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Bernie Sanders

Vermont's New Political Star

Inside Track


Published November 17, 2004 at 5:00 p.m.

She's only 5-feet-10-and-a-half, not 6 feet like we thought. She grew up alongside New York's Hudson River in the exclusive community that was the birthplace of the tuxedo. She attended an exclusive girls' boarding school in Virginia and later ran her own bakery in Princeton, New Jersey.

She has three kids, an MBA and a husband who once ran Ben & Jerry's. And in January, Rep. Gaye Symington of Jericho will be sworn in as Speaker of the Vermont House.

Vermont politics -- you've just got to love it!

First elected to the Vermont Legislature in 1996, Ms. Symington has quietly moved up through the ranks. Two years ago, when John Tracy took an unsuccessful run at speaker, Gaye moved up to be leader of the Democratic caucus.

But two weeks ago, the Democrats crushed Republicans in House races and will return in January with a solid, 83-seat majority. That means control of the powerful speaker's office for the first time in four years.

Symington has already cut a skillful behind-the-scenes deal with Tracy that will avoid a power struggle. Instead, John-John will have the special assignment of leading the "conversation" on health-care reform. Speaker Symington will have the job of leading the Democratic agenda.

Fasten your seat belts, folks. Change is in the wind on many fronts. The Symington Era is just around the bend.

But who the hell is Gaye Symington?

Indications are, she's one of a kind.

They say you can tell a lot about a person by the music they listen to. Asked who her favorite musicians are, Lady Gaye replied, "It depends where my head is. Someday it's the Talking Heads. Some days it's a little Wood's Tea Company. It depends," she said, "whether I need to be calmed down and reminded the world is a beautiful place."


Around the building, and even on Sunday's "You Can Quote Me" on Ch. 3, Lady Gaye reminds us she is a woman who shuns the use of cosmetics. "Plain Old Vermont" is her style of choice.


Symington grew up surrounded by wealth and privilege in Tuxedo, New York, 40 miles upriver from the Big Apple. Her father was trained as an attorney but made his money on Wall Street as an investment banker. The Symingtons were Episcopalians. Gaye grew up in WASP Heaven. She's currently a Unitarian Universalist.

Ms. Symington attended the local elementary school in Tuxedo Park. But for high school, our new speaker went off to the Madeira School in Virginia. Notable alums also include actresses Stockard Channing and Blair Brown and Washington Post Publisher Katherine Graham.

Madeira is also famous for once having Jean Harris as headmistress. Ms. Harris later won notoriety for murdering the "Scarsdale Diet" doctor Herman Tarnower.

Actresses and murderers, yes, but as far as we can tell, Madeira has never produced a speaker of the house.


After high school, Lady Gaye proceeded to Williams College, earning an environmental studies degree in 1977. After college Symington moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where her parents then lived. She opened a bread bakery. At the time, she reminded us, natural breads were hard to find in America.

After a couple years baking bread, Lady Gaye went to Cornell to study business. It was, after all, in the blood. In Ithaca, she met her husband-to-be and the future father of their three children. Chuck Lacy was also studying for an MBA. Studied so well, in fact, he later became the president of Ben & Jerry's, from 1990-1995.

Ms. Symington and Mr. Lacy landed in Jericho, Vermont, in the mid-1980s. Lacy, by the way, declined to speak with us for this article.

Chuck chuckled as he told us he didn't "want to be part of a story" about his other half. He said he would have "no comment."

Lacy is currently president of the Barred Rock Fund, a venture-capital fund that invests in companies likely to create jobs in low-income areas.

And his wife told us that Chuck is currently devoting his energy to a film project on the war in Iraq.

The Lacy-Symington household also sells homegrown organic eggs off their porch and raises pigs and pumpkins.

Lady Gaye told us she never got bit by the political bug until she landed in Vermont. Asked to name her political hero, she paused. A long pause it was, too.

After an eternity passed, Symington said, "I never was at all interested in politics."


