Garrett Graff (right, center) speaking to the Senate Government Operations Committee
Ex-journalist Garrett Graff said Wednesday that he’s not ready to announce whether he’s running for lieutenant governor, but he tried to make the case to a legislative committee that people in his position should be allowed to run.
The Montpelier native spent more than 11 years in Washington, D.C., before moving to Burlington last fall. He argued Wednesday that he meets the constitutional residency requirement for a lieutenant gubernatorial candidate: One must have lived in the state for four years prior to the election.
“Residency is always a mix of physical presence and intent to return,” Graff told the Senate Government Operations Committee. “Physical presence alone is a poor measurement of where someone might consider home.”
A better measure, Graff argued, is one based on where a person is registered to vote or drive a car, something a person can legally do in only one state at a time.
The issue made its way to the legislature when Government Operations Committee chair Jeanette K. White (D-Windham) introduced a bill seeking to clarify what residency entails. In her view, someone in Graff’s position does not meet the legal qualifications for running for lieutenant governor.
When Graff saw those remarks, he emailed White and asked to meet with her. She said he signed the email, “the ballsy one.”
After Graff and White chatted over breakfast at the Statehouse cafeteria last week, she concluded that the definition of residency has changed since Vermont’s constitution was written in 1793.
“I have come away from this thinking this is far more complicated,” White said.
She added that she still wants to pass legislation clarifying residency requirements, but exactly how is not clear. Her committee will consult next week with constitutional experts before deciding what to do.
Wednesday, Graff sought to make his case to the five-member panel. He cautioned against barring Vermonters who leave the state to work or study from running for office through an overly narrow definition of residency.
“Defining residency as solely by physical presence is going to discourage precisely the types of people we would want to be involved in state government," he said.
Graff told the committee he maintained both his Vermont voter registration and driver’s license while living in Washington, always intending to return. He acknowledged that he hadn’t voted in Vermont in recent years and that the city of Montpelier had sent him a letter asking if he should be removed from the voter list. But Graff told the committee he hadn’t realized he had skipped both the 2014 and the 2012 elections until he read in Seven Daysthat the city clerk’s records revealed his absence.
Graff said after the hearing that he also listed his parents’ Montpelier address on his Vermont marriage license in 2013. During his time in Washington, he said, when people asked him where he lived, he would reply, “I’m a Vermonter.”
Members of the Senate committee weren’t so sure they agreed that one's intent to return, a driver’s license or even voter registration met the constitution's intent, but they concurred that defining residency is trickier than it appears.
The Constitution states that to qualify as governor and lieutenant governor, a person must have resided in the state four years directly prior to election, but White conceded that people travel more than they once did and may have reasons to be away from the state for months or even years while still considering themselves Vermont residents. Someone who works overseas for Doctors Without Borders, for example, probably should not have to wait four years after returning to be eligible to run for lieutenant governor, she said.
But Graff’s 11-year absence seemed to stretch White's and other committee members’ notions of residency. “You were gone for so long, there are many people who would see you as a carpetbagger,” White said.
“It doesn’t mean you can’t serve,” said Sen. Anthony Pollina, (P/D-Washington). “It means you have to wait a certain amount of time.”
While Graff argued that he’s qualified to run for lieutenant governor, he conceded he would not meet the qualifications to run for the legislature, a body the lieutenant governor presides over. The constitution requires that legislators live in their district for at least a year before they can be elected.
Graff said after the hearing that he knows his 11-year absence from the state would be a question for voters, but he argued it's something he would discuss with them if he were to run. If voters aren’t satisfied with his answers, “They’re welcome to not vote for me.”
If Graff runs, he would join a field of Democratic candidates that includes Rep. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington), Sen. David Zuckerman (P/D-Chittenden) and Marlboro resident Brandon Riker. Republican Randy Brock of Swanton and independent Louis Meyers of Williston are also running.