The sexism in my newsfeed

Several years ago, I had a conversation with a political consultant that turned out to be eerily prescient. She recounted a focus group discussion she’d had with young women about the possibility of a Hillary Clinton campaign for the presidency. One of the young women spoke up: “I don’t think I can support Grandma.” Several others echoed this sentiment. They said they admired her greatly but thought she was too old for another run. They did not state opposition to her politics; they simply thought of Clinton as “too old”. I wonder if some of these young women are now supporting Bernie Sanders, an elder politician who is not dismissed as “Gramps”.

Let’s put aside a discussion of the political agendas and strategies of Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton. And let’s forgo a dissection of their strengths and weaknesses as candidates or as leaders of this frighteningly divided nation. As all people will, they will both surely disappoint in some ways; politics requires compromise and coalition-building, and change rarely comes fast enough. Bottom line for me is that I want a Democrat to nominate our next Supreme Court justices. Their decisions greatly impact the lives of millions of Americans. And do I even need to say it? I definitely do not want a president who tweets that he “loves” Hispanics while posing in front of a “taco bowl” at Trump Tower.

Now, back to “Grandma”. I have had to temporarily unfollow some of my friends and acquaintances on social media because of their sexism. Men and women, young and old, have felt a shocking lack of self-consciousness or embarrassment about their own bias. I’ve been angry, disappointed and astonished as I’ve watched my newsfeed fill with dangerous, tired tropes about women as leaders.

There was one particularly horrible one about Secretary Clinton giving sexual favors to the African American community in order to “earn” their votes. She has been called witch, hag, and of course the other word that rhymes with witch. She’s supposedly a closet lesbian, a dyke, and a man-hater. People remark on her aging face, her “sneaky” smile and her “shrill” voice. It makes my stomach turn and hurts my heart, and it sets all women politicians back.

Many were surprised when the Huffington Post reported that some irate Sanders supporters emailed, texted and phoned threats to the chair of the Nevada Democratic Convention that used the “b” word and the vulgar “c” word for women’s genitals. I was not at all surprised. I have watched it building for months now.

It is still not easy to be a woman in politics. When I first announced my run for Senate, I received an anonymous postcard in the mail telling me to stay home with my kids. A friend of mine who just embarked on her first political campaign in Vermont has repeatedly heard the same thing. We are also judged on our size, clothes, hair, and voices in a way that male candidates generally are not.

I recently sat on a panel to discuss LGBTQ issues in the statehouse. A student asked if I’d heard much homophobia in the legislature. I had to answer honestly: I saw more sexism.

There are real differences between the style, substance, and strategies of Bernie and Hillary. But sexism has no place in this race. Period.

Note: I will be on hiatus from this column during the campaign season so that all candidates get equal exposure. I look forward to writing again in November.

Steep learning curve: my first term

It’s just wonderful to be back home. Upon the conclusion of the biennium, I tried a new running route: up Mt. Wantastiquet and back. Despite being an avid runner, I didn’t know if I could do it; my asthma sometimes limits my adventures in the spring. But my spouse reminded me that I could always walk when I need to; she urged me to just give it a try. Now, it is part of my routine. The steep climb offers challenge, perspective, and satisfaction, not unlike my work in the legislature.

Although it’s across the river in “Live Free or Die” territory, I always see Windham County constituents on my run. What a great way to talk to voters: climbing ever upward, reveling in lush smells, and pushing towards the vista. I also appreciate that the trails up the mountain are always part stream. I invariably have mud and muck splattering my feet and legs when I reach the end of the jaunt. They mark where I’ve been, to be sure, but also remind me that most things worth doing involve some muck. Of course, political work can be an awfully messy business.

During my most recent run up the mountain, I reflected on my race for the Senate. Shortly after I won my seat two years ago, I began having nightmares about the job. One recurring dream featured an anxious drive up to Montpelier only to discover that I had no place to stay. Another dream involved meeting with my new colleagues around a very long table; the Vermont Supreme Court and Legislature had morphed into one powerful entity. I evidently had significant anxiety about my new role.

