BURLINGTON, Vt. — Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus got a cool reception Wednesday in heavily Democratic Vermont, where about 125 jeering, sign-waving union members and others protested his appearance at a party dinner.
Venturing into enemy territory to rally party faithful ahead of next year's presidential election, Priebus was the keynote speaker at the Vermont GOP's $100-per-person spring dinner, where he was warmly received.
But first, he was lambasted by the protesters as an architect of efforts to curtail collective bargaining rights for unions in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
Carrying signs saying "Leave us, Priebus" and "Conservs and Tea Party Belong at Bottom of Boston Harbor," union teachers, truck drivers, nurses and state workers gathered on a pedestrian mall and listened to bullhorn-toting speakers before making a quarter-mile march to a Hilton hotel where Priebus was to speak later.
There, they stood across the street, chanting "Hey, ho, hey, ho, Reince Priebus must go" and holding up signs.
"I believe in unions," said Linda Maloney, 72, of Enosburg, who was among them. "I hate, hate, hate people like Priebus breaking up unions. People need them. It's what built the middle class in America."
Bob Hooper, president of the Vermont State Employees Association, a union representing thousands of state workers, said the point of the demonstration was to denounce Priebus and his efforts.
"This is a message that's going to impact all Americans," he said. "I don't care if you work for Dairy Queen or Wal-Mart or you're employed by a local television station, when wage depression starts to happen around the country, it's going to impact all of us."
In an interview before his speech, Priebus acknowledged that Vermont – a state where Democrats control both houses of the Legislature, the governor's office and two of three congressional seats – was a challenge for the GOP but said other states with similar political pedigrees were changing.
"It's logical that it's a little bit more of a challenge. We've met those challenges in other states. Michigan went from blue to red, Wisconsin went from blue to red, states across this country went from blue to red. Vermont's on its way. It came within a sliver of winning the gubernatorial race last time. I think you can do it here," he said.
Later, in his 20-minute speech to about 220 people at the dinner, he blasted President Barack Obama for what he called unsustainable federal spending, said he has failed to deliver on promises and accused him of "driving us into a ditch."
"Good speeches like (Obama's) today don't bring jobs, they don't bring down the deficit, they don't bring our debt under control," said Priebus, whose address was bookended by standing ovations and interrupted several times with applause.
Noisy and passionate though the protesters were outside, he wasn't impressed with their numbers.
"I'm from Wisconsin, I know what big protests are all about. This is more of a kaffeeklatsch to me," he said.