When Democrats had the unfortunate task of filling a Senate vacancy created by the death of Sally Fox, an impressively strong list of candidates put themselves forward. And one of my idle thoughts was, Gee, I wish we could have all of these people in the Senate. And get rid of some of the deadwood in the process.
Purely a passing fancy, since doing so would mean ignoring residency requirements, not to mention that pesky “right to elect your representatives” thing. But the thought came back again as I watched, in car-crash-esque fascination, part of last Friday’s session of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee. If Senators had to prove their fitness to serve through job performance, I think we would have had ourselves a couple of quick vacancies afterward.
The occasion was a perfunctory appearance by VPIRG’s Paul Burns, to testify in opposition to a pair of bills designed to put new obstacles in the way of renewable energy projects. “Perfunctory” because Burns knew his testimony would fall on deaf ears, since SNRE is stacked with senators publicly opposed to ridgeline wind energy: four antis plus Mark MacDonald. So, he didn’t try to hide his awareness of that fact and — very unusual for a Statehouse advocate — barely concealed his contempt for certain members of the committee. To wit, His Eminence Peter “The Slummin’ Solon” Galbraith, Legend In His Own Mind, and the Kingdom’s Own John Rodgers, whose very presence makes me yearn for the halcyon days of Vince Illuzzi.
And the two un-esteemed Senators lived down to Burns’ expectations and returned the scorn in spades. The whole performance is worth watching, and fortunately it’s been posted on YouTube. Takes about 15 minutes.
Burns disposed of his obligation to put VPIRG on the record, and the floor was open for questions. Galbraith immediately pounced, with a question that seems pointless until you know the backstory: He’s got his knickers in a twist over something VPIRG staffer Ben Walsh wrote in a message to the group’s email list. A message sent IN THE YEAR 2012.
His Eminence knows how to hold a grudge. How the hell did this guy ever make it as a diplomat???
After Galbraith batted this around and Burns calmly held his ground (“I stand by that email in its entirety”), the cudgel was passed to Rodgers, who is apparently pursuing his sworn duty to uphold the Northeast Kingdom Way of Life (grinding poverty and underdevelopment) by opposing any and all wind projects in his bailiwick. Because every ridgeline is sacred, and we cannot disturb a single stone even if the benefit is a steady stream of new tax revenue and renewable energy.
Rodgers figuratively leapt at the chance to play Mr. Inquisitor, treating Burns as a hostile witness just begging to be broken. His first line of inquiry was about his desire for a full accounting of the carbon cost of a wind farm — the greenhouse gases emitted in construction versus the emissions saved by turbine operation. The ensuing colloquy:
Burns: If you can assess the life cycle of an energy source, I don’t know if you can. But clearly, wind would come out near the top of the list.
Rodgers: I want a simple yes or no. When you have an industrial wind development, should we know what carbon they’ve emitted in construction versus the carbon savings from production of emergy.
Burns: If you can do that for all energy sources —
Rodgers: Yes or no!
Burns: For one source? No.
Rodgers: Okay. So we don’t care. And the other point — so we don’t want to know.
Brilliant, Mr. Rodgers. You’ve set a trap of your own devising and pretended to catch your quarry. What you “don’t care” about is the truth, because you’re an absolute opponent of ridgeline wind, and nothing will change your mind.
The Honorable Dogmatist then turned his attention to an inconvenient truth for wind opponents: the Castleton Polling Institute survey that showed a huge majority of Vermonters in favor of ridgeline wind.
Rodgers: Now, the Castleton poll, is that the one you’re quoting? The numbers overwhelmingly in favor?
Burns: That’s the most recent poll.
Rodgers: The pollster has pointed out that, when it’s broken down further, every area where an industrial wind site was proposed, they were against it. It’s easy for those not impacted to vote in favor of something that will impact their neighbor. I don’t need a response from him, I just wanted to make that point. The Castleton poll should not be taken on a whole. It can be broken down and give you a different result.
I pause for a moment to note that of course Rodgers doesn’t need a response, because he must know he’s about to get hammered.
Burns: Senator, with respect that is false.
Rodgers: No, it’s not.
Burns: That is false information. I’ve spoken with the head of the Castleton Polling Institute, who explained in detail that that information simply is false.. He did not break it down by town; it cannot be broken down by town. What he did provide me, however, was the regional breakdown. And in every region of the state, there was overwhelming support for wind development on ridgelines. You are incorrect, and I would love to have an explanation for how you keep saying this when it is explicitly and absolutely false.
Oh snap! Ball’s in your court, Johnny boy.
Rodgers: It was written in publications. Someone interviewed the pollster.
Sharp. “I read it someplace.” But do continue.
