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Legislative Roomies Share Boxed Wine and Political Strategies

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Left to right: Legislative housemates Rep. Sam Young, Rep. Matt Trieber and Sen. Richard  Westman - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • jeb wallace-brodeur
  • Left to right: Legislative housemates Rep. Sam Young, Rep. Matt Trieber and Sen. Richard Westman

Sam Young, a sociable state representative from the Northeast Kingdom town of Glover, has a history of pulling whimsical stunts such as mounting a Hereford steer for a campaign ad. Rep. Matt Trieber, an environmental consultant from Bellows Falls, is serious and bookish. During the four-month legislative session, the two youthful Democrats share a house with Richard Westman, a roguish, silver-haired Republican senator from Lamoille County who is 20 years their senior.

The three politicians were drinking red wine around their kitchen island counter on a Wednesday evening last month, waiting for Young's home-cooked raspberry pie to cool.

"There have been so many policy debates right here," Young told a reporter, slapping the counter with both hands for emphasis.

Most people abandon communal living after college. But Young and his housemates are among the state lawmakers who embrace the arrangement from January to May.

Bunking together in Montpelier brings political benefits as well as convenience. It provides opportunities to forge cross-partisan friendships, strengthen political alliances, refine legislative strategy and develop policy solutions — all away from the public eye.

"The walls come down," said Westman, who served 26 years in the House and is currently in his seventh year in the Senate.*

"When you're in this kitchen talking with someone, you can wave the magic wand and solve the policy. You don't have to worry about the politics and the 180 other people you have to convince, plus the governor," Trieber added, referring to the legislature.

If he commuted, the Bellows Falls rep would face a five-hour round-trip, or longer in inclement weather. Instead, he uses the legislative housing stipend of $115 a night four nights a week to pay his share of rent for a handsome yellow house on Liberty Street, about a mile from the Statehouse.

Even members with shorter drives spend some nights in the capital city. So far this session, 133 of the 180 lawmakers have been reimbursed for at least one overnight stay, according to the Agency of Administration. Occasional overnighters often stay at the Capitol Plaza Hotel & Conference Center — or on someone's couch.

Those who opt for houses tend to shack up with members of the same party and gender. But spending weeknights in the capital does allow for cross-party socializing — dinner parties, bowling nights and a long-standing weekly poker game at a location legislators wouldn't disclose.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) said that she relishes "being able to have an informal conversation, where interest groups and, frankly, the media isn't sitting there watching you."

When Johnson and Anne O'Brien, a former rep from Richmond, served on the House Appropriations Committee and lived together, they would get up at 5:30 a.m. and go down to the basement, where one of them would use the elliptical while the other worked out with weights and a yoga ball. "We would spend the whole time talking about how effective is the Green Mountain Care Board being, and are there things we can do to curb health care spending?" Johnson said.

This session, the speaker is living in the same three-bedroom house, which is owned by a pair of professors who teach in St. Louis, Mo., during the winter. Legislators have rented it for years. Past occupants include former governor Peter Shumlin, who lived there when he served in the Senate.

It is, indisputably, a powerhouse: Johnson's roomies are Rep. Janet Ancel (D-Calais), who chairs the Ways and Means Committee; Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford), the former majority leader; Rep. Kate Webb (D-Shelburne), the former majority whip; and Appropriations Committee member Rep. Diane Lanpher (D-Vergennes).

The five women share advice, cook for one another and regularly host other lawmakers for meals. "It's our support structure, because we're all away from our families for four months," said Johnson.

That structure recently withstood serious political stress when Johnson and Copeland Hanzas ran against each other for House speaker. Although hard-fought, the race between the longtime friends remained remarkably civil — perhaps in part because they knew they'd be sharing a bathroom come January.

Separate bathrooms are a must for Sens. Claire Ayer (D-Addison) and Jeanette White (D-Windham), who rent a two-bedroom condo from a lobbyist's snowbird parents.

White is an alternative medicine aficionado and a longtime advocate for legal marijuana. Ayer, a retired nurse who chairs the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, is a self-described "whitebread, go-to-a-real-doctor, get-your-shots kind of person" who is uninterested in her housemate's medicinal herbs.

And while Ayer has the poise and impeccable outfits of a flight attendant, White often has unruly blond hair and admits to arriving at the Statehouse in "rumpled linen clothes."

