THIS BRAVE LITTLE STATE OF VERMONT
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It may sound corny, but every time I get off the highway at Montpelier and turn towards the Statehouse, my eyes get misty.
Vermont's Statehouse is elegant in a musty, Victorian, governmental, gilded and over-decorated sort of way, but once you're inside it feels casual, more like a high school than a government. When I mentioned that to my representative, Steve Darrow, D-Putney, he knew exactly what I meant. "But we have a steeper learning curve, and bigger desks," he joked. "And nothing is mandatory. Someone said that to attract legislators, dangle trinkets and snacks like you would for the third and fourth grades."
I was there on Tuesday because one of my good friends, Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, is now the House Majority Leader, and I wanted to learn more about what she does. On Tuesdays, the Democrats caucus with Carolyn as their facilitator.
But it's not as if I don't know other people at the Statehouse. I know my entire delegation - that's what's so great about Vermont. And they know me because I'm what they love to see up there - a constituent!
Carolyn was busy when I arrived, so I tagged along on a tour. The brilliant gold dome, the guide said, does not sit over the large House chamber, as domes do in every other statehouse in the country. It's just dropped on the top like a big gold weight, something about the designer not getting along with the architect, he said. "Inside, it's just like a barn," he said. "Raw wood and nails sticking out."
I thought the paintings of dignitaries were especially interesting. John A. Mead, governor from 1910 to 1912, for example, is wearing a wing collar, formal black suit and white tie. The next painting over is of Howard Dean, 1991-2002, sitting in a canoe looking like an L.L. Bean ad. Past the front entrance is a lovely portrait of Madeleine Kunin, 1985 to 1991. She's sitting next to a big vase of flowers. Different years, different styles of painting, different styles of governors. Thomas Salmon, governor from 1973 to 1977 looks like a scamp. Edna Louise Beard, "The first lady member of the House" and "The first Senator of Orange County," 1921, was a babe.
The caucus was in Room 11. The last time I was in that room, the Republicans were giving a presentation on the evils of homosexuality. They passed out scurrilous propaganda and showed pictures of a Gay Pride parade. It was during the civil unions debate, when lies lost out to the truth that Vermonters think people should marry whoever they want.
Now the room was filled with serious policy wonks, and Carolyn was leading them. I was very proud. Because I was a guest, she introduced me. The members applauded in welcome, and I felt like I'd just won an Academy Award.
Then, to lighten the atmosphere, they held a little trivia contest: which Democrat was born furthest away from Montpelier? It turned out to be Helen Head from South Burlington, who was born in Georgia.
We heard a report from Steve Howard of Rutland on the state's bridges and roadways. It was filled with phrases like "not a pretty picture" and "dire." It seems that Vermont has 846 bridges. They each have an 80-year life span, but 40 years is the point at which maintenance has to be done on a bridge "to save it from having to be totally replaced at a higher cost." We're only fixing 28 bridges a year. To fix them all, we'd need to spend $127 million a year for the next 10 years. Needless to say, that isn't happening, which is why he also used words like "serious need for these upgrades," "pavement also a concern," and "the infrastructure is falling apart."
When he was asked about the governor's response to this data, Steve said "No official response, but they have recognized that paving and bridges are a priority."
This was inside stuff, and I was enjoying myself. Then Bill Lippert of Hinesburg gave a report about the Judicial Retention Committee. It seems that in Vermont, judges - and even justices of the Supreme Court - have to be reappointed by a joint session of the House and Senate every six years. Misinformation abounds, Bill said.
At every judicial swearing in, an oath is taken to uphold the Constitution. Then, a bit latter, the justices and judges also sign a written pledge. Until 1998, no one kept track of the paperwork, so several justices and judges do not have on file signed oaths. This has led to some complaints that 12 judges and one justice - my guess, the most liberal ones - have refused to pledge allegiance to the state's Constitution.
"But the justices and judges aren't responsible for the paperwork, and it's simply not true," Bill said. "So be prepared when your constituents ask you about it at Town Meeting."
They also discussed the federal government's attempt to play bait-and-switch with Medicaid by offering a block grant instead of a matching grant. Understanding the details requires superior wonkestry, a talent I do not possess, but I could see that the House Dems were appropriately wary.
I left the room impressed with my friend, my representatives and my state government. I wished I felt as secure about the federal government.
A quote from Calvin Coolidge, our only Vermont president, mounted on the wall outside the room, made me feel a little better. "If the spirit of liberty should vanish in other parts of the Union and support of our institutions should languish," he said, "it could all be replenished from the generous store held by the people of this brave little state of Vermont."
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.