Two Republican candidates for statewide office accused a nonprofit news organization Wednesday of coordinating a political attack designed to discredit new “Agripublican” candidates who announced their candidacies earlier this month.
In a lengthy Facebook post, H. Brooke Paige, a 2020 candidate for secretary of state, posted a response to a VTDigger story published on Monday in which former Democratic transgender gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist accused him of being “transphobic.”
In that story, the reporter highlighted two-year-old comments by Paige that poke fun at Hallquist’s transgender-issues-oriented campaign and attire. Hallqust, formerly known as Dave Hallquist, a prior CEO of the Vermont Electric Cooperative, began identifying as a female in 2015.
Paige said on Facebook that that the tipster for the VTDigger story was Hallquist, and that the story’s aim was to smear Agripublican coalition candidates, including gubernatorial candidate John Klar, through association with his past comments. Paige was one of 12 “Agripublicans” who announced their candidacies jointly on Jan. 6 at the Vermont Statehouse.
“As our conversation evolved, [the VTDigger reporter] revealed that the ‘tip’ had not been anonymous, rather that Hallquist had called ‘digger’ to out John Klar, his Agri-publican effort and their association with me,” Paige wrote. “Here was the real story that Annie [VTDigger Editor Anne Galloway] and her employee, Grace [Elletson], were trolling for — to try to ‘tar’ John and his newly minted candidates with my politically incorrect past!”
He added that the reporter had an hourlong interview with him on Jan. 14 but failed to report the “content or context” of the interview.
“It is obvious that Grace had only called, and wasted both our time, to provide cover for the story she had crafted (most probably with Annie’s guidance) before she even contacted me!” Paige wrote.
Paige claims that the reporter pressured Klar in a separate interview to disassociate himself and the Agripublican candidates from Paige due to his comments about Hallquist.
“It is obvious that vtdigger is doing the dirty work for the Vermont Democratic Party as that party assembles their lack-luster statewide slate for 2020,” Paige wrote.
Klar, also lashing out in a statement Wednesday, called the VTDigger article an “effort at guilt-by-association … to tarnish not just me, but all of our accomplished and brave agripublican candidates, and our exceptional policy ideas.”
He wrote: “Digger invested a full week in a guilt-by-association hitjob to slander me for comments I never had any association with, and which I hereby, in accordance with Christine’s demand, heartily denounce.”
VTDigger Editor Anne Galloway, responding Wednesday to claims that her publication coordinated with Hallquist to smear candidates, told True North she was aware of the accusations. “These claims are baseless and untrue,” she said.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Klar released information to the media indicating he has filed a Form 13909 Tax-Exempt Organization Complaint with the IRS against VTDigger.
“I have observed (and experienced) for years that Vermont’s largest news organization, vtdigger.org (the subject of this complaint, dba), represents itself to be a balanced news resource, but is in fact eminently biased, and essentially a propaganda arm of progressive political actors here. The vast majority of Vermont media exhibit a strong liberal bias, but they do not receive 501(c)(3) benefits,” Klar’s cover letter to the IRS states.
Throughout the VTDigger article published Monday, Hallquist said Paige should be shunned by fellow Agripublicans for his 2018 comments on transgenderism.
But Paige, in an interview with True North, said it’s better for politicians to be more upfront about their beliefs. If candidates are allowed to speak freely, voters get to decide.
“The VTDigger article and conversation out there more generally seems to indicate that everybody wants everybody to be so very politically correct, independent of what their actual thoughts are,” he said. “If you ask me, it’s far more genuine to just say what’s on your mind, as long as you really believe it, and this helps to further inform the voters.
“For candidates to be threatened or feel threatened of the consequences of saying what they believe and what they feel is the truth, it’s patently absurd. It flies in the face of one’s right to speak freely, to speak what’s on their mind. You would think that the voters would rather see what’s on the candidate’s mind.”
Hallquist, despite calling for Republican candidates to publicly shame and disavow Paige, said she does believe in free speech.
“I mean, people can be as mean and disrespectful as they want to be, but also I think I have the right to call it out as well. It’s about free speech,” she told True North. “I’ll certainly unleash all of the people I know to go after what I would call hate speech. I mean, Facebook actually defines that as hate speech.”
Klar, who urged Paige to “disassociate from the Agripublican campaign” due to the media-made controversy, nevertheless said he is a supporter of free speech.
“I have a long history of being a proponent of free speech and arguing cases on the issue of free speech,” he said. “However, we sometimes alienate people who we wish to persuade when we use we use speech in a way that is alienating.”