Barre Montpelier Times Argus - Pollina Relying on Grassroots Base
It was a Friday night in Burlington and all Anthony Pollina wanted was a few quiet drinks with a campaign aide.
But then he noticed the Pollina for Governor bumper sticker on the door of the North End bar. And when he walked in, he was greeted like a populist rock star standing up to Montpelier insiders for the common Vermonter.
"I shook a lot of hands and spent the night talking to people about the issues on their minds," Pollina said last week from his Elm Street office in Montpelier. "People kept telling me that they want me elected governor. At another bar, someone handed me a $100 donation."
This is Pollina's fourth run for higher office in Vermont and his second for the state's top executive position. His political ambitions first emerged in 1984 when he challenged U.S. Sen. James Jeffords, then still a Republican, under the banner of the Democratic Party.
In 2000 he challenged incumbent Democratic Gov. Howard Dean as a member of the Vermont Progressive Party - a label he shed this summer as he challenges Republican incumbent Gov. James Douglas. Two years later he was running for lieutenant governor in an open race that saw Republican Brian Dubie elected to that position.
Pollina grew up in New Jersey, and fell in love with Vermont when he visited a friend who was attending college in the southern part of the state in the early 1970s.
He began taking classes at Johnson State College and his political science courses put him in direct contact with the movers and shakers of the state, including several politicians who came to speak to Republican Sen. William Doyle's classes (a tradition Doyle continues to this day).
"Johnson was a really great experience for me," Pollina said. "I was suddenly meeting public figures and the leaders of community groups and it was really eye-opening for me. It really drew me in."
Soon Pollina was interning with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group in Montpelier, working on issues like food safety. He also began volunteering at a college radio station and within a few years formed a news organization linking several of the state's college radio stations together.
After teaching social studies at an alternative high school in Montpelier in the early 1980s, Pollina made a decision that would change the direction of his life: He ran in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate and won. The 32-year-old political activist became the party's challenger to incumbent Republican Sen. James Jeffords. Pollina lost in the general election, but the experience fueled his passion for politics.
"You should all be running for office," he said. "Do it yourself."
The experience brought Pollina into contact with Vermont farmers who were worried about low milk prices. A year after losing the race to Jeffords, he founded Rural Vermont, an organization representing state farmers in policy decisions. The organization grew into a network of Vermont farms and is a political force under the Golden Dome today.
"What I kept hearing from farmers was that no one in Montpelier listened to them," Pollina said. "And when we asked lawmakers to hold hearings on the level of taxation facing farms, they said no. So we scheduled our own hearings."
Farm advocacy proved to be a calling for Pollina. He went on to serve on the Northeast Organic Farming Association's board of directors, had a hand in forming the New England Dairy Compact and founded the Vermont Milk Company, a Hardwick factory that makes yogurt and ice cream from milk produced at local dairies.
"Farmers in Vermont finally found their voice," he said.
In 2007, Pollina decided to challenge incumbent Republican Gov. James Douglas as he sought a fourth term in office.
Pollina reached out to Democrats and the Vermont Progressive Party for support. The exact nature of those talks led to a heated back-and-forth between the two parties earlier this year, long before Democratic Speaker of the House Gaye Symington entered the race. One thing is certain: There was no agreement.
"Jim Douglas beat three Democrats in a row," Pollina said. "I thought there was a need for a new approach with a different kind of candidate."
Pollina said he entered because he hasn't seen progress in several key areas, such as energy development, health care reform and the green economy. He knocks the governor for not buying a series of dams along the Connecticut River and for backing only minor steps toward universal health care, such as the quasi-public program Catamount Health.
Pollina also believes that Vermont has missed the boat on the green energy revolution - and the financial boom that could come with embracing a new industry. The state should have been investing heavily in the field over the last few years, starting with a windfall tax on the sale of Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
"When it comes to the green economy, right now the reality of Vermont is a lot different than the image of Vermont," he said.
There have been some bumps along the way for Pollina's campaign this year. After dropping the Progressive Party label and going independent, his campaign ran afoul of state campaign finance law, according to election officials and the attorney general.
There is disagreement over the status of Vermont's campaign law after the Supreme Court struck down provisions of the law. Several Pollina supporters have taken the state to court over the issue. Pollina said he believed his campaign complied with the law.
"My impression was that we were following the law and its $2,000 contribution limit," Pollina said. "I strongly believe in campaign finance, in fact I would like to see there be spending limits as well."
His campaign also took a hit this summer when the Vermont Milk Company, which he had stepped down from earlier this year, had a series of financial problems. News leaked out that the organization hadn't paid farmers for their milk on time. Staff at the organization was cut and then an anonymous donation shored up the company's finances.
"There were some ups and downs because of the state of the economy," Pollina said. "But I think the model still works and we will see more of these plants across the state. The model works, but it will need to be a little different, too."
Pollina knows his race is an uphill battle. He doesn't have a large staff spinning current events to his advantage, he says. He won't have the most television or newspaper advertisements touting their record, and he won't have the most lawn signs out on display (although he does have a lot of them, especially in the Montpelier area).
In the last month, three key unions, including the powerful Vermont State Employees Association and the Vermont-National Education Association, provided major boosts - and a large pool of potential volunteers - for this final month of the gubernatorial campaign.
His performances in the debates this summer and fall have been praised by Democrats and Republicans.
"I'm not just attracting Democrats to my campaign, although I have had many Democratic town and county chairs come to me asking for a bumper sticker," Pollina said. "I've got Republicans telling me that they are going to vote for me. They're done with Jim Douglas and they're looking for someone else."