The Snelling Center organized an orientation program for new legislators, and I eagerly attended. Although grateful for the information about the mechanics of the job and the opportunity to meet with past legislators, I nonetheless headed to my swearing-in feeling decidedly ungrounded. There was only one other “brand new” Senator, someone, like me, who’d never served in the House. Brian Collamore (a Rutland Republican) and I bonded as the new guys. Politically we disagree on many issues, but he speaks my mind when he says to me, “I can’t help it. I like you! You always make me smile.” Collamore and I laughed, commiserated, and supported each other as we made missteps,

Many Senators have served together for a very long time. They have complicated histories with each other and complex alliances and animosities that create the subtext of any floor debate. I learned quickly that the words not spoken were sometimes more illustrative than those which were spoken. Some Senators were welcoming, others ignored me for weeks. I watched and listened, and I set out to find “my people”, guides across state government who could offer support and advice and also help demystify the process. A glance at my text messages from this week reminds me that my new network is strong and varied.

But even with support, I will invariably stumble sometimes. I was reminded of this as I dashed down the mountain yesterday, feeling alive and nearly weightless. Just as I thought, “This feels wonderful!”, my toe caught a root or rock, and I crashed hard into a stream bed. Bruised, cut, and covered in frigid water and mud, I tumbled abruptly down to earth. Once I’d determined nothing was broken, I hooted with laughter; I looked ridiculous. Humbled but in good-humor, I picked up my stride again and dashed down the trail.

I am ready to run again.

Revising the social contract: Vermont town charters

As the legislative session winds down, marijuana, the budget, taxes, and schools headline the news. Many bills get lost in the clamor. They are critical to the way villages, cities, and towns in Vermont function, and yet elicit little fanfare. One morning last week we reviewed and approved seven different charter change bills in the Senate. A veritable smorgasbord of issues, they provided windows into both Vermont’s past and its future.

Vermont towns play a significant role in local governance, and the Town Charter articulates each town’s fundamental structure and individuality. Brattleboro, for example, is the only town with a representative town meeting. Created by beloved State Senator Robert Gannett in 1959, voters elect representatives from the three legislative districts to deliberate on Town Meeting Day. Senator Gannett himself served as a Town Meeting Representative starting from the town’s first meeting until 2011, a year before he died.

I too serve as a town meeting representative. Our Charter articulates two methods to get on the ballot. A candidate may submit a notice of intent, or ten voters in the district may nominate a candidate using a certificate of nomination. For some odd reason, I am sure known only to our supremely capable Town Clerk, Annette Cappy, each form had its own filing date. This year, Brattleboro’s Town Meeting proposed, very reasonably, to require filing these petitions with the Town Clerk by the same deadline. And every charter change, no matter how small, must be approved by the legislature.

The town of Charlotte seeks a method to increase voter turnout for budget votes. Although some Vermont towns have attacked poor participation by entirely switching to Australian ballot, Charlotte decided to test-run a hybrid system. The proposed charter changes enable the town to hold a regular town meeting in which budget-related articles are debated at the floor meeting, and citizens can vote. But the vote will not become official until the voters approve the budget and related articles by Australian ballot. If a budget is approved by town meeting but then is defeated by Australian ballot, the Selectboard must prepare a revised budget. The people of Charlotte will try this system for a few years before deciding whether to make the change permanent.

By far the charter change that raised the most eyebrows was submitted by the Village of Barton. Barton’s charter dates back to the mid-1880s, and before this year, it still had a poll tax on the books, complete with jail time if you neglected to pay the tax. Of course, poll taxes have long been declared unconstitutional. The people of Barton felt their charter should be updated to reflect both current practice and deeply held beliefs about freedom and democracy.

In the midst of all the charter change bills, a senator sent me a note that read, “Senator Balint, when you are very bad, you are sent to hell. It is a room in which one is made to sit in a chair and listen to charter changes all day.”

Surely, my spouse later joked, the Senate could have spent that time on more pressing matters. But on further reflection, we both agreed that refining the terms on which we agree to live together is vitally important. Our Town Charters identify what we value, and they provide us mechanisms for living together peacefully and resolving our difficulties through discussion and deliberation. The legislature’s role in the Town Charter process is constitutionally mandated. It reminds us that even though Charlotte and Brattleboro may seem worlds apart, we are part of the larger Vermont community: a community grounded in carefully guarded traditions and a spirit of innovation.

