Jane Kitchel Writes the Budget — and Brings the Sandwiches | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Jane Kitchel Writes the Budget — and Brings the Sandwiches


Published April 8, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Jane Kitchel

Jane Kitchel, the six-term senator from Caledonia County, seemed a little preoccupied last Thursday afternoon. As she took her seat in the Senate Appropriations Committee's Statehouse meeting room, she confessed to her colleagues that she'd struggled to sleep the night before.

Who could blame her? In the next month, the committee she chairs is expected to cut more than $50 million from the state's $1.48 billion general fund budget. With dozens of state programs and hundreds of jobs on the line, the pressure Kitchel faces is immense.

But that's not what's keeping her up at night.

"I've got to do Easter breakfast at the church for 100, and I've got company coming, and I've got to make a bunny cake, and I've got to make an Italian cream pie, and I've got to make homemade ice cream!" she exclaimed.

None of that is out of the ordinary for the silver-haired 69-year-old, whose sober bearing and austere clothing bring to mind a matriarch in a 19th century black-and-white photograph. She casually informed her colleagues that she'd been cooking for the Danville Congregational Church for nearly half a century.

"You've been doing Easter breakfast for 45 years?" Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) asked incredulously. "Do the same people come every year?"

"Well, a lot of them have died — including my help!" Kitchel said with a nervous laugh. "It's getting smaller and smaller."

For as long as she's been cooking Easter breakfast, Kitchel has also been pulling the levers of state government to help neighbors in need.

Fresh out of college in 1967, she took an entry-level job as a social worker in the St. Johnsbury district office of what was then known as the Department of Social Welfare. Over the course of 35 years, she worked her way from the bottom rung to the top, retiring in 2002 as secretary of the Agency of Human Services. Two years after that, the Democrat won her first term representing 23 Connecticut River towns in the Vermont Senate.

Through it all, Kitchel has remained deeply rooted in the Northeast Kingdom hill town of Danville, where her family has operated the McDonald Farm since 1839. While her colleagues carouse in Montpelier bars, she commutes home each night with her legislator sister, Rep. Kitty Toll (D-Danville), and wakes up early to bake for her committee and make lunch for fellow senators.

"She's the quintessential Vermonter," says former governor Howard Dean, who appointed Kitchel AHS secretary in 1999. "She's completely disinterested in her own promotion and one of the most capable people I've met — anywhere."

Arguably the most powerful member of the Senate, Kitchel remains little known outside the Statehouse and her own Senate district. Unlike some senators, who jostle their way in front of the television camera, she shuns media attention, insisting to one reporter that she's "too boring" to be profiled.

An animated presence in committee, where she demonstrates an in-depth knowledge of every line item in the budget, Kitchel keeps her head down in the Statehouse halls and avoids the gossipy realm of the cafeteria. She rarely speaks up on the Senate floor, but when she does, people listen.

Jane Kitchel brings lunch for Tim Ashe - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Jane Kitchel brings lunch for Tim Ashe

"She's probably the most humble person you'll ever meet," says Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), another quietly influential lawmaker, who sits beside her in the Senate chamber. "She has a tremendous amount of power as chair of Appropriations, but you'd never know it by talking to her."

What distinguishes her from others, says Sen. Richard Westman (R-Lamoille), is the seriousness of purpose she brings to her job.

"This is not a game to her. This is about running the state well," he says. "The politics are always second to her."

Out of the Barn

When Rob Ide's mother was looking for a babysitter more than half a century ago, he recalls, "She thought of the family that had the most kids."

In Danville, that was always the Beatties.

Martha Jane got the gig. She was the second of 10 children to Catherine Beattie, who ran the family's dairy farm and served a term in the legislature in the mid-1960s. Jane's father, Harold, had another four children by a previous marriage.

"Every town has a number of families that are hard workers and involved in everything," says Ide, who preceded Kitchel in the Senate and now serves as commissioner of motor vehicles. "You could certainly say that about the Beattie family: very, very community-minded and engaged."

Kitchel and her siblings spent their early years in the barn and pasture, bringing in the cows and cleaning milk pails.

"If you grew up on a farm and don't have work ethic, you missed the picture somewhere," says Toll, Kitchel's youngest sibling. "You don't waste things. My mother grew up during the Depression. She said none of us understood what hard times were."

Though the family prized frugality, it was known far and wide for its generosity.

"If anyone in town needed a meal or somebody needed some help, Catherine was front row and center to help somebody," says Roy Vance, a lifelong Danville resident, former legislator and now an assistant judge in Vermont Superior Court.

Through their involvement in civic affairs — Kitchel's father served on the selectboard and her mother was a longtime member of the Vermont Farm Bureau — the Beatties befriended many a politician, including U.S. senator Ralph Flanders. Kitchel still recalls the day in 1954 when the Springfield Republican called for the censure of fellow senator Joseph McCarthy.

