The annual election of the Statehouse sergeant-at-arms doesn’t usually carry much drama. But there was plenty of intrigue on Thursday, when lawmakers ousted longtime incumbent Francis Brooks in favor of his challenger, Janet Miller.
There aren’t too many people in the Statehouse who have been there longer than Brooks. He arrived in the building in 1983, as a freshman Democratic lawmaker from Montpelier. Six years later, he became the first African American House majority leader.
And after a quarter century of lawmaking, Brooks gave up his political title in favor of a new one – sergeant-at-arms.
“I mean Francis has been a dedicated public servant, as a legislator, as a member of the community in Montpelier,” said Rep. Paul Poirier, a Barre City Independent.
By Thursday morning, Poirier was one of the few cheerleaders left for a man who saw his status erode precipitously over the last couple weeks.
Brooks has served as sergeant-at-arms since 2007, overseeing daily operations inside the Statehouse, and commanding the six-officer Capitol Police Department. But security concerns that rose in the wake of Statehouse protests last month would prove to be Brooks’ undoing.
Rutland Sen. Peg Flory helped lead the campaign for Janet Miller, who already works inside the building, as deputy director of operations for the Legislative Council. Flory said security-minded lawmakers aren’t looking to restrict access to the building. But she says they lack basic emergency protocols in case of a fire, or an armed intruder.
“What exit do we use? Where is a meeting place? What is the plan?” Flory said.
Flory said pleas for better emergency preparedness seemed to fall on deaf ears.
“We’ve been asking about these issues for well over a year,” Flory said. “So it’s time to stop asking and time to do something.”
Brooks left the building immediately after the lopsided vote against him Thursday morning – he lost by a count of 47-128. But the day before the vote, he says it was only recently that lawmakers began voicing any displeasure with his performance in the office.
“It would have been a lot better and more legitimate if those concerns would have been brought up at a time when they may have been corrected prior to a few days before the new election,” Brooks said.
Miller will take over for Brooks on March 1. Miller said that while she has an extensive understanding of how the building runs, she doesn’t have any expertise in security issues. But she said she plans to enlist lawmakers and outside experts to come up with a plan that puts lawmakers’ mind at ease, without restricting access to what she said is the "people’s house."
“So now that I have the job, I’m going to be looking at all things, and talking to the joint committees, and figuring out what we need to do, what might be lacking, what might be our strengths, and I hope to do a good job,” Miller said.
Poirier said the Brooks was the victim of a coup orchestrated by a select group of lawmakers. And he called it an underhanded way to dispatch with a person who had devoted decades of his life to service inside the building.
“You had committee chairs who went around and pulled their members and tried to influence them … to vote against Francis,” Poirier said.
The job pays about $64,000 per year, less than what Miller makes in her legislative job right now. Miller says she plans to try to negotiate a salary increase.