Rep. Willem Jewett to retire after 14 years in the House

RIPTON — Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, told the Addison Independent this week that he will not seek re-election after 14 years representing the Addison-2 district, a tenure that saw him serve in some key House leadership positions and become a mainstay of the House Judiciary Committee.
Jewett, 52, also waged a successful and public battle against cancer, using his position in the public eye to shed more light on non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a disease with which he was diagnosed in early 2008.
While some House Democrats had encouraged Jewett to run for re-election this November and consider a bid for House speaker, the former House majority leader decided he had had enough.
“I have other things in my life that require attention right now,” Jewett said, alluding to his family and professional commitments at the Middlebury law practice of Conley & Foote. Both of these priorities have received the shorter end of the stick from January into May during each of the past 14 years, he acknowledged.
“I’ve got to tend to some of those things — family and business,” he said.
Jewett was first elected to the House in 2002, defeating then-incumbent Rep. Ward Mann, R-Leicester, to represent the towns of Cornwall, Goshen, Hancock, Leicester, Ripton and Salisbury. He served on House Judiciary for 10 of his 14 years. He also served one term each on the Government Operation Committee, to help with legislative redistricting during the 2011-2012 biennium; and on the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee for 2013-2014, a period during which he served as House majority leader.
Jewett was elected assistant majority leader of the House in December 2010, and served in that capacity for 2011 and 2012.
Jewett was also a member of the Joint Committee on Judicial Retention from 2007-2012, serving as its vice chairman (2007 to 2008) and chairman (2009-2010).
He’s logged a lot of hours under the Golden Dome and in transit between Montpelier and his home in Ripton.
“It was a difficult decision, but I am ready,” he said of the decision to take a pass on re-election. After deciding this year he wouldn’t run again, Jewett plowed into the work of House Judiciary, a panel he co-chairs.
“I’ve seen enough people retiring, I’ve seen enough (legislative) sessions and wanted the end of this session to be about the work and not me,” Jewett said. “If you announce your retirement, you’re dead meat. I got a lot done this session, and I’m pretty proud of that. People weren’t slapping me on the back and buying me drinks.”
Jewett was part of a wave of Democrats who in 2003 returned the party to its majority status in the Vermont House following a voter backlash stemming from the state’s controversial (at the time) civil union law in 2000. Other Vermont Democrats elected in 2002 included House Speaker Shap Smith, former Vermont House Majority Leader Floyd Neese, and South Burlington Rep. Helen Head.
“I’ve gotten to work with great people; I’ve learned a lot about myself and have helped pass some bills that I think are meaningful,” he said of his time in the Legislature. “But you know, we hold these seats temporarily, and pass them on.”
As a senior Democratic leader in the House, Jewett’s jobs included lobbying party faithful to support key bills, and having a seat at the table for eleventh-hour negotiations on initiatives before they hit the House floor.
He listed seven initiatives that he was particularly proud to have supported during his lengthy political career:
•  Opposition to an ill-fated International Paper Co. proposal to burn tire-derived fuel (TDF) to power its mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y. Vermonters from both sides of the aisle, including Gov. James Douglas of Middlebury, fiercely opposed the tire burning, citing impacts to Vermont air quality.
•  Passage of the Vermont Marriage Equality Act in 2009. Vermont was the first state to approve such a law by legislative action, which turned out to be through an override of Douglas’ veto.
“It became broader than a gay rights issue for me,” Jewett said of how the new law helped bring new attention to gender identity and other issues.
•  Approval of new protocols governing search and rescue procedures for missing Vermonters. These new search procedures were of particular interest to Addison County in the wake of the tragic, January 2012 death of 19-year-old Levi Duclos on a Ripton hiking trail.
•  What Jewett referred to as a bipartisan redistricting process in 2010-2011, to reflect new legislative district boundaries following the decennial federal census.
•  A bill aimed at providing better information to Vermonters on the chemicals that are in consumer products.
“I cannot trace my cancer to any particular substance,” Jewett said, “but there are a lot of toxic chemicals that we have not paid attention to that cause cancer.”
•  The 2016 highway safety bill, H.560. That legislation increases protections for cyclists, pedestrians and others from drunken drivers. Among other things, it expands the state’s drunk driving laws, calls for the use of ignition interlock systems to prevent convicted impaired drivers from using their vehicles while drunk, and requires “safe passing” procedures for drivers overtaking pedestrians and cyclists on the state’s roads.
Jewett said the law has particular significance for Addison County, in light of the tragic death of Kelly Boe on April 14, 2015. Boe, then 55, was struck by an alleged drunken driver while he was cycling on Hamilton Road in Weybridge.
•  A “juvenile justice” bill passed this year that, among other things, ensures that the cases of 16- and 17-year-old defendants will be adjudicated in family court as opposed to as adults in criminal court. There are 12 exceptions to this rule, including cases involving murder allegations.
Jewett acknowledged some disappointments, but did not name any specific cases. He prefers to take a more philosophical approach to legislative setbacks.
“Any time you lose something during a year, it’s not lost forever,” he said of the ability to rekindle an initiative a year or two down the road, if it continues to have merit.
Asked what advice he would dispense to incoming lawmakers, Jewett emphasized the importance of immersing oneself in one’s committee work while not losing sight of the broader issues that come to the House floor.
He won’t miss the commute from Ripton, but he will miss some of the excitement under the Golden Dome.
“There are constant challenges,” Jewett said. “There are deadlines, and we solve problems — sometimes partially, sometimes we have to kick it down the road. But most of the time there is a deadline, the work is done, and you start again … It’s an exciting kind of cycle.”
While Vermont has a part-time Legislature, the tasks — especially for those in leadership positions — require a big investment of energy, whether it’s to campaign, tend to assignments during the session, recruit candidates and/or participate in summer study panels during the off-session, Jewett noted.
“The institution of a citizen Legislature is quaint, but is challenged by the complexity of the world,” Jewett said. “It takes so much commitment, in terms of time.”
As the Addison Independent went to press on Wednesday, one candidate had formally announced plans to run for the Addison-2 seat: Democrat Peter Conlon of Cornwall. Conlon, current chairman of the UD-3 school board, is former assistant editor of the Independent and currently aself-employed move manager and home inventory specialist.
The Independent will feature a comprehensive report on Conlon’s candidacy, along with stories on the other local candidates who declare for Vermont House and Senate seats by the statutory filing deadline of Thursday, May 26.
House Speaker Shap Smith said Jewett will be missed in the halls and committee rooms of the Statehouse. During a Tuesday interview at the Independent (see related story), Smith said he will remember Jewett as a young, energetic and loyal colleague who put in the hours and effort to get things done.
“Willem had a tremendous perspective on doing what was right,” Smith said. “He brought a level of energy and intellect to his job that was a joy to be around. He could be a little sharp-elbowed at times, but you had to roll with that.
“He also has a very infectious laugh,” Smith said, adding that Jewett’s retirement will be “a huge loss to the House.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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