Vermont Politics Revisited

Posted on March 23, 2015 by

Vermont’s Agriculture Secretary was explaining how cows, horses sheep and pigs count as livestock but – under the definition of small farms – goats, water buffalo and llama do not. Huddled around a table in a cramped meeting room on the second floor of the statehouse in Montpelier, the nation’s smallest capital city, the eleven House committee members were taking in the testimony and chuckling.

It had been decades since I’d seen a Vermont legislative committee in action but the scene was very familiar. Smart, straightforward, unpretentious citizen lawmakers – without personal staff or their own offices – discussing and deliberating the state’s business. No barriers to restrict visitors or outsiders, tackling issues large and small and taking very seriously their commitment to constituents: friends and neighbors who comprise the half million residents of this land-locked New England state (only Wyoming has fewer people).

I covered Vermont politics and culture in ’78 – ’80 for an alternative weekly newspaper and radio network and enjoyed writing about an accessible and human-scale state bureaucracy. Already hooked on life in the rural Northeast: dirt roads, seasonal changes, friendly town clerks and bank tellers, I was learning about Vermont-style democracy.

A mix of individualism, civic mindedness and a progressive tradition that was different from classic urban “liberal” machine politics. In the 30s, for example, Vermonters rejected FDR’s scheme to dissect the Green Mountains with a New Deal highway and in the 70s the state’s Republicans passed the best land-use law in the nation.

I could see what was coming. The states’ inclusive political institutions would accommodate and incorporate the radicals and urban refugees who flocked to its small towns and cities. Vermont would be a great place for community organizers to dig roots and settle down.

Except I didn’t, deciding instead to take my chances in L.A. where I would spend five years in what we used to call PR, and then finding my way into the Labor Movement. I felt at home working with unions but would think often about Vermont, comparing its small town atmosphere to L.A.’s sprawling anonymity. In fact, my attachment to unions – which are, after all, about “belonging” – was one way I could manage my sense of loss.

And though I left Vermont, I remained connected, returning often, though rarely for the annual January – April legislative session. I kept my friends and stayed current on politics. Thanks to Joe Gainza of Plainfield, I could track the state’s social movements (and engage in a point-by-point discussion of my increasingly “pragmatic” tendencies).

In 2000, I spent a week working on Anthony Pollina‘s Progressive Party campaign for governor against Howard Dean and a Republican and was amazed by how much traction my old friend gained against a relatively popular incumbent. Anthony out-debated the future presidential candidate and got 10 percent as a third party candidate. Ten years later, he was elected to the Vermont State Senate as a Progressive / Democrat.

I’ve know a few California politicians – including some who cut their teeth as union activists and officials – but I’m particularly proud of Anthony (we met as freshman at a college in Eastern Long Island). It’s as if he’s enabled a part of me to stay in Vermont and participate in the states’ progress and evolution. In fact, he’s accomplished a lot as a political activist and advocate for workers, dairy farmers and others; and, as state senator, can move big pieces on health care, education, election reform and more.

In the past, I’ve had fun comparing Vermont to L.A., pointing out, for example, that everyone in that state would fit between Centinela and La Brea. As for political dimensions, think about this: there are 30 Vermont State Senate districts, each with about 20,000 residents; there are 40 California State Senate districts, each with more people than Vermont’s entire population.

Vastly different places but since my move 35 years ago, Vermont and California have aligned politically to become two of the more reliably “blue” states in America. I take full credit.

In the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier in early March, I was delighted with the cozy informality of the legislature (no term limits here) and to see my pal in the Senate Government Operations Committee for a session on services to hearing-impaired Vermonters. This included testimony by Rene Pellerin, a Deaf and Blind “story teller” who listened to the discussion through an interpreter using hand-over-hand tactile signing and then made his remarks using standard American sign language.

Sitting in that room, I reconnected with a sense I’ve always had about Vermont. That it’s a place which integrates stoic self-reliance with genuine community involvement.

And I couldn’t be more pleased that my friend Anthony – now Vice Chair of “Gov Ops” – had stuck around to do his good work in a great state.

Comments (4)

 

  1. There’s a huge difference between small town life in Vermont and California which has some 30 million inhabitants. While they can afford to have the life they have, we cannot. I’m glad that people in Vermont live the life that they do, but I hope no one is suggesting that this Vermont culture will work in California. Two very different states with two very different lifestyles and demographics.

  2. Joseph Gainza says:

    California and Vermont both,in their own way, have a deep attachment to place and a commitment to a healthy natural environment. We also share a commitment to economic and social justice. We also share Lou, who enriches us both.

  3. pbw says:

    nice Lou. I’ve forwarded it to Gretzel Stansbury, for Jeff who shared your love of Vermont and much of your labor history in LA would have loved it.
    paul

  4. Laurie says:

    What a great story, told so well
    Thank you Lou.

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