BRATTLEBORO—Downtown bakes under a summer’s sun. Humid air sticks to the skin and clothes of pedestrians shuffling from one air-conditioned building to another. Inside Mocha Joe’s, Windham County Senator Jeanette White drinks an iced coffee. While other patrons melt into their seats, White grins.
Fresh from a presentation with fellow legislators to high-school students participating in the Governor’s Institute — Current Issues and Youth Activism, White is animated. She talks about student free speech and the censoring of student newspapers.
School administrators have blacked out portions of student newspaper articles, she said. She points to disturbing consequences if such censorship is allowed.
“If kids never learn to say things in a civil way, how do we expect adults to do it?” she asked.
White, a Democrat from Putney, is vying for one of two Senate Windham County seats in Montpelier. She will go against fellow Democrats — incumbent Peter Galbraith of Townshend and newcomer Mary Cain of Brattleboro — in the Aug. 28 primary.
If re-elected, White will serve her sixth term.
“I grew up with the notion that you had to be involved,” said White of her inspiration to take up political life.
In an indirect way, McCarthyism helped launch White’s political career.
White said she grew up in a “politically committed family” in Minnesota. Her parents belonged to the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and were members of the National Farmers Union. They became involved in politics out of embarrassment by both U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the Wisconsin Republican’s anti-Communist crusade that damaged the lives and careers of many liberals in America.
In her school years in the 1960s, White said she participated in anti-war protests and the Civil Rights movement.
“When I wasn’t getting in trouble in school for defying the rules, my mother was,” White said.
After moving to Vermont, White served nine years on the Putney Selectboard.
“I really like doing public policy,” said White about why she remains in public service.
Advocacy and policymaking are not the same thing, she said.
Acting as an advocate is simpler, White said. An advocate only thinks of his or her mission. Policymakers have to consider everyone under their purview.
White enjoys working through a tough problem and finding a solution benefitting Vermonters.
Not all issues are black and white, she said. The 40,000 people in Windham County will have “40,000 different opinions.”
Sometimes people can or can’t compromise on policy, she said, “but compromise is not bad and does not dilute the necessary.”
Consideration for how her decisions might affect Vermonters’ lives underlies all White’s policy considerations. Even the best system can generate negative consequences, she said.
“Nobody writes a budget so they can hurt people,” White said.
White anticipates health-care reform and job creation to dominate the upcoming legislative session.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling deeming the federal Affordable Care Act as constitutional removed immediate uncertainty surrounding Vermont’s Green Mountain Care plan.
Determining how to pay for the state’s new health-care plan and designing equitable coverage are the next hurdles, she said.
Fallout from Tropical Storm Irene still lurks in the joints of Vermont’s economy. How the state reacts to the pressures on the economy will determine whether jobs are saved or created, she said.
White was disappointed the Legislature did not delve into the state’s open meetings law last session.
She pledged to continue working on issues of government transparency. She also wants to continue her focus on campaign financing — like which people make contributions, and how they do so.
White feels voters have the right to know who donates to political candidates. White wants PACs (political action committees) to list their donors.
She said she hopes to help change Vermont’s corrections and judicial system. The state imprisons people who might not need to sit behind bars, she said, and some inmates require mental health services, not jail time.
The Legislature had a good bill to decriminalize marijuana in last session, said White. She hopes to pick the bill up in 2013.
According to White, people who offend yet stay out of jail are less likely to re-offend. When someone enters the prison system, inmates often acquire “new skills” that lead them to new crimes.
Finally, said White, parole often carries “insane standards” that most people can’t meet.
White estimates it costs about $55,000 a year to house a male prisoner and about $70,000 for a female prisoner. What if the state took that money and spent it on other restorative justice programs, she asks.
College is cheaper than jail, and the results are better for everyone, she said.
White chairs the Senate Committee on Government Operations and serves on the Senate Committee on Judiciary. For her first six years in Montpelier, she served on the health-care committee and later on the institutions committee.
She loves serving on “government ops,” which she described as the committee that takes on the structure and issues central to Vermont’s democracy.
When she served on institutions committee, White said it wasn’t her first choice, “but you serve your constituents wherever you are, and everyone has to play with the team.”
When asked about her legislative achievements, White said, “None of us can take individual credit for anything.”
White said that over her five terms, she has worked on multiple big decisions like the 2010 vote to deny Vermont Yankee a Certificate of Public Good hearing.
White said she also introduced legislation to regulate genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in her second term, worked on health-care reform, and pushed to pass marriage equality. She is also the main sponsor of legislation to help undocumented farm workers.
“There’s very little any of us can take accolades for,” she stressed again, adding that she thinks voters should know their legislators work hard but that they should refrain from taking individual credit.
Credit is due, she said, for working with 180 legislators and getting bills passed.
White’s first term taught her the lesson of building relationships in Montpelier.
Constituents at Santa’s Land in Putney contacted White. Park owners solicited help with getting permission to house elephants at the former park. The business had a permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture but couldn’t get one from Vermont Fish and Wildlife.
White took up the cause, hoping to change the state’s classification of elephants to domestic animals to make the permit possible for Santa’s Land.
According to White, the male Republican legislators stopped saying “hi” when they passed her in the hall, swapping the greeting for imitations of elephants. White’s work became the brunt of four end-of-session cabaret skits.
Although she said the reclassification attempt eventually tanked for another reason, the incident taught her to always work with the Montpelier relationship system among fellow legislators, voters, and lobbyists.
“The lobbyists are Vermonters,” she said at the mention of the loaded job title.
According to White, a lobbyist for Monsanto one year might well work for the Sheriffs’ Association the next.
“We don’t have D.C.-style lobbyists,” she said.
A difference of working styles raised its head last session when White and fellow Windham County Senator Galbraith served on the government operations committee.
One point of contention was White’s lapse in delivering the campaign finance bill to Senate leadership after it was voted out of the government operations committee in 2011.
“I have to admit I just forgot about it,” she said, adding that she had expected that the Senate wouldn’t take up the bill since the body was busy with redistricting. “It’s a bad thing to do, but that’s what happened.”
Although he had voted against the bill in committee, Galbraith wanted to introduce amendments once the bill hit the Senate floor.
After receiving questions from the press about the bill’s whereabouts in January 2012, White said she realized she hadn’t delivered it. She found the bill accidentally filed with other draft bills.
“I’ll take full responsibility for it,” she said. “I should have never misplaced it.”
White said the pair took different approaches to issues and disagreed on solutions.
They often agreed, however, on the issues themselves, she said.
White stressed that the disharmonious relationship never harmed Windham County’s representation.
To White, the benefits of good policy and working relationships extend beyond counties to the entire state.