Colleagues, constituents praise Ayer for her work

MONTPELIER — Longtime Addison County Democratic Committee officer Spence Putnam of Weybridge has attended many a political event during the past 16 years that featured testimony from Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison. And while Ayer has become synonymous with health care reform in Vermont, Putnam will remember the county’s senior senator as much for her comportment while dealing with constituents as for her list of legislative accomplishments.
Putnam recalled public meetings during which a few folks chastised Ayer for supporting a law or tax they didn’t like.
Ayer — who last week confirmed she won’t seek re-election to the post she has held since 2003 — would maintain eye contact and a calm demeanor while waiting for the person to say their piece.
Then it was her turn.
She’d politely — but firmly — offer a cogent, no-nonsense rebuttal emblematic of the homework she put into each issue she championed.
The proverbial iron hand in a velvet glove.
“She doesn’t back down, but she has a very tactful and gracious manner for dealing with people with whom she disagrees,” Putnam said. “She responds to them with respect and firmness and a real grasp of the facts on the issues.”
The Independent last week interviewed Ayer about her decision to step down from the Senate at the end of this year (read story here), a move she said is based on a desire to spend more time with family and spur others to run for the Legislature. This article features testimonials from some of Ayer’s colleagues and constituents who have followed — or benefitted from — her representation.
Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, has for the past six years been Ayer’s partner in representing Addison County, Huntington and Buel’s Gore. Bray will seek re-election in a field that could grow appreciably due to the open seat. A profile of newly announced Democrat candidate Ruth Hardy of Middlebury is available by clicking here.
“Claire is smart, hard-working, and always well-informed,” Bray said. “She’s been a great senator and a great partner in the Senate. I’ll miss her, and I know she’ll find new ways to contribute to Addison County.”
Julie Tessler is executive director of Vermont Care Partners, a network of 16 non-profit, community-based agencies that provide mental health, addiction, and developmental disability services and supports. She echoed Putnam’s observation of Ayer’s firm advocacy for the issues she’s trying to push across the legislative goal line.
“Although Claire is clearly motivated by a strong sense of heart, once she identifies what needs to be done, she doesn’t shy away from her goal when the power dynamics are not in her favor,” Tessler said.
Tessler and Robert Thorn, executive director of the Counseling Service of Addison County, have frequently dealt with Ayer on mental health-related legislation — particularly this session. They credit Ayer — who chairs the Senate Health & Welfare Committee — for securing more than $10 million that will be used to increase wages for the lowest-paid workers in Vermont’s mental health system. She also lobbied for passage of S.203, a bill that would expand the state’s capacity to treat its mentally ill citizens.
“It is difficult to put into words how much Claire has set the course for how Vermont has stayed strong on its commitment to Vermont’s most vulnerable citizens,” Thorn said. “Claire takes the time to listen, but more importantly, to hear what you are saying. She will take the time to learn and has the intelligence to understand the subtleties and nuances of an issue that are difficult to understand — even for those immersed in the issue on a daily basis.”
He called Ayer “a true champion for health care reform, fighting the opioid crisis and keeping our mental health services strong.”
Ayer’s advocacy for various health care reform initiatives is well-chronicled. This year, she was chief sponsor of S.53, an attempt to establish universal, publicly financed primary care for all Vermonters beginning in 2019. To Ayer’s and her supporters’ chagrin, the Senate Appropriations Committee in March gutted the bill, which now simply calls for a study of universal primary care.
Close to home, Porter Medical Center officials praised Ayer for her work to improve a health care system that continues to evolve.
“For many years, the leaders of PMC have enjoyed and appreciated our relationship with Sen. Ayer and her tireless advocacy for the people of our community,” said Porter President Dr. Fred Kniffin.
“With her background in health care, along with her inquisitive nature and ability to listen carefully and respond thoughtfully, Claire has been a very powerful supporter of Porter in advancing health care services for the people of our region.” Kniffin added. “We have appreciated her efforts and we thank her for her dedicated service.”
Ayer isn’t the only veteran Addison County Democrat who’ll be ending a long run in the Statehouse at the end of this year. As previously reported by the Independent, Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, will be leaving after a 16-year career representing the Addison-4 district.
Sharpe gave kudos to Ayer for her service to Addison County and the state on health care and other issues. He also called her “a steadying influence in the Senate.”
