Travis Belisle doesn’t usually involve himself in politics – and he’s no liberal.
“I’ve never voted for a Democrat in my life,” he said Friday.
But the Swanton construction executive donated $5,000 this week to an independent-expenditure political action committee supporting Democrat Sue Minter’s campaign for governor. The so-called super PAC, named Vermonters for Stronger Leadership, bought $120,000 worth of television ads Thursday calling her “the progressive” in the race.
So why did Belisle give?
“I think Sue Minter is probably a very good fit for Vermont, but I kind of leave it up to my team,” he said.
Belisle was referring to the stable of lawyers and consultants he employs to assist in his controversial bid to build a 20-megawatt wind farm near the Swanton-St. Albans town line.
“What they did is they said, ‘Hey, for the primary, each candidate needs to raise substantial funds, blah, blah, blah. Is that something you’d support – a candidate to get a governor you’d like to see running the state of Vermont?'” he recalled. “My wife and I sat down and said, ‘Yeah.'”
So even though he would “love” to vote for Republican gubernatorial candidate Phil Scott, Belisle decided to back Minter. Two or three weeks ago, he said, his advisers connected him with retired lobbyist Bob Sherman to discuss ways to contribute to Minter’s election.
“I actually don’t know Bob,” Belisle said. “My whole team knows Bob.”
Sherman, who founded the Montpelier lobbying firm KSE Partners, had come out of retirement to assemble Vermonters for Strong Leadership. Of the $140,000 he raised, $125,000 of it came from an affiliate of EMILY’s List, a Washington, D.C., group dedicated to electing pro-choice women to office. The remaining $15,000 came from Vermont environmentalists – and Belisle.
The precise nature of his donation wasn’t clear to the Swanton wind developer. He was under the impression he had donated directly to Minter’s campaign.
“I actually don’t get into the details of it, but I don’t believe we’re involved with any super PAC stuff at all,” Belisle said.
In fact, he is.
Reached Friday, Sherman said he “can’t even remember which of those guys” connected him to Belisle, referring to the developer’s lawyers and consultants.
“I understand he’s somewhat controversial,” Sherman said of the donor, declining to answer all further questions about their interactions. “I’m not going to talk about that. I’m not gonna talk about that.”
Belisle is hardly the only wind developer who has lined up behind Minter. At a Statehouse press conference on Tuesday, AllEarth Renewables president and CEO David Blittersdorf stood behind Minter as she accepted a late endorsement from the environmental advocacy group Vermont Conservation Voters. The organization decided to back Minter after rival Democrat Matt Dunne announced days earlier that he supported allowing municipalities to veto wind projects with a town-wide vote.
Blittersdorf is a highly controversial figure in Vermont energy politics. A major donor to retiring Gov. Peter Shumlin, he developed a 10-megawatt wind project in Georgia and has been fighting to build another installation in Irasburg.
The developer wrote two $2,000 checks to Minter’s campaign last December and January, contributing the maximum amount allowable under the law. Earlier this week he contributed an additional $1,900 to a super PAC affiliated with VCV, called Vermont Conservation Victory Fund. In total, he has donated $3,900 to the group, according to a filing with the Secretary of State’s Office.
On Friday, Vermont Conservation Victory Fund became the second super PAC to go to bat for Minter. It bought $5,000 worth of online advertising supporting her election.
Among the speakers at Tuesday’s press conference was Anthony Iarrapino, a Montpelier attorney who has lobbied at the Statehouse for Lake Champlain International, the Conservation Law Foundation and the American Heart Association. Iarrapino introduced himself at the event as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). He did not mention that he works for Belisle as a liaison to municipal officials in Swanton.
Iarrapino said Friday that while he was not speaking as a member of the wind industry, his involvement with it was hardly a secret.
“Do you think there was a single reporter who was at that press conference the other day who did not know or could not easily find out through Google that I worked for wind power?” he asked Seven Days.
Iarrapino said he had “no formal involvement” with Vermonters for Stronger Leadership and played no role in connecting Belisle with the super PAC.
“I will not hesitate at all to say that I’m glad the Belisles are supporting a candidate they feel can best realize the Vermont vision of 90 percent renewable energy by 2050, ” he said, referring to Minter. “But I had no hand in their making a donation to any efforts that support Sue Minter as a candidate who is clearly the leader on clean energy in Vermont.”
In recent days, Minter’s opponents have criticized her for benefiting from super PAC support. Fellow Democrat Peter Galbraith, an opponent of industrial-scale wind, said it was particularly galling that a developer with a pending project would use a super PAC to exceed the state’s $4,000-per-person contribution cap.
“Campaign finance limits exist to keep people who, like Belisle, have a financial interest in the regulatory actions of the state from having undue influence on the next governor,” Galbraith said. “This is a blatant circumvention of campaign finance limits. Sue should return $5,000 of the Belisle money from her own campaign. It is total hypocrisy to say you are against corporate money and then tolerate this kind of subterfuge.”
The Dunne campaign did not respond to a request for comment Friday, but in a Thursday debate on Vermont Public Radio, he alleged that “the biggest lobbying firm in Montpelier created [Vermonters for Stronger Leadership] to put money behind an ad that is dishonest about my commitment to clean energy.”
Dunne was referring to Montpelier-based KSE Partners, which Sherman cofounded. The firm does have ties to the wind industry: It represents Iberdrola Renewables, which is seeking to build a 96-megawatt project in Grafton and Windham. And it represents Green Mountain Power, which built a 63-megawatt project in Lowell.
KSE also has ties to the Minter campaign. Alex MacLean, a former Shumlin administration official who serves as the firm’s president of strategic communications, has advised the candidate. Her current involvement in the Minter campaign is not clear. She did not respond to a request for comment.
Sherman retired from KSE at the end of 2014. His son, Nick, is a partner in the firm. But the elder Sherman has repeatedly denied that KSE is involved with his super PAC.
“I know there are people trying to make trouble and bring KSE into it,” Sherman said Friday.
Todd Bailey, president of government relations for the firm, did not respond to a request for comment Friday about KSE’s involvement.
Asked about the wind industry’s involvement in Minter’s bid, her campaign manager avoided the question.
“Sue sees climate change as one of the greatest threats to our generation and she believes that renewable energy sources are a vital part of combatting the problem,” Molly Ritner said Friday. “Moving forward with clean green energy is not just a moral imperative but an economic driver. Sue will continue to support Vermont’s green economy which currently employs 17,000 Vermonters.”
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