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Rainville, Democrats spar over campaign “dirty trick” allegation

By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

Posted September 9, 2006

WILLISTON — Republican Martha Rainville is decrying what she claims is a tactic by Democrats to hijack the GOP primary and vote for her opponent.

The Rainville campaign called a press conference late Friday at their Williston headquarters to present members of the press a single e-mail that the candidate claimed demonstrated a concerted effort by Democrats to subvert the Tuesday primary.

Only WCAX-TV attended the press conference. The Guardian met briefly with Rainville after the press conference.

Democratic Party officials quickly disavowed the effort, as did the campaign of Peter Welch, the presumptive Democratic candidate in the U.S. House race. Rainville faces State Sen. Mark Shepard, of Bennington, in the Tuesday GOP primary. The winner will face Welch and at least two independents in the general election to become Vermont's sole representative in the U.S. House.

“Peter has consistently urged Democrats to vote in the Democratic primary,” said Carolyn Dwyer, Welch’s campaign manager.

The four-line e-mail, which surfaced early Friday and was allegedly sent to hundreds of Vermonters, opened with the message, “Imagine a Congressional election without Martha Rainville in the picture …

“You could help get her name off the ballot by voting for Mark Shepard in next week’s Republican primary.

“Think about it, and tell your friends.”

The e-mail did not call on Democrats to cross over, only merely to vote for Shepard over Rainville.

The person who wrote the e-mail said she did so without the knowledge of anyone in the party, or the Welch campaign.

Still Rainville said the e-mail raises concerns.

“The supporter who sent this to me said this was sent to other Democrats and the person who sent it was known and active in Democratic politics,” said Rainville. “There is not a lot of time going into the weekend of the primary and we felt this needed a bright light shone on it. This seems to be a fairly organized effort to disrupt the democratic process."

Gwendolyn Hallsmith, the author of the e-mail, said she does not consider herself “a party activist” and considers herself an “independent” who has supported a variety of politicians in the past, including Republicans like Jim Jeffords.

“I’m like most Vermonters and you vote for the right people,” she said.

A Welch spokesman said that Rainville should apologize for inferring that Democrats, or the Welch campaign, had a hand in the effort.

“Martha Rainville falsely accused Democrats of dirty tricks,” said Andrew Savage, Welch’s campaign spokesman. “She should retract her false allegations and issue an apology.”

Hallsmith agrees.

“She should apologize if she’s blaming Democrats for doing this, because this was all just me, getting up in the morning reading the paper and thinking to myself, ‘Hey, I’m going to vote for Shepard in the primary,’” Hallsmith said.

A Rainville campaign spokesman said no one from the campaign has pointed a finger directly at Democrats or Welch's campaign, only noting that Democrats are involved.

However, in a Friday interview with the Guardian both Rainville and her campaign director Judy Shailor, said that Welch should condemn the tactic.

"He's the Democratic candidate," Rainville said. "It's his party and he has some responsibility. I hope he would come out and speak against it and condemn it. Remaining silent would condone it."

Rainville admitted there is nothing illegal about the effort, but did challenge the notion of "fair play, honesty, and integrity."

Hallsmith said there was nothing immoral, or illegal, about her calling on people in Vermont to vote for Shepard in the GOP primary instead of Rainville. Hallsmith, who does support Welch, said she has lost a lot of respect for Rainville and is one reason why she is urging people to vote for Shepard in the primary.

“I had a lot of respect for Martha Rainville, but I lost that respect when she came out under the Republican banner,” added Hallsmith. “I think she is a nice person, but I can’t see how she can sign on to a party connected with [this] administration.”

Hallsmith said had Rainville announced her affiliation as a Democrat, she would likely be supporting her in the election.

A Democratic Party spokesman, Bill Lofy, says the party does not support Hallsmith’s efforts.

“We disagree with her when she says it’s not the wrong thing to do,” said Lofy.

Rainville’s campaign was alerted to the e-mail by a Democratic supporter in Charlotte — Bonnie Christie — who was concerned that it represented a party-led effort to tinker with the GOP primary.

“I don’t think Democrats should be interfering in this race to try and keep her off the ballot,” Christie told the Guardian. Christie, who had never thought of voting in a Republican primary, said she may now do just that in order to show her support for Rainville.

Christie, who has worked with Hallsmith in non-profits before, took her on her word that she sees herself as an independent. However, Christie still doesn’t like the idea of people voting in the primary just to keep Rainville off the November ballot.

Rainville said she remains confident about her chances in Tuesday’s primary, but was concerned if Democrats flock to the GOP ballot. “I’m not going to assume anything at this point, but if a large number of Democrats go into the primary to vote against me to help Peter Welch, sure I’m concerned,” she said.

She said a combination of low voter turnout and crossover votes could have an impact.

Shepard, a state senator from Bennington County, said he was not aware of the e-mail, nor did he condone it.

“I want people who will vote for me in November to vote for me in September,” he said.

He added that Rainville has benefited from similar manipulation by the Vermont GOP during primary. Earlier this year, top GOP leaders penned a letter to national Republicans saying they would be OK with an early endorsement of Rainville. This early endorsement has allowed the national GOP to donate to her campaign, and spend money on her behalf.

“They have done all they can to keep me invisible in this primary,” he said. “Who knows? Maybe on Sept. 13 I won’t be invisible.”

In response, McKenna would only say that the results of both candidates’ hard work will be evident on Tuesday.

“Martha Rainville and Mark Shepard have both been traveling around the state, speaking to thousands of Vermonters in hopes of winning their support on Tuesday. Rainville looks forward to seeing the honest results of their campaigning,” said McKenna.

It is not uncommon for self-described party members to “visit” another party’s primary. Vermont has an open primary system, which means voters do not have to register with a party to vote in its primary.

The most well-known of these “visits” occurred in 1998 when farmer Fred Tuttle defeated Republican Jack McMullen in the primary for the U.S. Senate after a substantial write-in effort. Tuttle, who was the star of a Vermont-based political film called A Man With a Plan released that same year, garnered support from across the political spectrum, and his victory was seen as a repudiation of an “outsider” trying to win an election in Vermont.

Despite crying foul, Tuttle won, and essentially endorsed Democratic incumbent Patrick Leahy in the general election.

A similar effort is underway this year to have non-Republicans vote in the GOP primary and once again write in Tuttle’s name. This time, the target is Rich Tarrant.