Learning the ropes: Region's first-year lawmakers adjust to new roles in Vermont's citizen legislature
BRATTLEBORO — The 2019 freshman class of southern Vermont lawmakers arrived at the Statehouse last January facing a crash course in everything from finding an apartment in a new city to tackling complex issues like taxes and revenues.
"There's a learning curve to it. I still feel like I'm in that learning curve," said Rep. Nelson Brownell, D-Pownal. "It's basically like starting school, all the 101 classes to see how things are working. Hopefully as you go along you can make changes."
They learned their way around the nearly 160-year-old granite building, navigating marble hallways to committee rooms, making new friends and colleagues, some more conservative and others more liberal. They learned the art — and occasional disappointment — of compromise, and the unspoken decorum and protocol of the 180-member citizen legislature.
"The first session, you're learning so much," said Rep. Nader Hashim, D-Dummerston, who drove 220 miles round trip each week to spend Tuesday through Friday in Montpelier representing his district. "It was a different experience," he said, learning "what staircase goes where and what the committee rooms are."
Being a former state trooper and working within a clear chain of command, Hashim said suddenly finding himself reporting only to his constituent "bosses" back home was a shift. "I was used to asking for permission and getting orders," he said. "Autonomy takes a little getting used to."
His most valuable lesson learned: "The less you talk, the more people listen."
Even those such as Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, who was appointed to the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee and had previously worked in Montpelier, found her first session held surprises.
"Before I arrived, there was a lot of foreshadowing that new legislators should be seen and not heard," she said. "That was not true. I felt very welcome on my committee. My work was appreciated."
Kornheiser said she was uncertain what her Republican committee chairman Rep. Michael Marcotte, from Coventry in the Northeast Kingdom, would think of working with a young female member from the liberal stronghold of Brattleboro.
"The kindness that Mike showed me how comfortable he was dealing with my leadership," she reflected. Marcotte invited Kornheiser to attend a bill signing with Gov. Phil Scott, where she spoke publicly and received the pen used to sign the legislation into law.
That was a big moment, Kornheiser said, pausing to take the green and gold pen out of her purse. "It was really reassuring that working hard would pay off."
That unexpected across-the-aisle camaraderie was the biggest surprise for the new lawmakers.
"There's a contrast between how we see Congress, the bitterly divisive and partisan nature of politics at the national level. You get the feeling that politics is just this blood sport," said Kathleen James, D-Manchester. But at the Statehouse, she said, "There's just the feeling of respect that the vast majority of legislators in both parties have for each other."
Hashim recalled finding his House seat on his first day, expecting the chamber to be divided with Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other (with independents and Progressives also among those seated). "I found my seat, with Republicans all around me, and only one Democrat beside me. I said, 'Is this a mistake?'"
Hashim enjoyed getting to know his GOP seatmates. One night he went to hear a band at a local bar and spotted a Republican legislator dancing with a Progressive. "I don't think you'd see that in Washington," he said.
Serving is not without challenges. For starters, it means a round-trip drive of 250-miles for some southern Vermont lawmakers, almost every week from January through May.
"The drive was two-and-a-half hours, and it snowed every Monday evening that I drove up. It was like clockwork," said Rep. David Durfee, D-Shaftsbury. But, he added, "You get use to the commute."
In addition, it's time away from regular jobs back home. For some, such as Rep. Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, that meant closing her arts foundation to devote time to legislative duties. Coffey instead works part time with her family's recording studio.
"I made a decision to clear the deck," Coffey said. "For me, I had to put a lot of things on hold. I love that we have a 'Citizen's Legislature,' but it does limit who can do it."
James, manager of a nonprofit, said she cut her workload by a quarter during the 2019 session, hiring a team to take over those duties. That wasn't enough. For the upcoming session, she has reduced her workload by half and brought on another person to take over the extra tasks.
"Balancing the legislative work was and remains the hardest challenge," she said. "It is a significant undertaking if you want to do it to the best of your ability. There's always more you could be doing, more you could be learning, more projects you could be undertaking."
Most devote their Mondays at home to jobs, and keep in touch with co-workers via phone and email from Montpelier during the week. They rely and appreciate coworkers who step up to fill the gaps.
Career is only half the equation. Serving in Montpelier also means significant time away from family.
For Durfee, that was his first concern. "I have a son in high school, and I asked him, 'Would it be all right with you if I ran?'" he said. The weekends home are divided — a day of rest, and a day of family time. "Then I'm ready to go back again," Durfee said.
Spouses and partners step in to help get children fed, dressed and off to school. And some, such as Hashim and Rep. Kelly Pajala, I-Londonderry, have their children on weekends when they are home from Montpelier. It's a balance, they say, but it works.
While many lawmakers end the workday with free drinks and food at legislative receptions, or relaxing at one of Montpelier's bars or restaurants, James prefers to head back to her apartment and talk on FaceTime with her wife. That's the first thing. Then she triages her email inbox, which is overflowing with messages from constituents and work associates back home.
"We both knew it would be a massive life change," James said. "You've got to be willing to turn your life upside-down to do this. As January approaches, I have some pangs about that part. But I'm excited to get back to work."
Kornheiser also tries to find quiet time after the legislative day ends.She said it's hard to eat well and exercisegiven the heavy work schedule and the "booze and fried food" at legislative receptions.
The biggest lesson for several of the freshmen lawmakers was learning patience, realizing that legislating can be a long game. Bills they submitted in January went through the process of legislative committee changes and amendments from the House and Senate floor. Some emerged to be signed into law; others might still sit untouched in committees, or altered so dramatically that they scarcely resemble their original form.
"With the political process locally, you make it happen," Brownell said. At the Statehouse, "You've got a large group of people and things change fast. It's part of the learning curve."
Pajala, who is town clerk in Londonderry, joined the freshmen at this year's orientation, although 2019 was technically her second session. Pajala dropped into the last biennium mid-term, replacing Rep. Oliver Olsen in 2018 when he stepped down. As a result, she missed the first-term prep and lessons, and hit the ground running during the faster-paced second session of the biennium.
"That forced me to learn quickly," Pajala said. Being an independent, she didn't have the political party support network that Republicans and Democrats enjoy. "I just showed up every day, kept my eyes and ears open, and read as much as I could. So much of the learning was just being there."
In the upcoming session, which will be Pajala's third, many newcomers said they hoped to be more focused, more organized, and have a clearer list of issues they want to tackle. But they look forward to returning and feel better prepared.
"It's a humbling experience," said Coffey. "Every day I walked to the Statehouse I saw that beautiful statue of Ceres [on the dome]. It gave me tingles. I hope I continue to feel that way."
"We're not up there getting rich or getting famous," James said. "If you're there, you're there because you care. I just found that to be kind of a shared value. It's the coolest place I've ever worked."
Susan Allen is a freelance writer living in Grafton.
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