Sen. Bobby Starr to Retire after 46 Years in Vermont Legislature

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photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger
Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Orleans, center, confers with Sen. Terry Williams, R-Rutland, from left, and Sen. Russ Ingalls, R-Essex, on the floor of the Senate at the Statehouse in Montpelier on April 17.

MONTPELIER – Pointing to his “hair and wrinkles,” the 81-year-old said he and his wife “have come to the conclusion that maybe it’s time that I retire.”

Longtime Northeast Kingdom state senator Bobby Starr will close a 46-year legislative career when his current term expires in January.

At a legislative breakfast with constituents Monday morning, the Orleans County Democrat announced his impending retirement. “It’s always gone quite well, I would say,” the senator told the breakfast attendees of his time in the Statehouse. “Accomplished a lot of things, screwed up a few things. You know, you’ve got to take the bad with the good, and you certainly don’t win them all.”

“But I think,” he continued, “for the most part, we won our share.”

Starr has served in Vermont’s Legislature since 1979, when he was sworn in as a first-term House member. He served in the lower chamber until he won his first election to the state Senate in 2004, and there he has served since.

Starr’s retirement leaves an opening in the Orleans Senate District’s only seat. Major party candidates vying to fill the seat must file with the Secretary of State’s Office by May 30, ahead of Vermont’s August primary and November general election.

A 15-year chair of the House Agriculture Committee, followed by 11 years as chair of the Senate’s, Starr’s biggest mark has been left on Vermont’s agricultural policy. 

In the nearly five decades that he served in the Legislature, the American agricultural industry has evolved dramatically, challenged by corporate consolidation, ebbs and flows in commodity prices, international competition and the existential threat of climate change. And in Vermont, Starr’s political career has paralleled the steady shrinking of the state’s traditional small dairy farm industry.

“It’s all important, whether you’re doing an acre of veggies or four acres of corn,” Starr told VTDigger in a phone interview Monday. “But the real money that holds it all together is dairy.”

It’s an industry that he has worked hard to protect, telling VTDigger, “I’m certainly on the front line, that’s for sure.” It’s also an industry that he sees having fewer and fewer staunch advocates in the Statehouse than when he first began his political career, he said.

“It’s critical to our open spaces and our way of life,” Starr said. “A lot of our legislators, they’re not off the farm or close to the farm. And they’re very good about supporting bills and ideas and suggestions, but somebody has to drive the train.”

Asked for his greatest accomplishments over his nearly five decades in office, Starr rattled off various agricultural policy achievements from over the years: the brokering of the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact, which sets bulk milk prices for New England dairy farmers; the establishment of Vermont’s Working Lands Enterprise Initiative, a state program which supports agricultural and forestry industries; the creation of Vermont Technical College and University of Vermont’s 2+2 scholarship program for aspiring farmers; and the state’s funding of universal school meals for K-12 students. The latter program, approved just last year by the Legislature, in part sources food from local farms to feed students. “If you think of the positive things that come from that, it’s a real bang for the buck,” Starr said Monday. “All kids are eating and they aren’t being hounded by teachers to bring your money in. Parents aren’t being discriminated against because they couldn’t pay (for) their hot lunch. “​​We’re spending (over $2 billion) to educate these children,” Starr continued. “If half of them are coming in hungry in the morning and hungry at noon, they aren’t going to learn very well.”

Starr is also currently a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, one of several powerful committees in the Legislature charged with crafting the state’s annual budget. Despite the “D” next to his name on the ballot, Starr was often a voice of restraint when it came to state spending.

“Not that you want to be cheap or shortchange anybody, but you’ve got to figure out ways to accomplish your mission without having to raise taxes,” he said.

In a chamber which highly values seniority, Starr is a member of an old guard of the Senate: a cohort of longtime, moderate senators who steer policy decisions closer to the center.

In a Senate composed of 22 Democrats, seven Republicans and one independent, Starr was among a few potential swing votes in the chamber. In recent years, with the Statehouse controlled by a two-thirds Democratic legislative super-majority and a Republican governor, Starr is often a closely watched vote. On Monday, he told VTDigger that his occasional votes alongside the minority party have been “because it’s the right thing to do.”

At the Monday morning breakfast, Starr’s colleague Sen. Russ Ingalls, R-Essex, said Starr’s retirement announcement marked “a sad day.”

“It’s just a dying breed, people like Sen. Starr, Sen. Mazza, Jane Kitchel,” Ingalls said. “We have a very few up and comers who know how to cross party lines.”

Much deference has been paid to these senators over the years, but their numbers are dwindling. Last election cycle alone, 11 senators vacated their seats, making for a whopping turnover of a third of the 30-member chamber.

Sarah Mearhoff, VTDigger

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