Low Pay, Weird Schedule: Who Exactly Can Pull Off The Legislator Lifestyle?

Aug 4, 2017

Vermont’s citizen legislators get paid about $12,700 for five months of work. So, if you have a career and/or a family, how do you pull it off?

This is the question that Carl Christianson, of Weathersfield, recently brought to Brave Little StateVPR's people-powered journalism podcast. Carl is a high school teacher, and he and his wife Jolene have two young kids at home, including a newborn daughter. But Carl is also interested in politics — he supports marijuana legalization, and works with the Vermont Cannabis Association.

Carl says he’s thought about running for statewide office, but he doesn’t see how he could make it work.

“It’s not the type of thing I could do right now, because I’d be putting an unfair burden on my wife to care for our children, if I was away from home. And I’d have to be working part time in addition to the government side of things,” Carl says. “It’s just not feasible.”

Question-asker Carl Christianson, of Weathersfield, with his dog Cora.
Credit Courtesy

Carl says a lot of his friends feel this way, too. The whole situation perplexes him.

“I don’t really understand the mechanism that you could be an elected official in this state and still maintain a normal lifestyle, if you needed the income that you earn,” he says.

This also kind of worries Carl. If he can’t make it work, who can? So he posed this question to Brave Little State:

"Vermont lawmakers are in session from January to May. The pay is not enough to live year-round. So are our representatives farmers, or are they rich?" — Carl Christianson, Weathersfield

Who has a schedule that allows them to pick up and move to Montpelier for five months? And who’s able to get by on such low pay for that work? In other words: Are the people who represent Vermonters truly representative of Vermonters?

We kicked off our investigation with a visit to the kitchen of the American Legion Post 5 in Brattleboro. It’s here that Tristan Toleno and his staff prepare food for the catering business that Tristan runs, and the wood-fired pizza business that he co-runs. 

Credit Aaron Shrewsbury

Tristan also happens to be the assistant majority leader — known as the “whip” — in the Vermont House of Representatives.  

On this humid summer day, Tristan is making a gluten-free, vegan potato salad. His three employees are banging around the kitchen, frying chicken and cooking pasta and slicing cheese for a number of upcoming meals.

“This is the way that catering works, is that you never know what a day will be like,” Tristan says. “You think you have a soft day, and then all the sudden it’s a crazy day."

Tristan says it’s not uncommon for him to work on making laws while he’s also making food.

“These guys are used to having me be on a conference call while I’m cooking, or they know I’m in the other room for three hours and you can grab me if you need to, and that kind of thing,” he says.

Tristan Toleno runs a catering business and co-runs a wood-fired pizza business in Brattleboro; he's also the assistant majority leader in the Vermont House.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

And even though representing your community in the Statehouse isn't officially a full-time job, there are still off-season duties.

Like, Tristan Toleno will be cooking pizza at the Brattleboro Farmers Market, and one of his constituents will come up and start talking to him, and he’ll mess up an order.

“The pizza will come out, and there will be no pepperoni on it,” he says. “I’ll have had two of the three right, or something like that — but I’ve done that when I’m talking to people, too.”

Tristan confirmed that Carl’s question is definitely worth asking.

“You have hit the nail on the head, in a really important way,” he said. “I think a lot about that very question. And what does representation look like in the Legislature, and why it matters, and why it matters for the future of Vermont and the future of Vermont democracy.”

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There are a lot of reasons why it matters.

Consider this one: There aren’t too many part-time employees that are called upon to make the decisions that our lawmakers are. What kind of employer asks the temps to write a $5 billion budget, or figure out how to clean up Lake Champlain?

Or think about everything that’s going on in Washington right now. Various forms of federal funding are on the line — and if that money goes away, state lawmakers are going to have to figure out what to do.

These people have a ton of responsibility. And no matter what your politics are, it’s worth considering how the structure of our legislature can influence who even considers running for office in the first place.

Vermont’s citizen legislature

But first, some basic civics. What even is a citizen legislature?

“We do use the term citizen legislature, sometimes amateur legislatures, and it denotes usually those bodies that don’t meet for particularly long sessions and don’t pay their members very well,” says Peverill Squire, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri.

Peverill, who goes by Pev, wrote the book on state legislatures. A lot of books, actually. He’s spent most of his 30-year career studying them.

“We often do among political scientists lament that the American public doesn't really understand structures and process very well,” Pev says. “State legislatures make many important decisions that most of us don’t give them full credit or blame for making. They tend to dictate to a greater degree most of our daily lives than things that happen in Washington, D.C."

