State Report VT 2: Second Vermont Report
Vermont Report #2
by Jason P. Sorens
(This "report" is a series of reflections on a recent trip to Vermont. See also Vermont Report #1.)
I arrived at the Burlington airport on Saturday around noon and met Robert Maynard, the president of Citizens for Property Rights in Vermont. We had lunch and chatted about the state of the libertarian movement in Vermont.
The Vermont Libertarian Party split in 2000. The leadership at the time was strongly anti-conservative and expelled those who were opposed to the civil unions law, including the lone Libertarian representative in the state house, Neil Randall. (He was elected as a Libertarian/Republican.) The civil unions issue was not the only reason for the split. There was a major disagreement in strategy. The leadership wished to pursue a purist, intellectual course and rejected making alliances with the Take Back Vermont movement and its "populist" approach. Although Take Back Vermont has been most closely associated with the civil unions issue, the movement actually started in 1998 with opposition to the school funding law, Act 60, which has resulted in a significant increase in property taxes in many parts of the state.
Robert Maynard was one of those who favored making alliances with the populist conservatives, and he left the Libertarian Party. Neil Randall won re-election in 2000 as a Republican. Robert admits that there are pitfalls in allying with the political right in Vermont, and my subsequent experiences would bear this out. The Take Back Vermont movement is seen as "extremist" or "reactionary" in much of Vermont, certainly the Burlington area. This has to do with the rhetoric and strategy of the movement more than anything else, I believe. At the CPR meeting I was a bit uncomfortable with the way people talked about "the homosexuals", "out-of-state homosexual money," "the homosexual agenda," and similar phrases, as if people who are homosexual are politically or even culturally monolithic. There's also an infamous story about the opponents of Act 60, who protested in front of the capitol and during this protest brought out the old car of a particularly liberal state senator, which they had purchased, and destroyed it with sledgehammers. The grassroots conservatives in Vermont are not exactly slick political operatives, and it's clear they rub many people the wrong way with their blunt, oppositional approach.
The people at the CPR meeting were mostly very favorable to the FSP. I handed out several Statements of Intent and shook hands with Neil Randall, who gave a talk as well. He was defeated in the 2002 election, as were many other quasi-libertarians in the Vermont House. I also met Hardy Macia, an early joiner of the FSP and Vermont LP activist. He ran for the state house as a Libertarian/Republican and came within 100 votes of victory. Neither Hardy nor Neil had held elective political office prior to running for state house. The large size of the house - and small size of districts - makes it relatively easy for newcomers and political neophytes to win election, if they are good campaigners.
After the meeting, I headed out with the NPR folks who are doing a segment on the Free State Project for "This American Life," a national program that runs weekly on NPR stations. We met with one of the leaders of the Progressive Party in Vermont, Anthony Pollina. He ran for lieutenant governor in 2002 and won 25% of the vote in a three-way race. Needless to say, he was basically opposed to the Free State Project and insisted that Vermonters would reject our ideas, because they favor "the active engagement of government." It was difficult for me to reply to this, because he was a Vermont resident and I was not, although I knew that many of my views were shared by Vermonters, particularly those of the old stock. The reporters asked where he was from, and it turns out he moved from New Jersey to Vermont in the early 1970s. "So didn't you do exactly what Jason is planning to do?" they asked. He grinned at that and backpedalled somewhat. "Well, if you're coming to Vermont for the quality of life and will work toward strengthening our communities, you're certainly welcome," he replied.
After the interview, I returned to Robert Maynard's home, where I was spending the night. We stayed up and talked politics some more. I presented the idea of a non-partisan voters' league to him, and he thought that was an idea that could work particularly well in Vermont. "The problem in Vermont is that you need the grassroots conservatives for your activists, but you also need to be able to reach out to rank-and-file progressives and moderates and not scare the bejeezus out of them," he said. "For that, you'll need an effective leadership. But I think the Take Back Vermont folks are learning very quickly how to play the political game." He said that, historically, Vermont was the most libertarian state in the country, the only state to oppose FDR and the New Deal, and the state that gave the country Calvin Coolidge, the 20th century's most libertarian president. However, it has changed a great deal since the 1960s, and now New Hampshire is more libertarian than Vermont. Robert, a fourth-generation Vermonter, said that he'd be unable to move from Vermont, since he had recently bought a new business, but said that putting his biases aside, he believed Vermont and New Hampshire were about equal in potential for success. New Hampshire is about "ten years behind" Vermont in the march to statism, and has a much better organized conservative-libertarian movement than Vermont. But Vermont is smaller, the town meeting tradition is stronger in Vermont, and Vermont's history is an asset. Robert believes that land area is a crucial consideration: to form a grassroots movement you will have to hold town meetings around the state, and short driving distances are essential for these. A potentially workable alternative is a state that has a few population centers, in each of which we would have significant concentrations of activists. He lent me The Vermont Papers by Bryan and McClaughry.
