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State Rep. Matt Trieber, D-Bellows Falls, last week announced that he was resigning his seat in the Vermont House.

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Rockingham state rep. chooses his students over his seat

Rep. Matt Trieber looks back at 10 years of service and a philosophy of building bridges across partisan divides

BELLOWS FALLS—Last week, Rep. Matt Trieber, D-Rockingham, announced his resignation from the Vermont House of Representatives after serving almost five terms.

“It’s a bit like attending your own funeral — in the most positive way,” Trieber said as he reflected on the many conversations he has had with lawmakers since his announcement.

“You get to see the impact you’ve had,” he added.

Trieber decided to step down after balancing the obligations of the Legislature with his work as a counselor with high school students with disabilities.

He is employed by the state through the Vermont Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. While the state allows employees to take a full leave of absence to serve in the Legislature, for Trieber, that meant almost a full semester away from his students in their senior year.

“I take great pride in the on-the-ground work of interacting with my students and helping them to take steps to achieve their dreams,” Trieber told the House last week. “This year, when looking at how long service in this body would require being away from my students, essentially missing out on helping an entire class, I had to make the difficult decision to leave this body.”

For Trieber, what started as a temporary position has become a full-time job.

“I’ve felt a strong pull towards human services over the years, which is strange for a scientist,” said Trieber, who holds a bachelor’s degree in earth and space sciences with a concentration in geology and was an environmental consultant when he entered the Legislature in 2010.

A skewed demographic

Wrapped inside Trieber’s decision to step down, are issues affecting Vermont’s citizen legislature.

Or, as Trieber calls it: “The myth of the citizen legislature.”

In Trieber’s opinion, the Legislature is, in fact, “the most open and transparent” part of state government, providing a framework to express the “voice of the people.”

The Legislature, however, needs shoring up, said Trieber, who believes that such an effort could start with better financial support for lawmakers.

“To truly be a citizen legislature, any Vermonter should be able to serve,” he said. “Money shouldn’t stand in the way.”

Trieber said that for him, the weekly stipends lawmakers receive are less of an issue than the fact that lawmakers don’t receive benefits — specifically, no health insurance. Some lawmakers meet income eligibility for 3SquaresVT nutritional assistance but can’t receive these benefits under the current system, he added.

The work hours required of the Legislature might be at their most intense from January through the spring when the body is in session in Montpelier, but lawmakers essentially work all year, he said. This commitment can interfere with lawmakers’ full-time day jobs and the benefits that go with them.

As the situation stands now, he said, only those who can independently afford to serve in the Legislature can do so. Usually, this means once someone has reached retirement.

Trieber contends that as a result, the Legislature’s view on policy has been skewed — few representatives have school-aged children, for example — so the body does not fully represent the Vermont community.

“It is too easy for some to seek cheap political points by denigrating bills that would make the Legislature more accessible to all; I urge you to fight for a strong, effective, and truly citizen legislature,” Trieber wrote in his resignation statement.

Connecting with people: Obie’s lesson

Trieber stepped into his seat — both figuratively and literally — after long-term Rep. Michael “Obie” Obuchowski resigned after more than 30 years of service to take a position in the Shumlin administration.

On the floor of the House of Representatives, Trieber was assigned to Obuchowski’s seat — seat 120 — where a representative from Rockingham has sat for almost 50 years, he pointed out.

Trieber remembers many times when he’d ask Obuchowski a question, he would never tell him what to do directly. Instead, the veteran lawmaker, who Trieber considers a mentor, would send the new lawmaker on quests for information.

Listening to multiple perspectives and “connecting with people, not the party,” were a few of the lessons Trieber said he has learned.

The State House “runs the gamut of political ideologies,” he said. It’s important to learn “the almost lost skill of compromise.”

Lawmakers need to fight passionately, yet still find common ground and respect, Trieber continued, noting that the policy-building process benefits from constructive debate and disagreement.

“The majority [party] steers the ship, but the minority party points out the rocks,” he said.

Trieber viewed these skills of listening and respect necessary to his work for constituents.

“Humanizing friendships has make some unlikely bedfellows over time,” he joked.

On a serious note, Trieber added that without these strong working relationships, some of the policies that he supported on behalf of constituents would have died in the political process.

In 2017, he worked hard on a bill that adjusted the conditions for the state’s Reach Up programs, which give financial assistance to families in need.

According to Trieber, at the end of the session, the Republican members of the House needed to vote to suspend the rules so that the bill could move through the legislative process for a vote.

Trieber said that his bill received the necessary votes to suspend the rules, based in part on the relationships he had built across the aisle.

What he will miss

Trieber said he will miss working side-by-side with fellow lawmakers.

He will also miss constituent work.

Trieber admits he enjoyed Annual Town Meeting day and traveling to the towns in his district.

It felt wonderful talking with constituents and hearing about what mattered to them, he said.

He will also miss the weekly legislative game nights. The evenings started two years ago, with about 15 lawmakers playing Cards Against Humanity, he said.

What started as casual fun evolved into a weekly ritual at the apartment Trieber rented during the legislative session. His goal behind the evenings was to give lawmakers a chance to socialize across party lines.

Trieber’s district-mate, Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, did not attend game nights, but that was hardly personal. (“I’m not a night owl,” she said.)

But she said about serving with Trieber that “there are a lot of things I’ll miss.”

According to Partridge, the two have a “fabulous working relationship.” She appreciates Trieber’s “slightly wicked” sense of humor and analytical mind.

“I’m sad that Matt is leaving, but I really wish him the best of everything,” she said.

He was a real asset to the Human Services Committee and the Appropriations Committee, Partridge said.

Partridge echos Trieber’s passion for constituent work.

To anyone considering running for his seat, she said, “They are there to serve the people. They’re not there for their own purposes.”

Rep. Nader Hashim, D-Dummerston, said he met Trieber shortly after being elected in 2018 and admires Trieber’s ability to be constructively critical during the policy-building process.

“He brought up points others had missed,” Hashim said. “He was really sharp in that regard, and it’s one reason he’s really going to be missed.”

A regular guest at game night, Hashim said that Trieber helped mentor him as a new lawmaker and stressed to him the importance of having a variety of voices in the Legislature.

Hashim also said that the Democrats, even though they hold a supermajority in the House, must engage with the Republicans, the minority party.

“There’s value in sitting across the table with people who have different perspectives and resolving a challenge,” he said.

In the long run, poking holes in policy as it’s being created makes the policy stronger, he said.

Feeling humbled

Trieber gave the House approximately one week’s notice. Governor Phil Scott will appoint someone to fill Trieber’s seat until the November election.

Traditionally, the governor appoints someone of the same party as the departing lawmaker. The Windham-3 district Democratic Party caucus will send the Governor a list of nominations.

“It’s hard to put some of this stuff in words,” Trieber said. “It’s humbling having your community say that they want you to represent them.”

To potential candidates, Trieber advises, “cast aside your preconceived notions.”

Showing up to the State House with a personal agenda will leave new lawmakers disappointed, he said. “The best way is to allow constituents and the building guide you.”

It’s important to listen to multiple perspectives, he added.

“I’ve learned some incredible life lessons from people up here,” said Trieber, adding that he’s excited for the community to have the opportunity to elect someone “with fresh eyes.”

He offered some advice to that future representative.

“Be a fierce advocate for your constituents,” Trieber said, “but be willing to learn from people.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #549 (Wednesday, February 19, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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