The events in Tuscon, Arizona yesterday (January 8th) prompted me to write this B Side memory of my own life in the political world. I don’t write or talk a lot about the days I spent in the Vermont State Legislature, but yesterday’s shooting brought back a flood of memories from my last year there.
In January 2000, we were getting ready to return to our legislative session after the break. In Vermont, the legislature is in session from January until late May or early June, and then off again until the following January. The reason for this is to create a “citizen legislature”, so that the people in charge of making the laws aren’t too far removed from the people affected by those laws. It was my first (and only) term in the state legislature, having been appointed in 1999 to fill my father’s seat after he died.
Shortly before the session began, the Vermont Supreme Court handed down their landmark ruling of Baker v. Vermont, stating that homosexual couples had the constitutional right to enter into an agreement like marriage – the first such ruling in the country. They gave the legislature the directive to create laws to rectify this. With one quick statement, the entire 2000 legislative session was turned on its side, and basically focused only on this one issue.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how emotionally charged this issue was (and of course, still is). What I will tell you is how quickly the atmosphere in the State House changed. Our little state suddenly had the attention of people from all over the country and the world. Every public hearing held on the subject had hundreds of attendees. Reporters from across the world came to report on the proceedings. Money poured in from all sides in an attempt to influence us. Every meeting, every discussion was front page news.
All of us were on edge. The mood in the State House went from easygoing and laid back to very tense. Every morning, my mailbox was full of hate mail, condemning me and telling me I was going to hell for my beliefs. I got followed in the hallways by lobbyists. My name and telephone number was published in the state’s largest newspaper and broadcast on local radio, with the “encouragement” to call me everyday to say that God hated me. For the first time in recent history, the security staff was armed. And as the legislature’s youngest female representative, the police staff checked in on me when I arrived in the morning and when I left for the night.
But for the most part, the members of the legislature remained cordial and collegial. When public hearings turned heated, the representatives would stand up for each other and demand respect. Even though the very core of our government was being challenged, we stuck to proper procedure and the Vermont way.
What I saw that year was extreme political courage on both sides. I saw farmers, teachers, doctors, and lawyers come together. And when the final bill came to the floor to create the new civil unions, the debate itself remained civil and respectful. Members stood up and voices trembling, explained why they could not vote for the bill because it went against their beliefs. Other members, like my seatmate, stood up and talked about her lesbian daughter for the first time ever. She knew that by voting for the bill, she would lose her re-election in the fall. But in her heart, she couldn’t vote any other way but in favor of the bill. When she sat down after her speech, she started to cry. Members from all over the room (and from both sides of the debate) broke protocol and came to her side. It was an amazing display of solidarity and support – showing the world that we wouldn’t stand for the outside tyranny that had invaded our beautiful building.
The bill passed and became the model for other laws across the country and the world. Many members of the legislature lost their re-election bids, including my seatmate. I chose not to run for election that year, deciding instead to move to start my life with Tim and begin our family.
Yesterday, watching the news, the memories of those months came back like a ton of bricks. I don’t care what side of the political debate you fall. None of that mattered to that little nine year old girl Christina Taylor Green. According to news reports, she was at that grocery store to meet Rep. Giffords because she had just become interested in politics. The innocence of this is painful and striking. This young girl, just slightly older than my oldest child, could have found a cure for cancer. Or been President. Or a teacher. Or a mother.
The political left and right will argue for days and months over who is responsible for this tragedy. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s time to change how we treat one another. It’s time to show the same respect and civility that my colleagues did for each other 11 years ago. Because what is the purpose of all the anger if the people we say we’re fighting for aren’t alive to hear it?
“You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one” – Imagine by John Lennon