Courage outside the comfort zone
It looks like the undecideds are going to carry Vermont's gubernatorial election, and until last Saturday, I was one of them.
Here's how the race plays out to me. Republican Gov. Jim Douglas is an uncreative thinker, a failed leader and an impediment to progress. Even in a time of economic miasma, he still believes in unbridled free markets and the power of Wall Street. (Remember earlier this year, when he wanted to sell the state lottery to Lehman Brothers?) He's such a bad judge of character that his best friend in Washington is George W. Bush. He needs to go.
Independent Anthony Pollina is a charmer, a good speaker, a quick-on-his-feet debater and he has some fresh ideas. On the surface, he's an attractive candidate. The trouble is that he's inconsistent (he started the campaign as a Progressive and then dumped the party), his resumé is weak, he's never been elected to anything, he's never run anything, and a lot of Democrats hate him. If he won, he'd be a polarizing figure.
That leaves former Speaker of the House Gaye Symington, a Democrat. During the four years she's run the House, she's never been able to beat Douglas; he's vetoed most of her best ideas and taken credit for the rest. But that wouldn't matter if she was governor, would it?
Symington has been a dreadful candidate. She's stiff and ill at ease in public and she's so uncomfortable in debate that she makes me wince.
So I was on the fence until Saturday, when I had a chance to talk privately with Symington. One-on-one, she is not only smart and capable -- everyone acknowledges that she's smart and capable -- but also funny and brave. She turned out to be the adult I was looking for in this field of spoiled, entitled boys.
Symington spent four years in the House working on education and environmental issues and getting a reputation for being somewhat of a wonk. Then she retired. In 2002, just after Vermont passed civil unions, she returned and found herself surrounded by newly-elected, closed-minded Republicans who were hell bent on "taking back Vermont" to the Middle Ages.
"I don't know if you remember, but the Republican-controlled House repealed civil unions," Symington said. "Then we passed a law that would have compromised a young woman's right to make her own reproductive health choices. We passed what would have been legislation to give tax advantages back to property-wealthy communities. I listened to a Republican legislator stand up and say that a woman was created out of the rib of a man, and that defines the relationship between a man and a woman. And a woman is subservient to a man. He went on and on and on. And I realized that I just can't sit there."
She started driving around the state, searching out good people and encouraging them to run in the next election.
"I ran training sessions to help them win, and stayed in touch with them all through the election season," Symington said. "It really helped us regain seats. We won strongly in 2004. That year I ran for and was elected speaker."
Pollina wants to close down Windham County's antique nuclear power plant, Vermont Yankee, which is owned by Entergy. But it would be a complicated process, and he doesn't say how he will do it.
Symington has taken a different approach. She fought hard for -- and won -- funding for the House to have its own independent oversight committee to inspect Yankee before it gets a license extension.
"I wouldn't have set up this independent safety analysis if I was just going to say in the end that regardless, I'll shut it down," Symington said. "But I'm pretty convinced that that will be their conclusion. There's a process we have to go through here. We have to move a whole state, and the whole state doesn't have the same proximity to the plant that Windham County does. The rest of the state has to begin to get it. And for them to get it, we have to take them through this, and give them access to the information and help them understand this is not cheap power, not when you have Entergy bragging to its shareholders about the opportunity for increased earnings."
That's not a sound bite, it's a policy. Symington admits that the debates have been a misery.
"I've certainly improved at one-minute answers to totally complicated subjects," she said. "'How are you going to fix education funding?' Answer in one minute and a bell's going to ring. Well, I'll answer it in a minute if you want, but if you really want substance, then maybe we should talk about it a little longer."
John Wayne said that courage is when you're really scared but you saddle up the horse and get on it anyway.
"That's true," Symington said. "It's scary to put yourself out there. It's uncomfortable. But we all need to speak up when we see something is wrong. I've shown that I'm willing to step outside my own comfort zone and and find some common ground so we can make some progress and get beyond the rhetoric."
Intelligence. Process. Substance. Courage. Wit. Competence. Getting beyond the rhetoric (whether it's left or right). Willingness to take action when you think something is wrong. Government experience. Sacrificing your own comfort zone to make change. If these are the qualities that Symington will bring to the governor's office, how can I remain undecided?
"My focus is making the case that we need a different governor than Jim Douglas and I'm that person," Symington said.
And I agree.
Joyce Marcel is a journalist whose first collection of columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," can be ordered from her web site, joycemarcel.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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