Jim Kenyon: Windsor’s Hudson Ranney goes to Washington

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Windsor High School junior Hudson Ranney, 16, will be one of 30 U.S. Senate pages, and the only one from Vermont from February to June this year. Ranney worked with social studies teacher Kim Brinck-Johnsen, whose daughter was also a Senate page, to apply for the program.

Windsor High School junior Hudson Ranney, 16, will be one of 30 U.S. Senate pages, and the only one from Vermont from February to June this year. Ranney worked with social studies teacher Kim Brinck-Johnsen, whose daughter was also a Senate page, to apply for the program. "He's not following the regular path, he's following his curiosity," said Brinck-Johnsen at Windsor High School in Windsor, Vt., on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024. "I just drive (everyone) crazy with my 'whys,'" said Ranney about his motivation to question the status quo. (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

Hudson Ranney, 15, of Windsor, right, leaves the Vermont State House in Montpelier, Vt., on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, with his family, from left, sister Natalie, 12, dad Adam, and mom Katie, after testifying in support of H. 259. The bill would require school boards in Vermont to add two non-voting student members. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Hudson Ranney, 15, of Windsor, right, leaves the Vermont State House in Montpelier, Vt., on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, with his family, from left, sister Natalie, 12, dad Adam, and mom Katie, after testifying in support of H. 259. The bill would require school boards in Vermont to add two non-voting student members. (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 JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 01-06-2024 4:18 AM

Modified: 01-10-2024 8:12 AM


When I met 16-year-old Hudson Ranney at the Boston Dreams coffee shop in Windsor, it was 10 in the morning and he was munching on a Moose Tracks ice cream cone while checking messages on his Apple Watch between bites.

A stereotypical teen?

No chance.

The Windsor High School junior couldn’t care less about video games, doesn’t go to parties and his taste in music has him buying used vinyl records (his favorite band is the Beatles) that he plays on a turntable.

Ranney follows the beat of a different teenage drummer. And it’s not always easy.

“Despite some obstacles that might otherwise seem insurmountable (e.g., bullying), Hudson is really going places,” state Rep. Elizabeth Burrows, a West Windsor Democrat, wrote me in an email.

Later this month, Ranney will board a plane for the first time to begin a six-month stint as a U.S. Senate page in Washington.

Ranney is one of only 30 high school juniors nationally — and the sole Vermonter — selected to serve as pages in the upcoming congressional session. He’s the first Windsor High student to earn the honor, said Burrows, who chairs the Mount Ascutney School Board.

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For a young political activist like Ranney, who is vice president of the Vermont Student Anti-Racism Network, it’s a dream job.

“This is an opportunity that very few kids get,” he said. “I’m getting to watch our nation’s history being made firsthand.”

According to the program’s website: “Pages play an important role in the daily operation of the Senate.”

They deliver “correspondence and legislative material within the Capitol and Senate office buildings, preparing the Chamber for Senate sessions and working on the Senate floor, where they provide assistance during roll call votes, support senators and staff during debates and carry bills and amendments to the desk.”

Pages earn a salary of roughly $3,000 a month before $780 is taken out for room and board.

What spurred Ranney to apply for the program?

“I’ve been on (Windsor High’s) student council and was the student representative on the school board,” he said. “I want to do bigger and better things. This seemed like a natural thing to do next.”

But it’s not just about rubbing elbows with senators such as Bernie Sanders, Peter Welch and Chuck Schumer. (Ranney was assigned to the Democratic caucus.)

Along with a schedule that has them working early mornings and late nights when the Senate is in session, pages have to keep up with schoolwork. Classes start at 6 a.m.

And there are a lot of rules. A strict code of conduct prohibits the teens from using cellphones during the week. Phone contact with family and friends is limited to landlines in their dorm rooms on Capitol Hill. Posting on social media about Senate business or what it’s like being a page is also forbidden.

It’s not all work and no play, though. On weekends, pages go on guided field trips to museums and historic sites, which Ranney is really looking forward to.

Does that mean he’s a history buff?

“No, I’m just a nerd,” Ranney said.

Along with Burrows, Ranney credits Windsor High social studies and English teacher Kim Brinck-Johnsen for helping him navigate the page application process. Brinck-Johnsen’s daughter, Annelise, was chosen for the program when she was a Hanover High School junior more than a decade ago.

