Notes from the Senate: Active citizenry is required
Last week a constituent came to the Statehouse for the first time. He was with his 17-year-old daughter who is very familiar with the Statehouse and the Legislature, and his younger daughter and friend. Although he has lived in Vermont many years, this was his first time to the Statehouse. He walked around in awe most of the time. For those of you who have not visited I would like to share a few things about the building and its workings.
First the building itself. It was built in 1862 during the Civil War after the previous Statehouse burned down. There are many aspects of it that are related to the Civil War: the Julian Scott painting of the Battle of Cedar Creek, the Hall of Flags, other displays. One of my very favorite items in the building is the chandelier in the House Chamber. It has two rows of lights, of course they were originally gas but are now electrified. Between the two rows are 8 statues. Of course I can never remember four of them – they are symbols of traits that were important to Vermonters. But I always remember the other four – they are of the Greek Slave Woman and were put there to forever remind Vermonters of the evils of slavery as they went about making laws. Every time I think of that I get chills.
Because we do not have a Governor's mansion (I believe we are the only state without one), the Cedar Creek room is where the Governor entertains visitors. It is also where many groups hold press conferences, where groups have receptions, and where school groups gather to hear the history of the building and see the Julian Scott painting – it has meaning to them as he was only 14 when he left to be a drummer in the Union army. We are very fortunate to have a great curator who keeps it as close to original as possible while bending to the need for phones, electricity, etc. The '60s and '70s were not kind to the building – it was "modernized." Thankfully David rallied the Friends of the Statehouse and reclaimed it to its original beauty.
The processes were also a surprise to this constituent. He couldn't believe how open it was. It is referred to as "the People's House" and the Legislature is just minding it for them. There are no metal detectors, no guards – during times of heavy traffic such as the Governor's speeches or particular advocacy group rallies, there may be someone at the door but generally there is not. There are a couple Capitol police officers on duty and they keep us feeling very safe. All doors are meant to be opened. If a door is closed, anyone can open and walk in. During committee meetings we have become used to this. There are of course times when there are private meetings happening and because we have no offices they must take place in committee rooms. If this is the case, anyone entering the room will get "the nod." But for the most part everything is open and all are invited.
This is our last week in the Statehouse before Town Meeting when we have the week off to attend Town Meetings and meet with constituents. A few words about TM. Democracy only works when people participate. TM is a chance to do exactly that. I have to admit that I am distressed at the move toward Australian ballot. In order for there to be meaningful votes I believe there has to be three elements: a real issue that needs solving, discussion and a vote. With the Australian ballot we are missing the discussion element. Attend TM, voice your opinion, make decisions with your neighbors.
This TM is also the day of the Presidential primary. There are some differences here from our other primaries. We are very proud that in Vermont one does not register as an R, D, P or I. We are the only state where voters are not required to choose a party, or Independent, when registering to vote. So during primaries we receive ballots for all parties and then decide which to use. However, the Presidential primary is different. When you get your ballot you must ask for either a Democratic ballot or a Republican ballot and that is recorded. So when you check in and are asked that question, don't get upset with your poll worker – even though it might rub you the wrong way, those are the rules.
During this week call your Legislator, send them a note, etc. Try to understand if they don't attend your town meeting, some have many and simply cannot make all of them. When we are back in session, come visit. If you want to come up let me know when you are coming and I will try to make of point of touching base with you. Understanding the process and participating in it is important.
State Sen. Jeanette White, a Democrat, represents the Windham District.
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