Susan Allen: State Sen. Dick Sears' commitment pays off for those in need in Vermont

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Standing in the State House recently, Dick Sears and I flipped through our cell phones, looking for a convenient time to meet and talk about his quarter-century of serving in the Vermont Senate.

"The Patriots play Monday night," Sears, D-Bennington, reminded me when he spotted the game on his calendar. We've known each other since he first took office in 1993 and I was starting my sixth year as a reporter covering the Legislature. We've shared Patriots fandom.

"In 1960, my father took me to my first Patriots game. I believe they lost," Sears recalled in an interview a few days later, sipping a diet soda in Jensen's Restaurant in Bennington. "They lost for years and years and years."

But Sears stayed faithful, and 18 consecutive winning seasons since 2001 and six Super Bowl wins later, his commitment paid off. Just as it has at the State House.

Dick Sears is often gruff, but with a quick smile. He keeps his word, not a small thing in politics, and is respected across party lines. He acts as though he's two steps behind, but be fooled at your peril; Sears is two steps ahead with the compromise bill and 16 votes lined up in the 30-member chamber.

As chair of the Senate Judiciary, and a member of the Appropriations and Finance Committees over the years, he has been key in passage of virtually every major piece of legislation: Civil unions, victims' rights, child protection, sex offender penalties, gun bills, drug treatment expansion, Act 60, adoption records, prison reform, juvenile justice, and more.

Some bills took one session to pass, some took longer, but his commitment paid off. Sears was listed 6th among the top 10 most productive state legislators last year by the national FiscalNote, which tracks legislation and government action (and owns Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call).

Skim the list of Sears's priority bills and you immediately spot the theme - protecting those who might otherwise fall through society's cracks. Neglected children. Abused women. The poor. The addicted. Those deserving one more chance. Every child deserving a quality education.

Sears could have been one of those who slipped through the cracks. He was born to a mother who was serving time in a Massachusetts prison (he never knew her), then in and out of foster homes as an infant before - thankfully - being adopted by Richard and Charlotte Sears. Sen. Sears and his wife Beverly have been foster parents, and Sears devoted his professional life to working with troubled youth, eventually opening the 204 Depot Program in downtown Bennington.

"I had kids that ended up back in the system, and kids that ended up successful," Sears said of 204. At least one is serving time for murder. Sears recalled one boy who had done well, leaving the program that June with plans to enroll on a full scholarship at Vermont Technical College in September. The kid didn't make it. Drugs, Sears said.

"That's part of what drives this," Sears said of his legislative focus.

One of his highlights came in 2000 with the hard-fought passage of civil unions. "If anybody thinks that times are tough in terms of public outcry, they ain't seen nothing," Sears said. "Civil unions changed Vermont, changed the nation. This was the civil rights issue of our time."

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Opponents of civil unions from across the country swamped legislators' mailboxes, phones and e-mail with hate-filled and even criminally threatening messages. "Our wives and children were getting those calls," he said. "Some were hateful and despicable."

After passing the House and moving to the Senate, the Senate Judiciary Committee was split between those who opposed civil unions and those who would only support legalizing gay marriage. Sears had to bridge the divide. Protests and counter-protests ramped up the heat. But Sears recalled a public hearing in Bennington that he expected to be crowded with opponents, and instead found the room filled with civil union supporters.

"I knew then that many people would have my back," he said. Vermont became the first state in the nation to legalize civil unions. "That was the only time, other than my first race, where I came in second," he said. Gay marriage was quietly approved nine years later.

Sears also spearheaded passage of Act 1 in 2009, following the rape and murder of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett of Randolph by her uncle, Michael Jacques. The brutality of the crime made national news, and the Legislature was committed to doing something - anything - to protect children from sexual predators. Act 1, which overhauled Vermont's investigation and punishment of those crimes and expanded protections for victims, was the result of hearings Sears held across the state. The legislation was strongly supported by all political parties.

"As tragic as that case was, it's an example of dealing with it in a way that I'm not sure we could do now," he said. "There were always arguments, always debate. But since Trump, people on both sides are so dug in they don't see any way to compromise."

Controversial gun bills moved through the committee, with some debates so hot that Sears lost his temper and stormed from the room. Prison reform - aimed at reducing recidivism while also keeping the public safer - has been a focus. In 2014, then-Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted his State of the State speech to the devastating impact of opiates on Vermont and the nation. That year, the Senate Judiciary Committee took what had been a criminal issue and helped rewrite Vermont's laws to reflect the new reality that addiction is a health care problem, not unlike cancer or heart disease.

Finally, Sears said with pride, he helped lead an overhaul of our juvenile justice system, with Vermont becoming the first state to treat most 18-year-old offenders as juveniles, not adults; in 2021 that will be expanded to include 19-year-olds. "These are teens in the system who haven't committed the most serious crimes," he said.

So the focus has come full circle, from helping troubled teens at the 204 Program to ensuring all teens are given a fair chance in life by being kept out of the adult judicial system.

"How will you know when you're ready to retire," I asked.

"It's a long ride and getting longer," he said of the 244-mile roundtrip from Bennington to the State House. He's frustrated with the Legislature passing feel-good bills that aren't enforced. The influence of social media and special interest groups is having a negative impact, he feels.

But he still has the fire in the belly.

"I love it. I love being invested in public policy," he said. "We get down in the dirt and do it."

Susan Allen, who lives in Grafton, was a reporter for the Associated Press and worked for former governors Howard Dean and Peter Shumlin. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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