If you can’t even retire un-assailed, what can you do?

Rick Hege’s complaint shows a lack of understanding about how the political process works

NEWFANE — It seemed worth taking a moment to respond to the assertions made by Rick Hege [Viewpoint, June 4] claiming my “botching” of the announcement that I won't be seeking another term in the Vermont House and my endorsement of a candidate running for the seat.

Given the length and tone of Hege's opinion piece, I don't expect that anything I can offer will be satisfactory to him, but I do hope providing some context might actually be informative for other readers.

There is, of course, no accepted standard or date for making such announcements. I made mine two weeks after the end of our session.

Like many sitting legislators, I had no wish to reduce my influence on behalf of my constituents by announcing anything before the session's end and making myself a “lame duck.” Most other legislators follow the same path.

In fact, even after Hege's criticisms of me appeared here - which was a full week after my own announcement came out - the Speaker of the Vermont House himself had not yet said whether he would run again. Announcements by many other legislators also came out well after my own. In fact, I saw at least three more just the day after Hege's blast at me here.

So, despite his personal dislike for my timing, there wasn't anything unusual about my saying a few weeks after the end of session that I'm not running again.

* * *

What is unusual in Vermont is that Hege has characterized that and my endorsement of someone to possibly succeed me as somehow constituting “collusion.”

Since I've never personally had occasion to accuse anyone else of collusion, I had to look up its meaning. My dictionary defines it as “a secret agreement for illegal or deceitful purposes.”

I guess I will need to leave it to others to decide if that fairly characterizes what I thought were fairly innocent things for any retiring House member to do.

In fact, I suspect my endorsement of Emily Long as a potential replacement might be the real major source for Hege's umbrage.

However, making that endorsement was both perfectly appropriate and completely above board. It certainly is common practice everywhere I know of to endorse a possible replacement candidate who shares someone's values and whom they believe is deserving of election.

I doubt that few other than Hege will be shocked to hear that all three major Vermont political parties strongly urge all of their departing members to look for good people to run to try to replace them.

I did so myself in the hope that whoever succeeds me will continue to represent the same progressive values that I and so many of my constituents share.

I also would hope that they also will listen to all views thoughtfully and realize that they represent all of the people in their district, not just those who happen to share the same opinions.

For me and others to encourage Emily to run and to now support her because we believe she meets those standards isn't collusion. It simply is the right of any citizen.

And in the end, it is neither Hege nor I individually but all of the voters together who will decide who should represent them.

* * *

Hege's notion that the timing of my announcement and of my endorsement has unfairly disadvantaged other potential candidates also deserves some reply. It is, I suppose, something of a compliment to think that my support for one candidate would prevent anyone else who is interested from running as well.

I can assure you that when endorsements by presidents and governors seem to have very little real-world impact, those of lowly state representatives are virtually invisible!

In addition, the requirements for anyone to become a candidate for state representative in Vermont actually are amazingly simple. You just fill out and file a pre-printed form saying you consent to run, along with a petition with 50 signatures of registered voters in your district.

That's it.

Those folks don't even agree to vote for you - just to let your name be on the ballot. So it's easy enough to get those signatures by standing in front of a local store for an afternoon.

That's how all those interesting candidates for governor regularly get the 500 signatures they need to be on the ballot and then appear on the television debates.

Certainly the 15 days from my announcement to the filing deadline provided ample time for anyone seriously interested to consider the matter and to qualify for the ballot. The fact is that no one has more than a one-month-long legal window in which to file in Vermont.

Couple that with a session ending two days before that period began, and Hege's argument that other potential candidates can't possibly be expected to make decisions about running so quickly simply isn't consistent with the realities.

And, frankly, if you can't decide whether or not you want to run within two weeks, how would you make the thousands of rapid-fire decisions you will face over the next two years up in Montpelier?

* * *

Finally, although it seems peripheral to his argument, Hege somehow believes that I was appointed to my current position. It certainly would have been much easier for me were that true, but it is not.

Twelve years ago, I actually was in a vigorous three-way race against two other strong, hard-working opponents for my first term.

His confusion might stem from the fact that I did first become a candidate by vote of a district caucus held under state law to replace the incumbent after a terminal illness forced his withdrawal from the ballot. That was an unfortunate and unexpected way for me to have to decide within a few weeks that I would run.

However, since my strongest opponent already had been campaigning for months before I even got on the ballot, it certainly was no advantage to me in that election.

* * *

So, the bottom line is that while Hege is perfectly free for his own reasons to wish that I had made my announcement at some unspecified earlier date to satisfy his personal preferences, I did not. And, while he also is free to wish that I had not exercised my right to encourage and endorse a possible successor, just as most other retiring legislators do, I did.

And, had Hege ever thought to ask me directly about any of these matters, I certainly would have explained my reasoning, but he did not. It was his choice for reasons he best understands to instead go directly into print with his claims, and that was his privilege.

However, for him to argue that a fairly routine announcement somehow constituted “a secret plan for illegal or deceitful purposes” seems to me to go well beyond the bounds of what we regard as respectful discussion here in Vermont.

And that, unfortunately, also helps to explain why some excellent potential candidates even here in Vermont reluctantly choose never to run and to possibly subject themselves to the risk of unwarranted personal attacks.

After all, if you can't even retire un-assailed, what can you do? I sincerely hope that is not the Vermont any of us really wants to see.

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