The State Senate Approaches a Demographic Tipping Point

Seems like I’ve been waiting forever for the Vermont Senate to undergo a demographic shift. Every two years there’s been talk of a retirement wave, but it never materializes. Senators consider stepping aside, then realize they’re indispensable. (They’re not.) And the voters rarely eject an incumbent except in cases of overt criminality (Norm McAllister) or advanced senescence (Bill Doyle).

The shift has been painfully incremental until this year, when almost one-third of all senators decided to bow out. The nine incomers are younger, five of them are women, and one is a person of color: Nader Hashim joins Kesha Ram Hinsdale and Randy Brock as the three non-white members of the upper chamber.

(The tiny Republican caucus managed to get older and no less male. Its two youngest members, Corey Parent and Joshua Terenzini, will be replaced by a couple of old white men.)

Got more numbers to plow through, but here’s the bottom line. The Senate is on the verge of a historic shift, but it’s happening in slow motion. We might reach the tipping point in two years’ time. We’re not quite there yet.

There are still plenty of tenured members in positions of power. They account for most of the committee chairs. But only — “only” — eight of the 30 senators will be 70 or older. At least 13 will be under 65, which doesn’t sound like a lot but in the Senate it definitely is.

The incoming Senate President Pro Tem, Phil Baruth, straddles the age divide. He’s only — “only” — 60. But he’s entering his sixth two-year term, so he’s familiar with the Senate and the elders are comfortable enough with him to make him their leader. As a senator he’s been a strong policy advocate unafraid to ruffle feathers, but as Pro Tem he’ll know he can’t push his caucus too far too fast.

There are the preliminiaries. Now let’s dive in.

The new Senate will be somewhat more open to new ideas. Some of the new members won’t fit comfortably into Senate routines and mores. (Irene Wrenner is a loose cannon, Tanya Vyhovsky will make her voice heard, and Kesha Ram Hinsdale will be as unafraid as ever.) Others have enough legislative and/or policy experience that they won’t be afraid to get stuck in. Think Becca White on environment or Nader Hashim on justice.

In terms of policy, the new Senate may not be much different than the old. The Dem/Prog supermajority is fragile on some key issues. Many a big bill is going to get less than 23 votes and make a veto override too close for comfort. If you’re hoping that the “supermajority” is going to suddenly turn the Senate into a hotbed of Bernie Sanders progressivism, well, you’re going to be disappointed.

But there will be movement. The first-termers are too numerous and too fearless to be ignored. The expanded House supermajority should provide more room for the Senate to press forward. We’re going to see strong climate change legislation, for sure. Leadership seems intent on getting the state back on track to meet the Global Warming Solutions Act’s targets for carbon reduction. A new push on housing would not surprise me. We could see a return of universal paid family leave.

The committee chairs will mostly come from the ranks of the tenured, but necessity will push the newer, younger members up the ladder. Some new faces will become vice-chairs at least; they’ll be in position to become chairs when the last of the Old Breed finally retires.

Three chairs will be vacant: Economic Development, Government Operations, and Institutions. The action on this front is just beginning; senators are submitting their committee preferences, which will then go to the Committee on Committees for disposition.

Ram Hinsdale is a member of Economic Development and has declared interest in becoming chair. That would be transformative for what’s been a sleepy enclave of conventional wisdom under Michael Sirotkin. And she might just get it. She’s only entering her second Senate term, but she does have previous legislative experience and there aren’t a lot of obvious alternatives. The current committee includes two people who are leaving the Senate (Sirotkin and Becca Balint), the Senate Majority Leader (Alison Clarkson, who can’t be majority leader and committee chair at the same time), the token Republican (Randy Brock), and Ram Hinsdale.

Could they parachute in a new chair? Sure. Could they decide that Brock will take charge of Economic Development as the token Republican chair? He might like that, but it seems like a bridge too far.

On to Government Operations, where outgoing chair Jeanette White has been an immovable object in the path of reform on many fronts. The vice chair is Clarkson, see above. Other members include Anthony Pollina (retiring), Ram Hinsdale (might accept GovOps as a consolation prize), and Brian Collamore, who seems content just being a senator. If it isn’t Ram Hinsdale, the new chair will likely be drawn from the ranks of relatively junior senators, a Ruth Hardy or Andrew Perchlik type. Whoever gets the job can’t possibly be as retrograde as White. There ought to be progress on ethics, campaign finance, officeholder financial disclosure, and/or further reform of the election process. Ranked choice voting might even get a real hearing, but probably not much more than that.

Institutions. Joe Benning is the outgoing chair and token Republican chair. Other members include the departing Corey Parent, the unmoveable Transportation chair Dick Mazza, and the utterly unsuitable Russ Ingalls and Dick McCormack.

The obvious move that kills two birds with one stone: Brock as the new Institutions chair. He’d be the token Republican, he’s got financial chops, and he’s just about the only Republican I can see as a committee chair. Well, Richard Westman would be fine, but does he even want to be a chair? If he did, he would have been one by now.

Look at the other Republican options: Collamore, Ingalls, and three uninspiring newbies: Robert Norris, Terry Williams and David Weeks. Blech.

The other committees will retain their current chairs. With so much turnover in the chamber, it’d be tough to remove a chair who knows how everything works — even if they’re not particularly effective or inspiring.

Now, about Judiciary. Dick Sears will remain chair, but everything else is up in the air. Baruth may remain on the committee but won’t be vice chair. The other three seats are held by people who didn’t run for re-election: White, Benning, and Alice Nitka. This is gonna be a brand new committee under Sears.

It’s also the committee where Baruth has been a force for gun legislation. Generally, he’ll have to be more of a leader than an advocate, but he might make an exception for expanded background checks and other ideas that have been sidelined by Sears and the governor since 2018. At the very least, the 2018 gun laws should get a thorough review and new proposals will get a hearing.

The other committee that’s in for an overhaul is Agriculture. Chair Bobby Starr isn’t going anywhere, but three of the other four members are leaving. Ag has been something of a roadblock on climate change and waterways cleanup. Starr will always be Starr, but the tenor of the committee is in for a reset.

To sum all of this up: The Senate will change more than it has in years, possibly ever. If that seems hyperbolic, just look at what the Senate used to look like. Ten years ago it was chock-full of institutionalists so devoted they were practically part of the furniture. I count 26 out of 30 as allergic to boat-rocking.

Year by year there hasn’t been much change, but over time it’s adding up. The biggest change of all is about to happen, and it won’t be long before none of the old guard are left. The 2023 Senate is not going to be radically different, but it’s a huge departure form where the Senate has traditionally been — and it’s only the beginning.


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