Sen. Claire Ayer won’t run again after 16 years representing Addison County

MIDDLEBURY — Veteran state Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, won’t seek a ninth consecutive two-year term this November, a move that will reverberate through the state’s highest chamber and undoubtedly add intrigue to Addison County’s legislative election picture.
Ayer — chairwoman of the Senate Health & Welfare Committee and one of the most senior and influential Democrat lawmakers in Montpelier — said she wants to make way for an infusion of new blood in the Vermont Statehouse.
“It is a citizens Legislature and there should be replenishment of new ideas and new energy that goes along with that,” Ayer, 69, told the Addison Independent on Monday during a phone interview. “I’m mindful of that, and the fact that I’ve been (in the Senate) for 16 years.”
Ayer shared the news with the Independent on the condition that it be embargoed until this Thursday, May 3, the date on which she planned on making a more widespread announcement of her political plans.
The Independent will follow up on this report with interviews of constituents, lawmakers and state/local officials who’ve worked with Ayer during her lengthy and productive Senate career.
It’s a career that began with her election in 2002 and included service on the Senate Agriculture, Transportation, Finance (vice chair), and Natural Resources & Energy (vice chair) committees. Ayer was chosen by her peers to serve as Senate majority whip during her third and fourth terms. She has chaired the Health & Welfare committee since 2011, and also currently serves on the Senate Government Operations Committee.
Her lengthy resume includes stints on the Joint Fiscal and Joint Health Reform Oversight committees. Ayer has been a longtime member of the University of Vermont Board of Trustees.
Closer to home, she’s served on the Middlebury Area Land Trust board, the Weybridge Conservation Commission and the Otter Creek Natural Resources Conservation District. She’s founder of the Middlebury River Watershed Partnership.
But Ayer will be best remembered for championing health care reform in Vermont, seeking better and more affordable ways insure residents for physician visits, surgeries and medications.
It was in 2011 that Ayer, a Registered Nurse, spearheaded landmark legislation establishing the Green Mountain Care Board (GMCB). That board was charged with planning a single-payer health insurance system — including the benefit package, payment methodology and budget. The GMCB was also charged with creating a Vermont Health Benefit Exchange, as mandated by the federal Affordable Care Act.
Then-Gov. Peter Shumlin ended the state’s march to a single-payer system in December of 2014, saying the cost and financing scheme of such a plan would be “detrimental to Vermonters, employers and the state’s economy overall.” The proposal had called for an 11.5-percent payroll tax on all Vermont businesses and a sliding scale, income-based public premium on individuals of zero to 9.5 percent.
Still, Ayer and her legislative colleagues’ efforts have paid dividends in recent years.
The GMCB and Health Benefit Exchange are up and running.
Ayer successfully lobbied this year for more than $10 million that will be used to increase wages for the lowest-paid workers in Vermont’s mental health system.
She put her political might behind S.203, legislation that would expand the state’s capacity to treat its mentally ill citizens. Plans include replacing the temporary Middlesex Secure Residential Recovery Facility with a permanent 16-bed facility, and helping the University of Vermont Health Network identify an “appropriate number and type” of additional inpatient psychiatric beds needed in the state. The state is currently unable to keep pace with the demand for mental health services, and community hospitals are being asked to temporarily house some psychiatric patients.
Ayer was also a chief sponsor of S.53, an attempt to establish universal, publicly financed primary care for all Vermonters beginning in 2019. The Senate Appropriations Committee in March gutted the bill, which now calls for a study of a universal primary care system.
Every legislative career includes victories and defeats, and it’s been no different for Ayer. She’s enjoyed the highs and has learned from the lows. She’s found the experience fulfilling, and passing on re-election wasn’t an easy decision.
“I love the work; I really do,” Ayer said. “I love the challenges. The harder the work is, the more I like it and the more determined I am if I think it’s right.”
