Program 5: The Speaker of the House

Before 1960 the Speaker of the House was frequently viewed almost as an honorary position, usually going to someone who was at the end of his service and who only remained in the position for one term. This began to change, with the Speaker becoming increasingly partisan until under Ralph Wright, the podium became a symbol of power.



Timothy O’ Connor

I saw George on the street one time in the summer between sessions, and he said to me, “The two years that I spent as Speaker, in my thinking back on things, was probably the best two years of my life. You only had 149 people to deal with, you knew ‘em all. Sometimes you were their confessor or sometimes you were their friend, but, you know, you were never their enemy.

Gregory L. Sharrow

The Speaker of the House, as described by George Aiken to former Speaker Timothy O’Connor, was a position that was conferred rather than contested. It called for wisdom and maturity.

Richard Mallary

Generally speaking the Speakers during most of the early part of the twentieth century were senior Representatives who had served a while and for whom this was the last year of service. I think that Bill Billings was the first Speaker, since the teens, who was elected to a second term as Speaker and so he served for three years. He served his second term for the reappportioned session.

Franklin Billings

When I ran for Speaker I was seconded by one of the Democrats... and my opposition was only from the conservative wing of the party. But to show what a change there’d been in who was in the Legislature, I think I only had about 26 that opposed me.

Richard Mallary

I announced for the Speakership and was elected as Speaker in the first reapportioned House. The procedural part of being Speaker I enjoyed. I know the rules quite well and, as Speaker, you have an obligation to treat every member equally and fairly, in terms of giving them the opportunity to speak, and making sure that the rules are administered fairly and reasonable and even-handedly, and so forth. One of the difficult things to do as Speaker, of course, is committee appointments, because you’re never able to please everybody, but …shaping the committees and getting people where they can serve most ably and where their skills are most useful and where their philosophy is either most beneficial or least harmful, is an important part of it.

Walter “Peanut” Kennedy

I was elected in 71, Speaker of the House. I must say... that regardless of their political following, just about everybody there trusted me, Democrats included. Because I made the resolution to myself when I was first elected that I was elected speaker by the majority of the members of the House, which meant that I was to take all of the members of the house by the hand and lead them through two years of session. That it was my responsibility to do that regardless of their positions. And if they came for help I was to give them help, and I was not to divulge their position to the enemy camp, and I never did. I never did that, Republican or Democrat, I never did that.

Gretchen Morse

When I came to the House, Timmy O’Connor was the Speaker. He’s a Democrat, elected by a Republican majority, …and he set the tone of being issue-oriented, being balanced. ... And he really, because he needed the support of Republicans to maintain his Speakership, was extremely interested in making sure the process was fair, that people were appointed on merit. ...but the general tenor was one of compromise, was one of finding the common ground, taking the steps that would move you ahead on an issue and not necessarily a strict party view.

Timothy O’Connor

I was the first Democrat ever to be elected Speaker and I was elected by a Republican majority. My job was not, as the Speaker, to set the policy myself. My job was more to make sure that those people who were in their respective leadership roles were doing what we all thought collectively should be done to get the legislation through the committee, out to the House floor and debated. I was a facilitator, as opposed to being the chief executive officer who was telling everybody what they ought to do. I was the first person who ever served for Speaker for six years.

Gregory L. Sharrow

The Speaker, perhaps more than anyone, embodied the early tradition that members of the state legislature were, despite their differences, colleagues.

Stephan Morse

You fought like the devil all day, but you had dinner or drinks or you spent the evening with Legislators from all across the spectrum. So there was a person relationship. You know, you were almost a Republican by day or a Democrat by day, and a human being in the evening.

Gregory L. Sharrow

By the mid Seventies, Vermont had truly become a two-party state. It was perhaps inevitable that politics would become more overtly partisan and more aware of the power involved in every aspect of the political process. With these changes, the Speaker’s job was changing too.

Stephan Morse

But I was kind of caught in between being fully partisan and this era of O’Connor. I’d like to think that some of Ralph Wright’s, who was my successor, some of his success was because I was able to transition to a more partisan Legislature.

Gregory L. Sharrow

By the mid-Eighties the Speaker had evolved from confessor and friend to a figure of power. The skills needed to get work done in a bi-partisan House were very different from those of earlier times. As Speaker Ralph Wright puts it, a new approach was needed.

Ralph Wright

The purpose is, is get the podium because if you don’t get the podium, it doesn’t matter how they vote because the issue’s never coming up if you don’t have control of the podium. You have to do your homework. Not just on the issue. I mean, do your homework. You’ve got to learn that issue. But you also have to be good with people. You have to know who’s moving and who’s blocking on this issue. You have to be able to anticipate this stuff. So yeah, we worked hard. We read the bills. We were serious about if you’re going to get in a fight, let’s win it. And I think underlying all of this was the good feeling we hoped to get by making Vermont a better place to live, and I think that if you look at, it’s gotta be hundreds of bills we passed in that decade, you’re gonna say “Wow,” you know?

Gregory L. Sharrow

We heard the voices of Timothy O’Connor, Richard Mallary, Franklin Billings, Walter “Peanut” Kennedy, Gretchen Morse, Stephan Morse, and Ralph Wright. All 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.