An upset win upsets Vermont as a farmer steps out of retirement (and a movie) to run for the Senate
By Tamala M. Edwards/Tunbridge
(TIME, September 28) -- It took a while for Fred Tuttle's life to become art. But once that happened, politics followed. For 50 years, Tuttle, 79, was a dairy farmer until bad health--three heart attacks, cataracts, arthritis, diabetes, prostate cancer--forced him to retire in 1989. Then John O'Brien, a neighbor and local filmmaker, cast Tuttle as the lead in his 1996 film, Man with a Plan. In the movie a retired dairy farmer, also named Fred Tuttle, runs for Congress because, well, he needs the money. "I spent all my time in the barn," the fictional Fred tells voters. "I'd just like to spend a little time in the House." With no platform and little money, the sweet but mischievous Fred beats the incumbent by one vote. The movie became a state art-house hit and Tuttle a star, SPREAD FRED bumper stickers pasted to cars zipping along I-89.
Now the movie looks less "mockumentary" than cinema verite. Egged on by O'Brien, a Democrat, Tuttle entered the G.O.P. primary for the Senate against businessman Jack McMullen in July. McMullen has law and business degrees from Harvard; Tuttle dropped out in the 10th grade. McMullen, a millionaire, spent $475,000, including $227,000 of his own money. Tuttle lives on Social Security and spent $200, mostly for Porta-Potti's at his nickel-a-plate "FredFest" fund raiser. McMullen ran ads and crisscrossed the state. Tuttle sat on his porch nursing his bum knee, venturing out for debates only in the campaign's last week. Tuttle beat McMullen, 24,561 votes to 19,962.
Talk about an upset victory. Everyone--except perhaps Democratic incumbent Patrick Leahy--is upset that Tuttle won. Republican officials are shocked to find themselves saddled with a candidate who says of his opponent, "I like Pat. He's a smart man, and he's done a good job." Tuttle's wife Dottie refused to vote for Fred, and wishes this foolishness would stop. "I hope they have more sense than to vote for my husband," she snaps. And Tuttle says his bid against McMullen, who has lived in Vermont only about a year, was meant to be a protest run. "Someone asked him what he would do if he won the primary, and he said run," says his daughter Deborah. "But he didn't mean for the seat. He meant the other way."
The consensus is that Vermonters saw McMullen as a "flatlander," or outsider, who thought his money would make up for his recent move from Massachusetts. (The Tuttles came from Massachusetts too--in 1832). "McMullen was a walking insult," says Frank Bryan, a University of Vermont political science professor. "Who the hell does he think he is?" Tuttle kept the state in stitches as he humorously--but devastatingly--pointed out McMullen's flaws. In one debate Tuttle asked McMullen to pronounce the name of a Vermont town, Calais. McMullen fumbled. (It may be cah-lay in France, but it is cah-las in Vermont.) He couldn't define a tedder (hay fluffer). What's worse, shortly after competing in a milking contest, he said cows have six teats. "I mean, oh, my God!" Tuttle yelled, amazed that his opponent had added two teats to the state's bovine residents.
McMullen, who has not conceded, is still sour. "This primary was hijacked by hardened partisans," he says of the Democrats and independents who crossed over to vote for Tuttle in the open primary. Ever the ham, Tuttle shakes his cane and says, "How could I hijack the whole state of Vermont?"
Tuttle's greatest weapon is his smile, which breaks across his craggy face and spreads to the two small clouds of white hair that frame his balding head. He doesn't own a suit. He giggles. Any big plan would have to be written down rather than announced: his strong Yankee accent is thickened by the loss of teeth years ago in a bar fight. When he says his name, it sounds like "Furry Turtle."
Still, like a good pol, Tuttle knows the right thing to say. "I'd try to straighten out that sex scandal," he replies when asked what Senator Tuttle would do. But the lifelong Republican might have trouble in his caucus with ideas about retaining welfare and increasing the minimum wage. As for foreign affairs, he asks a reporter hopefully, "I don't know about foreign affairs. Do you?"
There are some who are bothered that what started out as a publicity stunt--Tuttle ran in part to promote the movie, which will air nationally on PBS next month--has subverted the electoral process. Some think Tuttle may eventually drop out. (Every time he says he'll stay in the race, Tuttle looks at O'Brien much as a child would at a stage mother). No one expects Tuttle to beat the popular Leahy, who is most worried about justifying his $500,000 war chest against Tuttle's pledge to spend just $251, one for each Vermont town. "I had expected an opponent with deep pockets," jokes Leahy, "not someone with holes in his pockets."
Tuttle is praying the pundits are right about Leahy. "He knows how many tits on a cow," he says approvingly one afternoon. Besides, Tuttle hates Washington, Dottie won't go, and it is nearly time for his nap. Asked whom he will vote for, Tuttle scratches his head and tugs on the suspenders of his overalls. "Probably myself, I think," he finally says. And the rest of Vermont? The answer is immediate: "Vote for Leahy."
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