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Kenyon: Power of One

Lenore Broughton has never held political office in Vermont or, for that matter, even been a candidate. Still she’s emerged this fall as one of the most powerful people in state politics.

Money really does talk.

Since August, Broughton has contributed $682,500 to a super PAC called Vermonters First, according to state campaign finance reports.

Vermonters First, which has a distinct Republican bent, is well on its way to becoming the most deep-pocketed political action committee ever seen in the state, the Burlington Free Press reported on Sunday.

And it has Broughton to thank. She’s the PAC’s personal piggy bank. As of Oct. 15, all but about $2,000 of the $684,861 that Vermonters First had taken in had come from her checking account.

Broughton, 74, was born in Chicago, the granddaughter of a Midwestern industrialist, and makes her home in Burlington. Her former husband, T. Alan Broughton, is a retired University of Vermont English professor.

Over the years, she’s contributed more than a half million dollars to national GOP organizations and candidates. Now, she’s throwing her money around in Vermont.

Vermonters First is using Broughton’s cash to buy TV ads that support GOP candidates and attack Gov. Peter Shumlin’s plan to create a universal health-care system. Last week, alone, the PAC ran 32 spots for GOP state treasurer candidate Wendy Wilton, of Rutland, on statewide WCAX-TV. As of Oct. 15, Vermonters First had spent $561,404 — much of it going for advertising — in the current campaign.

Since the 2008 election, a couple of U.S. Supreme Court rulings made it possible for individuals and outside groups to spend unlimited amounts of money to support and oppose candidates. About the only thing super PACs can’t do is coordinate their ads with candidates or political parties.

In addition to the ad blitz, Vermonters First has targeted voters through the mail. Included in the mailing is an official “request for early absentee voter ballot.” The recipient only has to sign the form and mail it to his or her town clerk in a pre-addressed envelope provided by Vermonters First.

I was surprised Vermonters First didn’t include a stamp. Broughton could certainly afford it. Her grandfather was Sewell Avery, who made his millions in the first half of the 20th century as CEO of construction material giant U.S. Gypsum (think Sheetrock) and Montgomery Ward.

Avery was no fan of President Franklin Roosevelt, the New Deal or labor unions. On the website StocksandNews.com, Avery is described as a “driven man, lacking in charm” who “hated all things about the government.” Broughton seems to be carrying on the family tradition. In its mailings, Vermonters First points out that Democrats hold veto-proof majorities in both the state Senate and House, while controlling four of the six statewide offices in Montpelier.

“With so much power in the hand of one party, they are free to advance their agenda of more government control and higher taxes without regard for the devastating impact on working Vermonters,” the PAC wrote.

“The super-majority in Montpelier has a plan that involves a government take-over of your health care … together we can stand up to these job-killing, anti-freedom policies and get some commonsense (sic) back in Montpelier.” Vermonters First is run by Tayt Brooks, of St. Albans, who served as commissioner of Vermont’s Housing, Economic and Community Development in Jim Douglas’ administration.

Along with spending more than $100,000 on advertising for Wilton, the GOP state treasurer candidate, Vermonters First has also paid for TV spots that promote state auditor candidate Vince Illuzzi. In a race where, as of Oct. 15, neither Illuzzi nor Democrat Doug Hoffer, a policy analyst from Burlington, had raised more than $75,000, it’s difficult for candidates to buy a lot of their own advertising. (A 30-second spot on the evening news can cost a thousand bucks.) And at this tier of statewide politics, TV advertising is crucial in building name recognition. “It’s my guess that he wasn’t well known among regular Vermonters” when Vermonters First began running ads on Illuzzi’s behalf, Hoffer told me. “I’m certain it’s helped him some.” But arguably not as much as it could have.

In early October, Vermonters First stopped paying for Illuzzi TV ads. I wanted to ask Broughton or Brooks about the decision, but neither returned my calls.

You don’t have to be George Stephanopoulos to figure out why Illuzzi got voted off the island, though. During his 32 years of representing the Northeast Kingdom in the state Senate, Illuzzi was known in Montpelier as a moderate Republican. In recent weeks, Illuzzi has tried to distance himself from the national GOP by stating publicly that he no longer supports Mitt Romney. (The final straw was Romney’s comment about 47 percenters, he said.) Illuzzi, 59, has never met Broughton, but doesn’t think she represents the Vermont Republican Party of George Aiken, Bob Stafford and Jim Jeffords that he grew up with. “It would have been nice to still have the ads, but I don’t think it’s the way campaigns should be run,” Illuzzi told me. “A bunch of millionaires and billionaires are taking over the system.” While the loss of Vermonters First’s TV spots may hurt him in the all-important name-recognition game, Illuzzi’s comments received favorable reviews among some on the other side of the aisle. “Finally, there’s someone who has stood up to (Vermonters First),” said state Sen.

President John Campbell of Quechee. “He basically told them, ‘I don’t agree with you.’ So they fired him.”

We should all be so lucky.