The Sad Remnants of Vermont’s Long Tradition of Republican Leadership

I am a regular reader of True North Reports, which describes itself as “a news and information service dedicated to serving the public interest through accurate reporting, insightful commentary and informed debate over government policy in Vermont.”

I have also been an occasional guest on Bill Sayre’s radio show on WDEV, “Common Sense Radio.” I consider Bill a good friend, even as we often disagree on matters of political policy.

Both projects are funded in large part by Lenore F. Broughton of Burlington, a significant philanthropist in Vermont and supporter of conservative and social wellbeing causes such as scholarships. “Norrie,” as she is known to friends, is the granddaughter of Sewell Avery, a major American business magnate.

(Full disclosure: In the late ‘60s, when Norrie was married to Alan Broughton, my creative writing teacher at UVM, we became friends. I was occasionally a guest in their home and Norrie was very generous to my young family.)

I read True North because I believe it’s essential for citizens – and especially an opinion writer – to be informed about the synergies and collisions of contrasting points of view. It’s also essential in a democracy that citizens seek common ground on the key issues of the day and, as hard as it seems, there are areas of agreement, although they seem increasingly fleeting, not as a matter of considered thought, but of an emerging principal of automatic adversity: if you believe it, I don’t.

I am by nature an optimist, but the more I try to educate myself on causes and ideologies which don’t come naturally to me as a liberal-independent, the more pessimistic I become about democracy’s future, not because there are disagreements – which is intrinsic to democracy  but because they’re now fueled by irrational adversity.

The Republican Party I knew as a young person largely drove the agenda in Vermont politics and for the most part made Vermont a better place to live.

My political consciousness began when I was a child with Senator Fred Westphal, a family acquaintance and later, the senator from Lamoille County. Fred was also an avowed racist and lionized Cecil Rhodes, the former British Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in Africa who founded Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) out of land expropriated from native Africans. Fred sold shoes and classical music in the basement of Gillen’s Department Store in Morrisville. Each new album of Bach or Haydn I bought was delivered with a political diatribe intended to convert me to Fred’s brand of racist conservatism.

As an adult, my first interaction with politics was with Governor Deane Davis. He was an old school Republican. He believed in providing a social safety net to those in our communities who could not do for themselves, protecting the environment (He was the father of Act 250), and in furthering commerce. By today’s draconian standards, Davis was conservative only in the fiscal sense – you don’t spend money you don’t have.

I’m occasionally asked who I think Vermont’s best governors were. As one who usually votes for Democrats, I struggle with the answer. I think Deane Davis and Dick Snelling were among the better governors because of their willingness to lead and delegate. I think Madeleine Kunin was terrific, even as she faced stiff headwinds as Vermont’s first woman Governor. I knew less about but felt the same about Phil Hoff who also faced stiff headwinds as Vermont’s first Democratic Governor in a century of Republican leadership.

Notable in their absence from my list are the others, many of whom are Democrats.

What a sad shell the venerable Republican Party is today in Vermont. Today’s Republican Party seems to define itself, sadly, by what it opposes, defaulting to an adversarial position on anything proposed by Vermont’s dominant Democrats.

Still, we are currently blessed with a classic Republican governor who has excelled at managing Vermont’s pandemic response, although, I would argue, Governor Scott has been shortsighted in addressing endemic problems in healthcare cost and access, affordable housing, environmental stewardship, and public educational reform (in which I include childcare.) To be fair, the Democratically controlled legislature has not shown much leadership either.

The ragged remnants of Republicanism in Vermont largely follows the playbook of the national party and its titular head, former President Trump. It defines itself by what it opposes: any tax increases, even against the wealthiest decile; any regulation of unchecked and often criminal business monopolies; broadening voter participation, as they openly admit that broadening voter participation reduces their chances of retaining power; women’s’ rights over their own bodies as it relates to abortion and even family planning; mitigating climate change, which many still deny; opposing immigration, which in most cases conceals a racist fear of further diversifying this nation of immigrants; and even the honest and open teaching of history in our schools and colleges.

What a sad descent from the party of Abraham Lincoln.

What would our own great Republican leaders say of today’s party: Ralph Flanders, Deane Davis, Dick Mallary, Dick Snelling, George Aiken, and Jim Jeffords? Jim Jeffords was so dismayed by the direction of his party that in 2001 he defected and became an independent. Dick Mallary was defeated largely because of his support for civil unions.

Still, I feel it is vital for Vermonters to read and learn from all points of view. I am not a journalist; I write opinion columns and work to support my opinions with facts from writers with whom I may disagree as well as those I agree with. That means reading broadly, So I read John Klar, Deb Bucknam, Casey Harper, Meg Hansen, John McClaughry, Rob Roper, and others.

Only in seeing the full spectrum of ideas can we honestly form our own.

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