Program 8: Political Courage

Sometimes a legislator will be faced with a vote that he or she knows will spell the end of their political career, yet they feel compelled from within to vote against how their constituency thinks they should. This program examines some of those issues and votes.



Harvey Carter

I think it takes an enormous amount of courage sometimes to vote against your own convictions because you know it’s the right thing to do, in terms of what public policy considerations are.

Gregory L. Sharrow

The changing Vermont legislature has seen its share of courageous acts. Such acts often cast a cloud over, or even spell the end of a political career. So what are the qualities that make a person put aside political goals and personal agendas, and join others in support of unpopular positions?

Louise Swainbank

I’m sure that I was much more liberal than my constituents. But I had a sense of place and a sense of how they felt. I don’t think anybody can betray their own feelings in voting. You have to be honest about your own positions and sometimes you can convince your constituents and sometimes you have to vote in a way that they don’t like. And, eventually, that may do you in. But I can remember Stub Earl from Eden was dead set against a doe season. And he was on the committee that was dealing with that. And he knew how his constituents felt and he was with them, but one spring the Fish and Game people took him out on a spring trip to see the deer that had died during the winter and he changed his mind and voted for the control of the deer herd in the Fish and Game Department and he was defeated, of course, in the next election. And he knew he was going to be. It was very hard for him, but that took courage.

Gregory L. Sharrow

In the last half-century, two issues produced political acts in which courage prevailed over expediency.

Richard Mallary

I think the two most emotional issues, probably in the last century, have been reapportionment and civil unions. There are many things that are emotional for one person or another: deer herds or special education or the death penalties or what have you, but I was fortunate to have been present for both the reapportionment of the Legislature and for the vote on civil unions. And in both of those cases I think almost everybody in the Legislature was deeply involved and felt very strongly about what was happening.

Tom Little

I’ve never thought about the civil union battle in terms of my own personal political courage, but I saw it then, I see it now, as finding out what the right thing to do was. And when that becomes apparent, after you’ve done your homework and taken the testimony and examined the facts, there are times when it just becomes obvious what is the correct, proper outcome for Vermont.

Gregory L. Sharrow

Correct and proper, though, may work against political self-interest — which is where courage comes in.

Mary Ann Carlson

Marian Milne got up on that Senate floor at Civil Unions, and said “I can’t do anything else but vote for this bill, and I know this is gonna mean I’m gonna lose my election,” and she did.

Richard Mallary

As with reapportionment, the Legislature was faced with a court order to provide equivalent benefits for same-sex couples, as the benefits were provided to married couples. And so once the court order came out, it became clear to me that the Legislature had no option other than to do something. The choice was given to us by the court as to whether we provided civil unions or domestic partnership legislation, or whether we provided the full equivalence of a marriage. And it became very clear in the Legislature that it was a highly emotional issue that, for many people, providing equivalent benefits or equivalent obligations was not a problem, but the word “marriage” was very freighted with emotional content and that to call it “marriage” would have been unacceptable for many people who were willing to support civil unions. So I think the Judiciary committee worked hard at it and came up with what I found was a very acceptable and appropriate solution. But as the papers indicated, it was a highly emotional issue. Many people are totally unwilling to accept the court’s order and so when it came to the final vote there was no question in my mind as to what was the appropriate vote, but I was not unaware of the number of people in my district who disagreed with me. And I became even more aware of how many disagreed with me when I got around to run in that fall and found that it was a highly emotional issue and many people felt extremely strongly about it. I’m fond of quoting from Edmond Burke’s letter to the electors of Bristol, when he says, “Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgment and he betrays, instead of serving you, when he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Peter Mallary

When Dick sees what’s right, he does what he believes is right. And given the way the Civil Unions law was fashioned, he had no problem supporting it and he did support it, and in a 2 member district, came in dead last. In a sense he voted himself out of a job then too.

Edgar May

Any one of us can get up and speak for motherhood and apple pie. It is always easy to articulate the popular. It’s always hard to stand up and talk about the unpopular. And that’s the greatest challenge of not only the Vermont Legislature. It happens on Boards of Selectmen. And I think the Civil Unions issue, regardless how you feel about it, required a great deal of courage. But political courage is not for sale or a dime a dozen. That’s what makes it political courage. And some of us occasionally don’t quite meet even our own standards and definition of what courage is.

Gregory L. Sharrow

We heard the voices of Harvery Carter, Louise Swainbank, Richard Mallary, Tom Little, Mary Ann Carlson, Peter Mallary and Edgar May. 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.