On a recent weekday evening at Vermont College in Montpelier, former Governor Madeleine Kunin discussed her new book, Pearls, Politics, & Power: How Women Can Win and Lead, before a mostly female audience of about 70 people. After her speech, a microphone was passed to a woman in one of the front rows.
Did Kunin have any advice for female political hopefuls disillusioned by a gender-biased media?
Cultivate chutzpah, replied the ex-guv. It's easy to go door knocking, Kunin explained. But to really make it in politics, "You have to have something inside you that can withstand any criticism."
"Don't give up," Kunin added after a pause. "Come see me."
One young woman sitting a few rows back, wearing pearl earrings, pink pants and a blue velvet blazer, had already taken that advice. In the fall of 2005, University of Vermont graduate student Rachel Weston enrolled in Kunin's course about women, leadership and politics. A year later, at the age of 25, she became one of 11 House representatives serving Burlington - and later ended up in Kunin's book herself. The Old North End resident is still the youngest member of the Vermont chamber, by nine years.
Despite her inexperience, Weston is now beginning to make waves in insider circles. While the freshman rep has gone largely unnoticed by the Vermont press since first landing in Montpelier over a year ago, she recently inspired a heated correspondence between Vermont Democrats and Progressives, as well as a string of commentaries on Green Mountain Daily, a leading Vermont blog. Moreover, at least two prominent Progs suggest Weston is unwisely stirring up political waters in left-leaning Burlington, a city long recognized as a battleground for the two rival parties.
It all started at a house party in Montpelier. During an informal Q&A session with Progressive gubernatorial candidate Anthony Pollina some weeks ago, Weston asked: Would Pollina, who had been requesting to speak before the Democratic State Committee, support hypothetical Progressive challengers over Democratic incumbents in local races?
"It wasn't really an original question," recalls Weston, who asked it partly because she says she wants Vermont's "left" to establish a veto-proof majority in the House this fall. Democratic House Majority Leader Carolyn Partridge (D-Windham) says Weston was simply giving voice to a general concern shared by Democratic Party faithful.
Whatever the motivations behind it, Weston's casual query informed major political developments. After she summarized her exchange with the Progressive guv-hopeful for the Democratic State Committee, party chair Ian Carleton sent a letter to Pollina putting off a formal committee decision on the latter's speaking request until June.
Pollina wrote back to say his "short answer" on the Dem/Prog question was "no" - he would not support Progressive challengers over "progressive-minded" Democrats. But he also noted that the Democrats had already fielded a challenger in a Burlington district with two Progressive incumbents - Progs he will support.
The Democratic challenger is Kesha Ram, a UVM senior who happens to be a close friend of Rachel Weston. Ram is running in the Chittenden 3-4 district against Progressive incumbents Chris Pearson and David Zuckerman.
Zuckerman, a vegetable farmer who chairs the House Committee on Agriculture, says Weston is "playing hardball in a naïve way." He wasn't at the house party in question, but says that Weston's "mischaracterization" of Pollina's words has "delayed momentum" to beat Republican Governor Jim Douglas (who was elected to the Vermont House straight out of college: Middlebury, in 1972). By supporting Ram in Burlington, Zuckerman adds, Weston may be undoing some of the political goodwill he claims exists between Burlington Dems and Progs.
One Green Mountain Daily blogger put Zuckerman's concerns more succinctly: "If in fact Rep. Weston is undercutting Progressive incumbents, she may not be as pure in heart and motive as it first appeared."
Weston isn't a hardballer by nature. It wasn't until she'd taken Kunin's leadership class that she considered getting involved in politics. The daughter of a nurse and a former telephone lineman, the Massachusetts native gained some experience in community organizing as an undergrad at UMass Amherst. Weston decided to attend UVM's graduate program in public administration partly because it was housed under "Community Development & Applied Economics," not political science.
At the suggestion of Kunin and her friends, Weston began thinking about running for the House during her last semester at UVM, in the spring of 2006. So when she got a call from House Democratic incumbent Jason Lorber while writing a paper on campus, it only reinforced her political ambitions.
"Jason called me up one day and was like, 'Would you ever think about doing this?'" she recalls on a recent evening in her second-floor Pitkin Street apartment. "I was like, 'OK, I'll think about it, but I have to finish school!'"