After spending nine sessions in the same house, the pair resembles an old married couple. Upon returning to their condo, "We immediately get out of our grown-up clothes," White said, and "plop down with a little glass of whatever we choose that evening." They sift through their emails, solve the New York Times crossword together and watch the news.

White might make quesadillas for dinner; Ayer usually prepares salad lunches for both of them. White, who was eating a tuna fish sandwich made with banana bread during a midday interview, noted, "Clearly, she didn't make my lunch today."

Ayer still doesn't use alternative remedies herself, but as the health committee chair, she has shown a willingness to give consideration to nontraditional medicine. Her committee supported a law that allocates money to a pilot program in which chiropractors, acupuncturists and other alternative practitioners treat patients with chronic pain.

When Ayer and White are on the same side of an issue, living together works to their advantage. During the 2013 session, both were strong supporters of legislation enabling terminally ill people to end their lives. Throughout what was one of the most emotional and contentious debates in recent state history, they strategized together, rehearsed speeches and critiqued each other's arguments. The bill passed.

"Claire has more political strategic sense than I do," White noted.

"We serve as sounding boards for each other," Ayer said.

They've also supported each other through tragedy. After Ayer's husband died unexpectedly during the 2015 session, White "was like another member of the family," Ayer recalled.

Sens. Brian Campion (D-Bennington) and Dick Sears (D-Bennington) have also forged a political alliance during the two years they've lived together. This session, they're sharing a two-bedroom town house.

"We're the odd couple," said Sears, with a hint of a smile. The 73-year-old has served in the Senate since 1993, gaining influence and a reputation for gruffness.

While Sears spends his free time following football and baseball, Campion, 46, prefers painting landscapes and horseback riding. Despite their different interests, they've become good friends.

The younger lawmaker stayed at the Capitol Plaza Hotel during his two terms in the House. After Campion was elected to the Senate in 2014, Sears invited his new seatmate to become his housemate.

Campion considers Sears a mentor. As a gay man, Campion especially admires the senior senator's role in passing the state's civil union legislation, which, he said, "changed my life."

Evenings in the townhouse are all about Bennington County. "This PFOA stuff has really dominated our conversation, quite frankly," Sears said, referring to a chemical discovered in groundwater there. "It's our Flint, Mich." In addition to strategizing about how to address water contamination in their district, they've been working on a bill to allow local theaters to serve alcohol — a request put to them by a Bennington theater.

Living together, they noted, makes it easier to divvy up the work of responding to constituents.

Also, Sears said, "We share a little gossip every now and then."

Rep. Joey Donovan (D-Burlington) and Rep. Alice Miller (D-Shaftsbury) don't have any territory in common; they often mock each other's districts — among other things.

"Last night I had to hear all about the births of six children," said Miller, with exaggerated disgust. Earlier that day, the House had debated a resolution in support of Roe v. Wade, which prompted Donovan, a pro-choice Irish Catholic, to reflect on the agony of childbirth. (Vermont's new attorney general, T.J. Donovan, is one of her children.)

"The good thing about living with Alice Miller is, she is my ticket to eternal salvation," Donovan shot back, suggesting that God will reward her for tolerating her housemate. Donovan started rooming with Miller after her husband died in 2005.

The women, who both worked in education and are retired, rent a small white cape up the street from the House speaker's rental. Upstairs, Miller's master bedroom is pristine, whereas the Burlington rep's is strewn with clothes. Downstairs, a stately dining room and living room look unused. Miller and Donovan prefer the cozy TV room, where they drink boxed wine, watch CNN and rib each other relentlessly.

They are completely incompatible — Miller wakes up at 3:30 a.m.; Donovan is vehemently anti-morning — and as close as sisters.

The Liberty Street crew also keeps very different hours, a fact they made clear that Wednesday evening.

"It's past his jammie time," Westman said, referring to Trieber, and causing all three to guffaw.

"I am usually the person who's in my pajamas in bed reading a book by 7 p.m.," Trieber admitted.

Living together, like politics, requires finding common ground. For this unlikely trio, that happens to be the musical Rent.

They host an annual screening at their house. "Rent is the premier night of the year," said Westman. Lawmakers from all parties are welcome. The only requirement is that they act and sing along with the show. "If you watch Matt sing Rent, you can't not love him," said Westman.

*Correction, February 20, 2017: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of years Richard Westman had served in the Senate.

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