Peter Clavelle got endorsements from Patrick Leahy, Sally Conrad, Paul Lafayette, Judy Stephany — even the governor signed on to a “Democrats for Clavelle” ad in support of the Progressive mayor of Burlington. But the name of one high-profile feminist was conspicuously absent from the twin rosters of Democrats and “Women for Clavelle.” When asked to sign on, Burlington attorney Sandy Baird turned down the top city official on account of his “mishandling” of a political battle within the now-defunct Burlington Women’s Council. After two years of in-fighting, the city council voted to defund the beleaguered organization. Baird faults Clavelle for letting it die.
Some call her principled, others call her manipulative, but nobody denies Baird, 58, has been a tireless advocate for women's rights in Vermont. A self-taught lawyer who witnessed her own mother's battering, she spends most of her time representing low-income women, many of whom are caught in abusive relationships. “Who sympathizes with women?” she asks rhetorically. “Nobody,” she fires back without a pause. “My number-one loyalty has to be to other women. That is the only thing that makes sense.”
What makes less sense — in the eyes of some Progressives — is the criticism Baird has consistently leveled at like-minded allies. Baird was a “Green” when she took on Peter Clavelle in a mayoral race in 1989. Two years later, she switched parties and ran as a Democrat for a seat at the Statehouse. During the women’s council imbroglio, she took the side of Director Jennifer Matthews, alienating nearly every Progressive feminist in town. For police chief, Baird supported hometown guy Dave Demag over Alana Ennis.
“I am a feminist,” Baird explains, “but that’s not the only thing I am.”
From a partisan point of view, she is all over the map. But from her own perspective — as “a democrat with a small ‘d’” — Baird is working in the service of higher ideals. Her empathy for the oppressed, combined with an almost libertarian attitude about “freedom,” makes her a very different breed of liberal — one who makes no apologies for President Clinton, and one who spent considerable political capital in the Vermont Legislature to protect the rights of flag-burners and strippers.
“She wasn’t going to shrink away from an issue because it may or may not have been a popular position to take,” says Rep. Sally Fox, who chaired the Judiciary Committee when Baird served in the Legislature from 1992 to 1996.“She’s gritty,” former State Senator Sally Conrad says. “That is how she has gotten where she is. She is a strong woman, and that is good. We just may not always agree with her.”
“Tough” is another word some people use to describe Baird, who typically offers her opinion without mincing words. But she is clearly vulnerable when talking about the recent death of her daughter, who was killed in a brutal domestic assault in Essex last spring. Although the medical examiner ruled it a homicide, and listed “throttling” among the causes of death, alleged murderer Mark King claims he acted in self-defense.
The cruel irony is not lost on Baird, who says losing Caroline has made her “more fierce” about her work for women. But, she adds, it has also made her feel more intensely against the death penalty. As is her pattern, she has turned personal tragedy into a political position.
There were no silver spoons in the cupboard at the Baird household. “My whole background was defined, politically, in terms of class,” she says. Raised with four siblings in a blue-collar section of Springfield, Massachusetts, she got her first dose of socialist dogma from her dad, a factory worker who emigrated from Scotland. Unfortunately, his ideology included a deep-seated hatred of Catholics. Baird’s mother, a French-Canadian born in Plattsburgh, bore the brunt of his Old World prejudice. He battered her for years.
“He was like a lot of these working-class guys who have nothing much going on at work and take it out on people at home,” Baird says, noting her mother would never have dreamed of calling the police for protection, or leaving the man she married. Baird herself was never harmed, and points out the sexism in her family existed only between her mother and father. But she got a clear message from her upbringing, that “it was better to be a boy than a girl.” Until puberty, she tried to pass for one.
“I just thought boys have more fun. They do — I’m convinced of that even now. Women have all the responsibility. Who needed that shit? Who needed to be my mother?”
Instead of identifying with her mother, in the role of victim, Baird was drawn to her father, a self-taught worker who was “intensely political, in a drunken, male kind of way.” A lover of opera and ideas, he was a third-party man. He voted for Henry Wallace in the presidential race between Harry Truman and Tom Dewey, and “almost croaked” when John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, ran on the Democratic ticket.
Baird and her dad disagreed on that one. They had different opinions about the Soviet Union, too. Baird’s father was a huge admirer, which his daughter eventually grew to think was “nuts.” But perhaps in a Marxist spirit, she adopted her father’s unique class consciousness, which can only be described as a pride in poverty. “Working-class doesn’t carry a stigma in Scotland,” she says. “It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be educated, it doesn’t mean you can’t be smart. It meant nothing about you as a person if you were poor. I never incorporated the American idea that it was our fault.”
