Of Which People? By Which People? For Which People?

It’s official. With yesterday’s election, I’m headed to Montpelier to represent the Chittenden 15 district in the Vermont House of Representatives. In my most recent blog post I shared reflections on what it has been like to run as an uncontested candidate and some thoughts on the industry that has evolved to corrupt the campaign process. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to represent our district and I look forward to finding accessible methods to both keep you informed and to listen to your input (this blog being one way). Before I begin in January, I want to share a few more thoughts on what it takes to make this work from the perspective of our household budget.

Marianne and I are privileged to own a home (built on colonized land) in Burlington and to hold secure jobs. Our household income is well beyond the average for Vermont and this allows us the flexibility to maintain that home with upgrades, to travel, to contribute to each of our daughters’ weddings (one recent, one upcoming), and to enjoy all that our area offers for arts and entertainment. I am grateful to have a supportive partner who is the primary wage earner that allows me to consider this opportunity to serve in the legislature. I’ll see no interruption to health insurance coverage and, with some creativity, our household income should remain where it has been for the past few years.

Nonetheless I want to highlight the steps I’ve had to take and some sacrifices I’ll be making in order to pursue this opportunity. I acknowledge my financial privilege first in order to punctuate that I am not listing these sacrifices with any hope or need for praise. Rather, I want us all to begin to consider and find solutions so that the opportunity is truly available to everyone. If we’re only being represented by people who can afford to serve, we are truly not of, by, or for all of us. We are not truly representative government.

The Vermont Legislative Leave statute requires any employer to grant legislative leave to an employee who would need to leave that position in order to serve in the General Assembly. Additionally, that leave “shall not cause loss of job status, seniority, or the right to participate in insurance and other employee benefits during the leave of absence”. While this clearly identifies expectations of employers, I am certain not all employers would embrace an employee who expresses their intention to run for elected office with enthusiasm or unconditional support. I am grateful to work for a Director at the University of Vermont who immediately offered her advocacy for my decision to run with both enthusiasm and support. I am equally grateful to my co-workers within a small department who will graciously accommodate my absence for the spring semester.

Currently, legislative salaries total $742.92 per week during session. That’s less than what I make in my UVM job. It’s less than what most people make at $18.57 per hour (calculated for a 40 hour week). In order to keep our household income stable, I will not be taking a full leave from UVM. Instead, I’ll be working 10 hour days on Mondays at UVM and then an hour or two each day after the House is in session from Tuesdays through Fridays. I have always prioritized a work-life balance and this will be a significant departure from those priorities.

Additionally, meetings with the rest of the Progressive caucus have already begun. Because I ran unopposed, we’ve been able to begin the work of drafting our platform and our approach to the pending session. This, obviously, is unpaid work. I spoke in my last post about the privilege of not needing to “campaign” in the true sense of the word. However, many of my legislative partners are just now ending long, hard-earned campaigns – this is also unpaid labor. Consider who can truly afford to take that much time away from jobs and family in order to secure the opportunity to become a representative voice in Montpelier. Again, how representative are the systems we are building if only those who can afford to be there are those that are also drafting the rules?

On October 3rd, more than a month prior to Election Day, I received an e-mail that was sent to all candidates who would become new legislators asking that I block my calendar for four days at the end of November for new member orientation. I’ll be taking four vacation days from UVM in order to attend this orientation. The orientation is unpaid. If I worked a non-salaried position that did not offer vacation days, this would require me to forfeit 80% of my pay for that week. My guess is that you already hold opinions on employers who hire people and then require them to complete an unpaid orientation prior to beginning paid employment. Those opinions should currently apply to the Vermont Legislature. Please keep this in mind when you learn that I will be in full support of legislation to improve employment salaries and benefits for legislators. It’s always tricky to vote on legislation that will improve your own personal conditions. My viewpoint is that I am about to be in a position to create a system that may become more open to those who, currently, could not even begin to consider whether or not to run.

When we talk about structural and systemic inequity, this is just one example that relates to socio-economic class. Power and privilege will always seek to preserve itself and we have an obligation to interrupt that where and when we can. Access is equity. Who has a seat at the table matters. I intend to broaden access and to interrupt inequity however possible. As always, I welcome your input if you have ideas for how I can continue that interruption in ways that align with your own values. I’ll have a legislative e-mail soon enough. In the meantime, reach out via this web form to contact me.