Prince’s Artistry and Complex Sensibilites

I was terribly saddened to hear of Prince’s sudden death last week. The rock virtuoso collapsed at his Minnesota compound, Paisley Park, after a bout with an undisclosed illness. In the days following the death of another musical phenom, Michael Jackson, I recall someone in the Jackson entourage telling the press that “The King of Pop” had been obsessed with getting enough deep sleep; he feared that if he didn’t, his talent would pale in comparison to Prince’s genius. Although tragic that the extremely talented Jackson was haunted by this worry, it is easy to understand why he fretted.

Prince was not only a consummate musician, at times playing every single instrument on his albums, but was also a cultural phenomenon. His flamboyant clothes and makeup gave many men and women in the 1980s permission to think about gender identity long before we had the language to talk about it. Prince also exuded sex and sexuality and blended them masterfully with ideas about religion and spirituality. A devout Jehovah’s Witness, he was allegedly a teetotaler and a health food fanatic. He didn’t so much bend the rules of rock and roll as destroy them; he could simultaneously evoke both God and sexual urges without shame. In his music, sexuality became an extension of his celebration of faith, an affirmation of life and love.

At an astonishing performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, Prince performed “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with an all-star cast that included Tom Petty and George Harrison’s son. Prince’s solo was otherworldly in its complexity and beauty, and he tested the boundaries of his faith in both his own talent and in his audience. In the midst of the ethereal guitar solo, he leaned back over the edge of the stage and allowed an audience member to catch him. The man then gently lifted Prince back onto the stage. Prince did not stop playing for an instant. He seemed to be both completely present in his experience and simultaneously connected to the entire world outside his own body. He understood that the music, the performance, and the experience itself were beyond just him; he wanted his impact to have ripples.

In the midst of my mourning over Prince’s untimely death, wooden presidential candidate Ted Cruz was in the last throes of his ill-fated campaign. Cruz had not yet begun his shameless trolling for the “woman vote” by picking Carly Fiorina as his running mate. He was still focused on fighting the culture wars. While Bernie and Hillary duked it out over substantive issues, Cruz decided to jump into the fight in North Carolina over transgender identity and bathroom use. This prompted a friend to post a social media quip that suggested everyone should just start hanging Prince’s “Love Symbol”, a character that merges the male and female signs, on bathroom doors and just be done with it.

The unpronounceable symbol that is now synonymous with Prince, was born out of a contract fight with his record company in the early 1990s when it wanted to slow the release of new Prince material. Prince designed the character, which he later copyrighted as “Love Symbol #2” and began using it instead of his name. For years the media referred to him as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”, and he was the butt of many late night talk show jokes.

But the powerful symbol endures. This week North Dakota farmer Gene Hanson cut the gender-inclusive symbol into his corn field in homage to the musician he greatly admired. Prince and his artistry and sensibilities have reached Middle America.

The Anatomy of Trust

Whenever I’m invited to speak to a class about my life in politics, I tell the students that I knew at the age of 17 what I wanted to do: run for higher office and serve the public. But it took me 30 years to take the plunge.

I was class president in first grade (although I do not recall my platform), the student council president in middle school, and the student body president in high school. Leadership roles came easily, and I enjoyed helping groups achieve a common goal. It should have been fairly easy for me to decide to jump into politics upon graduating from college, but it wasn’t. As a gay woman, there were few role models I could point to as mentors for a life in public service. I was also not yet ready to embrace the self-trust needed to take on a project that requires both bravery and vulnerability.

I’ve written before of the work of University of Houston researcher and bestselling writer Brene Brown. I use her research to frame my work, whether as a politician, a colleague, or a parent. Her research on courage, vulnerability and authenticity has been a touchstone for me and a source of strength when I can’t easily decipher the way forward in a particular situation. It was delightful to discover that a new friend and colleague in state government also uses Brown’s research in her work.

We met to discuss challenges in our respective work situations and how trust issues either underpin or undermine the work we do. She recently used Brown’s video, “The Anatomy of Trust”, in a training session with employees in her division; she knew it was a critical conversation they needed to have. She hoped it could improve relationships between colleagues and also with the clients they serve. We both agreed that understanding how trust works provides a critical scaffold to all our complex relationships. It also offers insight into the challenges of my work in the Senate. Unfortunately, there can be quite a bit of mistrust among legislative colleagues.