Asked what she’s most proud of in terms of legislative accomplishments, Ayer cited initiatives that began as long-shots but ultimately earned majority support from colleagues, thanks to good old-fashioned hard work and effective lobbying. She listed, as examples, the single-payer health care bill, the pay bump for mental health workers and a controversial end-of-life choices bill that allows terminally ill patients to be prescribed a fatal dose of medication if they follow a series of steps under the supervision of physicians.
“It’s working with (colleagues) and making a case that’s believable,” Ayer said of the research and diplomacy needed to get things done in Montpelier.
“That’s the work behind a bill.”
Her tenacity and attention to detail have served her well under the Golden Dome.
It was Ayer who reported the end-of-life choices bill to the Senate floor during the 2013 session. Ayer spent eight hours during a single day answering questions from her colleagues about the legislation, which is now state law.
“I answered every question, and I loved it,” Ayer said. “I was so proud of myself. I passed the exam.”
Scoring less than an “A” on the Senate floor could result in failure of a bill, Ayer believed.
“When you take a bill to the floor, you’ve got to be ready and do more homework than anyone else in that room,” she said.
While she’s found her health care work satisfying, she’s wanted to spend more time on causes closer to home.
“The longer I (work on statewide issues), the less connected I feel to Addison County,” Ayer said. “I need to reconnect with my town, my county and my friends. I’m looking forward to that.”
That doesn’t mean she’s going to run for the Addison selectboard. Ayer simply wants to work on community projects as a volunteer, similar to what she and her late husband, Dr. Alan Ayer, used to do.
“I might serve on a board or something in Addison, to do my part,” Ayer said. “We have a lot of resources in Addison that are run by volunteers, people in the community who make the time to give, and I want to get back to that. I miss being involved with the schools, town government and local conservation and things like that.”
But she knows her Senate career will last another eight months, and wants to make them productive ones. She’ll either chair or co-chair the state’s Health Reform Oversight Committee when it returns to work this summer. Ayer said she wants to “tee up” some issues for whomever succeeds her as chair of Senate Health & Welfare.
“I want to make sure we’re in a place where they can just step in and ‘go,’” Ayer said.
She’ll miss the work, though not the politics.
Ayer has worked under four different senate presidents, including Peter Welch, Peter Shumlin, John Campbell and Tim Ashe.
“They’ve all had different styles,” she said. “It’s been good to have change.”
But she noted some disconcerting changes in how the Senate handles its business.
“I do think the sense of decorum in the Senate has diminished somewhat — and I don’t know if that’s a reflection of the culture around us,” Ayer said.
“I think it’s been less formal, and I don’t like that,” she added of the manner in which the Senate has been conducting business in recent years. She said senators used to follow a more formal style in how they delivered reports and addressed each other and the president of the chamber.
“You hear more people talking about personal stories and personal opinions that I wouldn’t have heard 10 years ago,” Ayer said. “I don’t like it much … I find that in committee and on the Senate floor, if you insist on your most formal, best behavior, things work better. It’s not personal, it’s business, it’s policy and it’s the facts. Anytime it’s personal, I think it’s less effective.”
Ayer said she isn’t actively recruiting any specific candidates to take her place, but interest in her Senate position is already starting to build. Middlebury Democrat Ruth Hardy, a longtime community activist and local school board member, confirmed on Tuesday her plans to run for the seat. The Independent will interview Hardy next week about her campaign.
Ayer’s district-mate, Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, is expected to run for re–election.
Democrats have held both of Addison County’s state Senate seats for almost two decades.
Along with local volunteerism and traveling, Ayer wants to spend more time with family. She has two grandchildren, Max and Julia.
“The kids have been great; they’ve never asked me not to do this work, because they know that I love it,” Ayer said.
So her grandkids were thrilled to hear she would soon become a bigger part of their lives.
“They were happy,” Ayer said. “And it wasn’t just about babysitting, it’s about flexibility and being able to have a different schedule.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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