Chris Graff: Our leaders remain authentic, beyond all else

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Chris Graff: Our leaders remain authentic, beyond all else

Sun, 02/18/2018 - 3:43am -- tim

by Chris Graff Vermont Business Magazine I first visited the State House in 1967 with my Woodstock Elementary School eighth-grade class. Phil Hoff, a Democrat whose 1962 election as governor shocked the state – he was the first Democrat to win that office since the Civil War – took the time to greet us and shake hands. Dick Mallary, a Republican who was then the speaker of the House, gave a short talk. But what I remember most vividly about the first trip north to see the workings of government is the men’s bathroom in the basement. The room is huge; the fixtures brass, the countertops marble. Its lavish decoration clearly belied its lowly purpose. I was so impressed that I took photographs (and still have them).

Years later, when my wife wrote a history of the State House, I learned that the bathroom was installed in 1884 by order of the legislators. They were weary of tramping out behind the building to the outhouses. No comparable facility was installed for women. There wasn’t any need. There weren’t any women in the State House.

I returned to the State House as a college student in 1973 to cover the inauguration of Governor Tom Salmon for the Middlebury College radio station. What struck me that day was that I ran into the governor-elect a few hours prior to the ceremony. He was walking up the sidewalk next to the Pavilion Office Building, accompanied only by a state police trooper in plain clothes.

I could not get over the fact that the governor-elect was without a big entourage or heavy security just before assuming the top job in the state. I would learn through the years how normal that is for Vermont’s governors, who have no official governor’s mansion and who maintain their listed telephone number for their home residence.

Much has happened in the 50 years since I first visited the State House – both in my life and in the life of Vermont. Yet I marvel at all that has not changed. Today you can still see the governor walking down the street accompanied only by a trooper. Ours remains a government of human scale. People matter. Our small population lets us be a collection of communities with similar values.

Another constant over the past 50 years is that Vermonters continue to believe Vermont is a special world. Actually, people who live in and around the Green Mountains have believed that since well before Vermont Life slapped Vermont A Special World on a book in 1969. Vermonters, in fact, have been marketing the state as a unique place since the decades after the Civil War.

That Vermont is still special can be seen in the presidential campaigns of Howard Dean and Bernie Sanders. Is there another small state that has generated two leading presidential candidates in a 12-year period? There is indeed something special about Vermont politics and Vermont politicians that our nation hungers for.

It is, quite simply, authenticity.

Chris Graff chats with the late Governor F. Ray Keyser in 1989 for the Vermont PBS "Governors" series. Courtesy Vermont PBS.

We Vermonters take it for granted. We expect our Vermont politicians to talk with us – not at us – and we expect them to speak in English and not to obfuscate. We expect to have regular conversations with our elected leaders in town hall forums, on the street, in grocery stores, or on Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS. US Senator Patrick Leahy may be the dean of the US Senate but most Saturdays in the summer he is at the Montpelier Farmer’s Market, grandchildren in tow, chatting with most everyone he passes.

Howard Dean’s presidential bid took off after he asked a series of simple, pointed and bold questions at the February 21, 2003, meeting of the Democratic National Committee: “What I want to know is why in the world the Democratic Party leadership is supporting the president’s unilateral attack on Iraq? What I want to know is why are Democratic Party leaders supporting tax cuts? The question is not how big the tax cut should be! The question should be, ‘Can we afford a tax cut at all with the largest deficit in the history of this country?’”

It was like a moment from The Emperor's New Clothes with Dean playing the part of the little boy who yells out, "But the Emperor has no clothes.”

Dean’s campaign would come to focus on two lines that he repeated a million times: “We are going to take our country back” and “You have the power.” Those were the themes that also propelled Bernie Sanders to his near success in 2016.

Dean and Sanders are as different as can be in style and background, but they both were schooled in the political ways of Vermont – where our leaders are authentic and straight shooting and aware of the problems facing everyday residents.

That authenticity that is required to succeed in Vermont is why US Senator Jim Jeffords’ declaration of independence so galvanized the nation in 2001. Majority Leader Trent Lott called Jeffords’ decision to leave the Republican Party a “coup of one” and the “impetuous decision of one man to undermine our democracy.”

But all across America Jeffords’ decision to leave the Republican Party and give control of the Senate to the Democrats was seen as a refreshing and bold step – so unlike what was expected in Washington.

Why was Jim Douglas President Obama’s favorite Republican governor? Because Douglas was willing to work with the White House. Why does US Representative Peter Welch command respect on both sides of the aisle in the most divided Congress? Because he is the House Democrat most willing to seek out common ground with Republicans.

These are not isolated examples. None of this is by accident. To be successful in Vermont requires politicians to be authentic, approachable, pragmatic, and to exhibit common sense and straight talk.

That remains the Vermont way.

I began writing these monthly columns for Vermont Business Magazine in 2006. It’s been great fun to provide a little perspective here and there on this and that. But to everything there is a season and this will be my last regular column for VBM. Thanks to Tim McQuiston for affording me this opportunity. I have worked with Tim in some form or another for more than 30 years and have the greatest respect for him and his valuable perspective.

Chris Graff, a former Vermont bureau chief of The Associated Press and host of Vermont PBS's "Vermont This Week," is now vice president for corporate communications at National Life Group. He is author of, "Dateline Vermont: Covering and uncovering the newsworthy stories that shaped a state - and influenced a nation."

The grandeur of the Men's at the State House. Courtesy State of Vermont.