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Vermont Congressional Race No Joke

September 6, 1998

TUNBRIDGE, Vt. (AP) _ If Vermonters are a bit confused these days, it’s because life is imitating art is imitating life is imitating Fred.

Fred is Fred Tuttle, 79-year-old retired dairy farmer and local hero. He is bald, stooped, wears thick glasses and overalls and a ``FRED″ gimme cap. His face is Vermont’s face _ all harsh winters and rocky resilience.

Two years ago, in the low-budget film ``Man with a Plan,″ he played a retired dairy farmer who runs for Congress. And now, in real life, he is running for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.

It was supposed to be a joke. It was supposed to be a publicity stunt.

But Jack McMullen isn’t laughing.

McMullen, a 56-year-old corporate consultant and millionaire, is Fred’s opponent. McMullen has spent more than $300,000, while Tuttle has pledged to limit campaign spending to just $16. McMullen is running a real campaign. His campaign has a Web site.

And yet there are some who say that Fred Tuttle stands a real chance of winning Tuesday’s primary. Because while Fred’s family has been in Vermont since 1832, and while Fred was milking cows on the family farm before McMullen was born, McMullen’s roots are not so deep.

To be more specific, though he has owned property in Vermont for 15 years, McMullen moved from Massachusetts into the Green Mountain State just last year.

He is, in other words, a flatlander.

That is the word that Vermonters have traditionally used to describe anyone who is not from Vermont, whether they be from New Hampshire or New Jersey or New Guinea. It is not a compliment.

``Being a flatlander is something you can get over, but it takes a lot of work,″ says state Supreme Court Justice John Dooley III. ``It’s not quite possible to become a real Vermonter if you’re a flatlander. But if you work hard at it, you can come close. Maybe in 20 years.″

Others say that you’re only a real Vermonter after three generations. Tom Slayton, editor of Vermont Life magazine, says ``a Vermonter is somebody who lives here two winters and intends to stay here a third.″ But then, he admits he’s ``a flaming liberal as far as Vermontness goes.″

And yet, these definitions may be obsolete. In 1960, 76 percent of the state’s people were natives, but by 1990 only 59 percent were born here. Newcomers have brought changes, unwelcome to many ``real Vermonters″ who see their state’s unique qualities slipping away.

So strangely, almost absurdly, the Tuttle-McMullen race is seen by some as a kind of referendum pitting the old Vermont against the new.

``I guess we’ll see whether Vermont is more like Fred or more like McMullen,″ says John O’Brien, director of ``Man with a Plan.″

___

Vermont goes its own way.

Its only congressman is the sole independent in the U.S. Congress. Its citizen legislature boasts a Senate majority leader who makes his living as a folk singer. Its 1997 Miss America entry was noted for her pierced navel and brief boxing career; she was selected ``hippest contestant.″

Its favorite son was Calvin Coolidge, best known for his taciturn nature. His favorite soft drink was Moxie, best known for its bitter aftertaste. You can still buy it in Vermont.

Montpelier, the smallest state capital with 8,392 residents, is also the only state capital without a McDonald’s. An effort to place one there was defeated by a public outcry; McDonald’s just wasn’t Vermont.

Vermont _ unlike any other state, save Texas _ was a republic before it joined the union, and it acted the part. It held secret negotiations with British Canada during the Revolutionary War and once sent 500 troops to confront a New York militia (though no shots were fired).

In the end, Vermont gave up its independence to become the 14th state, mostly through the machinations of a recent arrival to Bennington. His name was Isaac Tichenor, but they called him Jersey Slick.

News of Vermont’s subordination traveled slowly. In the late 19th century, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck remarked that, ``My idea of a republic is a little state in the north of your great country _ the smallest of the New England states _ Vermont. ... To be a son of Vermont is glory enough for the greatest citizen.″

Vermonters surely agreed, and this sense of Vermont as something special _ something to be preserved _ persists.

``Vermont is small and enjoys being small,″ says Vermont Life’s Slayton. ``That’s kind of contrary to the American thing about bigness. Vermont is a state that is rural and wants to remain rural. ... Dirt roads are important, because they make you slow down and pay attention.″

For a long time, Vermont was able to stay small. This was not always a good thing, because there was little for its sons and daughters to do.

Frank Bryan, a political science professor at the University of Vermont, notes that from 1830 to 1950, more people moved out of Vermont than out of any other state.

From 1860 to 1940, the population of Vermont increased from 315,098 to 359,231 _ less than 15 percent.

But then the tide turned. Enticed by visions of a simpler, less hectic life, flatlanders came by the thousands.

