People are drawn to the Legislature for different reasons and all who serve must undergo an educational process which sometimes seems overwhelming. Many find mentors who help them acquire their sea legs; almost all find it a rewarding experience.
Governor Madeleine Kunin
I think the first couple weeks I probably was totally exhausted trying to absorb it all, not only the people and their opinions, but the process.
Gregory L. Sharrow
The changes that affected the Vermont legislature in the past half-century are connected by one common thread: Legislators of all political persuasions were inspired and motivated by the desire to be a part of something greater and more important than themselves.
In 1952 there came a presidential election in which General Eisenhower, unexpectedly was persuaded to run as a republican. I was a delegate to the Convention in Chicago. I always remember, then-nominee Eisenhower spoke to the delegates and he said, “Thank you. I hope you go home and work for my election, but more importantly, go home and get involved.” And that’s what I did.
Bobby Kennedy is someone who had a real influence on me in my formative years. And watching him be assassinated, live on television at the Ambassador Hotel, June 5, 1968, was, I mean. I was sort of a glutton for punishment, watching this. I was only fifteen years old, but I was very interested and found him to be quite inspirational. So my interest in issues of equality, justice, particularly civil rights, emanate from his example, Martin Luther King. And, of course, as a child of the sixties, those were sort of guiding principles.
I was always interested in town affairs and went to town meeting and participated in town affairs... Then Phil Hoff came to Danville and it was in Danville where he announced his candidacy to run for Governor... I went to that and I just got interested in politics. Phil Hoff was first elected in 62, I think ...it was his second term when I was elected and went to Legislature.
By 11 o’clock I got my courage up and I called the town clerk in Charlotte and said, “Hazel! How am I doing down there?” and she said, “Oh, Sallie, this is, you know, a Presidential year and a United States Senate year. We haven’t even gotten to you. I mean, we’re still counting the Governor. And we certainly haven’t gotten to where you are.” But she said, “As a matter of fact, you’ve won.” I said, “Hazel, what do you mean I’ve won?” She said, “Your pile of ballots is higher.”
Gregory L. Sharrow
Getting elected can be difficult. But learning your way around the people and the process can be downright humbling.
We all, I think, feel overwhelmed in the beginning.
It was rather hectic. I shouldn’t say hectic, but difficult to know what was going on. I remember one day I wa s in the men’s room and a man was in there saying, “This is the only place that I really know what I’m doing!” And I agreed completely with that. But you soon get over it.
Gregory L. Sharrow
Peanut Kennedy was persuaded to run for office by Ray Keyser, who gave him some valuable advice on how best to gain solid footing in the Legislature.
Walter “Peanut” Kennedy
Ray said well, you want a good background. He said I’m prejudiced, but if you want a good background, he said you probably ought to try to get on judiciary committee. When it come time to put in my choices for committees I just listed judiciary, I didn’t list any others and I got there. I had Phil Hoff, I had John Downs, I had Ernie Gibson. These were all my classmates on that committee and Bill Billings was the chairman. You couldn’t have found probably a more diverse political spectrum perhaps. You couldn’t have found the capability and the knowledge that those people had. It just was amazing. And I got the background in that committee for an awful lot of things: how a bill was constituted, how it came about, what happened to it, the knowledge of being able to deal with the Vermont statutes you could not buy or attain that type of an education except as I got it.
I was somewhat, I suppose awed by being in the Legislature and I expect that I was probably fairly quiet at first. I also had a wonderful person who sat in front of me in the House. His name was Harry Lawrence and he was from Lyndon and he was a dairy farmer. And Harry exemplified the two basic characteristics that I found in the Vermont Legislature, and I find about Vermonters, generally. He was very fair minded and he was very modest. And fair-mindedness and modesty, I think, are really the hallmarks of an awful lot of people I served with in the Legislature.
I always remember Tom Salmon used to say, “During your freshman year, Tim, you just sit and observe and you don’t say anything. You just kind of learn the ropes, but don’t be getting up making speeches until you really feel that you’re ready.” and we had a bill on Fish and Game licensing or something. And Fish and Game bills were interesting in that everybody felt they knew something about fishing and gaming... And it seemed as though for three days we had debated this bill and everybody had spoken, but myself. And I finally decided that I ought to get up and say something. And I did. It was kind of my maiden voyage. And I’ll always remember, where I sat I could look over and I could see Tom Salmon and I could see him looking like, “what is he doing?” and then he sent me a note. And of course, I got in the middle of the whole thing and then a couple people asked me questions. And of course, I really didn’t have a depth of knowledge about fishing... and the final note was, “See? I told you! Stay in your seat.” So you know you had people like that that could give you advice.
It is still one of the great human experiences. t was an experience over-all that I would not trade for anything. It’s a glorious experience and a chance to feel that you are playing a role in the State’s life and the State’s direction and to meet fascinating, committed interesting people, this is still one of the great human experiences. I’m a great believer in the political process.
Gregory L. Sharrow
We heard the voices of Madeleine Kunin, Robert Gannett, David Wolk, Catherine Beatty, Sallie Soule, Edgar May, John Kristensen, Walter “Peanut” Kennedy, Harvey Carter, Tim O’Connor, and Peter Mallary. 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.