Rodgers: So I don’t know where you got your information —
Burns: I spoke with the pollster.
At this point, Rodgers discards the poll issue, having been thoroughly posterized.
Rodgers: But I also know that in my area, we have had official votes — not polls, official votes of registered voters, and you can’t deny the results of those votes.
Burns: I don’t deny that. I simply take issue with your spreading false information as fact.
At this point, SNRE chair Robert Hartwell broke it up, perhaps to spare his depantsed ally Rodgers any further embarrassment. But Galbraith was lying in wait. And even as Hartwell tried to wrap up Burns’ testimony, His Eminence seized the chance to revisit another old, but lovingly held, offense.
Galbraith: I just have a comment because I think there’s a style of making a case here, which is if your views are shared by somebody who has an extreme view, therefore your views are discredited. And I was reflecting, where have I haard that kind of tactic before? And I think back to Joe McCarthy. That really is the tactic.
At this point, a chorus of voices erupts and Hartwell brings the testimony to a close.
Galbraith’s picking at an old scab here. And using one of the harshest terms in our political language: McCarthyism. So how exactly did Paul Burns commit the dastardly act of guilt by association and banishment of his opponents to the unending limbo of political exile?
Well, remember in early February 2013 when Bernie Sanders held a pro-renewables rally at the State House? Burns was one of the speakers, and his address included the following passage (text provided by VPIRG):
You might say this is our Kansas moment. Back in 2005, the Kansas Board of Education famously rejected the teaching of evolution in public schools there in favor of creationism (or intelligent design). This rejection of science brought much scorn upon the state and later the decision was reversed. But the damage to the state’s reputation was done.
So, what will Vermont do at this critical time?
Galbraith misinterpreted Burns as conflating opposition to wind energy with creationism. But the plain meaning of Burns’ remarks is this: opponents of evolution ignore science, and opponents of wind energy ignore established science about the benefits of wind power. It’s a matter of process, not of absolute equivalency.
At the time, Galbraith got all huffy and interrupted a Senate debate a few days later to issue a Point of Personal Privilege in which he lambasted Burns for characterizing wind opponents as “deniers of the science of climate change, and the equivalent of creationists who deny evolution,” expressed his hope that the debate “will proceed in a civil fashion,” and decried the use of “extreme language and name-callling.”
Well, nearly a year has passed, and Galbraith is still enraged about his misinterpretation of something Paul Burns said last February.
I ask again, how in hell did this guy ever make it as a diplomat?
As for his hope for civil debate, I suggest His Eminence take a good look at his fellow Windies. As I wrote in January 2013:
VPIRG, VNRC, the Sierra Club, and the other pro-wind environmental groups — who spend long hours for low pay trying to defend our environment — have been accused of selling out their principles to some sort of vaguely defined Blittersdorf/Iberdrola big wind cartel.
Those accusations extend to, of all people, Bernie Sanders. In a comment thread below the VTDigger article on Bernie’s opposition to the moratorium, he is accused of being “energy-illiterate, on the take from Big Wind, or both” (Mary Barton), “violat[ing] truth and public trust” and “attempts to manipulate through outright misrepresentation of facts” and cronyism (Peggy Sapphire), doing favors for the wind industry and not knowing “how wind energy actually works” (Will Amidon), “a raging hypocrite” (Ellin Anderson) and of selling out for a campaign contribution from David Blittersdorf (our ol’ buddy Patrick Cashman).
“Respectful,” indeed. The vast majority of the vituperation in this debate has come from the anti-wind crowd.
And Galbraith has more than done his part in that respect. In addition to his depiction of Burns as a latter-day Roy Cohn, he has also (according to Burns’ account of a conversation between the two men) compared Burns to Mussolini. Hey, congrats for avoiding the Hitler reference, Petey!
Credit to Paul Burns for standing his ground under this unwarranted and inaccurate cross-examination. And while he managed to refrain from exactly the sort of name-calling he’s all too often been subjected to, I feel no such restraint. So…
Senator Galbraith, you are a narcissistic, self-important gasbag. You are far too quick to take offense, and you cling tenaciously to offenses, real and imagined, for far too long. You like to think of yourself as a champion of civility and parliamentary process, when in fact you are a jackass of the first order.
Senator Rodgers, like your allies in the anti-wind movement, you grasp tenaciously to anything that might possibly support your cause no matter how dubious, while willfully ignoring the preponderance of evidence proving that ridgeline wind is a popular, efficient, and environmentally friendly source of green, renewable energy. One of the best, as Burns put it. And while you believe you are serving the short-term views of your constituency — or the subset of your constituency you choose to listen to — you are failing to advance their longer-term interests by blocking a relatively clean form of energy and development.
There, I said it. The videotape proves it.