``The people who came here came here for the right reasons _ to raise their kids, to breathe the air,″ says Bryan, co-author of the book, ``Real Vermonters Don’t Milk Goats.″

``We wanted things to be a little bit different in our lives,″ says Carolyn DiCicco. She was a teacher in Massachusetts; her husband, Ted, was an accountant. They gave it all up 4 1/2 years ago to run the general store in Barnard, in central Vermont.

But in the Northeast Kingdom _ a stark and remote region that abuts Canada _ many see newcomers as a threat.

``They come up here, and they try to tell us how to run things. They move here because they love Vermont. Then they come up here and try to change it,″ says Winston Harper as he pumps gas at Barton Motor Co., which he has run with his brother Woody for 30 years.

``They want the malls, the fences between their homes, the zoning laws, the regulations.″

Harper and others point to the sprawl around Burlington, the state’s largest city. Whether it is because of the influx, or just because the modern world cannot be shut out, there are spots along U.S. routes 2 and 7 that might as well be New Jersey.

(An oft-told joke: There was a man who moved to Burlington because it was so close to Vermont.)

``We have our faults like anybody else. But I think Vermont is special,″ says Marielle Bonin, behind the counter at Peekview Berry Farm Stand, up the road from Barton. ``We’re not against flatlanders as long as they don’t come up with funny ideas.″

___

Fred Tuttle lives in Tunbridge, less than 80 miles from Burlington, but he might as well live in another country.

Aside from a hitch in the Army during World War II, he has lived here all his life. He recalls family stories of his great-great-grandfather conducting a turkey drive to Boston; the birds perched on a barn roof that caved in under the weight.

He had 10, then 20, then 30 cows. Electricity arrived in 1945. Until then, kerosene lighted the farm’s two ancient houses.

Once, there were 50 or 60 dairy farms in Tunbridge, but now there are just five or six, Tuttle says. In this, it mirrors Vermont; 40 years ago, the state had more than 10,000 dairy farms, and it now has about 2,000.

The loss of the small dairy farm strikes at the heart of Vermont’s sense of itself, of Vermontness. And it has hit Fred hard, too.

``I liked cows,″ he says. ``I don’t go where there are cows these days. Makes me feel sad.″

Fred owes his second career to O’Brien, a 35-year-old neighbor and Vermont native who is making a series of films in Tunbridge. ``Man with a Plan″ was a huge local hit, elevating Fred to Vermont stardom. It has sold 25,000 video copies, most of them in a state of just 584,000 people.

``Man with a Plan″ is being offered to public television stations nationwide in October, and O’Brien wanted to persuade them to air it.

``The most obvious way was to have Fred run for office and win,″ he says. ``Also, we were all ticked off about this McMullen guy.″

When McMullen challenged Tuttle’s petitions to get on the ballot, Fred came up 23 short of the 500 required. Fred’s forces came back with 2,309 new signatures. They needn’t have bothered; 184 people had come forward independently to get Tuttle on the ballot.

Fred has done little campaigning. He is recovering from surgery to fix a knee worn down from years of milking.

He doesn’t really want to go to the Senate, anyway. He detests Washington, and he likes the incumbent Democrat, Patrick Leahy (Fred says if he wins the primary and Leahy has a heart attack before the general election, he’ll have a heart attack, too.)

If McMullen wins the GOP nomination, he’ll be running against history. While the current congressman, the governor and his successors back to 1972 were all born out of state, Vermont has never elected a flatlander to the Senate.

McMullen has taken a lot of abuse. Fred ``undoubtedly recognizes manure when he sees it,″ wrote one reader of The Burlington Free Press. Others have called McMullen ``McMuffin″ (a Muffin is someone who was conceived in Vermont but born in another state).

On a recent Wednesday morning, McMullen is shaking hands with voters outside the Wal-Mart in Williston, a suburb of Burlington. It should surprise no one that Wal-Mart came to Vermont only after a pitched battle.

``I think we need more people from out of state,″ says Hannah Smith, of East Calais. ``Everybody comes from SOMEWHERE else.″

McMullen is gratified. He is wearing a blue blazer, a white shirt and a tie. His gimme cap says ``Jack McMullen U.S. Senate.″

McMullen insists he likes Fred Tuttle. He understands Vermontness, he says. He does not like malls. He wants to bring new jobs to the state, while preserving its distinctiveness. ``I come with the mantle of a new Vermont, and the values of old Vermont,″ he says.

But somehow, the word flatlander surfaces again and again.

And this self-made man, veteran of Adm. Hyman Rickover’s staff, friend of industrialists, holder of law and business degrees, is reduced to pleading.

``I am an American, after all,″ he says. But he knows that in Vermont, that may not be enough.

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