As Senate majority whip during her third and fourth terms, Ayer networked with her colleagues to explain and gauge support for initiatives. Those communication skills can’t be underestimated, according to Sharpe, who chairs the House Education Committee.
“In the House, it’s more of a numbers game,” Sharpe said, alluding to how bills are sized up for success in that much-larger chamber.
But in the smaller Senate, Sharpe said, it’s more about conversing with individual members and probing their beliefs and values on issues prior to a vote.
“Management of the Senate members is probably more challenging than it is in the House,” he said.
While Ayer is often identified for her work on health care issues, she’s also known in Montpelier for her broad-based understanding of other key topics — including agriculture, transportation and finances, according to Mike Donoghue, who retired from the Burlington Free Press in 2015 after more than 45 years of reporting.
Donoghue, the longtime executive director of the Vermont Press Association, also credited Ayer for being a friend of open government.
“She has done considerable work on government transparency issues in the Senate, especially while working with her colleagues on the Government Operations Committee,” he said. “Sen. Ayer clearly understands that ensuring open meetings, public records and having taxpayers knowledgeable about government operations are all critical issues and that sometimes Democracy can be inconvenient, but the investment is worth it in the long run for Vermont.”
Former state Sen. Gerry Gossens, D-Salisbury, had been friends with Claire and Alan Ayer prior to the former’s political career. Gossens considered her to be very bright, up to date on the issues and endowed with a personality capable of handling the pressure of the Statehouse. So Gossens asked her during the spring of 2002 if she’d consider being his running mate in the Addison County state Senate race.
“She said, ‘Gerry, I thought you’d never ask,’” Gossens recalled with a chuckle.
He was thrilled she accepted. Gossens noted Ayer treated her first campaign the same way she would treat her Senate work: She invested a lot of time and did her homework.
When the ballots were counted in Addison County’s 2002 Senate race, Ayer was the top vote-getter — a pattern that would repeat itself in each of her future contests. She finished that year with 9,310 tallies, followed by Gossens, with 8,379. Then-incumbent state Sen. Tom Bahre finished out of the running with 6,558 votes.
Ayer quickly established herself as a respected, up-and-coming star in the Senate, according to Gossens.
“Asking her to run was probably one of the smartest things I did while I was in Montpelier,” he said. “I still pat myself on the back for having the sense to ask her.”
Gossens is saddened by Ayer’s decision to leave the Senate, but he understands her desire to focus on family, friends and let a new generation of leaders join the Legislature.
Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe, a Burlington Democrat, has had a front-row seat for Ayer in action. He has interacted with her as a colleague, a fellow leader, and even as a challenger; Ayer and Ashe were both in the mix in the race for Senate president during the fall of 2016.
“In many ways, she was the perfect balance of characteristics for the Senate,” Ashe said. “Obviously very bright, a great sense of humor and someone who believes in doing things the right way.”
He noted Ayer’s recent comments in the Independent about the Senate having drifted away from some of the traditions, in terms of being less formal in its parliamentary procedures. He said Ayer deserves credit for raising those concerns.
“One of the things that makes sure people do things the right way around here is respecting the institution itself,” Ashe said. “Over time, it becomes easier and easier to let things slide, in terms of proper preparation and a formal approach to delivering legislation on the Senate floor. All those things which outside the building might seem a little bit arcane, but inside the building lead to the best possible results. Claire has been a champion for doing things the right way around here.”
The Senate, according to Ashe, will miss Ayer’s sense of humor, which he said brought some much-needed levity during deep dives into complex and/or dry legislation.
“She gets great joy out of working with other people,” Ashe said. “In a way, she’s brought out the best in a lot of other people.”
He called her decision to step away from the Senate “bittersweet.”
“I’m happy for her that she’ll be able to devote more time to other parts of her life that I know are so important to her,” Ashe said.
But replacing her will be tough, he acknowledged. She’s chaired Health & Welfare for eight years, during which she’s gained a grasp of the issues and accumulated a vast institutional memory.
“She’s had to keep Vermont’s health care policy steady in both (the federal and state) realities,” Ashe said.
He believes Ayer hasn’t received enough credit for helping expand state’s Medicaid program in a manner that has minimized the number of uninsured Vermonters.
“Claire was a huge advocate for making sure everyone had health insurance,” Ashe said. “I think there are many people who won’t know it, but Claire Ayer will be one of the primary reasons they have health insurance.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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