Vermont Folklife Center Radio
Under The Golden Dome:
The Stories Behind Vermont's Citizen Legislature


Program 1:
The Legislature Before Reappointment

Before Reapportionment in 1965, the House had 246 members with a representative from each municipality. Until the early 1960s the history of Vermont was republicanism and it was a part-time legislature that met every two years. But a sea change was under way.

Transcript:

Glendon Pierce 

When the time to close the boxes arrived, the moderator dumped the ballots out on the table, and he sat down and started countin’ the ballots and he counted “Republican, Republican, Republican, Republican,” and he’d put ‘em in a separate pile, and “Republican, Republican, huh – Democrat! Well.” And he put that over in the other pile. So then he returned to his counting again, and he said “Republican, Republican, Republican, Republican, Glendon Pierce huh! Democrat! That son-of-a-bitch voted twice.”

Gregory L. Sharrow

At the end of World War II the Vermont legislature was much the same as it was at the end of the Civil War. It was a part-time citizens’ legislature that met every two years and adjourned so its members could go home for Town Meetings and sugaring season. Vermont had not seen a Democratic governor for nearly a century, and had never sent an elected Democrat to Washington.

Senator Jim Jeffords

The history of Vermont was Republicanism, but it was never a solid conservative. There was always the two parts of the Republican Party. There was the Aiken faction and the Dean Davis faction. And so that you had the right and the left within the Republican Party.

Sanborn Partridge

You didn’t talk politics, you talked issues and people.

Gregory L. Sharrow 

For a state with a population of 300,000, the House was large and unwieldy: Each town had one vote, so a representative from a town of 80 had the same power as the representative from the city of Burlington.

Gertrude Mallary 

The House was 246 members with a representative from every municipality. And I think there were 53 women.

Governor F. Ray Keyser Jr.

Generally speaking, they didn’t campaign a lot. They were selected because of the fact that they had been Selectmen or School Directors and they really understood some of the practical things that needed to be done. But the process was much more of a town meeting, it was much more of a representative government.

Franklin Billings 

It was a part-time Legislature and they were over, you had to get over by town meeting day because it was time to sugar. And so everybody went home. And it was every other year, too.

Gregory L. Sharrow 

Change began with Ernest Gibson Jr., a war hero and liberal Republican, who after the war established a minimum wage, a pension plan for teachers, a state police force, and a graduated income tax. In short, he introduced a more activist government that required a great deal more attention and time than a part-time legislature could give it.

Robert Gannett 

We realized that with the State’s business becoming more complicated and involving more dollars and more responsibility, that it really didn’t make sense to meet every other year.

So in 1957, I was able to persuade the leadership of the House that we should provide for reconvening in the second year to consider budget changes or other important matters that might come up in the interim, but there was no way that the Senate was going to agree to that or would agree to that. Asa Bloomer... would have no part of changing the procedure. What was good enough him and his predecessors should be good enough for the rest of us in the 1950s and afterwards.

Gregory L. Sharrow 

Rutland County’s Asa Bloomer, the Senate’s cantankerous President Pro Tem, insisted that the legislature limit the issues that could be covered in the second year. These included the establishment of a Department of Administration as recommended by the Little Hoover Commission, the bonding of the new interstate highway program, and the consideration of changes in appropriations as needed.

The law was finally changed in 1959. The Legislature met in 1960, and has met yearly ever since.

Another unwritten tradition provided a means to avoid factions developing in a one-party state.

Gertrude Mallary 

I think that one of the reasons I didn’t run for re-election was because this rather ridiculous mountain rule was still in effect in some counties…

Senator Jim Jeffords 

They used to have what was called a “mountain rule” and because it was felt very strongly that the people on the east side of the mountain always had the benefit over the west side or vice versa, so they had the agreement that the governor would first be elected from the east and then two or four years, whatever they have, they would agree that the next governor would come from the west side of the mountains. And so it was known as the mountain rule.

Gregory L. Sharrow

It wasn’t until 1965, that the mountain rule disappeared from the legislative landscape. From then on, elections would be contests instead of coronations.

Despite the disparity of representation of the 246-seat House, the one-town, one-vote rule meant that the Legislature was bound to listen to its small towns, and for better or worse the composition of the House preserved the rural character of the state.

Graham Newall 

It was my greatest good fortune to serve in the fifties. I served with people who are typically hundred percent Vermonters, who loved this state and who were not playing politics. Whose vote was really what it says in our oath: “To the best good of the same.” And I realize even to this day how much we lost with 150 man House. We were representatives from the smallest little towns...But these little towns, they could get up and of course, many of them had had great experience in town meetings and talking. And they were good talkers.

Gregory L. Sharrow 

Many were also shrewd politicians. One was Loren Pierce, a well-known lawyer from Woodstock. Veteran legislator Bob Gannett relates one of Pierce’s particularly effective tactics: a demonstration of how people were abusing the bounty on porcupines. A town clerk paid five dollars for each set of ears.

Robert Gannett 

He decided, and he had permission of the Speaker, to show how it was possible to fabricate these duplicate sets of ears, so he had a table set in front of his seat there in the front row and he gave an exhibition of how it could be done with skinning pieces of porcupine and threading them in a certain way. So it was a first hand exhibition and it was very persuasive and it was the best possible evidence that could be given and the bounty was repealed. It was wonderful.

Gregory L. Sharrow 

We heard the voices of Glendon Pierce, James Jeffords, Sanborn Partridge, Gertrude Mallary, Ray Keyser, Franklin Billings, Robert Gannett, and Graham Newell. All but Glendon Pierce are former members of the Vermont Legislature.

The interviews were sponsored by the Snelling Center for Government. This series was produced by the Vermont Folklife Center of Middlebury by Bob Merrill and Jane Beck. Funding for this series was provided by the Vermont Community Foundation and the Windham Foundation. I’m Greg Sharrow.

 

 


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