Monday, September 04, 2006

Ex-Vermont journalist now toast of national Democrats

Article published Sep 4, 2006
Ex-Vermont journalist now toast of national Democrats
Rutland Herald

LUDLOW — Longtime state Rep. John Murphy of Ludlow remembers drinking beer with him.

Rolf VanSchaik, a former Cavendish selectman, remembers him as charming and witty, at meetings that no one would describe as charming and witty.

And Edith Hunter, the doyenne of Weathersfield news, says she remembers him, but not as he remembers her. His chief memory is being a regular guest at her breakfast table the mornings the Black River Tribune was printed. She doesn't remember serving breakfast to her son's friend, who now is the subject of the national Sunday morning news shows.

Who's the now-famous guy everyone is trying to remember?

It is Ned Lamont, the anti-war Connecticut Democrat who is running for U.S. Senate, having defeated Sen. Joseph Lieberman in the Democratic primary last month.

Lieberman was the running mate of Vice President Al Gore during the 2000 presidential election. But Connecticut Democrats grew increasingly upset with Lieberman's support of the Iraq war. Lieberman now is running as an independent, and recent polls show him with a shrinking lead over Lamont, with the Republican candidate only in single digits.

Lamont was a reporter-editor at the now-closed weekly Black River Tribune in Ludlow almost 30 years ago, from 1977-78. He covered meetings that often are the bread-and-butter of weekly newspapers, such as select board and school board.

Lamont, in published interviews since he started his run for Senate, has almost always cited his early years in Vermont as a very important experience in his grassroots political education.

And he even told The Hartford Courant that he still might be in Vermont since he had such warm memories of the state and his time there.

"I could have stayed there the rest of my life, maybe if I met someone," Lamont told the Courant earlier this year. "The great thing about a town like that is you know everybody and everybody knows you."

Lamont left the Tribune in 1978 to attend Yale School of Management, and later founded Lamont Digital, a cable television system for colleges and universities that would earn Lamont a fortune estimated as much as $300 million.

Not that Lamont needed it. He came from an extremely wealthy family. A great-grandfather was one of the founding partners of J.P Morgan. As one of his school friends described him, he was one of those people "who were born on third base."

Will Hunter of Cavendish was the founder and publisher of the Black River Tribune, and he remembers Lamont, a friend from prep school, as a hardworking and caring guy. And he also remembers eating breakfast with Lamont at his mother's Weathersfield home the morning the Tribune went to the printer.

The Hunter family was well known back in the 1970s in southern Windsor County for either starting or having a strong hand in starting a trio of weekly newspapers: the Black River Tribune in Ludlow, the Weathersfield Weekly and the Windsor Chronicle.

The Tribune in particular was populated by college and prep school pals of founder Will Hunter, and many of the Tribune alumni have gone on to great success in journalism and finance.

Will Hunter said he remembers meeting Ned Lamont when he was 13 and first came to the elite New Hampshire boarding school, Philips Exeter Academy. "Half the buildings at Exeter were named for various relatives of his," Hunter said.

Hunter said he recalls his friend covering Green Mountain Union High School board meetings, and the Cavendish Select Board when the town was embroiled in the fight over controversial Black River hydroelectric project, opposing the town of Springfield's ambitious hydroelectric project, which would have flooded 800 acres in neighboring Cavendish.

Hunter, who said he last talked to Lamont in June when he was 20 points behind in the polls, said unlike some of his rich friends, Lamont had a sincerity that came through in his stories.

"What I really like to think is that it was one of the times in his life when he really lived somewhere that was not an elite community, but with real people. I think it had a really important impact on his development," said Hunter, a former state senator and representative.

"I remember he covered politicians in the summer of 1978," Hunter said. The crew at the paper lived together, he recalled, in what a former girlfriend nicknamed "Squalor."

"There were other people who I invited to come work at the paper who were so programmed on a career path that they couldn't do that. He didn't care about that. He thought it would be a fun thing to do and I really admire him for that," said Hunter, himself a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School.

"I think his family heritage has given him the ability to do this and not worry about money. It's always given him a grounding in public service in the best sense of the word. He's a very nice guy."

His mother, Edith Hunter, also described him as nice and unassuming, saying he was so unassuming it was hard to believe he was running for U.S. Senate.

"He really seems like a junior high principal," Edith Hunter said after renewing his acquaintance two weeks ago at a fund-raiser in Burlington for Democracy for America, an early supporter of Lamont, which gave him $100,000 for his Democratic primary and introduced his candidacy to the Democratic blogosphere.

Lamont first came to Ludlow in winter 1977, shortly after graduating from Harvard University.

Eventually, he also started volunteering at the fledgling Vermont Public Radio, which at that time had its headquarters at the Windsor House in Windsor.

According to Betty Smith of Vermont Public Radio, Lamont and Art Silverman, then an editor-photographer with the Claremont (N.H.) Eagle-Times, approached the station about a news show. Back then, she said, the station had no money for any news staff and then-station manager Ray Dilley, accepted their offers and suggested they work together. Lamont and Silverman started producing a weekly news show, "Reporters' Notebook," Smith said.

"It's interesting to think of Vermont as an incubator. They both went on to do such interesting things," Smith said.

Silverman, now a senior producer at National Public Radio, remembers they took stories they covered for their respective papers and made them radio-friendly. Neither had any experience in radio, Silverman said.

Silverman went on to a very successful career at National Public Radio after his volunteer work at VPR in 1977-78, and said it easily could have been Lamont instead of himself.

Silverman said by luck he was at the VPR studios when NPR's then-weekend host Noah Adams was traveling in Vermont and heard "Reporters' Notebook." He asked for one of the two reporters and Silverman jumped at the chance to do some work for Adams.

"We were two newspaper guys and complete idiots. But he seemed to be from another planet, a well-bred gentleman. Ned had a brand new red Audi Fox, and I had an old beat-up Ford Bronco, I think," Silverman said.

Their big story was the proposed Black River hydroelectric project in Cavendish. "We recorded some hearing and we stayed all night at VPR, breaking things and playing with switches," Silverman said.

He said he was able to use that contact to wangle a job in Washington with NPR and he's been there ever since.

John Murphy, a Ludlow political icon who retired from the Vermont House six years ago after more than 30 years commuting to Montpelier, remembers the rookie Ludlow reporter.

"He loved a glass of beer. I never would have thought he was the type to run for U.S. Senate," Murphy said. "He was a hell of a good guy. He was just a kid and we talked about the Vietnam War, I remember that."

VanSchaik said he had been watching Lamont's race and remembering his work as a reporter almost 30 years ago.

Like Murphy, VanSchaik remembers Lamont's personality rather than any big stories he broke.

"He was a very witty guy, a funny guy with a great sense of humor and sharp. He was very astute and quick to pick up on things," VanSchaik said.

Leigh Tofferi, director of government, public and community relations for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont, was a reporter and editor at the Tribune the same time as Lamont, and Tofferi recalled the whole Tribune crew also lived together, to save money. He said he hadn't been in touch with Lamont for years, but was watching his campaign with interest.

The last year Lamont was at the Tribune, he was managing editor, Tofferi recalled.

"He was really interested in the community. The newspaper had a strong focus on local government and he developed an interest in Vermont politics, and really developed an affinity to the local community," Tofferi said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at

No comments: