Could TV's `Scandal' help diversify Vermont?

The show is introducing a multiracial audience to one of the nation's whitest states

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PUTNEY — What has Vermont yet to employ as it aims to attract more people of color?

Paula McGhee sums it up in one word: "Scandal."

The chief diversity officer at the College of St. Joseph in Rutland listened this past week as attendees at the Vermont Vision for a Multicultural Future Conference at the Putney School brainstormed ways to expand the racial and ethnic makeup of a state that's 94.6 percent white.

But amid talk of attracting newcomers through tourism and workplace recruitment, the native Southerner spoke about her favorite TV show — the ABC drama "Scandal" — and how it embodies a more entertaining answer.

The Thursday night series, which has become one of the highest-rated scripted dramas among African-Americans since premiering in 2012, features a Washington, D.C., crisis manager who's having an interracial affair with a U.S. president.

This season President Fitzgerald Grant III, now out of office and his marriage, has up and moved to Vermont.

"No one will listen to me about how important this could be," McGhee says. "If people want to increase diversity in Vermont, what better way than to say, 'This is where Fitz lives!'"

Indeed, actor Tony Goldwyn recently was seen on screen talking about locating his Fitzgerald Grant III Presidential Library in McGhee's neighborhood of Rutland.

Skeptics might wonder how a show filmed in California could help the Green Mountain State. But just like the 1954 movie musical "White Christmas" — shot in Hollywood in the heat of summer — sent people dreaming, viewers who see "Scandal" episodes with such titles as "Vermont Is for Lovers, Too" could start thinking about stepping into the picture.

"Tourists come in, they have an experience that exceeds their expectations, and there's going to be a percentage who decide to stay," says Curtiss Reed Jr., a St. Louis native who traveled to Windham County to cross-country ski in 1978 and moved to Brattleboro shortly after.

Reed, executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, says the show's romantic vision is better than last year's comic take by "Saturday Night Live," which featured actor Larry David as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders boasting he received 50 percent of the state's black vote.

"His name was Marcus," the character said.

Reed and friends weren't laughing.

"We invited 'Saturday Night Live' up," he recalls, "to see that black people actually live here."

Series creator Shonda Rhimes can attest to that. The "Grey's Anatomy" producer, who just became the third black woman inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, spent time in the state as a Dartmouth College student in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

As "Scandal" begins its seventh and final season, Vermont viewers hope the female lead portrayed by Kerry Washington will leave the nation's capital, reunite with the former commander in chief and live happily ever after as their neighbor.

"One would imagine the character could have a full and interesting life here as a woman of color," says Reed, noting websites for the state's African American Heritage Trail and IAmAVermonter.org, a self-described "resource for persons of color relocating to Vermont for school, work, or retirement."

Rhimes would agree, judging from her answers to a Vanity Fair magazine questionnaire.

Q What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A Warm chocolate cake, a gorgeous fire, and Idris Elba. Also, world peace.

Q Where would you like to live?

A Vermont.

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.

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