But not all state legislatures are the same. Our neighbors to the west, in New York, have what academics like Pev call a “professionalized” legislature, which looks more like the U.S. Congress. Lawmakers in New York make almost $80,000 a year. And then you’ve got our neighbors to the east, in New Hampshire. They have a citizen legislature like ours, but the pay is worse. Like, way worse.

“New Hampshire set its salary at $100 in 1889,” Pev says, “and it has not changed since.”

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Vermont lawmakers, to remind you, make upwards of $12,700. So as far as legislatures go, we’re kind of average. And Pev says that citizen legislatures like ours are thought to have certain benefits:

“The argument that is often made is that of course citizen lawmakers in some sense have to live under the laws they pass to a greater degree than professional lawmakers, who may in some ways be more insulated from their own decisions.”

Here’s the flip side of that argument: “It tends to be skewed in favor of certain groups to the exclusion of other groups.”

Now, you might have heard that Vermont’s legislature was originally structured to allow farmers to hold office. And that’s why our session runs from January through sometime in the late spring, to leave the growing season open. We asked Pev Squire — is this a myth, or is it true?

“There’s probably more truth to it than you might suspect,” he said. “Most legislatures did organize their schedules around the agricultural calendar.”

And here in Vermont, that schedule still makes sense for a very small number of lawmakers.

Rodney Graham, of Williamstown, is one of two farmers left in the Vermont Legislature. During the session, he gets up at 4:30 a.m. every morning to milk his cows before heading to Montpelier.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR

Rep. Rodney Graham

We put Carl’s question (“Are our representatives farmers, or are they rich?”) to one of them: a state representative by the name of Rodney Graham.

“Well, I’m a farmer but I’m not rich,” Rodney said, laughing.

Rodney wears a suit in Montpelier. But here on his farm in Williamstown, he’s got a plaid shirt tucked into his navy blue Dickies. He moves slowly, speaks softly, and works the same dairy farm that his great-grandfather started exactly 100 years ago this summer.

“We’re milking around 60 right now, and we’ve got a total of around 80 milkers,” he says.

Those cows are grass fed jerseys. And they’re grazing the 300 acres that Rodney owns in Williamstown. It’s a stretch of land he knows well.

“Well, I was born in Barre hospital, and been here ever since,” he says. “Always been on the farm.”

Rodney’s one of two farmers left in the Vermont Legislature — he’s in his second term now. He’s 53, and a proud Republican.

"Most of the people that are in the Statehouse, serving, they're either retired, so they're collecting Social Security, or they're self-employed, so that you can arrange to have time off." — Rep. Rodney Graham

“In trying to run a farm business, you can’t keep spending money you don’t have. You’ve got to figure out different ways to do things, be diversified, and you know, there’s not that much of that in Montpelier,” Graham says.

Rodney says he has to be diversified to balance the budget at his farm: “We do maple sugaring, and then I do Vermont vehicle inspections.”

And civil service runs in the family. 

“My father was on the select board, he was on the planning commission," he says. "My mother was the town clerk for a number of years. My nephew now is in the cemetery commission. My wife is currently the town clerk.”

Rodney wakes up at 4:30 a.m. every morning during the session to milk his herd before he heads off to Montpelier. He says he doesn’t have too many colleagues there trying to swing the same challenges.

“Most of the people that are in the Statehouse, serving, they’re either retired, so they’re collecting Social Security, or they're self-employed, so that you can arrange to have time off,” Rodney says. “What you’re missing in the middle is the average working person that doesn’t have a business, is not self-employed ... in order to survive they’ve got to go to work five days a week for 40 hours.

And Rodney says that “average working person” needs a louder voice in the Statehouse.

“They’re the ones that we’re supposed to be helping out the most, so that they can support their families and stay here in the state of Vermont," Rodney says. "And they’re the voices that we don’t hear down there.”

The median age for Vermont senators is 65, while the median age for Vermonters in general is 42.7. Meanwhile, the Vermont Statehouse has the second-highest percentage nationwide of women among its members.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

Statehouse demographics

So, who exactly is serving in the Legislature? Well, we crunched some numbers to see if we could figure that out.

And the results were pretty interesting. Thanks to a rule passed in the Vermont House a couple of years ago, representatives are supposed to file paperwork disclosing their sources of income.

