The Mind of Senator Mark MacDonald | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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The Mind of Senator Mark MacDonald


Stuck in stuffy committee rooms for four months of the year, state legislators find plenty of ways to cope: knitting, napping, clumsily surfing the web on state-issued iPads.

Sen. Mark MacDonald (D-Orange) pens cartoons.

MacDonald draws inspiration from legislative debates, poking fun at his political opponents and illustrating the absurdity of his august surroundings.

“He’s very good at putting things in perspective and seeing the lighter side — drilling right down to what is really going on here,” says Sen. Ann Cummings (D-Washington), who served with MacDonald on the Senate Finance Committee. “Sometimes he’s not always politically correct and needs someone to say, ‘Are you sure?’”

MacDonald served in Vietnam, captained a shrimp boat in the Gulf of Mexico and raised beef cattle in Williamstown. But he traces his cartooning roots to the three decades he spent teaching eighth-grade social studies. There, he says, he learned how to explain seemingly complex concepts through visual representation.

When he speaks, MacDonald is often incomprehensible — it’s as if his brain is working too fast to follow. But cartooning enables him to express himself more coherently, says Cummings.

“I think it helps him put his thoughts together when we’re working through a subject to be able to sit down and draw it out,” she says.

Here are a few samples of MacDonald’s work from the 2013 legislative session.

In lobbying parlance, there are the “white hats” and the “black hats” — those who advocate for the people and those who lobby for corporations. But as MacDonald notes, “Many Montpelier lobbying firms advertise themselves as ‘consultants on legislative issues.’”

He posted this cartoon right above a chair in the Senate Finance Committee one day and waited to see who would sit under it. As corporate lobbyists flooded the room to plead their case on tax policy, it was the last seat filled.

When it comes to state budgeting, MacDonald sees a two-tiered system. State agencies and nonprofits are “the unwashed masses” that must “beg for money” from the Senate Appropriations Committee, while “the well-heeled corporate leaders” simply seek tax breaks from the Senate Finance Committee.

"It's gradually becoming the way wealthy people do business," he says.

“What’s less of a terrorist activity?” MacDonald asks. “Someone who walks into a CIA meeting with a [suicide-bombing] vest or someone who blows up a house with a drone? Isn’t it the same thing?”

What happens after years of “sharpening the pencil” during the state budgeting process? No more pencils.

MacDonald saw a connection between U.S. drone policy and this year’s debate about end-of-life legislation. Skeptical senators wanted to debate every last detail of the “death with dignity” bill, while MacDonald says most people don’t even want to think about America’s drone-strike policy.

“Folks who are in the ‘current use’ program come in and object to making standards stricter on clear-cutting or manure-spreading or stream-bank protection. And they say, ‘Well, we’re the stewards of the land. We take pride in being stewards of the land,’” MacDonald explains. “But when they come in, they’re always objecting to something that would provide more stewardship.”