BELLOWS FALLS—Michael Obuchowski has never been comfortable being in the spotlight.
But the Windham County Democratic Committee wanted to honor the former House Speaker and current state Buildings and General Services commissioner.
The inaugural Obie Awards dinner on Dec. 12 celebrated not just four decades of Obuchowski’s public service, but also his service as the conscience and soul of his party — and as the mentor and inspiration for so many who followed his example.
More than 80 people came to the Pierce-Lawton American Legion Post 37, among them many former, current, or prospective office holders.
Obuchowski’s friends and colleagues were unstinting in their praise for the Bellows Falls native.
“There is nobody who represents a community, embodies a community, and trusts in his community quite like Obie,” said Congressman Peter Welch.
Welch, who served in the Vermont Senate in the 1980s and in the 2000s, recalled Obuchowski’s tenure as House speaker from 1995 until 2001.
He offered an example of Obuchowski’s willingness to do the right thing, even when he was the only one standing in favor.
Back in the late 1990s, states rushed to deregulate their electric utilities. There was enormous pressure for Vermont to do likewise.
“A majority of the House and Senate were in favor,” said Welch. “The governor [Howard Dean] was in favor. But only Obie asked this question: ‘How is it going to affect Mrs. Murphy?’”
Obuchowski often invoked Mrs. Murphy, the avatar of his working-class constituency in Bellows Falls, when public policy questions were debated. He believed deregulation would lead to higher electric rates for Vermonters, and he singlehandedly stopped the deregulation from happening.
“That turned out to be the right question in this case,” said Welch, citing the disaster that evolved from utility deregulation, as companies like Enron manipulated the electric market and sucked out billions of dollars out of ratepayers’ pockets.
“Obie stood up to all the pressure. As speaker, he had the power to say no and the wisdom to do so. We were so fortunate that electric deregulation was stopped dead in its tracks by Obie,” Welch said.
John Tracy, a legislative aide for U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy and a former colleague of Obuchowski’s, recalled Obuchowski’s support of Act 60, the education reform bill, in 1997, and his backing of civil unions in 2000.
“He was willing to lose his speakership to pass those bills, because he believed [each] was the right thing to do,” Tracy said.
Tracy said he was once admonished by Obuchowski not to take too much credit when good things happened and “to remember how you use your pronouns. It’s ’we.’”
Because of the Democrats’ support for civil unions, Obuchowski did lose his speakership after Republicans took control of the House in the 2000 election. His longtime legislative partner, Carolyn Partridge of Windham, said that he might have lost his title, but he was still the member of the House whom people looked to for leadership and guidance.
“He bore [what happened] with incredible grace,” she said. “When people ask me why I got into politics, I tell them that it was because of Bernie Sanders and Mike Obuchowski. Obie proved to me that we can make a difference in people’s lives.”
Windham County Senator Jeannette White said the best advice she got from Obuchowski when she first arrived at the Statehouse was to “take the issues seriously, and [not to] take yourself too seriously.”
Burlington representative and current candidate for lieutenant governor Kesha Ram served her first term in the House as Obuchowski was finishing up 38 years of service. Like Obuchowski, who was elected at age 18 to the House, Ram was also the youngest member.
“He told me to stop worrying about being the youngest member,” she said. “He told me, ‘If you keep telling people that, they’re going treat you like the youngest member.”
Chittenden County Senator David Zuckerman, also a candidate for lieutenant governor, served in the House during Obuchowski’s last decade in the Legislature, when he was no longer Speaker.
“He still led from the floor, and we all looked up to him,” Zuckerman said. “If I saw Obie during a debate, and knew where he stood on an issue, I knew it was going to be all good.”
“When I think of Obie, I think about decency and dignity for every Vermonter,” said State Treasurer Beth Pierce, who reminded the audience that what Obuchowski did in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 “was phenomenal.”
The state office complex in Waterbury was heavily damaged by flooding. Partridge said that one of the first things that Obuchowski noticed upon taking over as commissioner of Buildings and General Services was that the Waterbury complex did not have adequate flood insurance. His sharp eye resulted in getting the right insurance and saving the state millions of dollars after Irene.
‘Not dead yet’
Partridge presented the Windham County Democrats’ lifetime achievement award to Obuchowski, who, after a long ovation, reminded the audience, “I’m not dead yet. I still have a lot of politics left in me.”
And he expressed his thanks for the honor.
“I love this place. I love this town, and I love all of you. You’re all dedicated to making a better Vermont.
“As I said in my letter of resignation [from the House in 2011], we who serve the public in the Vermont House are the luckiest Vermonters in the world. It is an institution whose accomplishments are bounded only by our ability to work together.
“I accept this award with deep humility, and tears in my eyes.”
Windham County Party Chair Brandon Batham of Marlboro said putting together the Obie Awards had a twofold purpose: to help break the county Democrats out of being so Brattleboro-centric, and to honor Obuchowski’s service to his community and state.
“Thank you for your years of service to us, for your strong progressive leadership, and for serving as an inspiration to all of us of what public service looks like,” Batham said.
‘Working for Vermont’
The Democrats also honored “four clear examples of Democrats who are working for Vermont and always fighting for the most vulnerable Vermonters,” Batham said.
In addition to Obuchowski, the group honored:
• Ann Braden of Brattleboro, founder of Gun Sense Vermont, who was named Activist of the Year.
• Sharry Manning, a party volunteer, was named Windham County Democrat of the Year.
• And Brattleboro representative Tristan Toleno, who also cooked the meal served at the dinner, was honored as the Legislator of the Year.