PROFILE: State Senator Bill Doyle: Honoring the Past — Embracing the Future

by Nat Frothingham

Bill Doyle holds a portrait of his mother. Photo by Michael Jermyn

Bill Doyle holds a portrait of his mother. Photo by Michael Jermyn

As a nation we voted for change Nov.   8.

Now, we’ve got it — the turbulence, confusion and dizzy change we wanted: Donald Trump in the White House, the U.S. Congress, both House and Senate, controlled by Republican majorities, and here in Vermont, yes, a different reality, but a new governor, a new Speaker of the House, new players running the Senate and new people both here and in Washington, D.C.

On Dec. 30 and 31, just as the year was about to turn, I caught up with State Senator Bill Doyle and together we hunkered down in the basement office of his home on Murray Road in Montpelier.

Doyle, now 90, is leaving the Vermont Senate after a spectacular political career. In 1966 he first ran for the House and lost by 50 votes. Two years later, he ran for the Vermont Senate and won and he kept running and winning. All-told, Doyle was first elected and re-elected 24 times and served Washington County in the Vermont Senate for 48 years.

As we talked together in his basement office, I had my list of political questions and we’ll get to those, but first I wanted to know how to account for a Bill Doyle.

On our first visit to Murray Road, we were there to take pictures and soon enough we were looking at a wall of Doyle’s family photos and portraits.

One of those portraits was an oil painting of Doyle’s mother, a young woman 16 years of age. Irene was her given name but she was called Rene (pronounced Ree-nee).

On the same wall, in another place was a photograph of Doyle’s father, Larry Doyle. It was an outdoor photo when he was a young man — tall, slender, athletic — standing on the first wooden rail of a country fence with a bunch of grapes in one hand, friendly and smiling.

When I asked Doyle to tell me about his earliest memory of politics, he said, “The quick story is that my father was either mayor or on the council of Sea Girt, New Jersey for 30 years and I worked on two or three of his campaigns and walked around the community. Sea Girt is a small town with a current population of 1,800, about 60 miles south of New York City.”

Doyle’s mother was also politically active. Said Doyle, “My mother was very conversant on the issues and I would listen to my mother and father talking about the decisions that were going to be made as it related to his office. She also loved people and parties and was the person people turned to — to organize events to raise money for the Heart Fund or the Cancer Society.

“When I was in high school,” Doyle related, “we were assigned reports and I wrote a report about Henry Clay the great political thinker, legislator and statesman from Kentucky.”

When Doyle and I got to that part of our conversation where we talked about Donald Trump’s astonishing Nov. 8 upset victory in the recent presidential election — both he and I shared a personal memory of Harry Truman’s 1948 upset victory over New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey.

Doyle’s memory comes from his time when he was an undergraduate at Princeton.

Doyle holds a photo of his father, Larry. Photo by Michael Jermyn

Doyle holds a photo of his father, Larry. Photo by Michael Jermyn

My memory comes from childhood. In 1948 I was a nine-year-old child growing up in Chicago. But I was reading newspapers and following politics. At the time, the big daily papers and national magazines were solidly convinced that Dewey would beat Truman handily. And when the redoubtable Chicago Tribune brought out its first edition after the polls closed on Election Day, The Tribune published what became an unforgettable headline that screamed “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

I was just a kid but I remember how shocked people were to learn the day after the election as more results poured in that Truman, in fact, had defeated Dewey in a presidential election so close it was decided by a margin of less than 1 percent of the popular vote in three states — Ohio, Illinois and California. Had even one of those states gone for Dewey, Truman would have lost the election.

Doyle was a history major at Princeton University during the 1948 presidential election. He had a special reason to remember that 1948 upset. “I was 21 or 22 at the time,” said Doyle, “and my adviser bet on Truman with 20 to 1 odds. He bet $20 and got $400 back which made him a pretty happy fellow.”

Doyle graduated from Princeton in 1949. Then he took a master’s and a doctoral degree from Columbia University and in 1958, he and his wife Olene moved up to Vermont when Doyle started teaching at Johnson State College.

Doyle remembers how as outsiders he and his wife were received. “My wife and I had only lived here for a few days when we realized that people were so outgoing and generous and treated us so well that we felt comfortable here from the beginning and that we said, ‘This is where we want to live.”

When asked about his enduring popularity with Washington County voters who repeatedly sent him back to the Vermont Senate, he said, “I think the popularity is because I like people and I enjoy spending time talking to people. I never end any conversation. In other words, I’m available.”

As powerful as listening and talking and being available were with Doyle, he had other attributes as well. As a state senator it didn’t matter to him if you were an academic or a laborer, a mechanic of a professional, Doyle was ready to talk and listen to anyone.

Political Questions

I asked Doyle to identify the major changes he had seen at the legislature during his almost 50 years of service.

The first big change he identified was the epic legislative battle over reapportionment, a struggle between those who wanted to perpetuate a Vermont House that was shockingly undemocratic and those who favored a reformed House that adhered to the principle of “one-person-one-vote.”

