Bill Doyle Retires From JSC, Having Left Lasting Impression On Students — And Vt. Politics

May 18, 2018

The longest serving state senator in Vermont history has now retired from his day job.

After teaching political science at Johnson State College for 60 years, former state Sen. Bill Doyle retired earlier this month.

Doyle also had a legislative career that spanned nearly five decades, and he is probably best known for being the author of the Doyle Town Meeting Day survey.

For almost 50 years he's been asking Vermonters how they feel about a broad range of issues. While not a scientific survey, he often gets responses from as many as 15,000 people.

"Well, let me say how it started — the year was 1969," Doyle told VPR in 2014. "At the time I always thought that income tax was fairer, but I said, 'Why don't I ask the people in Washington County?'"

Doyle was a freshman senator from Washington County in 1969 when then-Gov. Deane Davis proposed a tax increase to deal with the state's fiscal crisis.

Bill Doyle is pictured here with responses he received from the 2009 Town Meeting Day survey. He has been collecting responses for his annual survey for almost 50 years.
Credit Toby Talbot / Associated Press

So Doyle surveyed his constituents to see if they favored using the income tax or supported creating a new state sales tax to close the budget deficit.

By a 2-to-1 margin, his constituents chose the sales tax and Doyle voted for it that winter.

He says he enjoyed getting direct feedback from voters, so in 1970 he launched a survey with several questions on it and he's continued to seek the opinion of Vermonters ever since.

Doyle was elected to 24 terms in a career that spanned 48 years.

One of his biggest priorities was to take steps to maintain a citizens' legislature. He was concerned that Vermont's legislative process would develop into a full-time professional system — a trend that had taken place in a number of other states.

Doyle was worried that long sessions would lead to a professional legislature.

So, in the 1980s, he proposed that lawmakers get paid for a set period of time and would receive no further salary if the session went into overtime.

Doyle made the argument as then-chairman of the Senate Government Operations committee: "The intention of this committee is to make sure that legislators are paid for the 17 weeks which we understood and then anything after that, there would be no pay — except expenses."

The plan was not successful, but Doyle continued to pursue ways to enhance citizen involvement in the legislative process.

More from VPR — How The Doyle Town Meeting Survey Came To Be [March 4, 2014]

Doyle also worried about the influence that lobbyists could have on the Legislature, so he sponsored a bill that called for the disclosure of lobbyist expenses.

The bill became law. At the time, Doyle said voters had a right to know how lobbyists were spending money to influence legislation: "It's useful for a citizen to know if $50,000 or $100,000 is being spent to get a piece of legislation through the Legislature."

And if you like Vermont's open primary system, you can probably thank Doyle for taking steps to keep it alive over the years.

Vermont is a state with no party registration. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a big push by the state's political parties to change this system. They wanted to make certain that only people who were officially registered as a member of a party could vote in that party's primary.

Doyle strongly opposed the change, and the open primary remains in place in Vermont today.

This Jan. 30, 1986 file photo shows state Sen. Bill Doyle, left, after the vote passed to raise Vermont's legal drinking age to 21. Doyle was first elected to the Vermont Senate in 1968 and re-elected 23 times, but lost his re-election bid in November 2016.
Credit Donna Light / Associated Press File

Doyle also worked hard to change Vermont's presidential primary from what was known as as "a non binding beauty contest" vote to one where official delegates were selected.

"People will know from now on that this binding primary will count — their vote, people's vote will count. It's voter empowerment," Doyle said at the time.

Doyle had a reputation for being a tireless campaigner. It's said that he tried to visit every chicken pot pie supper in Washington County during the election season and could be seen at virtually every public event.

Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Jeb Spaulding served with Doyle for 16 years in the Vermont Senate.

Spaulding first thought that Doyle was campaigning hard because he was worried about losing his seat.

"Eventually it became clear that Bill Doyle loved people," Spaulding said. "He liked being out and around. He liked talking to people with different perspectives, and he just loved being out with the people. And I think that rubbed off and people loved him too."

More from VPR — State Sen. Bill Doyle Reflects On His 48 Years In The Vermont Legislature [Dec. 9, 2016]

Over the years, Doyle has taught thousands of students at Johnson State college.

A number of them have gone on to run for public office. By one account, 80 students have sought office and 40 of them have been successful.

The are eight current members of the Vermont Legislature who are former Doyle students.

One of the them is Washington County Sen. Anthony Pollina, who took many of Doyle's classes in the mid-1970s and says Doyle encouraged him to get involved in Vermont politics.

From left, Sen. Bill Doyle, Sen. Anthony Pollina and Sen. Ann Cumings back in January 2012. Doyle was one of Pollina's professors at Johnson State College before the two served together in the Vermont Legislature.
Credit Toby Talbot / Associated Press

When Pollina was elected to the Senate, the professor and the student sat in the back row of the Vermont Senate.

Pollina recalls addressing the Senate on the occasion of one of Doyle's birthdays.

"And I stood up and I said, 'Whether you like it or not, Bill Doyle is probably the main reason why I'm here today in the Senate,'" Pollina recalled. "Because he was the one who really opened my eyes to the possibility of engaging in politics at that level."

Enosburg Falls Rep. Cindy Weed is another one of Doyle's students. She took his classes six years ago and remembers him as a hands-on professor who opened up the political process to his students.

"I think it demystified what maybe it might be like down here — he's a great inspiration," Weed said. "The class was fun and you learned. And he demanded a lot from you, also. He read every word that every one of us wrote."

Essex Junction Rep. Dylan Giambatista is a recent student who remembers Doyle as being a valuable mentor to many of his students.

"I think he identified in me an idealism and an interest in history, in politics, in civic involvement, that he could see connections to the real issues that are going on in Vermont," Giambatista said. "So I attribute my political interest to Bill Doyle."

Doyle just celebrated his 92nd birthday. And despite the fact that he lost his re-election bid in 2016, he says he hopes to remain active in Vermont politics.