Navigating the Campaign Trail Proves Tricky in Vt.

Thursday, 07 Oct 2010 07:36 PM

 

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — The state auditor got popped for drunk driving. A candidate for secretary of state fell asleep at the wheel and drove into a ditch. A candidate for governor was cited for speeding, and two troopers got in trouble for allegedly trying to fix the ticket.

Welcome to the campaign trail in Vermont, where the candidates' behind-the-wheel mishaps are hot topics in the run-up to the Nov. 2 elections.

Roads scholars, they're not:

—Jason Gibbs, a Republican running for secretary of state, crashed his car into a ditch Sept. 17 after nodding off on his way home from a day of campaigning. No one was hurt. He paid a $214 fine for failing to stay in his lane.

—Democrat Peter Shumlin, who's running for governor, was cited for driving 81 miles per hour June 17 and paid a $152 fine. Two Vermont State Police troopers who tried to void the ticket acted unacceptably and are under investigation, according to state Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Tremblay. Meanwhile, a lawsuit has been filed against the state for releasing dashboard video of Shumlin's roadside stop but not the 2009 stop that led to state Auditor Tom Salmon's drunk driving arrest.

—Salmon, a Republican running for re-election, had a .086 blood-alcohol content when he was pulled over in 2009 for failing to use a turn signal. He pleaded guilty to driving drunk and paid a $500 fine. His Democratic opponent in this year's election hasn't used it against him, though, writing it off to bad judgment on one night.

—Gibbs' opponent, Democrat Jim Condos, who had blasted Gibbs for failing to report his car-ditching to police sooner, found himself at a police station Tuesday. He rear-ended another vehicle in slow-moving traffic near the Statehouse, police said. Condos, who said he'd been distracted when a gust of wind blew papers around inside his car, went to the police station to report it, accompanied by the other driver. Neither was hurt. Condos wasn't cited.

American political history is dotted with car accidents or driving mishaps that became major headaches for candidates or political careers.

Perhaps the most memorable came in 1969 at Chappaquiddick Island off the coast of Massachusetts, in which U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy drove a black Oldsmobile sedan off a bridge and into a pond, killing passenger Mary Jo Kopechne.

Last year, before his election, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was dogged by questions about a 2002 accident he was involved in that sent a motorcyclist to the hospital.

In 2006, U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, Ted Kennedy's son, crashed his car outside the U.S. Capitol, prompting him to seek drug treatment.

On Vermont's campaign trail, no one's been hurt. Not behind the wheel, anyway. But campaign operatives have tried to turn the driving problems into cause for voter concern.

"Candidates take advantage when something happens to their opponents," said Anthony Gierzynski, associate professor of political science at the University of Vermont.

"You can't blame them. They're scrambling to get attention and media coverage to get people to pay attention to their races as well. But if people forget the central meaning in terms of policy differences (between candidates), then you have a problem."

For days after Gibbs' accident, Democrats excoriated him for not reporting the mishap for six hours or revealing all his stops before the mishap, suggesting his actions demonstrated a lack of transparency that wouldn't serve Vermont well if he's elected.

"If he wants Vermonters to believe he is transparent enough to be secretary of state, he should reveal where he was from 8:30 p.m. Thursday evening until his car crashed at 12:45 a.m. Friday morning," said Paul Tencher, coordinated campaign manager for Vermont Democrats.

Because the damage to Gibbs' car was so slight, he was under no obligation to report the incident, though he did anyway.

Shumlin, who's president pro tem of the state Senate, has faced questions about whether he tried to use his position to get out of the speeding ticket. He says he didn't.

Condos says that given the schedules and travel of campaigning candidates, they're more likely to have a problem driving.

"We're clearly on the road a lot, and the more you're on the road, the more the odds are against you. I think we're all probably safe drivers, and accidents do happen."

So does political fallout. But will the missteps hurt the candidates at the polls?

"I don't know the answer to that," said Gibbs. "I believe Vermonters understand that accidents happen, and that people learn from mistakes."

© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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