Many feel that Vermont’s Legislature is as good an example of direct democracy and citizen participation as any. The roots of this are based in Vermont’s town meeting system which informs the legislative process, but if it is to be effective, many rather than few must participate.
The Vermont Legislature is just a big town meeting. It really is. The same kind of direct democracy. The same relationships of people. A sense of neighborliness. A greater sense of community, as a small state. It all informs the legislative process and makes it, somehow it works. It really does. I guess that I wish, in many ways, the rest of the world were run like Vermont.
Gregory L. Sharrow
It would be difficult to find a better example of a Citizen Legislature than in Vermont, where the process is truly of, by and for the people. But what is it that motivates a citizen to choose the path of public service?
What spurred me on the most was that I learned a lot about the laws or the lack of legal protection for children with respect to childhood sexual abuse. And there was in incident in one of the schools that I worked in that brought that to light, got me very angry, and inspired me to work on the childhood sexual abuse statute, because of an incident that I found out about and had to act upon where many children had been victims. And that really got to me. And I worked on a couple of bills, one of which I sponsored myself with some co-sponsors, and helped shepherd it through. I guess it was a year or two after I was elected and that made me feel really good. I mean, you really can make a difference.
Let’s see, I was I guess what twenty-eight years old and I’d recently moved to Pownal and there was a big controversy in Pownal about Sunday racing at the race track. The Legislature passed legislation that had authorized Sunday racing, and Pownal had no say at all, whatsoever, except through its Representative, who at that time was Jim Loundsberry, so I felt this wasn’t a very fair way to treat the people of Pownal and I decided I’d run for the House. So I ran and I got elected. And I went up and served one term in the House.
And I introduced a bill to give Pownal a vote on Sunday racing because that is what I had said was one of the issues that got me into politics, and running for the Legislature. The long and short of it is that I actually got the bill through the House. It went over to the Senate and the bill passed and Pownal got its say on Sunday racing.
Gregory L. Sharrow
It’s easy to separate yourself from the legislature, and to forget that you have the power to influence the process.
Mary Ann Carlson
People would always say, “Well, you and they. You know, they, the Legislature and you, the legislators, Mary Ann.” And I would say to them, “Wait a minute! We have an incredible system in this country. I’m representing you. It’s not you. If you don’t like what they are doing, you need to get different Legislators then. Get out and vote! Get rid of me if you don’t want that to be happening.” It was wonderful to really see that the government works for you and you are instrumental in making that government work. And in Vermont that is so true.
We are so fortunate in Vermont to have this small state where you have a contact with your local Legislator, or the Governor, where government is responsive. ...It’s well said that all politics is local and local control is the best. Here we have it, not to the extent that some would like, but, still, far more so than elsewhere.
One of the joys of being in Vermont politics is you know your constituents. And one of the programs we funded was to get women in the trades, because women in the trades can begin to make some significant dollars. And one of the nicest personal things that ever happened to me was that we were having some plumbing done one day at a house and a very, very capable young woman came. And I’d never had a woman plumber in my whole life. And she came working with the journeyman, who was directing her, and she had been part of that program... and she was now making nine dollars an hour, and she had been prior on welfare.
I’ve often said that if we in Montpelier, in our State House, cannot make the democratic process work, nobody can, but it’s so important that younger people can find a way and can feel that there’s a place for them in our Legislature.
How do we make people feel valued as citizens of a democracy in a way that really encourages them to participate? We grew up with the expectation that the other piece of that three-legged stool was, in fact, participating in our government. Some way. Whether it’s at local level, state level, through voting through helping candidates get elected. But we will not survive as a democracy unless people really face up to this issue, that they’ve got to build this into their time and into their lives.
A democracy cannot work if large numbers of people opt out, if only one point of view prevails. It is not they in Washington. It’s not they in Montpelier. It’s not they on the Board of Selectmen. It’s us. And if we cannot get the best minds and different minds, different points of view, to step forward and serve, then all of us are diminished.
Gregory L. Sharrow
We heard the voices of Harvey Carter, David Wolk, Mary Ann Carlson, Sam Lloyd, Sallie Soule, Robert Gannett, Gretchen Morse, and Edgar May. All are former members of the Vermont Legislature.
Under the Golden Dome was produced by the Vermont Folklife Center of Middlebury. Narration was written by Tim Brookes. Music was composed and performed by Bob Merrill. The interviews were sponsored by the Snelling Center for Government. Funding for this series was provided by the Vermont Community Foundation and the Windham Foundation. The series was edited, mixed, and produced by Bob Merrill. Executive producer was Jane Beck. I’m Greg Sharrow.