Vt. lawmakers learn to communicate better at Statehouse

Tue, 2015-01-27

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By Alexei Rubenstein


When it comes to rancor between the two major parties at the Statehouse, Vermont has it pretty good compared to other parts of the country. But there is always room for improvement. That's why 20 lawmakers-- Republican, Democrats and Progressives-- sat down Wednesday to clear the air and learn to communicate better. It's part of a national effort aimed at improving civil discourse in politics.

"There's a real spirit and enthusiasm for trying to find the common ground," said Ted Celeste, facilitator.

Celeste, a Democrat and former member of the Ohio Legislature, is on a mission. Working with the University of Arizona's Institute For Civil Discourse, he crisscrosses the country to help lawmakers get along. Many, he says, have similar issues.

"There's not enough time to get to know each other. The partisan politics gets in the way of finding common ground, so we cover a lot of the same issues," said Celeste.

Members at the workshop say that unlike the old days when lawmakers would live and socialize in Montpelier during the session, many now commute every day and that collegiality has suffered. For others it's pressure to toe the party line that's a problem.

"I think Vermonters at this point are really asking us to put some of our political hats aside and solve the problem as Vermonters and not as caucus members," said Rep. Kate Webb, D-Assistant Majority Leader.

"That we all understand how to communicate with each other effectively. We may disagree on issues certainly, but that disagreement is not personal," said Rep. Brian Savage, R-Assistant Minority Leader.

With House members trapped elbow-to-elbow in tiny committee rooms for the five-months, it's no wonder personalities can begin to rub the wrong way.

In the even smaller body of the Senate, lawmakers in recent years have noted a breakdown in decorum among members even from the same party.

"At the end of the day all we can hope for is that it's done in an orderly fashion and people are respecting each other," said Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle County.

Vermont is still a long way from Washington, D.C. Where members of the opposite parties won't applaud during a presidential speech or talk past each other in sound bites, but Ted Celeste says it's a good place to start.

"People look at Washington and the dysfunction there and they say, boy, try to do something there, well this is advance, 50 percent of the people that end up in Washington come from statehouses; this is their proving ground," said Celeste.

It's a new effort at the Statehouse to rise above partisan politics.

Efforts to improve civil discourse at the Statehouse have resulted in a new "caucus of the whole." While party members will continue to meet or caucus separately with their individual parties, the caucus of the whole is an opportunity to work together.