PUTNEY — As Michael “Mike” Mrowicki, D-Putney, begins his ninth term as a state legislator, he suddenly finds himself flying solo.
Last year’s redistricting separated Westminster from Putney and Dummerston in the Windham-4 district. His last term co-representative, Michele Bos-Lun, now finds herself representing turf that’s farther north — Westminster and Rockingham.
That left Putney and Dummerston to Mrowicki. But he doesn’t feel alone.
“The immediate benefit of a one-member district is I can focus more time on a smaller number of constituents,” Mrowicki said.
“That said, being in Windham County, our legislative delegation works together as a team quite well,” he noted. “More so, I daresay, than any other county delegation in the state.”
Lawmakers meet twice a month — or more frequently, if needed.
“These meetings allow us to share with each other what we’re doing, who has questions they could use some direction with, and we also work together on issues,” Mrowicki said. “So none of us are really working solo.”
From the beginning of his political career — which was three governors ago, if you’re counting — Mrowicki has been focused on service.
“I’ve been doing service for most of my adult life,” he said. “When I first started, I was working for Putney Family Services. And, I think, I bring more of a service-oriented perspective than some of the people for whom politics is like playing human chess.”
“I understand the importance of policy,” Mrowicki said. “I work hard at that.”
But, he stresses that just as important to him is the person who calls and says, “I didn’t get my fuel assistance check. Can you help?”
“And for that person, I don’t think there’s any more important issue than trying to get them heat,” said Mrowicki, who identifies with the concept of “the wounded healer.”
“I believe that when I’m trying to help others, I’m also helping myself,” he said.
Mrowicki’s primary work is with the Government Operations and Military Affairs Committee, but he has many priorities.
“The Speaker has appointed me as one of three House members to the Joint Legislative Management Committee,” he said. “I have also been appointed, for my fourth term, to the House Sexual Harassment Prevention Committee.”
The management committee, in the light of the Jan. 6, 2021 attempt to override a national election, is tasked with overseeing issues such as looking at a possible reorganization of the statehouse’s Capitol Police Force.
“Given new and diverse security issues, from cyberattacks to having to prepare for unique situations from white nationalist groups that the U.S. Capitol, plus the Michigan and Oregon legislatures, have encountered, it’s a different world — and that needs to be recognized and prepared for,” Mrowicki said.
Top priority: helping constituents
What Mrowicki likes most about his job, however, is helping his constituents.
Last week, for example, the Windham County delegation got together to help a number of organic dairy farmers.
“Their milk prices are currently $32 per hundred pounds of milk, and their production price is $42,” Mrowicki said. “That’s mostly for feed and fuel costs.”
“This is not sustainable and we’re hoping we can get some relief as soon as possible in the Budget Adjustment Bill,” he continued. “We’re also hoping federal policy can address this, and we’re in contact with our D.C. delegation to raise these concerns.”
To take another example, one day Mrowicki got a call from somebody who said that their parent had not received their heating assistance check.
He called the office of the then–deputy commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, Economic Services Division, Office of Fuel Assistance (currently, a position waiting to be filled).
That commissioner told Mrowicki that the agency’s records showed the family had “gotten it in the past, but we don’t have an application for this year,” the lawmaker recalled.
A return call to his constituent revealed that one of the parents had died the previous year. “And apparently, that was the parent [who] always filled out the application. The other parent didn’t know about it,” Mrowicki said.
“So I called back to the commissioner,” he continued. “I explained the situation. I said, ‘I know the deadline has passed, but can we do something?’ He said, ‘We sure can.’”
“And the next day we were able to get them back on track,” Mrowicki recalled. “So they got the heating assistance.”
Another constituent was new to the country and needed to get their child into the Dr. Dynasaur low-cost or free health insurance program for children, teens, and pregnant Vermonters who qualify.
Again, Mrowicki called a commissioner. And again, the state official directly answered the call.
“The commissioner was able to get that straightened out,” he said.
‘The face of Vermont is changing’
This anecdote illustrates the growing nature of diversity in Vermont — especially in Windham County, Mrowicki said.
“Windham County has the fastest growing population of people of color in Vermont,” he said. “And now, by adding Afghan refugees, we’re developing some diversity here.”
“We want to make sure everybody feels welcome,” Mrowicki said. “The face of Vermont is changing, it’s going to keep changing, and we have to make sure that we go out of our way to make everybody feel welcome.”
“So I’m part of the Social Equity Caucus here,” he continued. “We’re trying to listen to people of color who live here and make the changes they need.”
Last year, the House passed a bill to start the process of creating a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“This was something requested from communities of people of color here in Vermont,” Mrowicki said. “We can start the process of hearing their reality, of getting their stories out there.”
“A lot of us don’t realize the experience of being someone of color in Vermont is not always easy,” he admitted.
“So we want to make sure this commission actually takes form and starts doing its work,” Mrowicki continued. “Sometimes we pass a bill and then we have to make sure that next year it is actually being done.”
Another bill Mrowicki is interested in is called a “Crown Bill” — proposed legislation along the lines of what has recently passed in Massachusetts. Such policy protects African Americans and other people of African descent from facing issues in schools and in other situations about the way they wear their hair.
Other issues, other solutions
One of the biggest issues facing the House comes from the U.S. Supreme Court’s dismantling of Roe v. Wade. Last year, Vermonters passed by a significant margin a constitutional amendment to protect reproductive rights in the state.
