Thursday, August 3, 2000

What it takes to be a strong legislator: Veterans say time, compromise key

Published in the Addison Independent

What makes a good legislator? All voters ask some form of that question as Election Day approaches. Two area politicians have some suggestions.

Former Gov. Madeleine Kunin emphasized individual resources and personality traits as two major identifiers of good candidates.

"It's important to have a legislator who has time to do the job well," Kunin said. "The most effective legislators are those who know how to build a consensus and a coalition for the support of an issue that they are advocating."

That said, the part-time nature of the Vermont Legislature has its benefits both for members and their constituents.

"Vermont has a citizen legislature," said Kunin, who served in the Vermont House from 1973 to 1979 and was lieutenant governor from 1979 to 1983 before winning the state's top post. "Most legislators like to think they're not professional politicians."

Respect in the Legislature, she said, can come to any type of person, no matter his or her background or prior experience. It's a matter of them doing their homework and being well-informed about issues before the Legislature.

Peg Martin largely agrees. Martin, a former Democratic representative from Middlebury and current Middlebury selectman, said courage and balance are also important parts of the mix.

"You want somebody who is not afraid to stick their neck out if that's appropriate," Martin said.

While Martin said she sees a place for extremism in the House and Senate ("You need to have extremes in the Legislature so you can find the middle"), consensus is the real factor in making things happen under the Golden Dome.

"It's when you get many people to buy into a solution that it has a chance of working," Martin said.


And, she said, the people who propose the legislation are not always the ones who do the legwork to help it succeed.

"I'm not personally convinced that the individual who proposes the most legislation is necessarily the most effective," Martin said. "There's a lot of glue," she said, referring to legislators who work behind the scenes to build support for bills.

Voters must determine individually what issues and character elements they value, and members of the various parties will differ dramatically. But all voters should expect their representatives to be intelligent enough and skilled enough to carry out the basic requirements.

In a companion piece in this issue of the Addison Independent is the legislative record of area legislators since first elected. It serves as a reference to the level of accomplishment in this one area of a legislator's duty. The types of legislation proposed as bills reflects the quality of thinking each legislator has exhibited while in office. No guide is, of itself, a determining factor for whether a candidate is qualified, but it does grade the legislators for their level of accomplishments and the quality of their efforts.