The next day, the NPR reporters and I met with the mayor of Burlington. He is Bernie Sanders' successor to the post and runs as a Progressive. Nevertheless, he is much more moderate than Sanders. He was also a bit more welcoming than Pollina, though he said that we would be unable to "take over" the state, due to Vermonters' liberal views and resistance to outsiders. He believed that we would become a significant part of the general Vermont milieu, merely one group among a diversity of ideological groups. He did mention several times that he believed Progressives and Libertarians had quite a few things in common. He even admitted that Vermont's regulatory process had become unworkable, and that it needed to be streamlined in order to work for small business, something that Pollina had refused to concede. However, he said that he was committed to strengthening code enforcement in Burlington and providing subsidies for people to buy homes. Government apparently has a fairly significant role in funding home purchases in Vermont. This, when combined with the congested permit process for new developments, probably is a significant cause of the housing shortage in Vermont, which is something almost everyone we talked to mentioned as a problem in getting 20,000 people to settle in the state. When government subsidizes home-buying, it pushes up demand for homes, and when the regulatory process prevents supply from adjusting, we have a shortage. The reporters asked the mayor to draw a map of Vermont and show which parts of the state would be most supportive of our movement. He drew Vermont and New Hampshire, indicated the Connecticut River as the border between the two, and drew an arrow from Vermont to New Hampshire. "That's where you need to go, across the river." We had a good laugh about that.
After meeting with the mayor, we walked around the restaurant and spoke to some "ordinary Vermonters." Since we were in downtown Burlington, most of them were definitely progressive types. We did meet one fellow who described himself as basically libertarian, and said that he voted for both Libertarians and Progressives in local races. He said he did this because he wanted all views to be heard. This seemed to be a common thread in responses to our idea. Vermonters are natively anti-establishment. I can't remember exactly how, but I got into a debate with one fellow over separation of school & state. I wasn't completely well prepared for that discussion, and though I had arguments for every point he made, I don't think I brought them down to a readily understandable level. One good analogy to use to make the case for separation (which I only thought of much later) is to compare education to other industries. Kids have a right to be fed as much as educated, so does that mean restaurants and grocery stores should be government owned and operated? Of course not - and you can talk about why government ownership of groceries & restaurants would fail: lack of choice & competition resulting in declines in quality, the necessity of rationing to control demand for a "free" service, etc. All these arguments apply equally well to schooling.
After this we met with the principal of Burlington High School. As could be expected, she was pretty much a typical NEA type who rejected all significant reform of government schooling out of hand. Bush-ian "quality control" was about the most she was willing to consider. She said we "should probably move out to Idaho or somewhere, where I hear a lot of people own guns and homeschool and hate the government." This wasn't a particularly productive conversation.
We then visited with Mary Alice McKenzie, a business owner and major figure in the Republican Party in Vermont. Apparently her name has been mentioned in the past as a potential gubernatorial candidate. She described her political views as "very fiscally conservative and socially liberal." She's basically a libertarian! She's also a pragmatist, though, and was very complimentary toward the mayor of Burlington, crediting him with repealing some of the more egregiously anti-business measures instituted by Bernie Sanders when he was mayor. She thought the political model of the Free State Project was sound and believed that we would have a major impact if we moved there. Her main caveat was the economy. She said that regulations were stifling jobs growth, and that lack of risk capital would make it very difficult to start new businesses. She was very interested in and supportive of our efforts otherwise, however. It was heartening to hear such a major figure in Vermont support our efforts.
The last interview was with a part-time lobbyist for the forestry industry, an acknowledged libertarian who studied under Milton Friedman and Gary Becker at Chicago, where he did graduate work in economics. The reporters asked him if he would consider signing up for the Free State Project, and he said he would, though he was committed to working in Vermont. So I gave him a form, and he signed up on tape, opting out of all states except Vermont. I asked him how much of the state legislature was already libertarian. He estimated that matters were better now than they were a few years ago, and that a third of the house (50 members) were friendly to our ideas. I have a feeling this includes a lot of conservatives, and maybe some iconoclastic liberals. He said there were 25-30 real socialists in the house, and of the 50 who support us, 15 were true libertarians through and through. So that's 10% of the state house that we would "have" right away when we move in.
Some things I noticed from all the conversations I've had this weekend are: 1) A good way to introduce the Free State Project is to say that we are researching states based on their favorability to ideas of smaller government and more individual freedom, for the purpose of promoting one state as the best place for Americans with such ideas to settle and live. This way it sounds less like a hostile takeover, which it really isn't, in my view. 2) Vermonters value independence and non-conformity, and evaluate candidates more on personal characteristics than ideology. 3) You don't need a lot of political experience to win state house seats. Nevertheless, political liberals seemed to have a lot more experience than political conservatives. They are more willing to serve on boards and commissions and make a career out of politics. 4) There aren't many native Vermonters left, at least in Burlington! I think we met only two native Vermonters out of all the people we spoke to. A couple people mentioned that most of the state legislative seats are occupied by non-natives. Whether you are a native or not doesn't have much relevance for political success. 5) Ideological polarization lies beneath the surface in Vermont, though people are quick to deny it. The mayor of Burlington claimed that it was an "urban myth" to think that there was a coordinated attempt by leftists to take over Vermont in the 1970s. Conservatives insist that there was, and Robert Maynard mentioned a few stories and episodes that suggest to me that there was such a coordinated attempt, though more loosely organized than the FSP. Overall, this issue is a very touchy one in Vermont. 6) Vermonters are proud of their heritage of town government, even though state government has increasingly taken functions away from local government. Decentralization could be a major winning issue for a libertarian movement in Vermont. 7) It's cold! I like it, though. There was a good bit of snow on the ground, perhaps a foot in some places, and it snowed gently most of the time I was there. The winter could wear on some people, but complaining about the weather is looked down upon in Vermont. There was one facetious suggestion that to keep out riff-raff, the highways should not be plowed.
It was a productive and fascinating journey. I wish I could do a tour of this kind in all the states we're considering.
February 5, 2003
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Free State Project, its Officers, or Directors.