There's only one thing missing from Thomas Salmon's re-election campaign — Thomas Salmon.
Serving in Iraq with the U.S. Naval Reserve, the Vermont state auditor isn't allowed to participate in his campaign because of a Pentagon ban on politicking by active duty members of the military.
And his absence from the three-way race has made for a curious campaign, prompting one rival to pass up the race, two others to wage half-hearted campaigns and Salmon's wife, campaign manager and father to act as his surrogates.
"It is a very bizarre situation," said his wife, Leslie Salmon.
Salmon, a 45-year-old Democrat whose father once served as governor, was elected state auditor in 2006. In military life, he's a builder with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion No. 27, a Navy Seabees unit based in Brunswick, Maine.
He was notified about his yearlong deployment last May and shipped out a month later, leaving behind his wife and four children, his job as Vermont's chief fiscal watchdog and his campaign for re-election.
The son of former Gov. Thomas Salmon, he won election to the $95,140-a-year job after surviving a four-way race that climaxed with a recount that declared him the winner over Republican Randy Brock.
Opposition backs off
But word of his deployment changed the complexion of the 2008 race even before it started.
Brock, who'd been mulling another run, backed off.
"With Tom Salmon being deployed to a combat zone, I just did not feel it was at all appropriate to enter into a contest against someone in that situation," said Brock, who is a Vietnam veteran.
"You clearly could not conduct any kind of dialogue, given the restrictions placed on someone like that. Just as a matter of right and wrong, here's someone who's serving his country in a combat zone, and I don't feel at all comfortable engaging in a political contest and I wouldn't do it," said Brock.
With no Republican candidate in the race, Salmon got enough write-in votes in the Sept. 9 primary to earn that party's designation on the Nov. 4 ballot, in addition to the Democratic label.
The two people who did decide to run, meanwhile, aren't exactly running.
Martha Abbott, 58, of Underhill, a professional tax preparer who chairs the state's Progressive Party, says she'll put up some lawn signs but won't raise money, print fliers or send campaign literature to homes — out of deference to Salmon, since he can't campaign.
That's not to say she doesn't want votes or that Salmon's absence isn't fair game. She thinks he should have stepped down and run again once he was back stateside.
"While I admire Tom Salmon for not trying to get out of his commitment to the military, which he very well might've been able to do, I admire that he's decided not to do that and to just serve, like any ordinary person.
"But I do think it's a lot to ask for the people of Vermont to not have an auditor for a whole year. Either we need one, to the tune of $95,000 a year, or we don't," she said.
While he is deployed, Salmon's state pay is reduced by the amount the military pays him, according to Deputy State Auditor George Thabault. For now, he's drawing a $64,300 state salary in addition to about $30,000 from the military, Thabault said.
The third challenger, Liberty Union candidate Jerry Levy, 68, of Brattleboro, is on the ballot but not actively campaigning.
"I'm standing," said Levy, a sociology professor at Marlboro College. "That means you're on the ballot, but you don't campaign. And if people are not happy with other candidates, they can choose you. Basically, I'm on the ballot so people have an option."
‘A gracious gesture’
Salmon's surrogates, meanwhile, operate in a kind of election-year netherworld.
"As a campaign manager, when we first got the word, my thought was 'It's a dream come true for someone who manages a politician not to have to deal with him,'" campaign manager Jake Perkinson said in jest.
"It really kind of hamstrings you on what you can do. There are opportunities to go to parades, but there's this prohibition we're up against. If you go to a parade with a banner saying 'Tom Salmon,' does that constitute campaigning? Anytime there's even a close call, we pull back. We want to stay on the right side of the line," said Perkinson, a Burlington lawyer and Democratic Party regular.
His father, who served from 1973 to 1977, has stood in for him at a couple of events and sent a fundraising letter on his behalf.
"The Republican Party in general and Randy Brock in particular took a very decent and diplomatic position on the race, choosing not to contest it," he said. "We were not anticipating how that would go. Had there been a contest, there would've been a larger role for people like myself in the campaign and a much larger fundraising requirement than the usual drill. That, I thought, was a gracious gesture."
Salmon's wife has juggled her part of the campaign with her duties as mother, full-time worker and property manager for a building in Rockingham, all the while worrying that one day, uniformed representatives of the military will show up at the door of the family's St. Johnsbury apartment, bearing the news every military spouse dreads.
"Every day, on top of the fact that I've got one kid I'm teaching to drive, one I'm trying to get in college and another newly in the work force, and I have a job and I have Tom's campaign and all these other things, I'm looking out my front window wondering if there's a strange car out there," she said.
It's that fear that gnaws at her, not the election.
"I most worry about a couple of guys walking up to the front door. You can't ever really forget about it," she said.