Retiring Windsor County state senator honored for three decades of service

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, of Bethel, 76, signals his thanks after a resolution honoring his 31 years of service in the Senate was read at the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt., on Friday, May 10, 2024. McCormack was first appointed to his seat in 1989 by Gov. Madeleine Kunin and will not seek reelection this year. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, of Bethel, 76, signals his thanks after a resolution honoring his 31 years of service in the Senate was read at the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt., on Friday, May 10, 2024. McCormack was first appointed to his seat in 1989 by Gov. Madeleine Kunin and will not seek reelection this year. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, of Bethel, 76, listens to his colleagues on the floor of the Senate in Montpelier, Vt., on the final day of the session, Friday, May 14, 2024. After starting in committee meetings at 9 a.m., senators did not complete their work until after 1 a.m. on Saturday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, of Bethel, 76, listens to his colleagues on the floor of the Senate in Montpelier, Vt., on the final day of the session, Friday, May 14, 2024. After starting in committee meetings at 9 a.m., senators did not complete their work until after 1 a.m. on Saturday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, of Bethel, 76, raises his hand to speak during debate over the language in H. 687, a bill that would make changes to Act 250, during a joint meeting of the Senate Economic Development and Natural Resources and Energy committees in Montpelier, Vt., on Friday, May 10, 2024. On his final day in the body, McCormack identified climate change as the overarching issue for legislators moving forward. “Whatever your issue is, climate is requisite to taking care of it,” he said. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, of Bethel, 76, raises his hand to speak during debate over the language in H. 687, a bill that would make changes to Act 250, during a joint meeting of the Senate Economic Development and Natural Resources and Energy committees in Montpelier, Vt., on Friday, May 10, 2024. On his final day in the body, McCormack identified climate change as the overarching issue for legislators moving forward. “Whatever your issue is, climate is requisite to taking care of it,” he said. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, of Bethel, 76, speaks as his constituents, Doug Marshall, front left, and Dave Eddy, front right, pass around ballot petitions the other members of the delegation at a legislative breakfast at the the Bethel (Vt.) Public Library, on Monday, May 13, 2024. Sen. Alison Clarkson, obscured at left, Sen. Becca White, left, and Rep. Kirk White, right, intend to run for reelection, while McCormack will not seek another term. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, of Bethel, 76, speaks as his constituents, Doug Marshall, front left, and Dave Eddy, front right, pass around ballot petitions the other members of the delegation at a legislative breakfast at the the Bethel (Vt.) Public Library, on Monday, May 13, 2024. Sen. Alison Clarkson, obscured at left, Sen. Becca White, left, and Rep. Kirk White, right, intend to run for reelection, while McCormack will not seek another term. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — James M. Patterson

Vermont Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, of Bethel, 76, right, talks with Bethel (Vt.) Public Library Trustee Bennett Law, left, after a legislative breakfast on Monday, May 13, 2024. McCormack grew up in New York, but from a young age knew that he wanted to move to Bethel where he frequently visited family as a child. After working as a folk musician, he was appointed to the Senate in 1989. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Vermont Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, of Bethel, 76, right, talks with Bethel (Vt.) Public Library Trustee Bennett Law, left, after a legislative breakfast on Monday, May 13, 2024. McCormack grew up in New York, but from a young age knew that he wanted to move to Bethel where he frequently visited family as a child. After working as a folk musician, he was appointed to the Senate in 1989. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, of Bethel, 76, hugs his fellow Windsor County Senators Alison Clarkson, left, and Becca White, right, after a resolution honoring his service was read on the floor of the Senate in Montpelier, Vt., on Friday, May 10, 2024. “I’m leaving the place in good hands,” said McCormack, of a younger generation of legislators like White, who he first met while teaching her U.S. history class at Community College of Vermont. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, of Bethel, 76, hugs his fellow Windsor County Senators Alison Clarkson, left, and Becca White, right, after a resolution honoring his service was read on the floor of the Senate in Montpelier, Vt., on Friday, May 10, 2024. “I’m leaving the place in good hands,” said McCormack, of a younger generation of legislators like White, who he first met while teaching her U.S. history class at Community College of Vermont. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

By NICOLA SMITH

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 05-17-2024 5:02 PM

Modified: 05-20-2024 9:52 AM


MONTPELIER — At the end of the legislative session last week in the Vermont Statehouse, Dick McCormack listened, eyes closed, as a resolution commemorating both his retirement and “profound seriousness of purpose” was read into the record.

Standing by his desk in the Senate Chamber, he clasped hands to heart when his colleagues rose to applaud his 30-year career as a Democratic senator for Windsor County. Alison Clarkson and Becca White, the two other Windsor County senators, also Democrats, embrace him in a teary-eyed hug.

Since McCormack announced in March that he would not seek reelection in 2024, many people have offered congratulations, thanked him for his public service and wished him good luck.

But he’s ambivalent.

