On Saturday, Rep. Albert "Sonny" C. Audette, 78, died at Starr Farm Nursing Center after years of declining health. Since I generally don't know my points of order from my points of law, his passing wouldn't have been notable for me, but for the fact that I once spent an hour in his living room.
During the same-sex marriage debate in 2009, I was working as a reporter at the Burlington Free Press. On the day of the historic override of Gov. Jim Douglas' veto of same-sex marriage, Audette was home sick. While Audette's vote wasn't crucial to the override (the governor's veto was shot down 100-49 in the House and 23-5 in the Senate), it was curious that someone who had previously voted against same-sex marriage would not show up to defend his position.
Since casting his initial vote against same-sex marriage a few days prior to the override, Audette, a devout Catholic, had been deluged with calls from activists and supporters of marriage rights from around the country. They chastised him for being homophobic and anti-civil rights. Soon, people in his own district and in his own Democratic party were calling him to ream him out for voting against the party and the wishes of his constituents.
No wonder Audette didn't want to show up for the override. And no wonder he wouldn't take any more phone calls. His dutiful wife, Terri, turned off the ringer and let the machine pick up any messages.
In the Freeps newsroom, it became apparent that we needed to talk to Sonny. Not because his vote mattered so much, but because he was missing a historic moment in the legislature and we wanted to know why. I volunteered to find out and picked up the phone to call.
After I got the machine for the third time, I decided to take a drive over to Audette's South Burlington home. This is what reporters used to do before technology ruined everything.
Audette's wife answered the door of their raised ranch and I introduced myself. Terri Audette was a kindly woman, though she looked somewhat exhausted. I told her I wanted to talk to her husband to clear up any confusion about why he wasn't in Montpelier voting. I also mentioned that I understood he was unwell and expressed my concern. She asked me to wait at the door while she asked Audette if he'd be willing to speak with me.
When Terri came back down the stairs, to my surprise it was to usher me into their home. I walked up the stairs and found Sonny lying in a recliner, eating soup, a napkin fixed around his neck. He looked generally unwell.
He told me that gout and arthritis had gotten the better of him in the days leading up to the vote and that morning he woke up barely able to move. As it was, Sonny wasn't a small man. His size, coupled with his concomitant ailments, meant that he spent his later years in fluctuating states of ill health.
I should mention that because I am gay, the marriage vote had special significance for me. Not because I was angling to get married or because I believe strongly in the institution of marriage, but because the struggle for marriage equality is part of a larger civil rights discussion. It was about being denied access to something based on who you are.
But because I am a reporter who is able to put aside her personal feelings in pursuit of a story, the fact that I'm gay didn't color my reading of Audette. In fact, it might have even bolstered my respect for him.
Audette was devoted to the Catholic church like I'm devoted to ice cream, which is to say, passionately. As such, for him, the idea of allowing two men or two women to get married ran counter to what the church preached. He mentioned a number of times during our interview that he respected gay and lesbian people and that he had friends who stand under the rainbow umbrella, but that he had to vote his conscience. Same-sex marriage, he said, was against his religion.
I can respect that point of view if for no other reason than it's consistent. Audette was on message with his church. And his church was on message with the Vatican. Regardless of what you think about the Catholic church, at least they're consistent. For example, they don't like abortion, but they also don't like the death penalty or war. All killing is bad (just forget about that whole Crusades thing) in the eyes of the church.
We chatted for about an hour about his health, the Catholic church, his career in the Legislature and his wish for same-sex marriage to be decided by a referendum. I bristled at a number of things he said, particularly his enthusiasm for the referendum. Frankly, I don't want my life to be voted on by haters, but that's just me. Prop. 8, anyone?
I left Audette's house, returned to the newsroom and filed the story explaining the representative's absence. Then I celebrated later that night this one hurdle cleared.