Gov. Douglas gives insights on his 40-year career in politics

MIDDLEBURY — Former Gov. Jim Douglas burned through a lot of pens during his eight years as the state’s top executive, signing scores of new laws and proclamations.
Though almost four years out of office, the Middlebury Republican these past few weeks has again been putting his pen to the test — this time scrawling his signature on copies of his new political autobiography, titled “The Vermont Way: A Republican Governor Leads America’s Most Liberal State.”
Douglas half jokingly stretched his signing arm like a pitcher during warm-ups as he sat down on Thursday to chat about the writing of his book, which charts his early interest in state politics — which gained momentum at Middlebury College — through his four decades as an elected official, culminating in a gubernatorial stint that he was pleased to depart on his own terms.
Usually measured and diplomatic in his public pronouncements as governor, Douglas in his book offers some candid commentary about some fellow politicians, the media and what he describes as eroding civility that he said is contributing to gridlock in both state and federal government.
“I’m quite concerned about the polarization,” Douglas said, a phenomenon he believes is caused, in part, by the fact that lawmakers are not spending enough time collegially outside of the committee rooms and House and Senate chambers.
“The blue states are getting bluer and the red states are getting redder,” he added. “There are fewer competitive races.”
Douglas said politics were different back in 1972, when he graduated from Middlebury and was first elected to the Vermont House as one of Middlebury’s two state reps. He and the late Russ Sholes prevailed in the Republican primary and went on to victory in the general election.
It was an election that did not come without some suspense. Douglas recalled the Addison County Democratic Committee challenged his ability to run, noting that his Massachusetts driver’s license had only been transferred a few months earlier, thus throwing his two-year residency requirement in doubt. A U.S. District Court ruling ultimately affirmed that Douglas’s residency in a Middlebury College dorm satisfied the two-year requirement.
Douglas, 63, said he remained friends with his opponents in that House race, who included David Van Vleck and Roy Newton. His service would include two years as House Majority Leader.
 “That’s an important lesson in politics: Today’s adversary may become tomorrow’s ally, so it’s wise not to burn bridges,” Douglas writes in his book.
The 1972 win continues to resonate with Douglas, who of course has since seen his hometown shift to one of the “bluest” communities in what is already a very politically liberal state.
“I can honestly say that I have never again experienced the thrill of that 1972 election to the House, because it was the first time that people had actually chosen me to represent them in a governmental role,” Douglas said.
Douglas wrote that his six years spent in the House helped give him a more comprehensive grasp of state government that served him well during his later stints as secretary of state, treasurer and governor. It was only after receiving an attractive offer to become then-Gov. Richard Snelling’s executive assistant (in 1978) that he somewhat regretfully pulled the plug on his House career. Douglas at the time was working as executive director of the United Way of Addison County, and realized he could use the bump in pay and benefits.
“While I looked forward to my new position, I knew I was leaving a great  institution,” Douglas writes.
Douglas called Snelling “a tough mentor.”
“He could certainly be prickly and didn’t like to waste time,” Douglas recalled.
“His intellect was keen and he didn’t suffer fools gladly.”
For a period of time, Douglas served as Snelling’s press secretary. He recalled that Snelling taped his interactions with the media, with whom he had a strained relationship.
“(Snelling) once threatened to acquire the Burlington Free Press … but he never got around to it,” Douglas writes.
As governor, Douglas would inherit his predecessor’s uneasiness with the Fourth Estate.
He recalled once working as a member of the media — including with WFAD-1490AM in Middlebury — while in college. Upon entering state government, he found himself on the other side of the microphone and notepad. He described his relationship with the press as amicable during his stints as secretary of state and treasurer, but not so much as governor. He believes the media has been complicit in the prevailing political discord.
“I suppose the higher you go, the bigger the target you become, but it seemed that my relations with the press became more strained when I moved into the governorship,” he writes.
Douglas singles out the Rutland Herald, Seven Days and the Addison Independent for particular barbs, citing editorials that he found particularly critical and/or discourteous.
“I never quarreled with (the Independent’s) reporting, but it was running some very unpleasant editorials,” Douglas writes, citing the publication’s criticism on his handling of such issues as health care and the economy. The Douglas family stopped subscribing to the Independent in 2007, though the governor continued to meet for very cordial editorial board meetings at the newspaper’s office through the balance of his tenure.
