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Vermont Senate Loses Decades of Knowledge With Deaths, Retirements

Following the deaths of state Sen. Dick Sears and former Sen. Dick Mazza, as well as the retirements of four other senators, the chamber will look decidedly different in January.

In the span of a single week, Vermont lost two giants of its state Senate.

Former Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, died on Saturday, May 25, at 83 years old. The very next Saturday, June 1, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, died at 81 years old.

Between them, the two senators shared seven decades of experience in the Senate and the intangible qualities that come from that length of service: perspective, gained through years of experience witnessing state government through its ebbs and flows; power, in the form of influential committee chairmanships awarded to those with longer tenures; and close, collegial relationships formed with fellow senators over the course of decades.

Mazza, who resigned in April as he fought pancreatic cancer, and Sears, who last week filed papers to run for reelection, are hardly the only veterans of the 30-member chamber who will not return next biennium. Four other senators — three of whom spent at least two decades in that role — chose not to seek reelection this year: Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Orleans and Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor.

With these retirements and deaths, the chamber is losing five of its eight longest-serving senators in a single election cycle.

Those who the Senate has lost or will lose next January represent “pretty much a nucleus of how the Senate was doing its decision making,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden Central.

This year’s turnover also packs a cumulative punch, after another 10 senators chose not to seek reelection in 2022. Come January, more than half of the chamber’s members will have two or fewer years of experience in the Senate.

While new blood brings with it new perspectives and opportunities, Baruth said, he is “losing some sleep over it.”

“We will have young, strong, enthusiastic people who have their own expertise in certain areas, and that’s great — like our incoming class last time was brilliant. They’ve been great senators,” Baruth said. “But you can’t fake memory.”

There’s another key attribute, according to Senate Minority Leader Randy Brock, R-Franklin, that only comes from years of experience in the chamber: “It’s called maturity.”

“I see folks who come to the Senate for the first time, and even the very best of them in the first couple of years, and sometimes longer, haven’t gotten their feet fully on the ground yet,” Brock said.

These newcomers, according to Brock, rely on “the so-called old timers” to “inform them, to educate them, to serve as a check and a balance, and also to provide that degree of mentorship.”

“And that’s what … we’re losing today,” Brock added.

One such newcomer to the chamber is Sen. Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Chittenden Central, who was sworn into her first term in the body in January 2023.

For the past two years, Vyhovsky sat next to Sears in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chaired. Despite their differences of political opinion — Vyhovsky leaning decidedly further to the left than Sears — and his decades more experience in the Legislature, Vyhovsky said that Sears held “institutional knowledge and a willingness to change and transform systems.”

“I think a lot of times, when we have been doing the same thing the same way for a long time, it’s kind of human nature to double down on that and resist change,” Vyhovsky said. “(Sears) is a particularly challenging loss because he managed to do both: hold a lot of knowledge and a willingness to change, which isn’t typical.”

Vermont’s Senate, with only 30 members, is a tight-knit, almost familial body — even across party lines. According to Brock, such relationships are built over the course of years working alongside one another.

“One of the things I see, particularly in the Senate, is you have to form relationships and you have to form consensus in order to get things done,” Brock said. “It’s less important when there’s a super-majority and people can ride over you, but those things do come home to roost.”

The loss of six senators this year also means the loss of six committee chairs. Campion chairs the Senate’s education committee; Kitchel, appropriations; Starr, agriculture; and McCormack, judicial retention. Mazza and Sears, respectively, chaired the transportation and judiciary committees.

That leaves the chamber’s three-member Committee on Committees, which appoints committee members and chairs, quite the puzzle to solve in January. It’s a scenario the Committee on Committees attempted to get out ahead of this biennium by naming several green senators as vice chairs, a position in which they could learn the ropes. (Ironically, the Committee on Committees itself, which includes the lieutenant governor, the pro tem and the so-called “third member,” elected by the full Senate, will also need to be reconstituted. Mazza held the position at the start of this biennium and Kitchel by the end.)

“What that does is, it says to people, ‘The people who have been here for a long time are not holding me out of power. They’re offering me a hand in, and they’re going to help me pass my bills. And I’m going to help them make sure the Senate runs smoothly,’” Baruth said. “I think, by and large, that worked very well the last two years.”

Despite the tragic loss of two members, the wave of turnover presents opportunities, too, according to Vyhovsky. With more fresh voices in the chamber, she said, “there is a real possibility to really think differently about how we do it,” so that the Senate’s structure is “not so top-down.”

While institutional knowledge is “certainly important,” Vyhovsky said, “If we only ever defer to what’s always been done, we will only ever do what’s always been done.”

This article was first published by VT Digger. Read the original article.
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