Before 1965, the Vermont House was a large, even a sprawling chamber, with 246 members based on one House member for each Vermont town.

But the towns were very different. Some were large and others were very small. This paragraph from the website of the Vermont Secretary of State sums up the situation.

In 1963, the 38 residents (of the southern Vermont mountain town) of Stratton had one representative in the House as did the 35,531 residents of Burlington. A House majority could be achieved by representatives from towns holding only 9 percent of Vermont’s population. Conversely, Vermont’s 22 largest municipalities were represented by less than 9 percent of the House members. Those 22 communities also paid 64 percent of the State’s income tax and over half of the property tax.

This patently unacceptable situation cried out for change and under pressure from the federal court system on May 17, 1965 the House voted 163 to 62 to reapportion itself and Senate approval followed. As reapportioned, the number of representatives in the House was cut from 245 to 150 employing a system of representative districts.

Although the climax of the epic battle to reform the House took place in May 1965 — the reapportionment issue didn’t immediately go away. It had to be implemented not just for the Vermont House but for the Vermont Senate. Doyle was elected in 1968 and served for 10 years on the Senate Government Operations Committee and was in the thick of it throughout.

More Changes

Another big change that Doyle noted was more women running and serving the Legislature. “It’s just simply based on fairness,” he said. “If you have a (state) constitution that talks about equality, and so on, how could you not include women?”

Then over time the voting public demanded a commitment to environmental legislation. This public demand consistently showed up in answers from 15,000 Vermont voters to Doyle’s Town Meeting questionnaire.

And Doyle played a key role in getting legislation that abandoned the party caucus system in favor of primary elections. The old caucus system often saw a few people getting together in one room to nominate candidates for local and state office.

One issue that Doyle fought for but never achieved was the Vermont struggle to pass a campaign finance law. The campaign finance law was enacted in Vermont but challenged in the federal courts. Eventually that challenge worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court where the campaign finance law was stopped. “The courts said that freedom of speech is more important than money disparity,” Doyle said. But he disagreed, saying, “How can you have a democratic system when a person with skill and ability can be bypassed by PACs and huge accumulations of money?”

I next asked Doyle why he thought Phil Scott was elected governor on Nov. 8.

“Well, first of all,” said  Doyle, “the two major candidates were good people. Sue Minter and Phil Scott are good people.”

Then Doyle went on to share his personal impressions of Scott.

“For 10 years,” said Doyle, “he and I served in the Senate together. So I can evaluate his performance. He’s very thoughtful, he’s gracious and he listens carefully.”

“I’ll tell you a story,” said Doyle clearly enjoying himself.

“It’s six in the morning at Mazza’s Store in Colchester and an early customer comes in and says, ‘Who’s that person in the corner mopping the floor?”

And Mazza says, “He’s your lieutenant-governor.”

Of course the Lieutenant-Governor mopping the floor was Phil Scott and he was at Mazza’s Store as part of an outreach effort to travel across the state and visit and work at 60 to 70 Vermont businesses. Scott wanted to experience how these businesses work and what they’re up against.

But back to Donald Trump’s improbable win, I asked Doyle what Trump’s victory was telling us.

Doyle, who did not vote for Trump, said, “People are upset. There was a large turnout. There’s a loss of confidence in the electoral process in many cases — and lost jobs. Some people who had good union jobs at high pay making $30 to $40 per hour lost those jobs. When they went to look for work the only jobs they could get were as a clerk in a store or driving a delivery truck and their wages were badly cut. Some of them lost homes or had to move. Others lost their respect. So the stage was set for change. It was a ‘change’ election.”

I asked Doyle what he would say to people who are apprehensive, even fearful, about the new Trump administration.

“Well, I recognize that many people feel that way,” Doyle said, “and they should be respected. Other people I talk to are saying, ‘Let’s see what happens in the first couple of months.’ I’m not willing to say that the new administration is doomed from the start,” he added.

Two Joyful Pursuits

In closing, Doyle spoke with delight about two pursuits that have given him real pleasure.

He talked about his experience of chairing a committee for nine eastern American states as part of the Council of State Governments and of getting Canadian legislative counterparts to join in. Canadian and American legislators worked together to resolve critical cross-border issues.

Of all that Doyle has done since he moved to Vermont, nothing was more important to him than his work with Johnson State College students. Said Doyle, “It’s been the joy of my life to be able to teach at Johnson State College and see some of my students in legislative positions.”

He reckons, conservatively, that 40-odd of his students have run for seats in the Vermont Legislature. “When I see a student show an interest in anything, I say, “Why don’t you pursue that interest?”

And Doyle’s students have responded. As the new legislative session convenes, six of Doyle’s students are taking their seats in the Vermont House and Senate. But his message is bigger than just getting his Johnson State College students into the legislature. It’s about encouraging students to participate, to get involved. Said Doyle, “When I hear people speak in classes and show a lot of enthusiasm for politics, I say, ‘Why don’t you run for the local school board, run for office, serve on a committee not related to politics? Just get active.”