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Reporting on 15 Elections: How Time Flies

Reporting on 15 Elections: How Time Flies

John Flowers, who has covered Vermont and Addison County politics since 1990, at his desk in the Independent’s offices. MICHAEL BORENSTEIN/THE MIDDLEBURY CAMPUS

My, how time flies.

The summer of 1990 seems like only yesterday. That’s when I joined the Addison Independent and was promptly thrown into the deep end of the political pool during a very interesting election cycle.

The former mayor of Burlington, Progressive Bernie Sanders, was challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Peter Smith (R-Vt).

These days, you need to negotiate with Bernie’s handlers and squirm through crowds of supporters to get now-U.S. Sen. Sanders’s attention for the shortest of interviews.

But back in 1990, in his first race for federal office, I got complete and unfettered access to the then-little-known (in Addison County) candidate as he looked for hands to shake at Middlebury’s Forth ‘N’ Goal and on the town park. The same booming voice, windblown hair and ability to connect with folks. I never thought I’d be talking to him 26 years later about a run for president.

1990 was also the year when a lawyer named Peter Welch challenged the late Dick Snelling (R) for governor. Madeleine Kunin was stepping down, setting the stage for a classic showdown between a populist newcomer (Welch) and the closest thing Vermont has had to political royalty. My lasting recollections of that race will be Welch — now the state’s lone congressman — stumping for votes outside of the former Ames (now TJ Maxx) store in The Centre shopping plaza in Middlebury, and then sitting down with Snelling for a one-on-one interview at Rosie’s Restaurant.

As other old-time reporters will tell you, Snelling (who defeated Welch) brought his own tape recorder to interviews. He made a point of plopping it on the counter right next to you to serve notice: Misquote me at your own risk.

If you stick around long enough, you get to interview multiple generations of some political families. My lengthy list of interviewees includes Dick Snelling’s wife Barbara and their son Mark, both of whom would run for lieutenant governor.

Through the years, there have been a lot of memorable one-on-ones.

Highlights include interviews with “rivals” Fred “Man with a Plan” Tuttle and Patrick Leahy in Granville’s old one-room schoolhouse back in 1998. Tuttle had defeated Jack “there are six teats on a cow” McMullen in a GOP primary, after which Tuttle endorsed Leahy.

Speaking of Leahy, Vermont’s senior U.S. senator graciously gave my family and I some time during a trip we made to the nation’s capital in 1996. The senator, for around 10 years after that visit, would occasionally ask if we had a Washington bureau. I wish!

It doesn’t seem possible, but I’ve covered 15 election cycles in Vermont, as state lawmakers and top administrators are on the ballot every two years. Twenty years ago, each of the county’s nine seats in the Vermont House and its two seats in the state Senate were almost always contested. That’s not the case these days; incumbents in two or three of the House districts often get free passes. And there have been elections during the last 10 years when there’s been little or no competition for the county’s two incumbent Democratic state senators.

The lack of election competition is in part due to more dual-income households, as families increasingly need two incomes to made a go of it in today’s economy. But another major reason is that Addison County has changed its (majority) political colors from red to blue during the past two decades.

In 2000, the county’s legislative delegation was overwhelmingly Republican. Today, Reps. Harvey Smith and Warren Van Wyck are our lone GOP representatives. Democrats have held both the county’s Senate seats since 2002.

I must say that media colleagues in other states envy the access to state government that we get here in Vermont. Most state officials will share their cell phone number with you. When then-Gov. Howard Dean didn’t have time to return my call during the business day, he gave me his land-line number, trusting that I wouldn’t abuse the privilege. And I didn’t.

I still get excited on election night, tabulating results and filling in our charts. This November’s election offers some intriguing and exciting matchups — including a six-person race for Senate and a four-person race for the two seats representing Bristol, Monkton, Lincoln and Starksboro.

Please get out and vote!

John Flowers is a reporter for the Addison County Independent.