In the House: Government alive and well in Vermont

A version of this story appears in the Feb. 16, 2012, edition of the Rutland County Express.

“For a state with so many hills, Vermont is pretty flat.”

This sentiment was expressed by a colleague of mine recently after a visit to the Vermont State House in Montpelier. And while this realization is nothing new, a day spent wandering the halls of our state government really drives it home.

At a time when the average citizen feels increasingly powerless — at the mercy of governments, corporations, banks, churches and other institutions that seem more concerned with self-preservation than with the public good — it is refreshing (and comforting) to know that Vermont’s government is still accessible, democratic and equitable.

So much of our national discourse is limited and degraded by rigid ideologies, simplistic talking points, ignorant vitriol and trumped up rhetoric. Being right is valued more than doing right. The current GOP presidential primary season has given us an abundance of examples which have turned the contest for the White House into a embarrassing sideshow of hucksters, opportunists and manipulative fear-mongers. (To be fair, this criticism is not to suggest that a field of Democrats would do much to ameliorate the situation.)

In Vermont, however, we tend to be less tolerant of such behavior. The 2010 gubernatorial contest between Peter Shumlin and Brian Dubie is perhaps the best example of negative political campaigning. An influx of outside money from partisan committees (what we’d now, in our post-Citizens United, world identify as those onerous super PACs) has been widely cited as the reason it got so nasty. And more than a few note that the tactics undertaken by those supporting Dubie led to his defeat.

The moral: Vermonters prefer to let their cars do the mud-slinging.

All this is not to say local politics never get contentious. Just ask anyone invested in the campaign for civil unions and later marriage equity. More than a decade later, “Take Back Vermont” signs can still be found on back roads.

Likewise, Vermont Yankee’s future, the push for single-payer health care and controversial laws like Act 60 and the much maligned, often misunderstood Act 250 have proven very divisive.
Obviously it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. However, for every one of these issues, the public was engaged and lawmakers listened. While the results may not have satisfied all, all were invited to be part of the process.

It’s easy to take that for granted. It happens everywhere in the United States, right? True, but in many ways, Vermont is special. Because of the way our state government works and most definitely because of our size, the level of access we have is unprecedented.

That accessibility is symbolically on display from the moment you walk in the door of the State House — the same door used by legislators, advocates, lobbyists, press and citizens. Inside, no metal detectors are present; no special pass or sign-in is required. Security is present but unobtrusive.

Perhaps, the best symbol of the flatness of Vermont government reveals itself in the coatroom where visitors and legislators hang their coats side by side — sometimes even sharing a hanger, as a colleague pointed out. It might seem insignificant, but this simple act is speaks volumes about our state’s attitude toward pretense and social hierarchies.

Picking up a calendar and committee meeting schedule, you can learn exactly what your elected officials are doing. Committee meetings are open to the public and held in small rooms where the tight quarters — either by accident or design — forces people together physically in a way that requires cooperation, which in some unquantifiable way influences the tenor of discourse. (A high-minded theory, maybe, but there could be something to it.)

In a one such committee room last week, I got the chance to hear climate change activist Bill McKibben speak to an attentive panel of state representatives and a standing-room-only on the continuing dangers of a changing climate and how Tropical Storm Irene was a harbinger of what’s ahead. It was a heavy conversation that seemed to be taken to heart.

Another unique aspect of the Vermont State House is the cafeteria. In other states lawmakers might eat lunch elsewhere, but in Vermont most can be found in the cafeteria grabbing a bite between sessions or meetings. Like the rest of State House, the cafeteria is open to the public.

On the day I was there, politicians were scattered among staff, advocates, press and several hundred college students who had just completed a demonstration on the steps of the State House to raise awareness of student debt.

Among the lunchtime crowd, I bumped into Rutland City Mayor Christopher Louras, who had come to Montpelier for a meeting. A former state rep himself and something of a government wonk, Louras was now making the rounds, bending the ears of various pols and taking advantage of the access all Vermonters are afforded.

Leaving the State House, I felt energized to see democracy alive and well. Following national politics, it is easy to loose faith, to become cynical and apathetic. But observing and participating in Vermont government is reminder not to give up, that politicians still serve the people and good, inclusive, equitable public policy making still exists.

As Town Meeting Day approaches on March 6, exercise your right to participate. Around the world, right now, people are fighting and giving up their lives to create a government that even approximates what we have in this country. And while what we have it may be imperfect and at times messy, it is still something to be proud of and protect. So get out there, get engaged and do your part to keep our democracy healthy and vibrant in Vermont.

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