The Vermont approach: one of a kind

Don't believe everything you've heard about the state. Yes, it's quirky, it has plenty of cows - but there's much more

Dennis Báthory-Kitsz laughs as he recalls the day he became a true Vermonter. The composer and part-time high-tech tinkerer was roused at 6 a.m. one day in the mid-1980s by a pounding on the door of his Roxbury, Vt., home. Then the door - never locked in the five years since he had moved up from New Jersey - burst open. In stomped Stanley, a burly farmer with whom he had a nodding acquaintance.

"He put a paper bag in the center of the floor, whisked the cat off the chair, and sat," says Mr. Báthory-Kitsz, who now lives in Northfield. "I didn't recognize what I saw in the bag - some wire and a beat-up metal box."

Stanley had brought the transformer for his electric fence. "Broke," he explained.

Báthory-Kitsz's know-how ran more to stereos. Still, in a few days he had repaired the device for a neighbor whose own generosity was well-known around town. Stanley had once carried a freezer - on his back - down Báthory-Kitsz's stairs.

One episode of symbiosis between flatlander and taciturn local may be too neat to sum up a state's social character. Indeed, Roxbury is also among the towns whose old and new citizens have clashed in recent years over the number of "parts cars" that can legally sit rusting on a resident's front lawn.

Broadly speaking, interdependence reigns here, coloring everything from neighborly relations to national politics. But while Vermont's national image may be one of laid-back living - organic oases and tie-dyed liberalism - the culture is more complex, observers say, and surprisingly confrontational.

A swirl of factors - including vestiges of 1970s hippiedom and a "little republic" mind-set that dates back to Vermont's founding (and shows up in home-rule rumblings today) - put the state on some lonely roads and contribute to a host of "firsts" and "onlys."

Vermont was first to adopt civil unions and last to let in Wal-Mart. It was first to require labels on genetically modified food. Its towns have pushed state officials to work toward a universal healthcare insurance system.

Vermont alone has made formal drug-importation requests to the US Food and Drug Administration - suing when its request was denied. Its Department of Public Service is the only one to have contested a federally approved boost in output at a nuclear plant.

Some Vermont public utilities use methane from cow manure to make power. The state's agriculture secretary recently flew to Cuba to hammer out a plan to sell Vermont apples, cattle, and powdered milk.

Whether hailed as a hotbed of healthy progressivism or shrugged off as some quasi-socialist statelet, Vermont nurtures an American counterculture so distinctive that it is practically a brand.

In an election season when a reach for town-meeting politics spotlights the power of grass-roots democracy, some experts suggest the rest of the country look at a state where that grass grows particularly green.

"Vermont's electorate is among the most engaged in the country," says Mark Kornbluh, chairman of the history department at Michigan State University and an expert on voter participation. In 2000, Vermont ranked fifth among US states in turnout with 63.7 percent of the voting-age population casting ballots, he says. (About 93 percent of Vermont's voting-age population was registered, second only to Michigan's 93.3 percent, according to the Federal Elections Commission.)

Vermont's activism has a lot to do with size. "We're the second smallest population in the country - the smallest is Wyoming, but we're a much more compact state," says Michael Sherman, a professor of history and author of "Freedom and Unity: A History of Vermont."

"People know each other, and that's one of the reasons controversies get resolved,"Mr. Sherman says. "Because politics is so interwoven in the community, it's impossible to escape the people you fight with at the local level as well as the state level. And that has had an effect on how Vermonters have dealt with a lot of social issues."

The upshot: an undercurrent of communitarianism that makes Vermont a breeding ground for a political movement that activist and editor Mark Satin calls "the radical middle."

Leif Utne, writing in the current Utne magazine, characterizes the growing group as people who are "coming together across ideological lines ... and moving toward solutionsto seemingly intractable problems that don't easily fit the tired old left-right paradigm." Such line-crossing is standard practice here.

"I'm a Republican, but I vote for the person," says Charlie Brown, a Strafford farmer whose family settled in the town 200 years ago. Mr. Brown, the town's longtime justice of the peace, says he has been repeatedly reelected - even as the town has gone Democratic - because he gets along with everyone: "If you've got a good neighbor and he's running, you vote for him."