Sanders, as Vermont’s senior senator, had to agree to sponsor him. Ranney and other candidates were interviewed via Zoom by a member of Sanders’ staff.

Ranney’s interest in “politics and how government works” made him a natural candidate, Brinck-Johnsen said.

At age 3, Ranney could recite the names of every U.S. president. “In chronological order, and their vice presidents, too,” his mother, Katie said.

In second grade, Ranney started going next door to the high school to an American history class. “I just sat there and listened,” he said.

The high school students treated him like a little brother, which he learned to appreciate. His own school experience hasn’t been “sunshine and roses,” Ranney told me.

When I brought up the bullying that Burrows referred to in her email, Ranney shrugged his shoulders, as if to say it is what it is.

“It’s just because I’m different,” he said.

In eighth grade, a group of boys posted a photo of Ranney on social media with a caption that questioned his sexuality. School officials “dealt with it appropriately,” his mother told me.

The bullying that Ranney has encountered is not representative of Windsor as a whole, said Brinck-Johnsen, who as taught at the town’s high school for 14 years.

“Most people are really impressed with what he’s doing on behalf of the wider school community,” Brinck-Johnsen said.

Ranney describes himself as a “straight white guy” who is “happy with who I am.”

That’s a 5-foot-6-inch teen who wears thick glasses and during the COVID-19 pandemic created a Beatles podcast that featured his interviews with everyone from Paul McCartney’s guitarist to his grandfather, John Ranney, who bought him his first Beatles album.

He’s grown up in a town where success is often measured by how many championships its high school athletic teams win.

Ranney’s participation in school sports is limited to the cross country team. When I asked about how he’s fared in competitions, his self-deprecating humor shined through.

“My 13-year-old sister (Natalie) is faster than me,” he said. “I’m not a jock.”

His focus is trying to make Windsor, and Vermont as a whole, a more inclusive place. To that end, he’s taken a leadership role with the Vermont Student Anti-Racism Network, a group of high school and college students that tackles social justice issues.

It’s not a political organization, he stressed in a letter to Windsor public officials: “We are just working to end racism, which is not a political issue but a human rights issue.”

Burrows, a friend of Ranney’s mother, has introduced him to how the sausage is made in Montpelier. To get started, she suggested he come up with an idea for a legislative bill that could hopefully become law.

During the 2023 session, Burrows introduced a bill (H.259) that calls for school boards to have at least two nonvoting high school students as members.

Ranney handled the legwork, talking with students and school officials across the state to get their input. He learned that Windsor is one of about 20 districts already with a nonvoting student member on its school board.

Last February, Ranney testified in support of the bill before the House Education Committee. The bill failed to get out of the committee but remains in play this session, which started Wednesday.

A “stumbling block” is a section of the bill that requires students to “receive the same compensation” as elected board members, Burrows said.

If pay wasn’t an issue, the bill might have a better chance of at least coming to a vote. But Ranney told me that he isn’t backing down. “Students should be compensated for their time,” he said.

Ahead of the 2024 session, Burrows submitted a bill on behalf of the Anti-Racism Network. It would create a state Equity Team Commission to oversee a pilot project in up to five school districts.

Teams would review their school district’s “equity-related policies and curriculum.” Under the bill, each team receives a $10,000 stipend to support their work.

In Windsor, Ranney has taken the fight for racial justice outside of schools. Last year, he wrote to town officials, objecting to the “thin blue line” flag that flew outside the town office building for several weeks.

The flag is seen by some as a “potent symbol of the ties between right-wing extremism and American law enforcement,” the Los Angeles Times wrote last January, after the city’s police chief ordered the flags removed from public view.

The flag is “used by groups that are against the Black Lives Matter movement,” Ranney wrote in a letter to Windsor Town Manager Tom Marsh. “The symbolism of the flag does not represent a town where we want people to feel welcome.”

In Windsor, the flag was raised following the death of an on-duty Rutland police officer in high-speed chase last July. But the decision to fly the flag came without any public discussion or Selectboard vote, Ranney pointed out to Marsh.

In his emailed response, Marsh said he was unaware of any “state statute regarding the need for selectboards to weigh in on which flags to fly.”

Ranney’s stance has drawn criticism by some people in Windsor, but he remains committed to working on behalf of the anti-racism student group.

“He has lots of support,” Burrows said. “He’s rising above it all.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.