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Wearing red in a blue county

Sen. Vincent Illuzzi hopes to make jump from Legislature to statewide office

BRATTLEBORO—After 32 years in the Statehouse, State Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, R-Essex-Orleans is leaving the golden dome and making a run for State Auditor.

Campaigning in Brattleboro last month, he addressed a crowd, saying his colleagues told him to save his gas money for the trip to southeast Vermont.

“I lot of people have told me not to bother coming down here because I’m an Republican,” said Illuzzi. “I’m hoping to prove them wrong.”

“Senator,” answered Daryl Pillsbury, a former state representative and Brattleboro Selectboard member, “put some money in the car, and get some gas, because you’ve done so much for us.”

Pillsbury said he likes to joke that Illuzzi is Windham County’s third senator.

Pillsbury said Illuzzi understands Windham County because southeast Vermont faces many of the same issues as the Northeast Kingdom district that Illuzzi calls home.

“Very few elected officials can get things done,” said Pillsbury. He called Illuzzi “a doer.”

Illuzzi said about his decision that it was time for him to serve the public from a different perspective.

“In the 32 years that I’ve worked as a state senator, I’ve really tried to address issues, problems, and goals regardless of whether they were in my district,” Illuzzi said.

In a separate interview, Illuzzi said he consulted with sitting State Auditor Thomas M. Salmon, who is not seeking re-election. According to Illuzzi, Salmon encouraged him to run. Illuzzi also said colleagues he approached said his 14 years experience as a State’s Attorney and his eight years on the Senate Appropriations Committee would serve him well in the position of auditor.

Illuzzi chairs the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs. The senator with committee members Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, and Sen. Bill Doyle, R-Washington held a hearing in Windham County in March.

This lead to the county seeing economic development support and funding from the state. Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, also took testimony with the committee.

More than numbers

The state auditor is “not just crunching numbers,” said Illuzzi.

Like doctors who combine their experience, diagnostic tests, and patient examination to develop a diagnosis, Illuzzi said the auditor takes his experience, training, and objective data to take the state’s pulse.

According to the state auditor’s homepage, written by Salmon, the auditor’s office performs audits that “focus on the accountability of the state to its citizens, from both a financial and service delivery perspective.”

The office conducts three main audits: performance audits, the state’s financial statement audit, and the state’s single audit. This last audit studies the state’s usage of federal funds.

Based on results, the state auditor’s office makes recommendations for saving money and improving procedures. A copy of the most recent annual performance report can be found at auditor.vermont.gov.

If elected, Illuzzi said he plans to take a “three-pronged approach” to the audits flowing through the auditor’s office.

The office would first look at whether state programs spend money in accordance with the General Assembly’s intentions when it appropriated the funds.

Second, it would study if the money is spent as efficiently as possible.

And third, it would ask if the program makes a difference in Vermonters’ lives.

Vermont’s programs and initiatives are more than numbers on a page, said Illuzzi. He said the default position for most programs is set at “well managed.”

“We can always do better,” he said.

If elected, Illuzzi would like to look first at information technology purchases. Earlier this year, he said, the DMV spent more than $18 million on a computer system that “didn’t work.”

He also said he hopes to look into transportation contracts, some of the state’s biggest purchases. Illuzzi added that he would offer his office’s support to law enforcement agencies needing help with fraud audits into municipalities, school districts, state agencies, or other entities.

Regarding some issues important in Windham County, such as the effect of the sales tax on river towns or education spending, Illuzzi said that the auditor does not study these issues at present.

The legislature, however, could make a special request of the auditor’s office to look into issues outside the office’s usual scope.

History of penalties

In his 14 years as a State’s Attorney, Illuzzi has landed in his own hot water.

Reporter Jon Margolis wrote for VTDigger.org this summer about Illuzzi’s history of penalties from the Vermont judicial system.

According to Margolis, Illuzzi was “privately reprimanded” in 1978 and 1983. Illuzzi was placed on a six-month suspension from practicing law in 1993.

In 1994, the article states, during the suspension, four of the five Supreme Court justices complained about Illuzzi filing “unfounded” complaints about a trial judge. He was nearly disbarred by the Professional Conduct Board.

Margolis said Illuzzi’s law license wasn’t restored until 1998.

“I could have handled it [filing the complaints] differently,” Illuzzi answered when asked about his past. “I should have done it in a more collaborative fashion.”

Collaborative is a word not heard in past interviews with Illuzzi.

“As you mature you learn to work collaboratively,” he said. “You see the view points of others and [develop] a more reasoned response.”

Targeted campaigning

Illuzzi and Pillsbury started their campaigning day at Melrose Terrace in West Brattleboro, stopped for lunch at the Senior Center in the Gibson-Aiken Center on Main Street, and then had ice cream with Retreat Employees celebrating Employee Appreciation Day on the psychiatric hospital’s front lawn.

Next, they toured Omega Optical, heard about the Brattleboro Memorial Hospital’s (BMH) plans for a new emergency room, spoke with seniors at Thompson House, and met with firefighters at the Central Station on Elliot Street.

The day wrapped with a meet-and-greet at the Marina Restaurant with an estimated 40 people in attendance.

Throughout the day, Illuzzi dropped his business cards into the hands of potential voters.

The practiced campaigner adjusted his message to meet his audience.

At the Retreat, he spoke about past funding he helped get for the hospital, at Omega Optical he spoke about his commitment to renewable energy and listed the wind turbine and solar panels that power his own home, and at BMH he chatted with President and CEO Steve Gordon about 1955 T-Birds.

“Ever heard of me?” he asked an employee at Omega. When the worker answered yes, Illuzzi bantered with a laugh and a quick, “Don’t hit me.”

When asked if he had voted to close the Vermont Yankee nuclear station in Vernon, Illuzzi responded with a confident, “Yes.”

“That’s good or bad depending,” Illuzzi and the questioner said in unison.

There was an awkward pause.

“Yes, well I did,” Illuzzi said.

Illuzzi counts Lola Aiken, widow of former governor and U.S. Sen. George Aiken of Putney, as his honorary campaign manager. According to Illuzzi, Aiken told him, “Put ideology aside and you work on common sense solutions.”

Illuzzi said he considers himself what he calls “a Vermont Republican,” like Aiken.

“Once elected, they did the right thing,” he said.­

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Originally published in The Commons issue #168 (Wednesday, September 5, 2012).

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