Brown references the work of University of Washington professor emeritus of psychology John Gottman and asserts that deep, lasting trust is built in very small moments. Gottman gives the example of when you see someone in need and you to take the opportunity to build trust instead of the opportunity to betray. When your spouse is upset and wants to talk, and you just want to finish reading your book, do you turn away or do you engage? It is these moments of trust that highlight our valor and our compassion, and over time they signal to our friends and family members that we are trustworthy.

After articulating how we almost imperceptibly construct trust moment by moment, Brown provides a definition of trust that she borrows from Charles Fertman, author of the book, “The Thin Book of Trust”. She starts from this place: Trust is choosing to make something important to you vulnerable to the actions of others. This is something we do all the time in the legislature. We advocate for issues of great importance to us personally or to our constituents, and we do it in a fishbowl.

We must trust ourselves that we can fulfill this weighty, critical role and then trust others that they will try to respect our position, even if they don’t agree. Of course, we must all continue to earn that trust. But as Booker T. Washington said, “Few things can help an individual more than to place responsibility on him, and to let him know you trust him.”

Dwelling in possibility: facing our housing crisis

During my first pregnancy, we lived in a two-room apartment near where my spouse worked. We chose tighter, cheaper quarters so that we could squirrel away money for the down payment and closing costs on a house. There were a few things to like about the apartment, and there was much to grumble about, and we did fairly frequently. We couldn’t wait to get in our own home.

The market was tight then, with only a few options for a couple looking for something “move-in ready”. And though we bought a well-kept house, it still needed months of cosmetic, safety, and efficiency updates. It still had old knob and tube wiring, needed a new fuse box, had closets coated in lead paint, and desperately needed new windows.

We worked like mad to get that house ready for the baby. As I labored, stretched out in the hospital, the nurse noted that I had primer in my hair. I laughed, proud of all the work we’d done to get our vintage house up to snuff. It took a lot of elbow grease, but also frugal ways, to close the deal. To pay off my student loans, I’d driven a decrepit car for years; it had a “funky” speedometer, an anemic horn and a duct-taped hood. But it was worth it; I wanted my own home.

By just about every measure, we have a housing crisis in Vermont. In many areas of Vermont, the vacancy rate of rental units is nearly nonexistent. We lack sufficient housing at all income levels and this plays out in many ways. Businesses and nonprofits have trouble recruiting workers to Vermont. Would-be employees can get considerably “more house” (and a newer one) for less money in other parts of the country.

The housing crisis also creates downward pressure on the system; families sometimes buy or rent cheaper housing than they can afford because that’s what’s available. This creates a tighter market for those towards the lower end of the market. Many of our residents simply cannot find safe, clean, affordable housing.

The housing crunch also contributes to a corrections issue: we have over 100 incarcerated people in Vermont who have served their sentences but are not yet released due to lack of appropriate, affordable housing. Each case is different, and some violent offenders and sex offenders have very strict restrictions on where they can live, but there’s no denying that affordability plays a role. And each day that we continue to “house” these offenders in prison costs the state a great deal of money and robs them of basic human dignity.

This session I partnered with Rep. Fred Baser of Bristol to introduce a new idea to bring down the expense of new housing construction. Infrastructure costs make new housing projects a very tricky endeavor. It’s difficult for builders to construct modestly priced homes when the underlying infrastructure costs are folded into the price. It used to be that federal dollars supported the infrastructure buildout for these housing projects, but no more. If the bill survives the Senate Appropriations committee, a pilot program would enable municipalities to apply for grant funding to mitigate the cost of infrastructure buildout for new homes in a designated downtown district. It’s only a modest beginning, but it is an important step. We must try out some new possible solutions.

Funding any new project in the current political climate is extremely challenging, but increasing access to adequate housing offsets costs elsewhere. These chickens are coming home to roost, whether or not we have a house for them.

Smoke-filled rooms

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.

Wisdom of the Sisterhood

There’s a photograph I cherish. It’s a shot of me sitting in a lawn chair at a family picnic talking with a relative; she’s a nun with the Little Sisters of the Poor. I’m sporting a Mohawk and wearing an old sweatshirt and sunglasses. The Sister sits in her simple white linen habit and leans in to chat with me. We both look completely at ease, enjoying each other’s company, and totally unaware of the incongruous tableau we’ve created. I think about this photo a great deal as I ponder the values that help me with difficult work in the legislature.

