Local control at any cost

September 14, 2018

Holland, Vermont is anchored by its elementary school. But this week, residents voted decisively to close it. And it's not the only town considering drastic measures to head off a forced merger.

How TV watchers shift their worldviews

September 7, 2018

Spoiler alert: fans of modern TV dramas may be getting more of their political views from those sources than they think.

Shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Battlestar Galactica” are densely plotted serials that immerse viewers in fantasy worlds. But according to one local researcher, watching these shows to avoid the political messages of the news media may not have the intended effect.

Entertainment media can act “as a political Trojan horse,” argues Anthony “Jack” Gierzynski, the chair of the political science department at the University of Vermont. Gierzynski’s new book, The Political Effects of Entertainment Media: How Fictional Worlds Affect Real World Political Perspectives, uses studies on shows like “Game of Thrones” and “House Cards” to analyze how viewers shift their worldviews after watching.

Traditional storytelling tropes — happy endings, or strong, masculine heroes — reinforce conservative ideas of justice and leadership, Gierzynski argues. But on this week’s podcast, he explores how the new vanguard of antiheroes and morally complex worlds may be nudging viewers towards a different set of values.

Life on the line

August 31, 2018

Derby, Vermont, and Stanstead, Quebec, have historically been tight knit communities despite the international boundary between them. But heightened border security measures have frustrated residents, driving the two towns farther apart.

Both towns touch Canusa Avenue, so named because it straddles Canada and the USA. The novelty isn’t lost on residents: Pat Boisvert, who’s lived there his entire life, says his home street used to be a go-to conversation topic. “It’s so unique. It’s the only thing in the whole country like this.”

Now, a new barrier restricting the local access lane at the nearest border crossing forces residents to report to customs in order to access their homes. U.S. Customs and Border Protection says the changes were necessary after two sets of motorists successfully crossed the border illegally this spring.

Boisvert says the new measures have inconvenienced the whole neighborhood. “Now, God, I wouldn’t want anyone to know you live here, because it’s such a pain in the neck.”

Federal authorities have tightened border security since the 9/11 attacks in 2001. This year, the Department of Homeland Security increased the number of agents monitoring the northern border, and trade tensions have flared between U.S. and Canadian leaders.   

Border Patrol representatives have said they’re open to meeting with Canusa residents to talk about their concerns. But solutions residents have proposed have met with resistance from both federal and state leaders.

On this week’s podcast, Boisvert and his neighbors talk about living on the boundary line. Plus, VTDigger’s Alexandre Silberman discusses reporting from the border.

BONUS: Leahy remembers McCain, an unlikely ally

August 30, 2018

Sen. Patrick Leahy was one of Sen. John McCain’s closest colleagues during the decades the two served together in the U.S. Senate. But their positions were often far apart. “Were we ideological soulmates? Of course not,” Leahy said. “Were we senators who could work together, and cared about each other? Yes.”

When waste hits waterways

August 24, 2018

Throughout the summer, heavy rains have caused sewer overflows in most of Vermont’s largest cities.

In late July, 9.7 million gallons of stormwater and wastewater spilled from Rutland’s sewers into the East and Otter creeks.

Beaches on Lake Champlain were closed after Burlington’s system overflowed in May and June. In July, a computer malfunction there let out three million gallons of untreated water. Similar events, which pose public health hazards and contribute to water pollution, have hit Montpelier, St. Albans, St. Johnsbury and beyond.

Jeff Wennberg, Rutland’s commissioner of public works, oversees the state’s largest wastewater treatment plant. He says the city’s sewer system has always bypassed the plant when it’s inundated with rainwater.

“It’s functioning exactly as designed when we have an overflow,” he says.

Since 2016, those overflows have been increasingly visible thanks to legally mandated public notifications sent by the Agency of Natural Resources.


In Rutland, Wennberg is hoping that the heightened awareness will help convince the public to support infrastructure investments.

“There’s enormous progress that’s been made, and the reality is the combined sewer overflows are like that last five percent of the problem,” he says. “That last little bit is very hard, and very expensive.”

Wennberg says it’s difficult to face the negative feedback that comes with constant reminders that the region’s waterways are being polluted. But in the long run, educated citizens are more likely to vote for bond proposals that would let the city invest in solutions.

On this week’s podcast, Jeff Wennberg and VTDigger’s Elizabeth Gribkoff talk about how wastewater releases might be resolved.

BONUS: Christine Hallquist in conversation

August 23, 2018

Christine Hallquist, the Democratic nominee for Vermont governor, said Friday that she and the governor have similar positions on raising new revenue.

“I’m going to say we have the same general position on taxes and fees. However, I have a plan to grow Vermont, he does not,” she said in an interview with VTDigger journalists Xander Landen and Colin Meyn.