Lady Gaye added that the people who have most influenced her politically are all Vermont products: Rep. Bernie Sanders, former Gov. Madeleine Kunin and former Democratic House leader Paul Cillo. Cillo was a champion of Act 60. And it was the gross inequity in public-school funding that first lit Gaye Symington's political fuse.

In the mid-1990s, the mother of three was thinking about running for the local school board. (Silent Chuckie, by the way, currently serves on it.)

So, in a move that speaks volumes about her approach to issues, Symington audited a course on education funding at St. Mike's. She has a pronounced fetish for feeding her mind.

The class, she said, helped her realize "It would drive me nuts to serve on the school board." She knew Vermont's system for funding public schools "wasn't fair," and she quickly realized "school boards could not fix it." But the legislature could.

So, Symington ran for the Vermont House in the fall of 1996. She won. Her acumen for education financing was immediately recognized by the House leadership and she was assigned to the Ways and Means Committee, where Act 60 was soon born.

Statehouse regulars describe Lady Gaye as a "planner" and a "thinker." Many wonder, however, how she will handle the power game, the lobbyists and the press scrutiny. Symington warned us that her style is to think things through before letting her jaws flap.

We warned her that that style may have to speed up a wee bit in her new role as Speaker of the House. Still, if she can organize chickens, piggies, pumpkins and children, surely the Statehouse press corps won't be too big a challenge?

P.S. Though Lady Gaye didn't get political until she was almost 40, she does have politics in her bloodline. Her grandfather's brother, she told us, was U.S. Sen. Stuart Symington of Missouri, a Democratic presidential hopeful in the 1950s.

O'Connor Emerges -- After months of silence, Howard Dean's longest-serving and closest aide emerged from the shadows last week in a strange two-part interview on VPR. Kate O'Connor guarded Ho-Ho like he was the Holy Grail, and two Dean campaign managers have blamed her for their demise.

In his new book, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Joe Trippi writes that in August 2003, "a couple staffers saw [Kate] writing in her Blackberry that she wanted to get rid of me."

Trippi also claims Kate used her closeness to Ho-Ho "to promote the view that I was leading Dean off on some dangerous populist crusade."

O'Connor's often overzealous protectiveness of Dean is well known to Vermont journalists.

On VPR she claimed complete innocence, saying she was "honestly shocked" when she started getting press calls that suggested she was the reason Dean collapsed so quickly.

Whatever you say, Kate.

Two things are clear.

One is that Ms. O'Connor no longer works for Howard Dean. She is not part of his Democracy for America operation.

And, two, she has no desire to be interviewed by the likes of yours truly. We sent her an email after the VPR story and received this reply:

"Why now? Why didn't I get a chance to comment before you printed all of the lies you were told?"

Well, we actually did try to reach her. Unfortunately, Ms. O'Connor stopped returning our calls when Dean was still governor, long before his run for the White House.

Blowing in the Wind -- It's been a good couple weeks for Vermonters who'd like to see the state do something about wind energy besides just talk about it.

Gov. Jim Douglas, as everyone knows, has been anything but a champion of wind power. Oh, sure, Gentle Jim supports the concept, but he's forever worrying aloud about its possible negative impact on Vermont's scenic ridge lines. His is a cautious, timid approach.

Our governor, like none before him, is a master of the art of expressing heartfelt support for both sides of an issue. But the bottom line is, Gov. Scissorhands will not become a wind-energy backer unless pushed.

The Democrat Party takeover of the Vermont House on Election Day provides that push. The Republican Speaker of the House for the last four years, Walter Freed, had a "gasoline and matches" relationship with wind-energy proponents, in fact, with environmentalists in general.

But after four years of riding the wave of the homophobic civil-unions backlash, the House GOP Caucus will be a shrunken, 60-seat minority in January. They'll caucus in the little room, Room 10. And wind-friendly House Democrats will caucus across the hall in Room 11, the big room.

