Tuesday July 6, 2010

MONTPELIER -- In an election year dominated by more high-profile races, the contest between Vermont’s auditor, Republican Thomas Salmon, and Democratic state Sen. Ed Flanagan could end up being the most colorful of all.

Since returning last year from service in the Iraq war, Salmon has switched political parties and been convicted of DUI. Challenging him is Flanagan, a longtime state senator who held the post in the 1990s and whose head injury in a freak 2005 car accident and sometimes erratic behavior has raised eyebrows at the Statehouse.

Salmon, a St. Johnsbury Republican, is the son of a former Democratic governor. He’s an enlisted U.S. Navy reservist who won re-election in 2008 without campaigning because he was serving in Iraq.

Flanagan, of Burlington, ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2000 and was elected to the state Senate in 2004. His website notes that he was the first openly gay politician to win statewide office in the country. He says a near-fatal 2005 car crash in which he suffered a traumatic brain injury gave him insight into the American health care system shared by few other politicians.

Both men claim they are in the best position to keep the office focused on ensuring Vermont state government is used as effectively as possible.

"I am guy who turns lights on the situation to fix things and improve process," Salmon said.

For example, last month he released an audit that found dozens of errors in Vermont’s sex offender registry.

"I can find the right methods for reform," he said. "Our office produces high-quality audits."

Flanagan said he’s already shown what he can do.

"It was a rather passive office for 28 years" before he took office, he said.

"I invigorated it. I brought it back to life. It was a very active office, which the framers of our Constitution intended," Flanagan said. "It’s one thing to pass a law. It’s another to help Vermonters with those laws."

Salmon, 46, is the son of former Gov. Thomas Salmon, who served from 1973 to 1977. He was first elected auditor as a Democrat in 2006, when a re-count showed he won by 104 votes.

Last year, he abandoned the Democratic Party and became a Republican. He said he was frustrated with the Democrats’ handling of the state budget.

He says he doesn’t know if that will change votes in November; his goal isn’t party politics.

"I have absolutely no attachment to where my political career ends up; I want to improve the lives of others," he said.

Flanagan said he probably wouldn’t be seeking the office of Salmon were still a Democrat.

"The reality is what it is. He’s a Republican. I’m a Democrat and I am very happy to run against him. It’s not going to be negative, but I am going to present my positive ideas."

The personal behavior of both candidates has raised eyebrows.

Salmon pleaded guilty to driving under the influence last November. He said the experience was humbling.

"Everyone has personal challenges and hopefully Vermonters saw me deal with them responsibly with no excuses," Salmon said.

Flanagan is a lawyer who’s long been active in Democratic Party affairs. He was elected auditor in 1992 and served four two-year terms, developing a reputation as a scrappy figure in an office that had drawn little public attention before his tenure.

Flanagan ran for the U.S. Senate in 2000, losing to Republican Sen. James Jeffords. He ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer in 2002 and was elected to the Vermont Senate from Chittenden County in 2004.

He nearly died after a 2005 car accident in which he suffered a traumatic brain injury.

Flanagan was cleared of any wrongdoing last year following a police investigation into a complaint that he was touching himself in a sexually suggestive manner in the men’s locker room of the Burlington YMCA.

Flanagan said he had disinhibition syndrome stemming from his brain injury and that he had never heard of it until the YMCA incident.

"I have never deviated from normal behavior since that incident," he said. "It never took much effort. I just decided to be the old Ed Flanagan."