Backstage At The Weed Vote: 'Squishy' People And The Ceremonial Office

Feb 24, 2016

An unknown outcome is a rare occurrence when debate begins in the Vermont Senate, but it remained unclear Wednesday afternoon as senators took to the floor to consider legalizing marijuana if they would, in fact, vote to advance it.

“I honestly don’t know,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears said ahead of the vote. “We’ve got a few squishy people.”

In the end, 16 senators prevailed over 13 members who opposed legalization. The preliminary vote Wednesday to advance the legislation to a final vote came after a flurry of activity in the Statehouse by Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin and others who were trying to win every potential vote.

Shumlin hunkered down in his ceremonial office Wednesday morning just down the hallway from the Senate chamber. Shumlin, who called for legalization in his State of the State address last month, took a hands-on approach to the issue. He followed the debate in his office with Chief of Staff Darren Springer and spokesman Scott Coriell.

Some senators were ushered into the office before the vote to hear the governor’s final appeal.

One, Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, in her first term, was a potential vote targeted by the governor. After hearing Shumlin’s pitch, Balint opted to buck the governor and vote against the measure because it did not include an option for Vermonters to grow their own marijuana, something her constituents made clear they want.

“It was a tough one for me,” she said. “I had to really think long and hard about it but I think I did the right thing for the constituents back home.”

Balint said the governor’s appeal featured “a couple things, some of which I don’t feel comfortable sharing for a variety of reasons.” In general, though, Shumlin made the case that another opportunity to legalize marijuana may be years in the future if the bill failed now.

“The general sense was, ‘Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. This possibility may not come again any time soon,’ and that if I want legalization and I want a regulated market that it’s better to have something, a bill that’s flawed, than to have no bill at all,” Balint said.

“For me, I have to be able to look myself in the mirror and say, ‘Did I listen deeply to the people back home and did I represent them in a way that I felt good about?’ I thought long and hard,” she added.

Balint was also the target of other advocates on both sides of the issue, but stuck with her position without knowing whether hers was the decisive vote.

“I was told repeatedly I was the 15th vote — repeatedly, by members of my party, by various advocates. Of course, you put it through a filter because you just don’t know and you don’t know what’s going to happen on the floor,” she said. “No, I didn’t know I had a cushion, which is a hard place to be in. I’ve had a very stressful day.”

The debate on Wednesday — and vote — was enabled, largely, by two veteran senators on different sides of the issue.

Sears advocated for and employed a “go slow” approach in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which initiated work on the bill. That was his condition when Gov. Peter Shumlin approached him last fall with a request to help usher a legalization bill through the Senate.

“I talked to him last fall about his desire to have a bill and I told him at the time I wasn’t sure how I would vote. I said I would keep an open mind but you can’t count on my vote. He always knew in the back of his mind … because of the makeup of (the Judiciary Committee) that he would have the votes,” Sears said.

As his committee delved deeper into the issue, Sears became a supporter — as long as homegrown pot was not involved. The committee’s work was kept in tact as it traveled through the Senate Finance and Senate Appropriations Committees. Sears, a one-time skeptic of legalization, became a helpful advocate for Shumlin.

“He’s talked to different senators, which he always does,” Sears said. “He and I have been in communication frequently.”

Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, the chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, voted against the bill on the floor Wednesday — after casting a crucial vote to advance it out of her committee. She, too, made a promise to the governor.

“I told him that the bill would not be killed here,” Kitchel said. “I’ve talked to him and I made a commitment and I assured him that it would come out of committee. I could have killed it, you know that, and I didn’t.”

Kitchel did not face the onslaught that Balint did, however, perhaps due to her veteran status.

“I haven’t felt enormously pressure, partly, I suspect, because people know I have my own way of making decisions and it’s very deliberative and sometime slow, but just pressuring me on one side or the other won’t influence my decisions. They left me mercilessly alone,” Kitchel said. “I know how the governor feels. The bill did come out of here. I felt that with the work of two committees … that it warranted a full debate and a full vote on the floor.”

There was an effort to win more support put forth by those opposed to the bill, too.

Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, casually roamed the halls of the Statehouse Wednesday speaking to fellow senators about his concerns.

“A little bit, not much,” he admitted ahead of the vote. “You’re not going to sway anyone. I think they’ve all decided how they’re going to vote.”

That didn’t stop the Transportation Committee chairman from trying, of course. He had made no secret of his opposition to legalization based on transportation-related concerns.

“I just said some of the issues I ran across in Transportation, some of the things that we aren’t ready for. That’s all,” Mazza said. “We have our own personal views, but on the other hand, we also have to look out for the safety that’s front and center in Vermont. So, just make sure that we heard that testimony.”

Mazza, another veteran, wasn’t summoned by the governor, either.

“The governor hasn’t talked to me,” he said. “I’m not invited to the Christmas party.”

This story originally appeared at the Vermont Press Bureau, and was republished here through a partnership with the bureau.