"It was a broad and rich upbringing," she says. "Here we are going out to dinner with a U.S. senator and, on the other hand, my mom had guys from jail come up to work on the farm, and they sat down to eat with us. It didn't matter who you were: Come in and eat."

According to Toll, whose sister was almost old enough to be her mother, Kitchel "was always kind of the outlier" in the family.

"Janie always carried herself differently. She always seemed a little more sophisticated," Toll says. "Coming off a small dairy farm in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, Janie always looked studious and knowledgeable and had direction."

After graduating from Wilson College, then a small women's school in Pennsylvania, Kitchel threw herself into her work at the Department of Social Welfare. Back then, she says, "Everything was done in people's homes." She notes with amusement how people in the profession seem to be rediscovering the value of working in the field.

Early in her career, Kitchel developed a fondness for a girl in her care named Janet Fraser. She started taking Fraser, who came from a troubled home, out to dinner and to her parents' farm — and eventually became a sort of foster mother to her.

"She changed my world," Fraser says. "If it hadn't been for Jane, my life would not have been turned around in the right direction."

More than 40 years later, Kitchel continues to keep an eye on Fraser, now a mother of five and heavy equipment operator in Newbury. When she couldn't get a son with learning disabilities into preschool, she called Kitchel, who made it happen within a week. She credits the senator with encouraging two of her daughters to go to college.

Kitty Toll takes her lunch from her sister's committee room - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Kitty Toll takes her lunch from her sister's committee room

"She changed my daughters' lives, too, and let them know there's so much more out there," Fraser says.

These days, when Kitchel is up for reelection and busy marching in parades, Fraser and her children are often by the senator's side. But instead of throwing sweets to the crowd, Kitchel distributes pencils.

"She would want to pass out something meaningful to everybody," Fraser says. "She'd say, 'I know everybody wants candy, but I want to give them something they can learn with.'"

Eight of the Beattie children still live in the area; one owns the Creamery Restaurant and another Marty's 1st Stop deli and convenience store. Every Sunday, Kitchel and her husband, Guil, join a smattering of brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews at Toll's house for a family supper. The senator cooks the meal, which usually includes something she's put up from her half-acre garden.

The Kitchels have one son, Nathaniel, who lives in Wyoming and is pursuing a doctorate in paleoindian archaeology.

Since their mother died last September, Kitchel and Toll have dedicated themselves to making sure the McDonald Farm stays in business — and in the family. Their nephews, James Beattie and Jacob Mills, are now the sixth generation to run it. The farm is a frequent topic of conversation during their daily 40-minute drive to the Statehouse and back.

"It's a good exchange," Toll says of their time in the car. "It's politics. It's planning meals. It's who's doing what for Easter or Christmas or birthdays."

And it's the state budget, over which the two sisters have an inordinate amount of power. When Toll was first appointed to the House Appropriations Committee, she would write down any questions she had in a notebook, knowing she could ask the expert in the carpool later.

"For the first couple of years, I would just pepper her with questions on the ride home," Toll says.

'The Mother of 2-1-1'

Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee isn't easy. No matter the program in question, it's likely the chair knows as much about it as the witness — and maybe had a hand in its creation.

"She understands more about the Agency of Human Services than anyone I've ever served with," says Sears, a longtime member of the committee.

When a newly installed bureaucrat mentioned the Willis Position Evaluation System in a meeting last week, Kitchel chimed right in: "That process has been around for 30 years, maybe."

The chair, in a scarlet turtleneck and matching red and black sweater, peered over her glasses and acknowledged, "I'm dating myself."

"You were already dated," Sen. Diane Snelling (D-Chittenden) shot back.

"Didn't you invent the internet, too?" Sears inquired with a grin.

Maybe not, but Kitchel has had a hand in nearly every social service transformation since then-governor Madeleine Kunin appointed her deputy commissioner of social welfare in 1985.

Dean's controversial welfare reforms? "She really was the driving force," the former governor says.

Expanding Dr. Dynasaur to children whose families earn 300 percent of the federal poverty level? "That was something I proposed to the governor and he accepted it," Kitchel says. "It raised it to such an income level that virtually every child was covered."

The Reach Up cash assistance program? "She was there when we named it," says Kathy Hoyt, who worked with Kitchel in AHS before becoming Dean's chief of staff.

Vermont's 2-1-1 information and referral service? "I was the mother of 2-1-1," Kitchel says with pride.

Given that history, it would be reasonable to assume Kitchel might use her perch atop Senate Appropriations to stubbornly protect the programs she created. But her colleagues insist that's far from the case.

"She's a very big-picture thinker," says Rep. Mitzi Johnson (D-Grand Isle), Kitchel's counterpart as chair of the House Appropriations Committee. "You know, she comes up with these sort of big, sweeping change ideas: Let's abolish this entire department or collapse this program."

