In a body full of divergent personalities who hold a host of different beliefs and values disagreements are a way of life, still an effective Legislature is greased by civility and the best legislation is said to come from the art of compromise.
The leadership took the time to educate new legislators to behave in a certain way that set a standard. And that was for all of the decorum in all of the kind of civic rules of, Roberts Rules of Order. They held to those so strongly. They educated us to those rules. And the reason why you were always Member from Charlotte was because you were not Gretchen Morse. You were not the individual. You were representing a group of people and you were part of a process where your ability to express was in a much broader context than you personally.
Gregory L. Sharrow
Legislators must learn to function effectively in an environment that can get divisive, emotional, and sometimes downright hostile. The key is good old-fashioned civility…
When you’re on a committee for four or five months with thousands of issues, you’re bound to disagree with your best friend on some issues. You can’t possible agree on everything. And, occasionally, they’ll come up for a vote. A lot of times they get brushed aside. They’re not important. But once in awhile you do come head-to-head and you have to handle it in a way that protects the process and doesn’t cause a lot of rancor. And I think that, by and large, happens. And I always thought of it at the time, you try to think of the overall good of the legislature, rather than your particular opinion.
What intrigued me, as time went on, was to hear two Legislators, let’s say from opposite ends of the pole on a particular issue, arguing very strenuously about a particular issue and sometimes even becoming angry in their assaults on the other’s viewpoint. And then an hour later, perhaps, or the next day, they’re cooperating hand in glove on another issue. And this is one of the things that every Legislator and everybody in public life has to learn, that give and take is a part of it. And you have your strong views, of course, and you’re going to pursue them, but there has to be a listening to the other fellows views. And out of that, so often, comes compromise, but that is the system.
There has to be willingness to compromise, in the best sense of the word. That however strongly you may feel, you have to recognize that other people have the right to feel strongly the other way, and the best possible legislation is when they sit down and recognize that there's always a solution. Then, you just have to say, "well, there's a way here and now lets find it, and lets not worry about how mad we are at each other, or how little we think of the other person's viewpoint. It's important for society or for the state that a solution be reached, and we'll just do it.
There were Republicans and Democrats on issues that worked together. I can remember we’d argue and fight during the day and then we’d all go out to dinner together at night which was fun.
The person you may want to strangle tonight is the person you’re going to need two days later on something else on which you actually happen to agree. And you really have to put it aside in the evening and go have dinner with a group of people, half of whom may have voted on the opposite sides during the day. Ultimately you at least begin to build out of that trust in each other, get a sense of when somebody is doing something out of conviction or when you think maybe they’re not. And getting to know who you trust, who you think is sort of legitimate, and who you think is not.
Gregory L. Sharrow
When the legislative process seems threatened, extra effort is occasionally required.
It’s almost like people who get good in the Legislature are like center fielders who almost instinctively break the right way. Even almost before the ball’s off the bat, and you say “How do those guys do that?” You know, John Murphy was one of the best at this. I remember the day Murphy got up and we were arguing an issue and it was awful. It was contested, it was heated. I mean even some people who always managed to keep their cool were getting very impatient, getting up and you could hear it in their voice and it was getting personal. And, boy, I though, we’ve got trouble. And then Murphy, who hadn’t participated for two hours, the whole issue, Murphy got up. And I looked over at seat 150 and thought “what on earth could Murphy have to say on this issue, which he knows nothing about, that hasn’t already been said in two hours by almost everybody else on the floor, how much more can be said?”. Murphy got up and he proceeded— we had earphones at the desk...you have earphones that you can put on to amplify the debate. And of course, you have a microphone that you speak into. Well, Murphy got up and spoke into the earphones and put the microphone in his ear. And he did it with all seriousness. And the whole place broke up. And Murphy turned bright red. I mean, this place broke up. … I mean everybody started roaring. And I just looked and said, “Are we a little mixed up today, Member from Ludlow?” And he got so embarrassed by that comment that he sat down. And you know what? The debate ended right there...Murphy ended the debate. He caught the tone of the House and he changed it a hundred and eighty degrees. And I talked to him about that — he came down to Florida last winter and we visited. And I said, “Murphy, remember that?” And I said, “You did that on purpose, didn’t you?” and he said, “Now Ralph, don’t you go making me reveal my secrets.”
Gregory L. Sharrow
We heard the voices of Gretchen Morse, George Little, Sam Lloyd, Robert Gannett, Sallie Soule, Louise Swainbank, Seth Bongartz, 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.