That attitude accompanied Baird to the University of Massachusetts, where she earned a degree in history while working as a dishwasher in a sorority. It followed her to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she met her husband and, with him, adopted two African American daughters — a bold statement about her commitment to “kids who needed homes.”
The family moved to Vermont in 1968, when Baird’s husband, Grant Crichfield, got a position teaching French at the University of Vermont. The job took them to France for a year, but the eight-year marriage ended amicably soon thereafter, because Baird wanted “to pursue feminism as a single person.” That landed her on welfare with two little girls. “Grant was generous,” she says, “but there just wasn’t enough to go around.”
Like most liberals, Baird believes the government should assist poor people. She also thinks “it is good for society if mothers want to stay home and take care of their kids.” As a lawmaker, she vehemently opposed welfare reform. The stay-at-home mom thing did not do much for her personally, though. “I absolutely hated it,” she says with characteristic candor. With advanced degrees in history, she embarked on a new career — in law.
Baird’s direct experience went a long way at Legal Aid, where she clerked for four years in lieu of going to law school. Under the direction of John Dooley, who is now a justice on the Vermont Supreme Court, she worked on divorces and abuse cases and learned the law well enough to pass the bar. She found she could make money without compromising her values or lessening her commitment to social change.
In Madison, that commitment had meant working with the more radical parts of the SDS in opposition to the Vietnam War. In Vermont, it was an opportunity to get involved in a women’s movement that led to the establishment of history-making, female-friendly institutions such as the Vermont Women’s Health Center and Women Helping Battered Women.
Two years as a state prosecutor convinced her “I never wanted to be what you call a ‘career lawyer.’ I wanted to represent low-income people. And that means women, largely,” Baird says. “Like everybody else in this society, I have had a hard time not blaming women. Not blaming my mother. Not blaming myself. I have studiously tried to correct that attitude in myself, and in everybody else.”
A career in politics was the logical next step for Baird. But she wasn’t about to run for attorney general. Throughout the early ’80s, she had been involved with a group called Citizens for a Better Waterfront that turned into a political party closely approximating the Green Party in Europe. The group was a nagging irritation to Progressives in power, who never anticipated criticism of their policies would come from the left.
“It was pro environment,” citizen-activist Bea Bookchin says of the group, which attracted a number of students. “We were much more trying to move toward a more direct kind of democracy, with town hall meetings in neighborhoods and decisions being made from the ground up.”
Baird ran as a Green against Clavelle in that 1989 race. Although she only got 3 percent of the vote, she ran a very good campaign, Bookchin says, emphasizing issues and questioning development. “People were totally impressed with the debates,” she adds. “I think it was the Free Press that wrote if the race were judged by the level of the debate, Sandy would have been the winner.”
Two years later, she did win — a legislative seat in Montpelier. Perhaps realizing the “Green” machine was not about to get her elected, she switched camps and ran as a Democrat. To Baird, it was a return to her political roots. To the Progressives, it was a second slap in the face.
Baird definitely turned some heads on the House Judiciary Committee when she greeted her colleagues the first day with a casual “Hello, comrades.” Her sartorial preference for short, tight dresses and knee-high boots also set her apart in a sea of wool and tweed. From then on she was “crazy Sandy.”
But then-chair Sally Fox was happy to get Baird on Judiciary. The two had worked together at Legal Aid. “She is certainly someone who believes in justice,” Fox says, “and brings an international perspective that is unique ... In those days, we were dealing with issues of sexual assault, expanding the domestic-abuse law. Her experience was really helpful.”
Baird paints a more contrarian picture of her lawmaking days. “Whoever was in power was a problem for me, whether it was a Democrat or a Republican,” she recalls. "I actually got along pretty well with the Republicans.” During her two terms in the Statehouse, she worked with pro-lifers to protect the privacy rights of birth mothers in adoption cases, and with both parties on protecting the right to burn the American flag.
Fox recalls one day when Baird accompanied a male stripper to the Statehouse to protest proposed laws that would restrict entertainment in adult establishments. “She was unabashed about it. It was a First Amendment issue as far as she was concerned,” Fox recalls. “Sometimes it is better being a pure advocate than being a leader and taking responsibility for things. I think she is very comfortable in that role, raising questions.”