But now a whole host of other issues have come up. Some states are passing bills, for example, that would criminalize the act of traveling to Vermont for, say, an abortion.
“We’re going to be keeping up on reproductive rights,” Mrowicki said.
“Other states are trying to restrict what happens, so we’re going to be testing for shield laws that have to do with allowing others to come to Vermont and not be prosecuted, or protecting the doctors who help people from not being prosecuted. Details are going to be worked out, but that’s the headline.”
Housing — or Vermont’s lack of it — is another big issue the House is working on. Mrowicki is especially interested in this issue since Putney might soon have 22 new units of housing, some of it at affordable rates, on land in front of the Putney Food Co-op and next to the community garden.
The plan is for town houses, with some units listed as affordable. The top annual income level will be $70,000, said Mrowicki, who has put a lot of time and energy into getting the housing approved.
“I’ve been been working hard to get that through, locally, and with the Housing and Conservation Board, which is a big supporter, and in the House,” he said.
The issue is controversial in Putney.
“I think there was a minority who didn’t like it,” Mrowicki said. “But last year we had a Selectboard election where that was the main issue. And the people supported the housing by a 2–1 margin.”
Mrowicki has also been involved the Deerfield Valley Communications Union District (DVFiber), which has been working to provide last-mile fast internet access to 24 towns in Windham and Bennington counties, starting with towns that previously had no internet service at all.
After years in the planning stages, and with $60 million in federal funds at its disposal, last month the service went live in Readsboro.
“Broadband is essential for the 21st century, both living at home and trying to do business at home,” Mrowicki said. “So I’ve been part of the Putney contingent on the board, and we just lit up our first houses. It’s probably going to take over $100 million to light up the whole county.”
At this point, Mrowicki warned that he was “going to get on my Democratic Socialist soapbox.”
“The free market has failed us,” he said. “The for-profit companies are only going to go so far. As soon as they hit that line where their return on investment doesn’t create enough profit, they’re going to stop, and they’re not going to go any further.”
And “that’s where government has to step in,” Mrowicki said.
“We know that every Vermonter deserves broadband, whether they live on the last 100 yards in the last mile in town,” he said. “That’s what DVFiber is committed to doing.”
Taking steps on gun reform ‘before we have a big incident here’
An issue Mrowicki is passionate about is gun control — although he prefers “gun safety reform.”
“‘Gun control’ is a term that came up from the gun lobby,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s an accurate description.”
“We know that most gun owners are safety- and civically-conscious people,” Mrowicki said. “What we’re trying to do is make sure is that people who should not have that right don’t have guns. Whether it’s domestic violence, or they’re having a mental health episode, I don’t think there should be firearms allowed to be in that situation.”
Given that America has painted a huge target on itself and invited children as young as 6 to use firearms against others, it is essential that action be taken, he said.
The House has a staff that writes the bills, but Mrowicki is a sponsor of gun safety reforms.
“It’s apparent, when you look around the country, that we still have more to do to prevent gun violence,” he said. “Vermont is one of the safest states in the country. But still, we do have a problem here when it comes to domestic violence, when it comes to suicide.”
“I think we need to start to take steps before we have a big incident here,” said Mrowicki, adding that “I’m going to keep pushing.”
“I know that’s not always a popular thing, but there are enough of us here that are going to keep pushing, and I think we’re going to get some more good legislation on gun safety reform.”
Age limits for automatic weapons are part of the bill.
“One of the things that we’re seeing around the country is how often it is young people can get hold of weapons of war,” Mrowicki said. “They have no business with them.”
“I think we’re going to raise the age to 21,” he said. “I am one of the people that goes out in front of the crowd and says, ’OK, this is what we’re gonna do. If you don’t like it, we’ll have to talk about that.’”
Climate change is another of Mrowicki’s interests.
“Climate touches on so many things, including housing,” he said. “And it affects agriculture and forestry, which are a huge part of the landscape. It’s not just for economic reasons. They’re an essential part of decarbonizing and reducing our carbon footprint.”
Mrowicki has been on the committee that reworked the open meeting laws for the time of Covid.
On Jan. 25, Gov. Phil Scott signed “An act relating to temporary alternative procedures for annual municipal meetings and electronic meetings of public bodies, passed by the General Assembly. He noted that he has concerns with the bill related to transparency,” according to Vermont Business Magazine.
The Legislature is also considering an extension of universal mail-in voting for all elections.
“I think that later on in the session, we’ll have more conversations about whether to extend that bill,” Mrowicki said. “Beyond that, with Town Meeting coming up, we’ve heard from a lot of town clerks that they want to know for sure if they will be in-person or on Zoom. A lot of towns want to be back in person.”
“Sometimes I feel like it might not be the right time yet,” he acknowledged. “But there’s a sense — from a lot of people — that they want to be back back in person, back in the community. And later on in the session, we’ll probably revisit the issue to see if we want to make that a commitment for a longer term.”
For example, Dummerston will not hold an in-person Town Meeting this year; voters will instead have Australian balloting at the Town Clerk’s Office on Town Meeting Day and before, and the town will hold an informational meeting by Zoom on March 1.
Putney, however, has decided on an in-person meeting on Town Meeting Day.
All these interests mean Mrowicki is a busy man at the Vermont State House. He is lucky that the towns he represents, Dummerston and Putney, have so many things in common.
“Putney and Dummerston already having many connections, being neighbors and culturally and politically pretty similar,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to serve both communities.”