority in the House, winning at least 100 seats, with the Republicans holding 43. The Republicans are expected to hold six seats in the 30-member state Senate.

In the current House, the GOP holds 51 seats in the 150-seat chamber. A veto override requires two-thirds of each chamber, or 100 in the House and 20 in the Senate.

“In legislative races, there was a blue wave all over the state,” retired Middlebury College Political Science Professor Eric Davis said Wednesday.

He called the convincing re-election win of Republican Gov. Phil Scott a personal victory for the governor, not for the GOP.

“The House Republican party is smaller, more conservative and sort of more in its bastions of northern Vermont and Rutland County, and that’s not a formula for winning statewide,” said Davis, who has been following Vermont politics since 1980.

While Scott shares the goal of helping Vermonters succeed, he has committed himself to ensuring that people and businesses aren’t burdened by increased taxes or fees or what he feels are business-restricting state mandates, his spokeswoman Rebecca Kelley said Wednesday.

The governor, she said, recognizes that he will be less able to wield his veto pen, or the threat of a veto, to shape policy that will come out of the State House after lawmakers return in January for the 2019 session.

“The dynamic has absolutely changed,” she said. “The governor recognizes that, and we will be looking to find common ground.”

The governor’s focus in the upcoming session will remain what it has always been, she said, including economic issues and Vermont’s demographic challenge. During the 2018 session, Scott issued 11 vetoes, including bills that addressed key Democratic priorities, such as increasing over time the minimum wage to $15 per hour and paid family leave. Scott said he felt those pieces of legislation would have placed too great a burden on Vermont’s job-creating small businesses. Six of the vetoed bills were eventually passed in some form, Kelley said.

In a victory speech Tuesday night, Democratic Vermont House speaker Mitzi Johnson said Scott’s vetoes made it harder for Vermonters to succeed and she said the results of the vote showed Vermonters want to change that.

“Tonight Vermonters said, ‘That’s not what we want, you need to listen,’” Johnson said. “We need to make sure to include everyone and raise all boats.” Even with the increased presence in the House, Davis said he didn’t think Democrats would vote along party lines in all cases.

“Obviously, the veto is not going to be as effective a tool,” he said. Davis said he expects that once lawmakers are back in session, they will hold “a test of strength” between the newly empowered Legislature and the governor.

He feels lawmakers could bring back the minimum-wage bill vetoed by Scott in May, he said. The bill would have raised the minimum wage to $15 by 2024, perhaps modifying it before passing it again.

“I think they will want to test, both their own caucus and the governor’s ability to use the veto early in the session,” Davis said.


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