Put that together with the Democrats' 21-9 majority in the Senate and you realize how much Gov. Douglas' influence under the Golden Dome has changed. Last session, the Guv could pretty much ignore the environmental lobby. This session, they'll be front and center. Already you can feel the wind.

On Monday, Gov. Scissorhands' Commission on Wind Energy Regulatory Policy issued a draft report. The Guv will not be pleased.

You see, the commission on wind is part of our governor's go-slow approach. Wind-energy opponents raised the issue of whether wind projects should have to also go through an Act 250 review instead of just the "Section 248" regulatory review that's spelled out for electric power projects such as nukes.

The Douglas Wind Commission says Section 248 will do just fine. There's no need to make the windmill developers do the Act 250 dance, too.

According to the commission recommendations, "Applying both Section 248 and Act 250 to proposed wind projects would result in a duplicative and inefficient process. Section 248 already incorporates key Act 250 criteria."

In addition, "Section 248 is appropriate because of the importance of considering 'public good' in the deliberation of energy projects that have statewide or broader implications."

After four years with little to cheer about, the Vermont Public Interest Group was quick to claim victory this week. VPIRG's Azur Mouleart put out a release Monday blowing a little wind in Douglas' face.

"Governor Douglas has been stalling for months on wind power," wrote VPIRG's wind-energy czar, "claiming that siting a wind turbine might be more complicated than siting a nuclear power plant, and that he therefore wanted more time to review the existing laws. Well, the stall clock just chimed. With the Governor's own study committee saying the existing laws are adequate, it's time for Governor Douglas to quit stalling and start supporting wind power."

Pretty straightforward, eh?

Douglas' press secretary Jason Gibbs accused Mr. Mouleart of "wanting to pick a political fight."

Oh, dear. Don't you hate it when politicians fight?

Mr. Gibbs said that's "disappointing when you consider VPIRG's mission is to work in the public interest."

Goodness, gracious. Questioning motives already, eh?

The Guv's spokesman, however, did agree with VPIRG on one point.

"He's right about one thing," said Gibbs, "it is the governor's commission on wind. It's kind of hard to argue that the governor's been stalling when he's the first governor to authorize wind-energy projects on state-owned lands and has a commission prepared to recommend a responsible regulatory structure for commercial wind energy."

Nice spin, eh?

A very windy session lies ahead.

Rising Stars -- Democrat Party Chairman Scudder Parker put out a thank-you email to the troops this week and in it praised the contributions of Jill Krowinsky and Rebecca McCarty, the two talented women who ran the Dems' extremely successful "Take Back the House" campaign.

Seven Days has learned that Ms. McCarty has already been signed up for the coming session by the hired-gun lobbying firm of Morris & Associates. Gerry Morris, a Statehouse veteran, fronts for Pfizer, Budweiser and Vermont Yankee, among others.

And sources say that Speaker Symington is trying to create a spot on her staff for Krowinsky.

Media Notes -- The new face on Ch. 5 News belongs to Boston native Kyla Cullinane. She's the NECN replacement for Anya Huneke, who now covers the mayhem in Massachusetts.

Kyla was a psychology major at the University of Virginia. Sure beats the hell out of studying journalism, eh?

Ms. Cullinane's spent the last two years as a TV news reporter in South Bend, Indiana -- Notre Dame country.

Bet the psychology training helped.

Both NECN and Ch. 5 are owned by Hearst-Argyle.

Correction -- We got our Toms mixed up last week. That was Democracy for America political director Tom Hughes with the sushi at Shaw's, not Tom McMahon, the big boss. In fact, McMahon says he hates sushi.

Sorry, man. Irish-Americans look so much alike, don't they?

Tom's brother Steve McMahon did Ho-Ho's media during the miracle of 2003. He also has become a familiar mug on talking-head shout shows such as CNN's "Crossfire."

Sorry, Toms.

Dean, meanwhile, had an event at Yale booked for Tuesday. There's a lot of behind-the-scenes action going on over who will be the new chair of the DNC.

Ho-Ho's in play.

His middle-of-the-road gubernatorial reign may actually help him.