And of the reps who turned in their forms, which was almost everyone, nearly 40 percent said they were retired or had no other meaningful source of income outside their legislative pay.

And then, another 30 percent said they were self-employed.

That means less than a third of representatives have the kind of job that most of us are probably accustomed to. Like, with a boss, where we have to show up on time, and work at least 40 hours, every week.

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We were also curious about lawmakers’ ages. Thankfully, we were able to poach someone else’s work for this one.

Olive Robb is an environmental policy and ecological agriculture student at the University of Vermont. She took a journalism class last spring, and it entailed a reporting trip to the Statehouse, where she was supposed to interview as many lawmakers as she could.

“You know, I was talking to people, and that’s how I started noticing it," she recalls. "I was like, ‘Oh, these are mostly old white guys that are representing our state.’ And that’s how I ended up doing like nine hours of research in one night.”

Olive got online and looked up all 180 lawmakers’ birthdays, then calculated their ages. She says the results confirmed her gut.

“The median age of representatives is 63 in the state of Vermont,” she reports, “and for senators it is 65.”

Meanwhile, the median age of a Vermonter is 42.7 years old, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Which means our lawmakers, as a group, have more than two decades on the population they serve.

After a career in journalism and communications, Annmarie Christensen, of Perkinsville, joined the Vermont House of Representatives.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

Rep. Annmarie Christensen

So, the Statehouse might skew kind of old. But some would tell you it’s less of an old boys' club than it used to be.

“I’m amazed by how many women are there, and by how many young people are there,” says Annmarie Christensen, a first-term House rep who represents Windsor-2. (The district where our question-asker Carl Christianson lives, though the two aren’t related.)

Annmarie is right: Nationwide, Vermont has the second-highest percentage of women in its Statehouse, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And in the 2016 election, a notable number of twenty-somethings won seats in the House.

“So it’s not just older people who are making these laws,” Annmarie says. “There’s a great diversity of opinion.”

Annmarie lives in an 1810 Federal-style home in Perkinsville, which is a village in Weathersfield. Right now she and her partner are having the upstairs bathroom renovated. She moved to Vermont in the mid-'70s, and actually worked at VPR, in our earliest days, and then the Rutland Herald and the Valley News. Then she went into communications, in both global health and domestic health policy.

“That was a great time also, there were all these different phases of my life,” she says.

Annmarie is 68, and she’s retired now. But she says she doesn’t feel retired.

"I've never been so busy in my whole life, being a legislator, even though it's a part-time job." — Rep. Annmarie Christensen

“I think I took nine months off, so that’s not quite the retirement,” she says. “And I’ve never been so busy in my whole life, being a legislator, even though it’s a part-time job — even now, I’m here with you out of session, or I’m talking to constituents.”

That being said, her summer plans do sound pretty relaxing:

“I am taking a train across the Canadian Rockies, and that’ll be a lot of fun. Probably go to Maine for a long weekend here or there. Gardening, beating off the woodchuck in the garden.”

And in terms of finances, Annmarie says she’s in a good position in her retirement.

“Not a lot of money," she says. "I’m not in the 1 percent, by any means.”

She says she’s living off of income from various sources — mostly investments she’s made over the course of her life. She’s also pulling from Social Security. As for her salary as a lawmaker, Annmarie says she has no problem with it — that, or the legislative schedule.

“I think you work a little faster in a citizen legislature," she says. "I think ultimately if you had more time, you would just be debating it over and over again as I saw toward the end of session.”

But Annmarie definitely seems to take her responsibilities seriously. And she says the work is a lot harder than she thought it was, back when she was a reporter.

“Some of the people that I covered, I thought, I certainly could make wiser decisions than they’re making right now," she says. "It’s been humbling.”

It’s demanding work. And Annmarie says she doesn’t know how her colleagues with kids and careers do it.

“There are some freshmen who are probably in their late thirties, early forties, have a family, have young children, and a full-time job on top of that, and they’re legislators. I just can’t imagine how they can do that,” she says. “But then I say they’re probably a lot younger than I am, so that’s probably the answer."

Wannabes and dropouts

This citizen legislature concept might work for Annmarie. But the fact is, the legislative schedule in Vermont does not work for a lot of other would-be candidates. Especially younger ones, like 23-year-old Becca White.

Becca lives in Hartford, where she’s already one of the youngest select board members in all of Vermont. But, what the Democrat would really love to do is serve in the state Legislature.