And Douglas made his share of headlines following his bruising win over Democrat Doug Racine in 2002. Among them: His April 6, 2009, veto of Vermont’s same-sex marriage law. House and Senate Democrats ultimately overrode that veto the next day.
“I have no objection to those of the same sex forming a relationship,” Douglas writes. “Many have, and (wife) Dorothy and I have gay friends. Plenty of gay Vermonters have been strong supporters of my campaigns. I believe, however, that the institution of marriage is worth preserving in its traditional form.”
Douglas argued that the previous civil union law gave couples the same privileges as married couples in the eyes of the state.
“This new proposal was really a debate over nomenclature,” Douglas writes.
Asked last week if he believed the passage of time might make his position on same-sex marriage seem rigid, Douglas said he would not hypothesize on that score. It’s a decision, he said, made “in a fixed point in time.”
“It is important to remember that no position is illegitimate and people are going to disagree,” he added.
He offers the following comments about some of the folks with whom he worked in the Statehouse:
•  Vermont House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville: “He seemed like a nice guy, but he also kept his troops in line. He used the (Democrats’) supermajority to override two vetoes; in one case, he imposed a budget that failed to make enough tough choices and that resultantly exacerbated our fiscal challenges as we emerged from the Great Recession.”
•  Current Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat who was Senate president pro tempore during Douglas’s tenure as governor: “He was very public about his dyslexia, and he once suggested it explained his inconsistencies. No matter what he said, it was likely to change in the next conversation. I have no clue what really motivates him.”
•  U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, a Democrat (then a Senate leader): “Welch was results-oriented. He had strong views, but at the end of the day, he wanted to accomplish something.”
Douglas now is content to be a spectator of state government. He currently serves as a mentor, adviser and teacher for his alma mater. His classes include occasional field trips to the Statehouse that he said allow his students to see government “in action, or inaction,” as he put it.
“The Vermont Way” is published by New Haven-based Common Ground Communications, owned and operated by Chris Bray, who happens to also be a Democratic state senator. The book is dedicated to the former governor’s wife, Dorothy, “without whose love and support this journey would not have been possible.”
Douglas said he wrote the bulk of his book two years ago, then went back and tweaked it before it was released last month. Due to space constraints, some of the material and many of the 120 photos he had assembled for the book did not make it into the final product.
He picked Neale Lunderville, manager of his first gubernatorial campaign and one of his longtime staffers, to write the foreword to the book. Lunderville had given a moving speech at the unveiling of Douglas’s official Statehouse portrait, and seemed an appropriate choice for the honor, Douglas said.
“Neale is a Vermonter,” Douglas said. “Having him write the foreword meant more to me than having some sort of ‘big shot’ do it.”
Bray was pleased to report a high demand for the Douglas autobiography, of which 3,000 have thus far been printed. More than 350 copies were sold within the first day it was on sale earlier this month, according to Bray.
Douglas has held signing sessions at several stores — including a hardware store in St. Albans where 73 copies were sold — at which he has been putting his hand to the test.
“It’s been fascinating to see this,” Bray said. “Gov. Douglas been out of the public eye for three years. People have missed him, and they are turning out at these events. The book tour is becoming the ‘Welcome Back, Jim’ book tour.”
The Town Hall Theater in Middlebury on Oct. 7 at 7 p.m. will host a local unveiling of the book during which Douglas will appear on stage with Eric Davis, a political science professor emeritus of Middlebury College and political columnist for the Addison Independent. The event will be sponsored by the Vermont Book Shop and will be free and open to the public. Davis and Douglas will have a conversation about Vermont politics and Douglas’ role in the state over the past four decades.
A public question-and-answer session is also planned.
After the conversation in the theater, there will be a reception at which people can meet and talk with Douglas, purchase the book and have Douglas sign it if they wish.
Bray attributed robust sales of the book in part to the fact that Douglas remains a well-thought-of politician and person.
“Jim Douglas has received more votes in his lifetime than any other Vermont politician,” Bray said of the former governor’s popularity.
“There is a tremendous amount of Vermont history in this book.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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