As Senate President in 2000, Peter Shumlin worked closely with then-Governor Howard Dean and shepherded through the nation’s first civil unions bill. In 2009, along with House Speaker Shap Smith, Shumlin led the successful legislative effort for his state’s marriage bill (overriding a Governor’s veto with not one vote to spare). Last week, he tapped the Director of Vermont Freedom to Marry, Beth Robinson, who successfully argued in favor of marriage equality before the Vermont Supreme Court, to be his General Counsel.
While those events alone were reason enough to fill me with pride as I sat next to Peter’s wife Deb as Peter took the oath of office, something else stirred my emotions more deeply.
I first got to know then-Minority Leader Shumlin, and Vermont, fifteen years ago. In 1996, the Clinton White House asked me to consider leaving my job in the Administration to run President Clinton’s re-election effort in the Green Mountain State. Peter and I became fast friends as we worked together across the state, to recruit fair-minded legislative candidates and help them get elected. Success that year led to Peter’s ascension to Senate President, and a majority that, several years later, would pass civil unions.
The aftermath of civil unions saw Vermont’s reputation as a friendly and caring state severely tested. Neighbors shunned neighbors, family members shunned their own, and campaign sign wars and a war of words escalated. During the election campaign of 2000, Governor Dean wore a bullet proof vest at public events. Election Day 2000, mere months after enactment of the civil unions law, was a defeat for fair-minded Vermont legislators. While Peter Shumlin held onto his majority in the Senate, and, with HRC’s staff support Howard Dean barely escaped his election needing to be decided by the legislature, House control changed hands.
It would take two election cycles of driving from Brattleboro to Burlington, from St. Albans to St. Johnsbury, recruiting and training candidates, to finally regain fair-minded control of the House.
When I was in the House Chamber in 2009 when Vermont passed the marriage bill, the biggest hugs I received were from those legislators who remembered the tough election after civil unions and were proud that the family of Vermont came back together and lived up to her state motto, “Freedom and Unity.”
And last week, some of the tears of Inaugural joy shed by legislators were by those same fighters for fairness.
Since 1996, I have gotten to know hundreds of Vermont families. I have stayed overnight in too many homes to recall. I have gotten to know Vermonters over breakfast in their kitchens, lunches on park benches and dinners on their lawns.
I have seen Peter Shumlin’s little girls who used to jump on my bed at six in the morning grow into articulate but still fun-loving and beautiful women. Vermont has taught me to cherish one’s connection to nature and neighbor more than the political connection.
Today, as we demand results quickly, as we are too quick to judge, as we chat more on Facebook and have fewer meaningful conversations looking into someone’s eyes, I, like the hundreds of people in the Vermont State House was brought to tears hearing the Vermont State Song sung by the Vermont Youth Orchestra Choir: “Home is where the heart is and these Green Mountains are my home.”
Peter Shumlin fought hard and sacrificed to become Governor of Vermont, but his victory is rightfully savored by so many because Vermonters know that progress takes time; equality does not have a button on a microwave. His parents, his family, his colleagues, former Governors, and even his political opponents recognize that Peter and hundreds of others have fought for years to make Vermont and our country live up to her ideals.
Vermont may be a small state, but it has done great things for our country. Under Peter’s leadership, watch Vermont continue to make us all sing, America, the Beautiful.