“I’ve always kind of had this vision of being in the Statehouse, being able to help shape policy,” she says.

Here’s the rub, for Becca:

“The first barrier is that financial piece. It’s, can I take off work, and if I take off work will I be able to supplement the lack of income while I’m not working with the income from being in the Statehouse?”

That financial piece also worries Brittany Nevins. Brittany is 25, passionate about policy, and thinks that voices like hers are sorely underrepresented in Montpelier.

But, like Becca, she’s says it’s tough to imagine getting by on less than $13,000 for half a year’s work.

“So just looking at that salary for that six months of service, my rent to income ratio would be about 60 percent,” she says.

That means six out of every 10 dollars Brittany would make as a lawmaker would be going toward an apartment in Chittenden County that she’d barely be using.

“So you can see right there that I’m putting myself at financial risk when thinking about running for office,” she says.

And then you’ve got folks who did take that risk, and then decided they had to give up their seats after realizing holding office is just too overwhelming.

"I think the current structure of the schedule and the salary definitely does limit the variety of Vermonters that can serve." — Teo Zagar, former state representative

Teo Zagar was 33 when he entered the Legislature. He runs a media company in Barnard, but he thought he’d be able to balance that with service in Montpelier. He couldn’t.

“I eventually after five years sort of got to a point where it was just too difficult to do both jobs, because in the media world in Vermont it’s sort of feast or famine. You really have to hustle to get jobs, or raise money to make your own work,” Teo says.

It was the Legislature or the job for Teo, so he decided to leave the Legislature.

“I was reluctant to step away from it,” he says. “I didn’t really want to. But I didn’t really see how I could do that while trying to have viable small business on the side.

“I think the current structure of the schedule and the salary definitely does limit the variety of Vermonters that can serve.”

Teo’s story helps explain why Vermont’s three major political parties often have to have to beg, plead and prod to find people to run for office. Here’s Becca White again:

“You know, you’re laying on your sword to be a state representative, you have to be pushed into it. You’re so valiant for serving. And unfortunately, that just doesn’t work for most people.”

‘Way harder than I thought it would be’

There’s a saying in Montpelier that every legislative cycle is as much work as getting a master’s degree.

“As the whip I sort of have these conversations with people — how are you doing, what can we help you with, what’s going on in your life?” says Tristan Toleno, the caterer-slash-majority-whip.

“And as the session was winding down, I went to a number of new members — we had 24 new Democrats [this year] — and I said, 'I want you to know that it’s OK that you come to the conclusion that this is way harder than you thought it would be.' And every single one of them said, ‘It is way harder than I thought it would be.’

“And so there’s no question that to serve in the Vermont Legislature is to serve Vermont and to be committed to service. Because if you’re not, it’s a terrible, terrible career move,” Tristan says, laughing. “Basically, like, it makes no sense. It especially makes no sense for somebody mid-career."

"There's no question that to serve in the Vermont Legislature is to serve Vermont and to be committed to service. Because if you're not, it's a terrible, terrible career move." — Rep. Tristan Toleno

Somebody like our question-asker, Carl.

Now, nobody we talked to thinks citizen legislatures are going away anytime soon — including Pev Squire, the guy who studies this stuff.

“I would be at this moment a little bit — well I guess probably the best way to put it is pessimistic that we're going to put much in the way of resources into any of our governing institutions,” Pev says.

But at the same time, it feels like the stakes are just getting higher and higher.

“I think we're at a point where we're going to have to figure out what it is we want these state legislatures to do,” Pev says. “We're asking them to make more and more decisions and more and more complicated decisions particularly as Washington finds it very difficult for members of Congress to agree on policy."

The next campaign season will come along soon enough. And we’ll spend a lot of time talking about people running for office, and what they want to do. But Pev Squire says we should also think about the system they’ll be working in.

“We don't spend a lot of time contemplating what it is we ask them to do once they get elected,” he says. “And it is a more complicated job than people understand.”

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio, and we have support from the VPR Journalism Fund. Our editor is Lynne McCrea and our theme music is by Ty Gibbons. Other music in this episode was used under a Creative Commons license:

Correction 1:33 p.m. 8/11/17  The original version of this story estimated lawmakers' annual salaries at $12,000; the correct figure is $12,732 ($707.36 per week for 18 weeks of budgeted work). We do not include the per diem that lawmakers are provided. (Member receive $115 for lodging if a room is rented. Members also receive $74 for meals, regardless of whether they stay overnight or not.)