Rep. Anne Donahue
January 10, 2015
There was nothing typical about the opening week of the legislature this year. An inaugural day of ceremony, rich in traditions that remind us of the gravity of our roles, was turned into food for thought about what we mean by “the voice of the people.”
In the morning, we re-elected Governor Peter Shumlin under the constitutional directive that turns the decision to the legislature when no candidate receives a majority vote in the November election.
In the weeks before, some argued that we should follow the tradition of voting for the person who received the most votes, meaning Shumlin. Others said that each member should vote as their district voted; this apparently would have tipped it to challenger Scott Milne. Still others said we should vote based upon the cumulative majority of voters who chose someone other than Shumlin.
I believe the constitutional intent is fairly clear, which is none of the above. I believe that it says, in effect, that if there is no majority winner, legislators are called upon to decide using their own best judgment.
For me, that meant voting for Scott Milne. That was supported by the fact that my constituents in Berlin and Northfield voiced a strong majority vote for Milne, but it was not determinative.
I believe the secret ballot, which is also used in voting for judges, is intended as (and can be defended as) a mechanism to keep politics out of the process. Legislators are free to disclose their own vote, and if they do not, their constituents can vote them out.
Whether any of this still makes sense today, when a public revote would be far easier than 200 years ago, is something well worth looking at. The process for amending the constitution starts in the Senate, where the discussion has already begun.
That afternoon, the inaugural address became the forum for another mechanism of the “voice of the people” through both peaceful protest and nonviolent civil disobedience. Note that those are different (some news media appeared to use the terms interchangeably.) Civil disobedience involves a choice to violate the law and accept the consequences in the interest of making a public statement.
A day-long peaceful protest was focused on the governor’s decision in December to drop his efforts at establishing a universal, single-payer system of health care in Vermont.
When some of the protesters – a small minority – stormed into the House chambers and sat on the floor to block the passageway, then began a chant designed to drown out the speaker, state police could have arrested them.
I think the choice of legislative leadership to avoid that reaction was wise. A huge arrest scene would have given the protestors more visibility through an even greater disruption, and would likely have been their preference. Instead, it was only when they refused to leave when the building was closing at 8 p.m., and the House chambers were otherwise empty, that they were arrested and removed.
However that left it to the protestors to determine what respect they would give to the remainder of the ceremonies. There have been comments about violating “decorum,” but of course, that is the very intent of civil disobedience.
I believe that the line even for the role of civil disobedience was crossed not because of breaching decorum, but because the speaker involved was the minister offering the closing benediction, rather than a political speaker. The protesters later said they believed they were entering after the ceremony was over, but regardless of initial intent, it became immediately obvious to them that it was not.
The Rev. Robert Potter first reacted to their voices by saying, “When I think of what other countries do to silence the differences, aren’t you glad you’re in America?” Yes, indeed!
He received a lengthy standing ovation that drowned out the chants, and then continued in a tone both chiding and joking, “As long as they’re quiet when I pray.” But they were not. In fact, they out-shouted even his efforts to share a story about his personal encounter with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Potter carried on with good spirit and temper, but most of his comments were completely cut off. It was the decision by the protesters to continue at that point that provoked so much negative reaction among legislators – certainly from me -- and many others.
We received a letter the next morning from “Vermont Health Care for All,” a long-time and dedicated group of advocates for single payer health care, who stated that despite the disappointment in Shumlin they shared with the protestors, “We regret and do not condone that our representatives, the Governor, and Reverend Potter were targets of disrespectful behavior during the inaugural proceedings. Our organization remains committed to working in a respectful, positive way with our elected leaders and citizen representatives.”
It was an important reminder to not cast a broad brush against an entire group of advocates based upon the actions of one sub-group allied in the same cause.
The demand shouted from the House floor was that the Speaker of the House make a commitment to a public hearing so that the legislature makes its own decision, independent of the governor, on whether to attempt to move forward with single payer. The governor changed course on them; they wanted a voice with legislators.
But the group had never asked House or Senate leaders in advance about holding hearings, something that will ordinarily occur. That made the “demand” a tad premature. They had never been rebuffed.
In the great tradition of both free speech and civil disobedience, they certainly had their voices heard last Thursday. However a failure to use good judgment in timing may have made them more enemies than allies.
It is worth noting that the anti-Shumlin sentiment among many voters had roots in the same anger that led to the outbursts on inauguration day. After delaying almost two years from the statutory deadline for presenting a proposal for a state-run financing plan for health care, Shumlin waited until after the election to announce that he had determined that it was unaffordable.
Whether one agreed with the goal or not, there is little question that he pulled the rug out from under folks who have worked very hard for this cause for a very long time, with timing that was deliberate and politically motivated. There is a question of integrity that goes beyond health care, and it was that issue that I heard from many of you who called or emailed me to urge me to vote for Milne.
It has been my belief from the beginning that despite the worthiness of the goal, achieving universal health care access through taxpayer funding was never going to be viable on the part of a single, small state acting alone. I think we now have the opportunity to work together to really dig down into the many other pathways for achieving more equitable and affordable access.
For that reason, I am particularly pleased that Speaker Shap Smith has appointed me to serve on the House Health Care Committee this session. I believe I will be able to make meaningful contributions in this new assignment as we move forward with health care reform.
As always, I welcome your input and concerns. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org; at 485-6431; or via message with the Sergeant-at-Arms office at 828-2228. You can also email me if you would like to be on a blind list to receive this update automatically.