When he decided to run a final time in 2022, he said, “I wondered whether I was making the right decision. Having now decided to retire, I am grieving over leaving. I’m not entirely sure who I am other than Senator Dick McCormack. And this is my place, this is where I live, where I work. These are my people. Why should I retire?”

McCormack, who will turn 77 this summer, is not the only seasoned politician weighing when or if to say farewell to public office.

President Biden, who will be 82 in November, has been criticized for being too old to run for a second term; his rival, former President Trump is 77. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., 82, just announced he will run for a fourth term. U.S. Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who is 77, was elected to his first six-year term in 2022, after serving 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In Vermont, Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, who has served more than four decades in the Legislature, is stepping aside for health reasons at 84. Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Orleans, 81, will not seek reelection this fall after 45 years in the Legislature.

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Is it the last political hurrah of the post-war generation?

McCormack ruminates about the generational differences.

“There’s a vocabulary I don’t have anymore, the younger folks have it and they often don’t get my vocabulary,” he observed in an interview at the Statehouse. “Politically the tide comes in and the tide goes out. I’ve become better at the tide going out, I’ve gotten better at accepting that it’s someone else’s day in the sun.”

Though he doesn’t look entirely convinced.

Issues don’t go away

A bear of a man with a baritone voice, McCormack has been a stalwart advocate for Vermont’s Act 250, the land use and development law, and other environmental legislation. He’s chaired the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, and served on the Act 250 District Environmental Commission. He was majority leader from 1997 to 2001.

He served most recently on the Senate Committee on Finance and the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy.

“You’ve got somebody with 50 years (life) experience walking out the door,” said retired state Sen. Vince Illuzzi, who served from 1981 to 2013 as a Republican from the Essex-Orleans district and knows McCormack as a legislator and friend. “With his absence, I think the Senate will miss the historical background that informs the position you take on an issue.”

On Monday, McCormack, whose term officially expires in January, arrived at the public library in his hometown on Bethel for a 7:30 a.m. meeting of constituents along with White, Clarkson and Windsor-Addison Rep. Kirk White, D-Bethel.

McCormack was tired: The previous Friday’s session hadn’t ended until 1 a.m. Saturday.

Near the end, Republican Gov. Phil Scott had come in and made a point of praising McCormack’s fairness and his devotion to the Legislature — and Vermont.

The library crowd was sparse but alert, and ready to raise the same concerns that constituents have been raising for years, because the issues don’t go away.

Property taxes, school taxes, the cost of health care, inflation, their children’s future, data privacy, affordable housing, how to persuade young people to stay in the state after college? And, not least, given last summer’s severe flooding, the impacts of climate change on Vermont.

After pleasantries, McCormack addresses what he calls the elephant in the room.

“We are not coming back saying, hey, we kept your school taxes down. We kept it down some,” he said.

The tax problem derives from spending, and the spending problem comes from cost problems, notably inflation and the rocketing increases in health care; and school boards and the Legislature do not control costs, McCormack said. School boards are not at fault, he told the constituents: they “break their backs trying to keep the costs down.”

To address the tangled intricacies of school spending and taxes probably requires a study.

“Usually, I’ve regarded a study as a sort of a booby prize. However, in this case, the complexity of the issue is such that it’s necessary,” McCormack said.

The reality, he added, is that if officials do cut school taxes, another tax goes up somewhere else, like squeezing a balloon. That’s a hard sell to the public.

What Vermont needs, said Clarkson, is a person who focuses on school spending — which it currently does not have. (The governor recently nominated a secretary of education, Zoie Saunders, but the Senate rejected her nomination in a 19-9 vote; Scott has named her interim secretary.)

Legislators serve for only four and a half months a year. Commissions that can bring forth studies help legislators to “propel policy forward.”

On McCormack’s way out, people hail him on Bethel’s Main Street and amble over to talk. A message on a sandwich board outside a restaurant across the street says: “Thank you, Senator McCormack, for 30 years of service.”

Unwilling to rush

After McCormack’s Irish ancestors immigrated to the U.S., they settled in Bethel in the 1880s and began a slow, hard climb out of poverty, working in granite quarries and delivering ice. His grandfather moved to New York City, where McCormack was born and raised, graduating in 1970 from Hofstra University with a degree in history.

He wanted to be a singer-songwriter in the vein of contemporaries Bob Dylan and Paul Simon and played in some of the same New York venues as Simon. When Simon and Garfunkel first became famous, McCormack recalled thinking that he wrote songs that were on a par with Simon’s.

“So I thought, well, I guess I’m next. The awful moment for me was when I heard the line ‘Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio; our nation turns its lonely eyes to you?’ I would never have had the imagination to have written that. It was just too oddball a line — and it’s brilliant. For people my age, the whole world of the postwar childhood is wrapped up in that.”

Tired of New York, he moved to Bethel in 1970, where he’d spent every summer since he was a child. He did what many people do when they move to Vermont: a little bit of everything, while concentrating on singing and writing.

In 1980, the Vermont Natural Resources Council commissioned him to write a song for a banquet commemorating the 10th anniversary of Act 250. Then-Lt. Gov. Madeleine Kunin, a Democrat, was in the audience and liked McCormack’s expression of the state’s environmental values.