Landen and Meyn spoke with Hallquist on WDEV Radio on August 17. In this bonus podcast episode, hear their interview in full. And for more in-depth conversations with Vermont public figures, tune into the Dave Gram Show on weekdays from 9-11 a.m. on 96.1 FM/550 AM or wdevradio.com.

From ‘Fan Club’ to ‘Roseanne’?

August 17, 2018

Bradford Broyles, a filmmaker and GOP operative, has spent the last year and a half quietly publishing a video series lampooning Republican Gov. Phil Scott for drifting towards the political center. Now, Broyles is training his lens beyond Vermont.

“We want to create content for red-state America,” Broyles says. “And it’s kind of ironic that we’re doing it from Vermont, the bluest of blue states.”

Broyles and his partner Len Britton began producing satirical commercials during Britton’s unsuccessful campaign to unseat Sen. Patrick Leahy in 2010. They started the “Fan Club” series (since rebranded as “News Done Right”) in early 2017 to criticize “left turns” made by the recently elected Gov. Scott.

Analysts say this week’s primary results show Scott losing support among his conservative base. Broyles believes his show forecast that shift.

“‘Fan Club’ early on saw where this administration was going, and we wanted to make a point of it — to call it out for what it is,” he says.

On this week’s podcast, Broyles talks to VTDigger’s Colin Meyn about sending up Scott in the name of conservative comedy.

Upcoming elections will test Vermont’s voting laws

August 10, 2018

Daniel Jones was 22 when he shot and killed a drug dealer in a Burlington alley in 2002. He was an addict, he says, and the killing was an accident.


Now 16 years into his 25-year sentence at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, Jones is petitioning for an early release that could send him home as soon as next year. Meanwhile, he’s already cast his vote in Vermont’s 2018 primary election.


Vermont and Maine are the only two states that place no restrictions on convicted felons’ voting rights. But preserving ballot access for felons is only one of Vermont’s moves towards getting and keeping more voters enrolled. The state is heading into the 2018 elections with some of the most expansive voting laws in the country.

“Vermont leads the way,” says Natalie Tennant, a former West Virginia secretary of state who’s now a voting rights expert at the Brennan Center.

Vermonters can register to vote at their polling places on election day, or they can sign up online. This year’s elections will also be the first since the state implemented automatic voter registration, which adds eligible voters to the rolls when they apply for ID cards at the DMV.

But the 2018 elections, like most years without a presidential race, are projected to see low turnout. Will those new registrants vote?

“That’s what we don’t know,” says Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos. “My belief is that we should register every eligible American that we can. Then it’s up to them whether they go vote.”

On this week's podcast, Daniel Jones talks about voting behind bars. Plus, Tennant and Condos discuss why they're optimistic that inclusive voter registration policies will boost access to the polls.

Scott’s challengers take the stage

August 3, 2018

Ahead of Vermont’s August 14th primary elections, lesser-known candidates hoping to unseat Gov. Phil Scott have used recent debates to distance themselves from the incumbent. 

“He’s been running [the state] on division," says Christine Hallquist. "That’s not the Vermont I know and love.”

The four Democratic contenders have significantly lower name recognition than the governor. But they face the added challenge of differentiating themselves from each other.

All four hold similar progressive priorities: providing a higher minimum wage and paid family leave, enacting universal health care, cracking down on polluters. “We all substantively have the same principles,” James Ehlers said at the most recent forum on Thursday.

Sen. John Rodgers, a fellow Democrat who breaks from the pack on certain issues, faces the additional barrier of running as a write-in candidate. And candidate Keith Stern is widely viewed as a longshot in a Republican primary race with Scott himself.

On this week’s podcast, Xander Landen discusses what’s at stake for the governor’s challengers. Plus, hear highlights from both the Democrat and Republican candidate forums hosted by VTDigger and Channel 17.

Longshot candidates go for governor

July 27, 2018

Two candidates on the ballot in Vermont's gubernatorial primaries have notably nontraditional backgrounds. Keith Stern, who runs a produce market in White River Junction, has little prior political experience. Ethan Sonneborn has less: he's a 14-year-old rising ninth-grader at Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School.

Both are struggling against anonymity. Recent polling data shows that Sonneborn has the lowest name recongition of five Democratic contenders, and Stern is facing well-known incumbent Gov. Phil Scott in the Republican race.

But both say detractors ought to take their campaigns more seriously. 

"I'm not mocking the process — I'm running for governor," Sonneborn says. "If my age is really going to stop you from voting for practical progressivism, then I'm sorry I lost your vote."

"I'm strong-willed; I take a stand," Stern says. "We can see Phil Scott had lots of experience, Peter Shumlin had lots of experience. From my point of view, they're both failures as governors."

On this week's podcast, VTDigger's Colin Meyn quizzes both candidates on the issues facing the state — and about why their platforms deserve to take them to the governor's office.