Becca Balint: Smoke-filled rooms of long ago

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In the weeks leading up to the legislative session, I whipped through Archer Mayor's novel "Three Can Keep a Secret", a mystery about power and politics. As the mystery unfolds, we learn more about life in Vermont's state capital several decades ago. It was the realm of men; women were not political players in the way they are now in Montpelier. Indeed, Mayor's depiction of the way women were sometimes mistreated, and often dismissed and ignored, was hard to read as I faced another session under the Golden Dome. I worried I wouldn't be able to shake that "creeped out" feeling.

But as soon as the session was in full swing, I quickly forgot Mayor's carefully crafted images in that deluge of activity that old timers refer to as "sucking on a fire hose." Then I found myself in a remarkable conversation with a longtime senator and the Secretary of the Senate.

After committee one day, they regaled me with fascinating stories about life in the legislature years ago. "Oh my gosh! You wouldn't believe the cigar and cigarette smoke in these committee rooms!" one recalled. "If you were in the room listening in, it was like you'd smoked a pack of cigarettes yourself by the end of committee," he continued. The other responded, "Yeah, I know. Do you remember So and So? He was a committee chair and whenever anyone came into the room and complained about the smoke, he'd yell, 'Well, then don't come in!'" They looked sheepish at me and said, "It was a different world then."

There is no smoking in the Capitol building now, of course. And you're just as likely to see a woman chairing a committee as a man. Three of the four most powerful money committees in the legislature are currently chaired by women, and there are more women Democrats in the House of Representatives than male Democrats.

Women still make up less than a 1/3 of the Senate, however, and the body has never had a female Pro Tem. In many ways the House has made greater strides in truly representing the demographic makeup of Vermont. But the conversations that happen in the Senate committee rooms and on the Senate floor are certainly indicative of changing times.

When we voted to ban forced conversion therapy for gay and lesbian youth, I was surprised but inspired that it passed the Senate unanimously. And when a Senator in a committee room inadvertently referred to GLBTQ Vermonters as the "BLTs," other Senators knew just how ridiculous this was, and it was clear I had many allies.

Just this week we passed the "Ban the Box" bill out of committee with little controversy. This bill is aimed at giving those folks with a criminal record, estimated to be 1/4 of all Americans, a shot at employment by removing the check box for criminal record on an initial job application. The bill does not limit an employer's ability to ascertain criminal history information later in the interview process. It merely gives folks a chance to get a foot in the door. We face an imminent workforce shortage here in Vermont, and we'd like to see all qualified, able Vermonters get a chance to find gainful employment.

It's not your grandfather's legislature, to be sure. Yet the Senate Secretary still runs the chamber with strict rules of decorum. You can't smoke in the senate, but neither can you drink from your water bottle. This stiff etiquette and protocol binds us all to the Senate's rich history. It creates space for difficult topics to be hashed out respectfully. For this I am truly grateful.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as a state senator from Windham County.


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