During her governorship from 1985 to 1991, she appointed him to various state environmental commissions and boards, and after he lost his first bid for the Senate in 1988, Kunin appointed McCormack to a vacated Senate seat in 1989.

He held the seat until 2003, when he retired for the first time to get his financial house in order, he said.

Outside of politics, McCormack studied secondary education at Castleton State College, earned a master’s degree in environmental policy from Vermont Law School and taught history at Vermont Community College. White, one of his fellow Windsor County state senators, was one of his students. He had a radio show on VPR and did radio voice-overs for Vermont businesses.

When he ran again in 2006, after two Senate seats opened up in Windsor County, he was afraid that no one would remember him. The first campaign event of 2006 was the Reading, Vt., 4th of July parade.

“The first people I passed in the parade yelled, ‘Welcome home, Dick,’ ” he said.

That told him he’d be OK, and he won.

His terms in office, said Clarkson, have been marked by his deep institutional memory and historic guidance, and full-throated defense of Act 250.

“When he speaks, people listen. He’s been tenacious, but he doesn’t go down rabbit holes,” she said. “Dick’s thoughtful approach is deliberative and it’s served the Senate and Vermonters very well. His unwillingness to rush can enrage some.”

White viewed him as a mentor when he taught her history class at CCV, and she views him as a mentor now that she, too, is in the Senate. Some legislators have had the advantage of independent wealth to buttress their lower-paying, part-time work in the Statehouse ($811 per week during the January to mid-May session), but McCormack, at one point, was a pizza delivery person, she observed.

Like Clarkson, White praises McCormack’s talents as a stentorian orator.

“He makes the point in a way that is persuasive,” she said.

Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman has admired McCormack’s insistence on passing institutional norms down to his younger colleagues, including the Senate pages. McCormack has had a habit of scribbling historic quotes on paper, which he then slips to the pages as part of their education. It’s that attention to history and to the legislative culture “that will disappear with retirements,” Zuckerman said.

Although Illuzzi often disagreed with him on politics and policy, McCormack had, Illuzzi observed, “a fundamental understanding of the U.S. and Vermont constitutions, and the separation of powers, and often was able to bring clarity to a question or bill that was being presented.”

In particular, Illuzzi cites McCormack’s lone vote in 2019 opposing a proposed amendment to delete references to slavery in the Vermont Constitution, written in 1777, which specified that no male 21 or older, and no female 18 or older, should be forced to serve as a servant, slave or apprentice “unless they are bound by their own consent, after they arrive to such age, or bound by law for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like.”

Advocates of the amendment, which passed 29-1, reworded the language of the Constitution to read that “slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.”

McCormack’s argument, Illuzzi said, was that “all this amendment did was kind of refine historic language that had no lawful meaning.”

McCormack groans when the subject comes up: “The issue was so vulnerable to misunderstanding and I was so vulnerable to misunderstanding that I have decided not to comment.”

Nonetheless, he makes his argument: “All that language is historical artifact; this is a remnant of an historical event.” When the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawed slavery and indentured servitude nationally it obviated the need to amend the Vermont Constitution, he said. And, although the state Constitution was badly flawed, with the biases of its time, “why tamper with a document that was the first in our young country’s history to outlaw slavery?”

He has occasionally been a single vote for or against, or, more likely, the second or third vote, he said, but he doesn’t go out of his way to do it, alluding to the old military saying, “Is this the hill you want to die on?”

“I’ve had colleagues who’ve stood alone a lot and they made themselves useless, and then there are people who never have the courage to stand alone and they are not as useful as they could have been,” he said. “I look for ways to collaborate. I’m very close to my caucus.”

He makes a point of praising his colleagues, White and Clarkson.

‘Bending the arc’

There are a score of concerns facing the state, but if Vermont citizens are worried about their children, the education system or lowering taxes, “climate change is a prerequisite to taking care of it,” McCormack said.

To legislators and voters who worry about the cost of making huge structural and economic shifts that would be necessary to mitigate the severe effects of climate change, McCormack asks, “how do you propose to pay for your plan? The answer often is, we don’t have a plan, just leave well enough alone. OK, I understand: No plan is a plan. ” If people think it’s expensive now, wait 20 or 30 years, he said.

But, come January, McCormack will no longer be in the position to craft legislation concerning the issues he most cares about. He will spend more time with his wife of 24 years, Cindy Metcalf, and their children and grandchildren. He wants to return to writing and singing: “I have unfinished business as an artist. I’d like to get back to that in one form or another,” he said.

He mulls over his decision to leave; he doesn’t want it made for him because he has stayed on too long. He doesn’t want to embarrass himself. If the arc of history bends towards justice, he said, it is because there are people who have bent it that way.

“I bent nothing by myself, but I participated in bending the arc of history,” he said. “I have the consolation, well, I did what I could. And the haunting sense that, yeah, I could have done more; I could have done it better.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicola smith.org.