Born in Albany, NY in the 1940s, this woman has lived in India her entire adult life, working with the poor, the elderly, and the destitute. She lost her upstate New York accent decades ago and now speaks either in Hindi or in the thickly-accented English of the Indian subcontinent. Although she is a nun, she’s still the same scrappy kid she always was. She’s fought malaria more times than the most stalwart of explorers, and even cobras can’t get the best of her.

She has spent years in the service of God and the poor, and she once articulated to me the wisdom she’s gained through this incredible experience. She distilled her half century of sacrifice, work, and prayer into three key concepts: Show up on time, do good work, and be kind.

I tried to hold the Sister’s wisdom in my heart and head as I faced a very contentious vote in the Senate last week: the Energy Bill or S. 230. Fellow Windham County Senator Jeanette White and I were inundated with calls, emails and other missives related to this bill. Some constituents knew some of the relevant details of the bill, others clearly had not read any of the legislation. A few admitted they didn’t even know the topic of the bill, but had been urged by an advocacy organization to contact us. Many constituents (on many sides of the issues) urged us not to compromise.

We knew that numerous amendments would be introduced, so we prepared ourselves for a hectic day. But I was not prepared for the intense lobbying. One lobbyist approached me almost as soon as I set foot in the building; another before I’d hung my coat up in my committee room, and still another pounced as I grabbed my morning coffee in the cafeteria. The barrage continued until the afternoon’s vote. All spoke with the utmost urgency; all wanted to know the vote count before we got out on the Senate floor. None wanted compromise.

Legislative work frequently requires compromise. Every proposed law has consequences, and we rely on our constituents and their lobbyists to help us anticipate as many consequences as possible. But, as a citizen legislature, we simply do not have enough time, nor do we have the staff required to appropriately examine critical issues.

This makes me exceedingly uncomfortable. Trained as historian, I relish the footnotes and the details. I want to comprehend both the major issues and the relevant specifics. However, in focusing on one issue or major piece of legislation, I risk making mistakes on other important issues.

Our legislative system limits my ability to do my very best work. And in the push-and-pull of passing any bill, some folks undoubtedly feel let down, disappointed and frustrated. Others get a lot of what they want but still feel angry; very few feel satisfaction. Rather than attempt to please everyone, I strive instead to show up on time, do good work, and be kind.

Commandeering social media

Clearly more audacious things have been said in this election year. But to hear the KansasTea Partiers tell it, Republican U.S. Senator Jerry Moran crossed the Rubicon when he told a west-Kansas Rotary Club meeting that the Senate should hold hearings on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.

Moran also said he had no intention of supporting this (exceedingly qualified and experienced) judicial candidate. He told the assembled Rotarians, “I am certain a thorough investigation would expose Judge Garland’s record and judicial philosophy, and disqualify him in the eyes of Kansans and Americans.” So much for keeping an open mind until he’s done due diligence. But no matter, simply voicing his belief that he had a constitutional duty to fulfill was enough to ignite fury.

His remarks were called “outrageous” and “crazy”, and the conservative Senator was called “Judas Iscariot” by the Traditional Values Coalition. Explained arch conservative FreedomWorks CEO Adam Brandon, “This is a perfect example as to why conservative activists have no faith in their elected officials.” These folks don’t want elected political officials; they want a theocracy.

All of us in politics forget that nothing, NOTHING, we say can be confined to the individual or group standing before us or the person on the other end of the cellphone. Moran thought he was speaking to Rotarians, but he was really speaking to the world. This is not hyperbole. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat all offer instantaneous 24 hour global platforms.

Last summer someone posted a comment about me on a Vermont news outlet’s website that was utterly devoid of fact. Like all my colleagues, I’ve sometimes been misquoted and had comments taken out of context. But I am only a Vermont State Senator; imagine what our national candidates endure. It is not possible to monitor and correct all the errors that appear online. Nor is it possible to always provide needed context and nuance.

On the national stage, we have a potent Molotov cocktail of voter fury and inflammatory rhetoric that can instantaneously explode in indignation and half truths. Of course, the upside is that there’s been a great democratization of information. Using my computer or my phone, I can start each day perusing several national, international, and local news outlets while sipping my coffee from my Vermont home. Incredible!