Baird definitely had some pointed queries in the controversy over the Burlington Women’s Council. She had supported the organization for years and was good friends with director Peggy Luhrs when Luhrs stepped down. But when Luhrs put herself on the board of directors and started questioning the abilities of her sucessor, Jennifer Matthews, Baird supported the new director. A group of prominent feminists joined Luhrs in calling for Matthews’ ouster. Politics got very, very personal.
“My experience with Sandy is that she postures herself as a leader when actually what I feel she did with the women’s council is destroy it,” says computer programmer Deb Venn, one of the few women involved in the battle who would say anything on the record about Baird. “Every time Peggy got up and spoke, Sandy walked out of the room. She stabbed her friend in the back.”
Baird defends herself from a labor perspective. “It was reprehensible what they did to Jennifer as a worker,” she says. “The woman was hired, fair and square. Peggy left, fair and square. Then she put herself on the board and refused to leave. She did nothing after that but criticize Jennifer. We got no support anywhere.”
The flap over the women’s council, and the personal toll it took all around, demonstrates how far Baird will go to protect her values of fairness, justice and civil liberties. Venn and other women involved are convinced she is responsible for making the conflict public — a charge Baird denies. She is not by nature a closed-door person. When she calls herself a feminist, like Bookchin, Baird means it in humanistic terms, not gender ones. “I think feminism includes, ultimately, everyone,” Bookchin says. “It is not just looking out for women.”
Along the same lines, Baird has irked fellow feminists by not consistently backing qualified female candidates running for public office. She endorsed Steve Howard over Deb Markowitz for secretary of state “because Steve is an old friend who helped me incredibly in my own campaigns,” Baird says. Police Chief Ennis did not get her endorsement because Ennis hailed from out of state and was going to cost the city $20,000 more than Dave Demag.
Baird is opposed to “politics of identity,” as she defines the tendency she sees in this town to be intensely loyal to a specific group, such as women, gays or blacks. “It means you are asking for power for your group, whether they are right or wrong, whether there are better candidates. What we really should be looking for is citizenship of all people in a great democracy.”
Baird is not against political parties however. She would like to see more variations on the theme. Although she calls herself a Democrat, she is concerned her party may be growing too powerful nationally. “They have just crucified the Republicans,” she notes. “I am not a Republican, but I hate that there is no viable opposition anymore.”
Baird looks to be more interested in debate than solutions. She opposes the Filene’s project in downtown Burlington, for example, while admitting her position may be “right or wrong ... All I can think of to do right now is just foster discussion,” she says. “I can’t think of any strategies to change things, except to make people aware of what is going on.”
To that end, she and Bookchin have formed a new group, City Forum, which sponsors discussions of various local and national issues, including Iraq and the Burlington Waterfront. Baird is also part of another new organization, City Women, which does virtually the same thing with women’s issues.
Being mayor no longer holds interest for the outspoken advocate. Her political goals are further-reaching now. “My changes would all be directed at making this country more of a republic than it is: One, I would like to see the abolition of capital punishment. Two, I would like to see more cooperation with the U.N. Three, I would like to see the embargoes on Cuba and Iraq lifted. Four, I would like to see America become more law-abiding, less violent, and more respectful of women and poor people.”
Her last point, of course, strikes closest to home. Despite her own lifelong efforts to help women get themselves out of bad relationships, she was not able to protect her own daughter from dying at the hands of a man. Her mother, now 92, was luckier — she lived through it. The cycle of violence skipped a generation.
“Relationships should be based on mutual love and affection, and if they can’t be like that, there is no sense in having them,” Baird says. “At some point a woman has to know this is not the way it should be. I try to convince them of that when they come see me. And also with Caroline. I tried to convince her that she was worth more than that, and that she should have an escape plan.”
Why is it so difficult for women to get out of abusive relationships? “They usually love these jerks,” says Baird, who knew her daughter was living with a dangerous guy. “Women stay because they love people, because they hope for the best for their kids, because they want to keep their families together — all those reasons. The question is not why do they stay, but why do men abuse them?”
To cope with her loss, Baird keeps busy. Appropriately, she is also reading prosecutor Chris Darden’s book about the O.J. trial.
“If you can’t figure out these forms, call me Monday,” she tells a client in the unassuming Main Street office she shares with the National Abortion Rights Action League. “He’s already been ordered to pay — twice,” she explains firmly. “The next step is to pick up his body and put him in jail.” Sensing hesitation on the part of her client, Baird models the behavior the young woman will need to get through this ordeal. Her look, both stern and motherly, says the obvious thing.
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