Another Opinion, Editorial

When She Was Good, She Was Very, Very  Good…

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Amongst all the encomiums that accompanied Sen. Jane Kitchel’s retirement announcement (“most influential legislator,” “tireless work ethic,” “encyclopedic” knowledge of state government and, of course, “legendary”), this comment from Senate President Pro Tem Phil Baruth stuck out at me:

“I have adopted a two-word mantra as President Pro Tem, and it has served me well: ‘Ask Jane.’”

To which my first thought was, “Well, there’s your problem.”

It’s not that Kitchel doesn’t deserve praise on her way out the door. She has served the state for a long time with notable distinction. It will, indeed, be difficult to replace her. The Senate is in for an adjustment period.

But adjust it will. No one is irreplaceable. No one is truly encyclopedic in their knowledge of anything. And Kitchel’s biggest problem was that she thought  she knew even more than she did, and she acted accordingly.

This was especially egregious when it came to homelessness. Kitchel was a stubborn roadblock against a humane sheltering policy. She pitted motel vouchers against other social service programs as if there was a divinely ordained budgetary allotment for human services. She continued to accept the blandishments of Scott administration officials after events proved, over and over again, that they were bullshitting. She dominated discussions in her Senate Appropriations Committee, leaving her colleagues to play with their phones, shuffle papers, or stare off into space. She made transparently false arguments and repeatedly slagged her House counterparts.

She was a Democrat but a fiscally conservative Howard Dean slash Phil Scott type of Dem, and wielded her influence as a counterweight to her legislative colleagues’ agenda. In this budgetary season, she single-handedly deep-sixed a number of House initiatives.

Now, if you don’t like the Dem/Prog agenda, you’ll see that as a good thing. But she was a frustrating force for liberal/progressive policymakers. There was a lot of self-censorship in the halls of the Legislature; bills were rewritten on the basis of what Kitchel would allow.

No single lawmaker should be so powerful. Kitchel never had to answer to voters outside of her Northeast Kingdom district, and even there she could take re-election for granted. If Baruth really believed in his mantra, was that really a healthy state of affairs? No, it was not.

You can see the fruits of “Ask Jane” in the unhealthy relationship between House and Senate this year. It was both ideological, with the Senate taking a more conservative stance on a range of issues, and familial, with the Senate treating the House like a younger sibling to be bossed around. In both respects, the Senate mirrored Kitchel’s own views.

The Senate will have to learn how to operate without Kitchel. There will be challenges. There will be mistakes that she wouldn’t have made. The process will likely be more chaotic. It will also be more open, more small-D democratic. It will be healthier.

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John Walters is the sole author of The Vermont Political Observer, readable for free (but donations cheerfully accepted) at thevpo.org. Walters has had a long career in print and broadcast journalism. He’s been an observer of Vermont politics since 2011, including a three-year stint as political columnist for Seven Days. He is on the board of NEK Public Journalism. He lives in East Montpelier with his loyal spouse, two house rabbits and two cockatiels.

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