Wanted: A Few New State Senators. Or a Lot.

Well, I guess there’s at least one group with a worse seniority problem.

The Vermont Senate, as has been noted in this space, is a temple of tenure. It’s almost impossible to defeat a sitting senator; the only time we get a new one is when someone voluntarily retires. That rarely happens and, as a result, the Senate just keeps getting older and older.

How old? Average age of the 30 senators is 63.4 years. There are only five senators under age 50; there are 14 over 70, and 11 who are 75 and older. There are two others in their late 60s, which means we have a Senate majority past retirement age.

And the oldest wield the most power. The average age of the 11 policy committee chairs is 72.1. Brian Campion is the only policy chair under 64. Yep, that chamber loves it some seniority.

This has some unfortunate effects. First, there’s often an airless quality to the Senate’s work. It is an entity apart from the real world — or even those rambunctious young’uns in the House. (Senators often treat the House with open contempt.) Second, senators are often out of touch when discussing issues of concern to young people like digital technology, child care, substance use, rental housing, and workforce development. Third, well, it’s really hard to get the Senate to take a fresh look at anything or contemplate a change in How We’ve Always Done It.

Sure, tenure has its benefits. They know their way around the building, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. Some, including Dick Sears, Bobby Starr, and Jane Kitchel, bring decades of experience and deep knowledge of their policy beats.

But in any organization, you want a mix of young and old, new and tenured. The Senate is terribly skewed toward age and seniority. It’s long past time for some serious turnover. Will 2022 be the year we get it? I sure hope so.

After the jump: Naming some names.

When I look at the Senate, i see a lot of folks who are well past their sell-by dates. I see others who still have their uses, but it’s kind of time to move on.

So let’s name some names in two broad categories:

Wait, Are You Still Here? and Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant. The former are those with little to no apparent purpose; the second have done (or still do) good work, but they’ve been around long enough.

The former category includes the likes of Brian Collamore, Mark MacDonald, Dick Mazza, Dick McCormack, Alice Nitka, MIchael Sirotkin and Jeanette White. When Phil Scott became governor, Senate leadership hoped that Mazza would be a useful back-channel. But he didn’t. He’s a fervent Phil Scott cheerleader, but he hasn’t noticeably improved Administration/Senate communication.

Dick McCormack rarely speaks. And when he does, he often says something inexplicable — such as his opposition to removing slavery references from the state Constitution. MacDonald is sometimes useful, but he’s mainly a source of dad jokes and cartoons.

As for Collamore and Nitka, I can’t say I’ve ever heard them contribute substance to any debate. They sit there, they occasionally speak, they take up space. They could be replaced with bobbleheads.

Sirotkin succeeded his late wife Sally Fox, and has done little to distinguish himself. As chair of Senate Economic Development, he gives great weight to the views of the business community and he’s a champion of tax-credit and grant programs with no proven record of success. That’s fine if you’re a Republican, but he isn’t.

White is occasionally useful, but she spends most of her time defending her own interests and/or the status quo. As chair of Senate Government Operations, she’s a gatekeeper on issues like public records access, election law, campaign finance, ethics, financial disclosure — and she uses her power to stymie reform. In 2019, she openly opposed creation of a statewide registry of rental housing — and publicly explained her stance by saying she didn’t want her own property listed. She wanted to bury the Vermont Democratic Party’s embezzlement scandal. Also, she’s prone to saying really stupid stuff.

In the second category, we find five powerful committee chairs: Ann Cummings, Jane Kitchel, Ginny Lyons, Sears, Starr. Cummings and Kitchel are masters of state finance, but c’mon, there are other smart people in the Senate. We could maybe try to do without them.

Sears knows the law inside and out, and can quote you chapter and verse on every major reform of the past 30-plus years. But he tends to slow-walk new reforms, staunchly defends Senate mores and privileges, and is a frequent contributor to House/Senate tensions. Similar story with Lyons; she has deep knowledge of health care issues, but honestly, she’s done her share.

Starr is indefatigable on farming issues. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but he often defends farm interests to a fault. As chair of Senate Agriculture, he’s been a roadblock to addressing the agricultural inputs of our severe water quality problems. (The Democrats might want to keep him around because his district is likely to elect a Republican successor.)

Others in the Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant category include Randy Brock. Alison Clarkson and Anthony Pollina. Brock has been an articulate voice for fiscal conservatism, but he’s 77 and says stuff that reveals his out-of-touchness. Clarkson is smart and witty and has the best wardrobe of any state lawmaker*, but she’s had her turn and more. Pollina has been in poor health for years; he has fought the good fight.

*Addendum 8/13/21: I realize that comment can be read as sexist. It wasn’t my intent, but it’s perfectly fair to read it that way. My apologies to the good Senator. And to all of you.

Pollina is not the only Senator facing significant health issues themselves or in their families. It’s time for them to ride off into the sunset, so they can tend to (and enjoy) their loved ones.

Well, now I’ve gone and singled out 15 senators who ought to retire. I expect a warm reception the next time I’m at the Statehouse. Joan of Arc style warm. But honestly, it’s the truth. Vermont would be better off with a crop of new faces in the Senate.

In the words of St. Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Let’s celebrate the lions of the Senate — and then give other people a chance.


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