When Vince Illuzzi was first elected to the Vermont Senate, Ronald Reagan was the president-elect, The Empire Strikes Back was in movie theaters and John Lennon was still alive.
The year was 1980. Illuzzi was 27 years old.
Over the next three-plus decades, Illuzzi became a fixture in the state Senate and a powerful legislator known for cutting last-minute deals in the waning hours of legislative sessions to the benefit of his Northeast Kingdom constituents.
That storied Senate career came to an end — or at least a pause — yesterday. Illuzzi retired from his seat representing Essex and Orleans counties this year to run for state auditor, a race he lost to Democrat/Progressive Doug Hoffer, a policy analyst making his second run for the job. Riding a Democratic wave that turned out big for President Barack Obama, Hoffer beat Illuzzi by a margin of 51 to 45.
What's next for the "King of the Kingdom" remains to be seen. For now, Illuzzi says he'll continue in his day job as Essex County state's attorney while pondering his options. Standing beside him at the Republican Party gathering in Montpelier last night, his wife, Eileen Maher (pictured), chimed in, "And spend more time with his family."
Illuzzi is a Barre native and a stonecutter's son who was the youngest person ever elected to the state Senate. He earned a reputation as a hard worker who stood up for working-class Vermonters.
"The guy works 23 hours a day. I don't know how he does it," said Brendan Cosgrove, a lobbyist and former Douglas administration official. Cosgrove said Illuzzi earned the status of "elder statesman," but added that "he never rested on that moniker. He was always wanting to plow new ground, be effective, work for the betterment of the state."
Illuzzi's bipartisan leanings earned him support from organized labor and the Democratic endorsement in several Senate elections. It also landed him chairmanship of two committees in the Democrat-led Senate: Institutions, and Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs.
Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) serves as the latter committee's vice chair and said "it'll be different" in Montpelier without Illuzzi around. "It's the loss of one of the most classically gifted lawmakers Vermont has ever seen," Ashe said, calling his friend "the best dealmaker, the quickest policy study and a master juggler."
Lobbyist Adam Necrason spent years in Illuzzi's committee rooms and watched him grill witnesses like the trial lawyer that he is. He also watched Illuzzi pick apart legislation with a level of scrutiny unmatched by his colleagues. "His approach as a leader in the Senate was to really dig in and reorder issues and see how they sugared off," Necrason said. "He wasn’t afraid to take on well-established situations and shake them to see how strong they were."
After 32 years, though, Illuzzi said he was ready for a change. Last spring, he declared his retirement and flirted with running for attorney general before settling on the state auditor's race. Talking to reporters Tuesday night, Illuzzi said of his Senate career that he "just thought it was time to step down or do something different."
Referring to his unsuccessful campaign, he added, "I did the best I could and it wasn't good enough."
Illuzzi attributed his defeat to running as a Republican in deep-blue Vermont in a presidential election year. A moderate Republican and close ally of Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin, Illuzzi sought to distance himself from the national GOP, going so far as to rescind his endorsement for presidential candidate Mitt Romney after his "47 percent" remarks were revealed.
Illuzzi is the consummate Montpelier insider, but he's less known outside the capitol's marbled halls. And that name-recognition gap hurt him in a year when Obama topped the Democratic ticket.
"Unless they know a person’s voting record, they vote by default," Illuzzi told reporters Tuesday. "And when they do that, it’s not for the Republican. At least not this year."
Dick Mazza was one of several Democratic senators who backed Illuzzi over their party's nominee. Mazza joined the Senate not long after Illuzzi, in 1984, and has served alongside him for almost three decades. Mazza said Wednesday he was "very, very surprised" by the race's outcome.
"He tried to do a lot himself and that was tough on him," Mazza said of Illuzzi, who logged thousands of miles crisscrossng the state, and campaigned without a manager. "I think he tried to do too much," he added.
Mazza said Illuzzi paid him a visit at his Colchester grocery store Wednesday to thank him for the support. Mazza, for one, thinks Montpelier hasn't seen the last of Vince Illuzzi. He suggests the longtime senator could resurface in the Shumlin administration during the governor's second term, though Mazza professed to have no specific knowledge of a job offer.
"He's not one to drift into the sunset," Mazza said. "Somehow, I think Vince will miss it. That's what he's done since he was a very young person."