It's a small-stage phenomenon kept interesting by political churn, says Sherman. "Everybody [stands for election] every two years - the governor, all the statewide officers, every senator, every member of the [House] - so the whole thing is up for grabs every two years."

That, he says, gives weight to any issue that drifts across the electorate's radar. It has also made the state a magnet for people who like to band together for change.

"I think visionaries are drawn here because [the state] is so small that you can create a movement and momentum easily," says Andrea O'Connor, director of marketing and development for the Intervale, a Burlington nonprofit that promotes organic farming,land stewardship, and self-sufficiency.

"I regularly see the governor, and state and national representatives and senators, walking down the street, or at the symphony, or in restaurants. And I can talk with them," Ms. O'Connor says. "Making a big impact - even a national or international one - is possible from this small pond."

Politically, the pond may seem stocked with some unusual species. The state is governed by James Douglas, a moderate Republican. But it is also home to Bernie Sanders, an Independent congressman who comfortably wears the socialist label, and US Sen. Jim Jeffords, who defected from the Republican Party in 2001 to become an Independent, infuriating GOP leaders.

Vermont's other US senator, Democrat Patrick Leahy, famously elicited a cursing out by Vice President Cheney earlier this year during a Senate-floor confrontation. Former Gov. Howard Dean fared well in national presidential polls before saturation coverage of his Iowa "war whoop" raised questions about his temperament.

Such behavior makes the state easy for some pundits to dismiss.

"Cede Vermont to Canada. It's time," wrote Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam in June. "Eastern Canada needs some decent ski resorts, and Vermonters are tired of all the hassles of getting to Cuba for spring vacation." Rep. Sanders, wrote Mr. Beam, could then "work in a country where people take looney-tune lefties seriously."

More pointedly, Sanders's Republican opponent, Greg Parke, last month called Sanders part of a "progressive caucus" he said was indirectly responsible for Sept. 11.

Vermonters tend to wave off such glib characterizations and pointed charges.

"Vermont, despite its reputation for being a 'people's republic,' really has much more of a libertarian psychology," says Báthory-Kitsz. "It's really more, 'I'm happy to contribute to the social growth ... of government, if that growth does not relieve me of my own responsibility, or my own choices,' " he says. "That's part of what's not understood by outsiders."

"I think of the state as a little paradise," says Samantha Schoech, a San Franciscan who spent much of her childhood with her father at a Buddhist center near St. Johnsbury. "There's a stereotype about rural people being closed-minded, and in my [Vermont] experience, that was not the case at all.... It has tolerance - and not really racial diversity, but cultural diversity."

That openness to diversity appears to be independent of partisanship. The GOP held sway here for about 100 years, until the early 1960s, points out Sherman. He notes that in the early 20th century, when Vermont began to add elements of an industrial economy onto one that had been purely agrarian, state leaders worked fast to find ways to assimilate ethnic immigrants and ensure their fair treatment.

"In big cities it's possible to shunt people aside and they can get lost," he says. "In smaller towns, it's harder."

More recent migrations have posed different challenges. Plenty of urbanites with a bucolic bent want to try a winter spent splitting wood or bouncing along an unpaved road - maybe try launching a small business that could become the next Ben & Jerry's.

More than half the state's population was born elsewhere, according to the 2000 US Census.

"We've had a migration of wealthy people," says Sherman. "They're bringing liberal, middle-class values with them, and demands for more sophisticated services."

New arrivals find many Vermonts. The state loves consensus, but it is by no means devoid of hard-line stands.

"It's easy to lose sight of the more conservative Vermont and the angry Vermonters," says Sherman. "You find signs that say 'Take back Vermont,' dating back two elections already [to the first civil-union bills in 2000].

"I think we're sort of caught sometimes in contradictions between a kind of traditional, rural society, and a very progressive, up-to-date, kind of leading-edge society. It creates tension. It creates some bitter political fights," he says. "But they have to get resolved, and they have to get resolved quickly. It's very hard to bear grudges and get anything done."

Báthory-Kitsz agrees. "When something comes up that's problematic ... you and your neighbors get together to figure out what to do," he says. "You can't be an arrogant loner if your car's in the ditch."

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