BRATTLEBORO—Rep. Sarah Edwards’ cell-phone signal crackles as she walks from the House floor through the Statehouse hallways.
The Brattleboro Progressive/Democrat talks about nuclear power, Belize, listening to voters, and her decision to not seek re-election to a sixth term in the Legislature.
After 10 years in Montpelier, Edwards will leave the Legislature to devote all her time to the Lighthouse Reef Conservation Institute (LRCI), her family’s foundation.
Edwards will manage the nonprofit side of the foundation, based on Long Caye, one of five islands in the Lighthouse Atoll off Belize’s coast. Long Caye came into Edwards’ family via her father (a rocket scientist and a sailor) in the late 1960s.
She aims to evolve LRCI into a world-class research and education consortium that works with universities.
The foundation advocates strict ecological guidelines for the entire Long Caye and reef to protect the area from environmental harm. Edwards says that she hopes in time to create “the Lighthouse model of resiliency and sustainability.”
The foundation, although independent, is under the umbrella of the Ocean Foundation, which helps with management aspects like taxes and grants.
Preserving an environment
Edwards, who began her legislative career in 2003, served two years on the House Committee on Government Operations and eight on the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, said scientists found two new species of fish near the reef last year.
According to Edwards, Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today show interviewed her husband, Blake Ross, for a segment highlighting the Lighthouse Atoll as one of four marine areas worth preserving.
The reef has remained relatively healthy because it’s not exposed to continental runoff, Edwards explained. The foundation wants the reef to stay that way, so it engages in heavy environmental monitoring. The measurements will serve to set a baseline data for the marine area.
This new professional direction will draw on Edward’s Master’s of Science degree from Antioch University in organizational behavior and management, her experience building consensus on bills in the legislative process, and her undergraduate degree in biology.
“We can’t do conservation without commerce,” adds Edwards, adding that the other half of the foundation’s mission is supporting sustainable development.
Science is commingled with development at Long Caye, said Edwards. The environmental data will help the humans living there to adapt their activity and their policies to maintain the area’s environmental quality.
LRCI wants to find a way to collaborate with the fishers — as fishermen are known in the atoll area — in protecting the environment rather than dictate where they can and cannot fish.
“That’s enforcement,” she says. “We’re not interested in enforcement; we’re interested in commitment.”
The foundation is working with a developer from Chicago who has agreed to meet LRCI’s strict development standards.
“My father, ironically enough, was a rocket scientist and a sailor,” she says.
Edwards, a 1978 graduate of Marlboro College, holds a master’s degree in organizational behavior and management from Antioch University.
According to the Ballotpedia political wiki (www.ballotpedia.org), Edwards worked as a program director of mental health services for Vermont State Hospital from 1991 to 1994. She then worked for Dummerston author, educator, and mental-health advocate Mary Ellen Copeland as a marketing director and program coordinator, for the Center For Living Democracy as a foundations officer/education director/grants writer, and as a self-employed consultant.
As one of Brattleboro’s three state representatives, Edwards has only one regret.
“I’m regretful that I have to admit I need to go in one direction or another, and I’m choosing the broader issue,” she says.
According to Edwards, the foundation has demanded more of her time over the past four years and she has found it hard to juggle both.
She says she will take with her a deep appreciation for the Vermont legislative process, which has provided a real-world example of how to balance the needs of commerce, conservation, and community.
Edwards pledges to stay active in the Vermont’s discussion about nuclear waste. She recently toured a former salt mine in New Mexico that she believes could serve as a replacement for the federal government’s aborted nuclear-waste storage site, Yucca Mountain.
According to Edwards, salt is “self-repairing” and thus poses a better engineering solution than hard rock, which can contain cracks and fissures.
Edwards plans to give a public presentation on her trip to the salt mine later this year.
Many people asked Edwards to throw her hat in the ring before she finally said yes in 2002.
“It finally occurred to me I had a voice,” said Edwards about her initial decision to run. She did not expect to stay for 10 years, but as she dug into the issues, Edwards said she became more engaged.
She has enjoyed working with constituents, turning her role as a citizen legislator into essentially a full-time job.
“It was never a casual [job] for me, never,” Edwards says.
House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy chair Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, has served with Edwards on the same committees for a decade.
“Sarah is an extremely special person and special legislator,” he says. “[Her decision] has shaken me to my core.”
Klein describes Edwards as possessing a pure heart and as one who has never hidden her thoughts or feelings while treating everyone with respect.
In addition to her work on Vermont Yankee and nuclear waste, Edwards’ strengths as a leader were her attention to detail, listening, her depth of study of issues, and her thoughtful communication, Klein says.
Klein worked with Edwards on the memorandum of understanding between the state and VY’s owner, Entergy, for the dry-cask storage for spent nuclear fuel at the plant. Edwards was instrumental in helping develop the list of environmental conditions for the dry casks, he says.
“Her work on human rights speaks for itself,” he says. “She will really be missed.”
Fellow committee member and pro-nuclear advocate Rep. Michael Hebert, R-Vernon, wished Edwards luck, saying that despite their opposite views on multiple issues, the pair developed an excellent working relationship.
“She’s always professional,” he says. “We can disagree and she does not take it personally.”
“I’m feeling sad,” says Rep. Mollie Burke, P-Brattleboro.
Burke credits Edwards for recruiting her to the Legislature and for standing by as a friend and mentor.
“I know I never would have run without her inquiry,” Burke says.
According to Burke, Edwards called her after then-Rep. Daryl Pillsbury stepped down in 2008. Burke says that her paths had crossed with Edwards’ through their involvement in town politics. Both also serve as Town Meeting Members for Brattleboro’s Representative Town Meeting.
“I respect her thoughtful way of approaching issues,” says Burke, adding that Edwards takes a principled and steady approach to policy and has served as a model for collaboration between the three Brattleboro representatives.
“She’s not a grandstander,” says Burke.
Edwards has helped Burke navigate the challenges faced by freshman legislators from what she describes as the unspoken “minutiae to the huge policy issues.”
In Burke’s opinion, Edwards possesses an encyclopedic knowledge on radiological issues like spent nuclear waste and Entergy’s stewardship of the substation.
Burke anticipates consulting Edwards about nuclear issues down the road.
The representatives, who carpool most weeks to Montpelier, discussed Edwards’ decision to leave before her announcement.
Although she will miss her partner in all things legislative, Burke feels Edwards is entering an exciting phase.
“She’s keeping the arc ascending rather than just retiring,” says Burke. “And she will bring all she’s learned with her.”
Edwards hopes her constituents feel that they were well-served by her work on energy issues, last year’s solid waste bill, and her work with students, which helped bring about a sweatshop bill that required the state to source “sweatshop free” uniforms.
The ability to listen, do research, and make clear decisions are hallmarks of a strong legislator, she says.
“Because, in the end you’re making a yes-or-no decision,” Edwards says. “There is no category for maybe.”
No one has yet stepped forward to run for her seat, but Edwards has advice for her successor.
“Keep a good perspective and be a good listener,” she suggests.