Longtime Brattleboro rep. won’t seek re-election

After 12 years in the House, Toleno says financial pressures make it difficult to continue to serve

BRATTLEBORO-After serving 12 years in the Legislature, Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, is retiring from state politics and ramping up his career as an organizational consultant.

Toleno, 52, said he feels the need to return to full-time work and build up some wealth and stability before retirement.

"It's a personal decision to prioritize my family and future security," he told The Commons. "I spent most of my whole adult working life in food service. I loved that career. But it wasn't the kind of career that set me up well for retirement security."

Lawmakers earn $811 per week during the weeks that the Legislature is in session, which is normally January through May. They get a mileage reimbursement and a per-diem stipend of $69 per day for meals and $134 per night for lodging. They receive no benefits.

Toleno said that in the 12 years he served as representative, he was able to work for only part of the year.

"Were we in a different financial position, it'd be easier to commit to staying in Montpelier," he said.

And Toleno has spent some of his time there trying to change that.

"It's one of the reasons why I've supported efforts to change legislative compensation and benefits," he said. "I think we end up hurting a lot of people, especially if they're younger than retirement age."

Serving in the Legislature often "comes at the sacrifice of career and family. And that just doesn't make any sense," Toleno said.

"It doesn't help Vermont get the best people in Montpelier who represent the full range of Vermonters and their lived experiences," he added.

Going full-time

Toleno, a longtime restaurateur in the Brattleboro area, has been working part-time for Global Round Table Leadership, a virtual training company and leadership consultant based in Keene, New Hampshire, that "supports group vitality, business model innovation, and creative collaboration," according to its website, through coaching, webinars, and training.

He will begin working there full time as soon as the Legislature adjourns.

"I've been working for them for about five years," Toleno said, noting that its founder, Lori Hanou, "is somebody I worked with when I was working part-time at the Marlboro Graduate Center in the MBA program. So I work with a bunch of people who are connected to the Marlboro College graduate community."

"I really love what we're doing," he said. "We're about re-centering humanity in the workplace and working with teams on how to learn together to share power and leadership."

Supporting the process

Toleno has spent the past four years on the House Committee on Appropriations, which takes up most of his time.

"You typically don't have a lot of time to do any major policy work outside of the committee," Toleno said.

For four years previously, he served in caucus leadership as the House assistant majority leader, also known as the whip, traditionally in charge of tabulating how individual party members will vote on legislation.

"And in that role, we also don't sponsor legislation," Toleno said. "We support the process and the members and the vote counts."

Toleno is proud that he was able, even before moving into a leadership role, to sponsor a bill that has since passed into Vermont law: providing paid sick leave to every worker in the state.

"No matter what size company they work for, over time, they accrue paid sick leave," he said. The law allows for up to five days, which can also be used to care for sick family members.

"That did not exist before as a universal benefit," Toleno said, and said he was "very proud of the fact that when we passed it, we passed it in a way that made it a universal benefit. […] It applies to part-timers as well - in almost all cases."

He also takes pride in the quiet work he does behind the scenes.

Noting that his strength has been in "relational work," Toleno said that he's "been trying to support more long-term things, things-that-we-need-to-change policy, rather than just the incrementalism that often happens because we only have two-year terms."

Though he says he's "very passionate" about the issue of term limits - he does not think the Legislature needs them - he concedes that the issue may be "somewhat invisible to people who aren't in the building and in the weeds, like we are when we're here."

'It's the right time for me to move on'

Toleno said he will miss many things about the job, especially the people - those he's worked with in Montpelier and those in his district.

He has endorsed former Brattleboro Selectboard Chair Ian Goodnow, who announced his candidacy on May 6 [story, this issue].

"I love the pace and the complexity of the policy work and the puzzle of trying to figure out how to do coalition building and get things done," Toleno said.

"It's really an amazing thing to be a part of a small group of people that have this much responsibility and opportunity to change people's lives," he continued.

Toleno expects to go through a grieving period when he leaves Montpelier, but knows "it's the right time for me to move on."

He added that he is grateful to the community for the "incredible gift" of serving them for so long.

"I hope I lived up to it," he said.

This News item by Joyce Marcel was written for The Commons.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates