My husband and I have been enjoying “House of Cards,” the Netflix political drama starring Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, the ruthless, manipulative House Majority Whip turned Vice President, and Robin Wright as his equally manipulative wife, Claire. According to this series, there are no redeeming characters inside the Beltway. Washington politics is a series of dirty backroom dealings in which everyone uses everyone else; even people who appear sympathetic are just playing nice to get their own way.
With my political education up-to-date by way of television, I felt totally prepared for last week’s Town Meeting Day.
The first Tuesday in March is always Town Meeting Day throughout Vermont. On Town Meeting Day, the residents of about 40 Vermont towns hold public forums to discuss local business, followed by a vote for various articles and offices.
This year, I expected my own Town Meeting Day to be as cutthroat as “House of Cards,” because this year Middlebury residents were voting on The Infamous Article 6. If you’re local, this is old news; if you’re not local, you may not care, so I’ll summarize briefly: Article 6 asked residents to approve a new town office building and recreation center; the old town offices and gym would be handed over to Middlebury College, which would in turn pay for the bulk of the new buildings.
On the surface, that may not sound very controversial, but I assure you that it was. The town was atwitter. I wasn’t aware of any backroom dealings, but there were many intelligent and impassioned op-ed pieces in this paper. There were question and answer sessions, and a pre-vote referendum. It all seemed like democracy as it was meant to be, but I was sure there were dark doings behind the scenes. I expected the annual meeting, held on the eve of Town Meeting Day, to be a chaotic display of self-serving drama disguised as principle, like the scene in “House of Cards” in which protesting Republican senators are carried into a vote in handcuffs in order to reach a quorum.
Unfortunately I couldn’t attend the annual meeting, because it interfered with my children’s swim lessons, dinner, and bedtime. Which is probably why, in “House of Cards,” Frank and Claire Underwood are childless. From what I hear, the meeting was lengthy but civilized, like democracy as it was meant to be.
No matter; real power comes through voting, and vote I did. I tried to channel Robin Wright as Claire Underwood: dressed in black, shellacked my hair, held my head high to appear two feet taller, and looked inscrutable. It was hard to pull off while pushing a stroller and chasing a toddler, but I think I managed.
When I entered the town gym to vote, everything seemed orderly and…pleasant. I gave the polling attendant my most regal Claire Underwood smile, and she beamed back as she handed me my ballot. “Your children are beautiful, and you can vote over there,” she said.
Turning in my ballot and preparing to leave, I nodded coolly across the room at Middlebury’s Zoning Administrator. Our daughters attended preschool together; definitely a connection to manipulate if I ever need a zoning permit.
On the morning after Town Meeting Day, everything was quiet. Peaceful. A fresh layer of snow had blanketed our town, as if to cover the bloodstains from the previous day’s political battles. Article 6 had passed, but when I drove into town that morning I saw no protests, heard no rage-filled shouting. It was like democracy as it was meant to be.
And – good news -- a friend and neighbor had been elected to her first term on the ID-4 school board! That gave me influence; influence I could surely use to my advantage. But how could I sway the school board to suit my own needs? Then it hit me like a D.C. Metro: year-round school! No more summer vacations; my children out of my hair – um, learning – twelve months a year!
I wanted to text my new school board connection, like they do in “House of Cards,” but I have an old fashioned cell phone that requires you to push each button three times in order to type one letter, so I settled for Facebook. I sent my friend a congratulatory message, and informed her of my intention to manipulate her in order to achieve year-round school.
Then, I began planning my approach. I know who plows her driveway; maybe if I paid him off during the next big snowstorm….
My scheming was interrupted by a reply from my school board contact. “What a good idea!” she said. I couldn’t believe how simple it was to lobby her; no carrot or stick required. Perhaps it was because she’s a fellow mother, or because she’s new to politics.
Then I saw her next Facebook post: a thank-you to all who had supported her campaign, followed by a reference to my proposal – in what can only be described as a joking tone – as “The Moms’ Sanity Act of 2014.”
Humor and transparency in an elected leader? That sounds like democracy as it was meant to be.
Clearly Vermonters have a lot to learn about how politics work.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone puppy — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.