Editor’s note: This commentary is by Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning, R-Caledonia.
In 1969, in a place far away, a young student in Mrs. Nelson’s sixth grade class wandered the school library in search of a book. The assignment was to make a book report. Most of his classmates searched the current events section. The Vietnam War, race riots, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and man’s first moon landing provided plenty for inspiration. But this particular student, born 15 years to the day after Pearl Harbor, preferred history. In the dark and dusty rows describing America’s growth, a bright orange book stood out.
It was a fictional history on the life of Ethan Allen. It portrayed Allen growing up as fiercely independent, self-reliant, loyal to his friends, kind to those in need, frugal, and quick to challenge things he found unjust. His drive to create a place of like-minded individuals, now called “Vermont,” sparked a yearning to learn more. It was the most life-transforming book I’ve ever read. I swallowed Vermont hook, line and sinker.
Vermont State Sen. Graham Stiles Newell subsequently introduced me to a Statehouse dominated by Republicans who mirrored what I’d been learning about. People like John Boylan, Walter Kennedy, Cola Hudson, Leland Simpson, Bill Doyle, Bob Gannett, Chuck Gibson, Thomas Crowley, Robert Bloomer and Gerald Morse. They worked with young idealists like Madeleine Kunin and blue-dog Democrats like Francis Howrigan, but when differences arose they held their ground with civility and respect.
A Democrat/Progressive machine, now under siege from an unprecedented number of special interest groups, currently dominates our Statehouse. Evidence is mounting that attention is being diverted from basic responsibilities. Witness the deterioration of small towns, shuttered businesses along the Connecticut River, lost millions in tax dollars chasing unattainable proposals, a 25 percent loss in home child care capacity from onerous regulations, a bond rating downgrade as rising pension liabilities meet a shrinking work force, parents and taxpayers feeling disenfranchised from their children’s school systems. A growing divide between rural and urban Vermonters, rich and poor, employers and employees, different factions of environmentalists, and native Vermonters and newcomers, suggests Vermont desperately needs a counter balance.
The Vermont Republican Party can be that counter weight, but only with a sufficient number of legislators elected to provide it. That will require a sufficient number of Vermonters willing to cast their votes in our direction. But surveys show the majority of Vermonters reject the image of hate, bigotry and nationalistic paranoia that many attribute to the national party. They will never rally around candidates spewing doom and gloom with words like “libtard, snowflake or democRAT” to define the other side. We clearly have work to do.
We should start by remembering who we are. Our party was born to eliminate slavery and hold a divided Union together. Our state party platform offers a stabilizing rudder in stormy policy seas. We produce statesmen like George Aiken. We recall with pride the courageous moral character of Ralph Flanders, standing up in a time of national hysteria against the Red Scare of McCarthyism. We cherish leaders with great business acumen, like Richard Snelling, Jim Douglas and Phil Scott. We championed gender inclusion with the nation’s first elected female lieutenant governor: Consuelo Bailey. The integrity of Ernest Gibson, Barbara Snelling, John Bloomer, John Carroll, Diane Snelling and Robert Ide still exists within our ranks.
Vermont Republicans believe in the concepts of individual liberty, personal responsibility, a government limited by constitutional parameters and a tax burden that doesn’t outweigh the ability of citizens to earn a good living. We have a responsibility to help those in need, but don’t wish to create a populace that constantly depends on government. We adhere to the principles of justice, moderation, industry and frugality as set forth in our State Constitution. We believe our environment is critical, and point to Republicans like Deane Davis and Jim Jeffords who never wavered in protecting it. We believe our future depends completely on a strong educational system, and point to Republicans like Bob Stafford and Justin Morrill who had the vision to understand that.
I cling to the hope that we can regain the trust of Vermonters by standing for these principles. Mrs. Nelson, God rest your soul, I believe that completes my book report.