Campaign for Vermont 2.0: Prove it

The deLismanization of the putatvely nonpartisan advocacy group Campaign for Vermont continues apace, with the hiring of a new Executive Director — CFV’s first paid staff person. (If you don’t count Bruce Lisman, who effectively paid himself by underwriting the million-dollar-plus cost of the organization through its first three years of existence.)

And to be fair, CFV made an interesting choice: Cyrus Patten, currently director of comprehensive care at the HowardCenter and a clinical social worker by trade. The sum-total of his experience in politics consists of a brief stint in Colorado:

Community Relations

State Representative John Kefalas

November 2008 – May 2009 (7 months)

Consituent (sic) relations, policy research, assistant to the Representative, community organizing/event planning.

Deputy Campaign Manager

People for John Kefalas

July 2008 – November 2008 (5 months)

Volunteer recruitment/training, strategy consultation, canvassing, phone banking.

And yes, Kefalas (now a Colorado State Senator) is a Democrat.

Aside from that, Patten has spent most of his brief adulthood in social services work. Well, that and “Special Events Guy, Scooper, Shop Manager” for Ben and Jerry’s from 2001-2003. How Vermonty!

He’s also got a rudimentary website where he claims to be a “Social Change Agent. Educator. Nonprofit Administrator. Consultant.” And where he throws out a bushel of buzzwords to describe the Wonders Of Cyrus Patten:

I am a systems thinker, focusing on efficiencies in the nonprofit sector.  As a social worker by training, I look at multiple levels concurrently, seeking to eliminate redundancies and break down conventional management assumptions.

Sounds like he’s got aspirations to get out of social services and into a more entrepreneurial form of nonprofit work. Which he has now done. Congrats!

There’s nothing wrong with having aspirations, of course, and theres nothing in Patten’s background to insinuate that he’s not a nice guy. One could question his political chops for running a statewide organization that will need to (1) reinvent itself organizationally and financially, (2) create a public image separate from that of its founder and sugar daddy, and (3) repair its relationships with the state’s political leadership.

Because a lot of folks in Montpelier don’t like CFV. At all.  

The group has repeatedly tried to hog the credit for initiating debate on a wide variety of issues, and hamstrung its transparency agenda by singling out State Rep. Mike McCarthy as an example of conflict of interest, when it only takes a few minutes on The Google to find numerous examples in the part-time Legislature. Aside from that, there’s the whole issue of the baggage associated with its founder, ex-Wall Street kingpin Bruce Lisman, and the pro-Jim Douglas chest-pounding of CFV co-founder Tom Pelham. And the fact that its rhetoric has frequently targeted the state’s Democratic leadership. And the fact that its membership, while including some moderates and a few Democrats, skews strongly to the right.

Quite a lot for a guy with less than one year of experience in the political arena. And none of it in Vermont.

So where does this leave Mr. Lisman? Hovering in the shadows:

“Bruce is still the on the board, but he’s not the chair. He’s just kind of an active participant,” Patten says. “I think he realizes he’s done the heavy lifting in the beginning and it really has been gaining traction. He realizes that this is truly a grassroots-driven campaign, and he wants to give it the legs and freedom to be that.”

Hmm. Maybe Patten does have the political chops after all; there’s quite a bit of first-class dissembling in that single paragraph. “Kind of an active participant,” for starters; I doubt that Lisman will be content as “one among many” when he’s already dumped a million Brucey Bucks into CFV.

Then there’s the claim that “it really has been gaining traction”; I’d love to see the evidence for that. Membership has grown, but becoming a “member” of CFV requires absolutely no commitment aside from signing up. It’s like Vermont Country Store claiming its entire mailing list as its “membership.” As for “gaining traction,” see the list of political missteps above. At the start of this year’s legislative session, CFV got a lot of publicity for its push on ethics reform; but now, that appears to be dead in the water, and CFV’s role is a mixed bag at best: it did draw attention to the issue, but it also alienated many of the officeholders who might otherwise have voted for reform.

The big whopper is “truly a grassroots-driven campaign.” Nonsense. It’s been entirely a Bruce Lisman-driven campaign. If he hadn’t bankrolled CFV, it would never have existed.

Finally, “he wants to give it the legs and freedom to be that,” which kind of implies that it ISN’T “that” now, and hasn’t been “that.” Which belies the “grassroots-driven” claim. And when Patten says “legs and freedom,” he’s really saying that Lisman won’t keep cutting checks forever. Indeed, he acknowledges that “A big goal is to get the organization in a self-sustaining place as soon as possible.”

And if Cyrus Patten’s political experience is a bit thin, well, he has even less experience at fundraising.

I give Patten the benefit of the doubt. Judging solely by his resume, he’s a good guy with good intentions. But he’s got a hell of a lot of work to do.

Campaign for Vermont could succeed; with Republicans continuing to be disorganized, underfunded, divided, and largely irrelevant in the state’s power structure, CFV could become a home for disaffected Republican donors. For them, CFV could be the best way to provide a counterweight to Democratic hegemony, and a tool to keep the Dems from edging too far to the left.

It could. But if it doesn’t establish a solid donor base, a stronger and more independent image, and positive lines of communication with the Powers That Be, it could just as easily begin sliding toward pollitical oblivion.

Either way, I bet Bruce Lisman’s potential legatees are breathing a sigh of relief. For them, the last three years must have been like watching an aging relative give generous donations to some TV preacher.  

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