But Kitchel doesn't suffer fools who propose change for the sake of change — or cuts for the sake of cuts.

"What I find sometimes a little frustrating is that a lot of the policy framework they don't understand," she says of bureaucrats with less experience than she. "When you've been around as long as I have, I carry some of that institutional knowledge of why we did it the way we did."

When someone brings up an idea that's been beaten to death before, Westman says, Kitchel is quick to deploy one of her famous barnyard epithets, such as, "Why would we kick that cow turd again?"

Some of her expressions aren't so family-friendly.

"There's nothing about Jane that isn't dignified," Westman says. "But she's not afraid to call it the way she sees it."

Lunch Lady

Just before noon last Thursday, Toll walked into her sister's committee room and rummaged through a brown paper bag filled to the brim with food.

She was there to collect her lunch, which her elder sister makes three days a week for her, Westman and Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden).

"It's kind of odd isn't it?" Toll said, as she pulled out a sandwich, a clementine, homemade shortbread cookies and an individually packed bag of potato chips. She added with a grin, "I'm sure they do this at the California Statehouse."

Westman entered the room as Toll extracted her meal, but the Lamoille County Republican refused to take his until the chef was present.

"I wait to be given mine," he explained.

A few minutes later, as he loitered outside, Westman spotted Kitchel returning to her committee room and followed her through the door.

"Did Kitty— she took a — this is chicken salad, and the other one's roast beef," Kitchel said, examining the remaining contents of the paper bag.

"What do you want?" Westman asked politely.

"Oh, it doesn't matter," Kitchel said with a sigh.

"I want chicken salad if nobody else wants it," Westman offered.

"Pickles? You want chicken salad? Take the chicken salad. What about this?" Kitchel said, holding out a clementine.

"Yeah, I'll take that, too," Westman said, turning to leave.

"You're not going to eat with us, huh?" Kitchel asked.

"No," Westman called back, halfway through the door.

"Did you get your cookies?" Kitchel called out after him.

Five minutes after Westman departed, Ashe crossed the hall from the Senate Finance Committee and joined Kitchel at her table. Ashe, the senator in charge of raising the money Kitchel is in charge of spending, has forged a close relationship with his colleague, despite their obvious differences: He is 31 years her junior, grew up in suburban Massachusetts and first ran for office as a Progressive.

"This is in stark contrast to her reputation as a really stingy person," Ashe said facetiously as Kitchel handed him a sandwich.

"I brought onions, if you want them," she said, ignoring the remark.

"I think I'm going to pass on the onions," Ashe said. "They're rather pungent."

"They are very pungent," Kitchel agreed.

Dollars and Sense

Two weeks ago, the Vermont House passed a budget that relies on $53 million in cuts, $35 million in new revenue and $25 million in one-time funds. The cuts — to state employees' payroll, low-income heating assistance and countless human service programs — were deep.

It's now up to Kitchel and her committee to draw up their own budget, which must pass the Senate and be reconciled with the House's version before heading to the governor for his signature.

With the budget hot potato in her hands, Kitchel has been flooded with emails from those in fear of the budget ax.

"We're getting them from every entity that's impacted by the House budget, from the libraries to Vermont Public Television to the PSAPS," she says, referring to the Newport and Rutland public-safety answering points which Gov. Peter Shumlin's administration has proposed consolidating. "You look at the list, and there's an impact on Vermonters in different ways."

State government has been spending more money on services than it brings in since Kitchel took over the appropriations committee in 2011. But she says this year is the toughest budget yet.

"Year after year after year, it becomes progressively more difficult, because you've gone into every hidey-hole you can think of," she says. "It really puts a high demand on your brain cells, let me tell you."

As Kitchel and her committee prepare to make the kind of choices that will result in layoffs and reduced services, her colleagues seem to trust her implicitly to make the right decisions. That's rare in a Senate that often finds itself divided between the conservatives of Rutland County and northern Vermont and the liberals of Chittenden County and southern Vermont.

"I've always viewed her as the glue that holds everything together," Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, says. "She's very giving but very frugal at the same time."

Kitchel's political philosophy quite clearly derives from the ethos of McDonald Farm, where one does not waste but there's always room for another at supper.

"I believe that government can and should play a constructive role in people's lives, but I think it comes with a high degree of accountability because you are often obligating public resources," she says. "I'm part of that broad middle. There's no question about it."

Kitchel's decisions are guided not by partisan politics, but by practical principles she's happy to list:

"Power is to be exercised with great caution," she says.

"Give credit where credit is due."

"It's better to make a decision based on the best information you have than to procrastinate and hold everything in limbo."

And, "Don't be threatened by smart, talented people."

No matter how the budget is balanced next month, one thing is for certain: It will have Kitchel's fingerprints all over it.

"She is tough without being the least bit unpleasant," Dean says. "And she almost always gets her way."

Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Jane's Addition"

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