But a significant downside is that the vitriol, instead of substance, becomes the story. In the case of U.S. Senator Jerry Moran, his rather benign statement (that he believes in upholding his duties laid out in the constitution) is long forgotten after he’s essentially been branded a traitor.

Ten days before the unexpected death of Judge Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice Roberts made an eerily prescient statement about the politicization of the court. Robert said, “When you have a sharply political, divisive hearing process, it increases the danger that whoever comes out of it will be viewed in those terms,” he said. “We don’t work as Democrats or Republicans,” the Roberts said, “and I think it’s a very unfortunate impression the public might get from the confirmation process.”

Obama’s pick for the court, Merrick Garland, was also once mentioned by the Chief Justice during his own 2005 confirmation hearing. Roberts reflected on Garland’s excellence, “Anytime Judge Garland disagrees, you know you’re in a difficult area.” Garland is exceedingly qualified to be seated on the Supreme Court.

It’s past time to make the obstruction of process the real story. Say it clearly, often, and with vigor. Urge our U.S.Senators to fulfill their constitutional obligation and their political responsibility. We must never let those who govern forget we are a nation of laws.

Vermont’s statehouse: Touching history

The lovely Vermont State House can feel an awful lot like a museum. From its well-appointed rooms, to its impressive art collection and period appropriate carpet and drapes, the capitol building inspires reverence and contemplation. The portraits of former governors and Speakers of the House remind me how many heady conversations have sparkled in those rooms over the years. And when I sit whispering with colleagues, shoe-horned into a cozy window seat in the Senate chambers, I know this scene has played itself out thousands of other times.

It’s a great honor to walk those halls and touch the smooth mahogany colored banister that reaches up to the Senate’s entrance. And the Cedar Creek room’s expansive Civil War
painting always stirs my pride in Vermont. The entire splendid building is a constant, poignant reminder that I am part of something much larger than myself. Regardless of the topic, my actions are significant because I’m now connected to Vermont’s history and political tradition. I appreciate the weight of this realization.

Last week I remembered that the Golden Dome’s lobby has fossils embedded in its marble floor. The black stones were quarried up in Isle La Motte; the white tiles came from Danby. I greeted the legislative pages and the Sergeant-at-Arms’ assistants as my heels clicked over the ancient rock. Vermont’s Senate and House chambers may be the nation’s oldest state legislative rooms in their original condition, but the fossil floor reminds me that in the great expanse of time and space we are so very young. This is a great comfort to me; we are just getting started.

By contrast, the great city of London is a wizened old aunt. Settled c.43 CE by the Romans and originally dubbed Londinium, archaeological evidence suggests that there were populated areas in that region that date back several thousand years. The recent building projects connected to the expansion of the London Underground subway system have transformed this bustling modern city into a massive archeological dig.

As Roff Smith says in the February 2016 edition of National Geographic, “Peel back the pavement of a grand old city like London and you can find just about anything, from a first-century Roman fresco to a pair of medieval ice skates–even an elephant’s tooth.” Romans, Saxons, Normans, Tudors, Georgians and Victorians, asserts Smith, have all had their own “urban renewal” projects. We are the beneficiaries of this fantastic historical layer cake.

As Londoners rebuild parts of their subway system, Brits are also planning a major renovation project for their House of Commons, House of Lords, and the rest of the Parliamentary Estate. Westminster Hall, part of Westminster Palace and the Parliamentary Estate, dates back to the year 1099. After fire destroyed much of the original Westminster Palace, the new Palace at Westminster was finished in 1852. (Our own statehouse was completed just 7 years later.)

British parliamentarian David Winnick told NPR that it’s costing British taxpayers between $40 and $80 million a year just to keep the parliament building functional, due to hundreds of years of deferred maintenance. If MPs choose to continue to hold their sessions in the building during the renovations, it will cost upwards of $8 billion and take 32 years to complete the work. If they relocate and hold parliament elsewhere, it would still take about 6 years to do the work.

Either way, there is no question they will repair their historic building. They understand, as we do, that the affection and respect we hold for our statehouse is a palpable connection to both our humble past and our glorious aspirations.