That fall, Weston and Lorber, a California transplant, ran against Progressives Heather Reimer and Kathy Valloch. The latter candidates, both experienced community organizers, were "better qualified" for the post than was Weston, according to former Progressive House Rep. Steve Hingtgen, who once held Lorber's seat. But after knocking on roughly 3000 doors and recruiting young voters through Facebook, Weston won almost 2000 votes in the election. She and Lorber claimed two-thirds of the total vote.
"Rachel is a breath of fresh air," says Dem leader Partridge. In addition to teaching her older colleagues new campaign strategies, Partridge says, Weston has been a vocal addition to the House Committee on Natural Resources & Energy. Back in July, the young rep slammed Gov. Douglas' energy policy in a Burlington Free Press op-ed.
Weston is also an inspiration to UVM students, says current student body president and Vermont House hopeful Kesha Ram. The two women met in 2005 while performing together with the university's Latin jazz ensemble. More recently, Weston sponsored an environmental-justice bill that draws from Ram's undergraduate thesis. (Lorber and Pearson co-sponsored the bill; Zuckerman did not.)
Ram's praise speaks to Weston's political philosophy. "The millennial generation has gotten a bad rap in the past for being apathetic, and I really think that is so not the case," she asserts. "A lot of people, for good reason, see politics as being controlled by older white men in suits . . . But we can also take it back, and I would love to see more young people running for office."
Not everyone is so optimistic. Pollina, for one, indirectly expressed frustration over Ram's candidacy in his recent letter to the chair of the Vermont Democratic Party. Zuckerman, whose seat is being challenged, politely suggests Ram's campaign won't be a productive use of civic energy. And Hingtgen wishes Weston would "chill out" and stop making what he considers to be partisan political moves.
"Why does [Weston] think it's necessary for a very inexperienced person to run against two experienced people?" Hingtgen asks, referring to Zuckerman and Pearson. (The latter worked on Pollina's 2000 gubernatorial campaign and took his current House seat in April 2006. Pearson declined to comment for this story.) "What have they done wrong? Which votes does she not like?"
In Weston's defense, Partridge suggests the Progs' critique is based on false assumptions. She contends the relationship between Burlington Dems and Progs has been "less than cordial over the years" - a far cry from the "mutual back scratching" metaphor proposed by Zuckerman.
Weston, for her part, insists she didn't recruit Ram to run for office, but is simply supporting the college student as she would any other Democratic hopeful. On the issues, the self-described "social progressive" cites no policy gripes with her Prog counterparts. And for the most part, her record supports that claim: Out of more than 80 roll-call votes she has shared with Zuckerman this session, they differed only six times.
But House veteran Zuckerman says Weston's voting record isn't the only measure of her political character. While he applauds her for breaking with Democratic Party leadership last session on wind-energy legislation, Zuckerman claims she is now allowing party loyalties to "trump" her positions on "some issues."
Asked for examples, he offers just one: Weston rescinded her co-sponsorship of a draft bill earlier this session on "Vote Twice Education Funding," possibly out of concern it would make Democrat Jason Lorber "look bad." Lorber had voted "wrong" on a related bill last spring, Zuckerman charges, whereas Weston and the Burlington Progs voted "right."
Weston admits that she crossed out her initials on the draft, but argues that co-sponsorship "isn't a sign of who supports a policy and who doesn't." A clerk at the Statehouse reports that it is rare, but not unheard of, for legislators to rescind co-sponsorship.
In the end, Weston says, Zuckerman's statements reflect an unfortunate reality of gender, not legislative, politics. She's heard stories about male legislators who had tried to "run up a little muck" against female rivals. "You know, if you're too quiet, it means you're 'weak,'" Weston observes. "If you speak out, it means you're a 'bitch.'"
Indeed, this week's mudslinging episode could be her first foray into the dirtier side of the legislative game. Zuckerman "is having a challenge from another young woman [Ram], and I'm a very easy target for his animosity," Weston notes.
"Politics" can get ugly sometimes, she admits, but it doesn't have to. "It's unfortunate that he's making an attempt to use it as a weapon, when the word is meant to be of, by and for the people. Isn't that what we all aspire to?"
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