Scenes From Vermont

Ex-Reporter Looks Back on Covering Green Mountain State Politics

Posted January 29, 2007 at 3:58pm

It is 2001 and then-Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.) has just made his first vote as an Independent. His recent switch from the Republican Party has caused both ire and admiration from the public and his colleagues. As he moves toward his new seat, placed on the Democratic side of the Senate chamber, he looks up at the press gallery and gives a thumbs-up sign to Chris Graff, who at the time was head of The Associated Press Vermont Bureau.

Jeffords would later give Graff an exclusive interview about that historic day — when the Republicans lost majority in the Senate. While many observers were surprised by the Vermont Senator’s move, Graff already knew how

Jeffords always clashed with his Republican colleagues, even at the state level. In his book about Vermont politics and politicians, Graff writes about how on that day, Jeffords proved to the entire nation “the power of one.”

Jeffords, his historic switch and other stories of Vermont politicians fill the pages of Graff’s “Dateline Vermont: Covering and uncovering the newsworthy stories that shaped a state — and influenced a nation.” Released in December, Graff’s book is crafted from almost 30 years worth of interviews and notes taken during his time with the AP, a long tenure that came to an abrupt and controversial end last spring.

With frankness and clarity, Graff tells the stories of the most interesting political events of the state. Graff writes how the politics in Vermont affected the entire nation — from the inauguration of the state’s first female governor to the state’s approval of civil unions, from the rise of one-time Gov. Howard Dean, now Democratic National Committee chairman, to the skyrocketing popularity of two Vermont Congressmen into the national political arena.

In his book, Graff tracks the political shifts of the Green Mountain State, which went from one of the most Republican in the 1960s to the one of the most liberal today.

When Graff first arrived to the state he was 11 years old. In his small rural community, Graff learned how Vermonters marked the “first sap run, the day the ice went out on the pond, the day the bluebirds returned to the house … the day the phoebes arrived to build their nest above the kitchen stoop.”

Vermonters took pride in their rural and very Republican roots, Graff observed, but as a new interstate brought tourism and industry to the area, there was no stopping a change in politics. By the time Graff became a journalist, he was faced with the challenge of how to cover a state in transformation.

“Half of this job I loved was to spot the change, document it and analyze it,” Graff writes. “The other half was to keep an eye on Vermont’s essence and make sure it was not forgotten in the name of progress.”

Graff says the country has much to learn from Vermont politics. He writes how even Dean admitted later on that his presidential campaign “peaked too early” and consequently collapsed. Now with the 2008 race seemingly moving at hyper speed, Graff said next year’s battle for presidency will be even more intense.

“Everything is happening more quickly. There’s more of that danger we saw in the Dean campaign,” Graff said. “Things happened so fast that it was almost beyond anybody’s ability to control.”

The state’s two Senators — Bernie Sanders, a well-known Independent, and Democrat Patrick Leahy, the seemingly invincible Senator who now chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee — are two powerhouses in Congress. But Graff points out that observers had initially labeled Sanders as a mere “gadfly” who lost elections at the state level, and that Leahy barely beat his opponent in the 1980 Senate election.

Graff accounts Leahy’s and Sanders’ success to Vermonters’ beliefs that personality, not partisanship, is what counts. Vermonters also shied away and even look down on negative campaigning. Sander’s popularity, for example, soared when his opponent in 1990 attacked him for being a socialist.

“Politics is still seen as an honorable thing and is a good thing … we’re seeing so much cynicism in a lot of big-state campaigns ads,” Graff said. “But Vermonters are proud of their public servants. Leahy and Sanders don’t lose sight of where they come from and who they represent.”

“Dateline Vermont” also follows Graff’s career as a journalist from the beginning to its abrupt end.

Graff never thought that he would be a journalist. Jim Douglas, the news director of Middlebury College’s radio station, initially roped Graff into covering the funeral of a former Senator. Douglas would later become Vermont’s governor and Graff, who was a theater major, would find a new passion in journalism.

Graff started working at a small radio station right out of college but ended up at the AP bureau. He worked his way up to become the bureau’s head in only two years and covered government and the courts. When the Vermont Supreme Court approved civil unions, Graff remembers using the “FLASH” priority for his story, signaling the “utmost importance” of the story he was about to write.

Graff followed Dean’s political career, including his inauguration as governor following the death of Gov. Richard Snelling. Graff also was present at the beginning of Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign and was the first to write about the tragic story of Dean’s brother, Charlie, who was captured and killed in Laos.

On March 2006, the AP terminated Graff from the Vermont bureau. The AP said it disapproved of Graff’s decision to send out a column written by Leahy on the Freedom of Information Act. Media watch groups showed an outpouring of support for Graff, calling the AP’s reasoning ironic and senseless.

Five days after Graff’s termination, the AP received a letter from four of the state’s top politicians: Douglas, the Republican governor, Leahy, Jeffords and Sanders, who was then an Independent House Member. The letter asked for Graff’s reinstatement and said the journalist “has been a tremendous credit to [the] AP in Vermont and beyond.”

At the time, Graff already knew his career as a journalist was coming to an end. He writes that it was as if “an essential part of him had been ripped away.” But the conviction of the four Vermont politicians was, if anything, a sign of how Graff handled himself as a journalist throughout his years with the AP. In the book, Graff writes that while he had his share of politicians complaining about AP’s coverage, the letter showed how Graff was able to establish trust and respect from Vermont’s top newsmakers.

“In the course of my career, I don’t think anyone knew what my politics was,” Graff said. “Whether it was Dean or Jeffords, or Sanders . … I think politicians in Vermont felt I was always willing to listen, and if they had a complaint I didn’t get offended.”

Graff quips in his book that if his firing could “bring together a socialist, a Democrat, a Republican and an independent, then perhaps it was for the good.”

Graff now works as the vice president of communications for the National Life Group in Vermont. He currently is promoting his book and is unsure whether another one is in his future — though he has plenty of material left. And while his departure from the AP was both shocking and painful, Graff writes that he wouldn’t have changed anything but the ending.