Montpelier attorney Mike Donofrio on what it means to be of means, and finding connection
"What class are you?" It's a question that Vermont Public reporter Erica Heilman has been asking people for a series about class and cultural divides that we are airing all week. In this second installment, Erica speaks with Montpelier attorney Mike Donofrio.
Note: This story was produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio.
Find the other installments of the "What class are you?" series here.
Mike Donofrio moved to Vermont with his family when he was 2 years old. He grew up, and he left Vermont for college and law school, then he moved back and worked in the attorney general's office. Now he's in private practice in Montpelier. And he plays bass in a few bands.
I asked him what class he is. Here is some of what he said.
Mike: "I grew up comfortably, upper middle class, and I went through all my schooling without becoming saddled with student debt. You know, I'm white, male, that puts me in a position to have a lot of stuff, you know, happen more easily for me than most. And I know that there are zillions of people out there who are just as worthy of those things and don't have them."
Erica: "Why does this feel... or does this feel like an admission?"
Mike: "Yeah, I guess it does. I feel like on some level, it's an admission that I'm part of the problem."
"So if you ask someone questions about, you know, their status as a seventh-generation Vermonter or their status as a someone who just moved here from somewhere else, asking about it is qualitatively different from judging it, reacting to it, taking a position about it. Those are all closing a door. Whereas asking a question is opening a door."Mike Donofrio, Montpelier attorney
Erica: "How would you describe the problem?"
Mike: "Things are not very fair. Money, opportunity is not very evenly distributed. And I have more than a person's fair share of it. And most people have less, you know, opportunity, power, advantage, wealth. To an unprecedented degree it's concentrating, you know, more all the time. And the status quo is working to the benefit of a very small few.
"Now, your next question to me should be, ‘Aren't you one of them?’ And of course, on some level, the answer to that is ‘Yes.’ But I think the common ground is that I don't think things are working. I don't have any faith in the big institutions that I see as kind of shaping society and shaping the conditions that we live in. All of them have as their prime directive to perpetuate themselves, grow themselves in a kind of zero-sum way, at the expense of everything else. And I think that's what a lot of my friends who sit in other parts of the political spectrum, other parts of the socioeconomic spectrum, I think that's what they think, too.
"But then, all of these ways that we're then supposedly divided — class, race, gender, whatever — that's just us spinning our wheels and letting the way things are entrench itself even more to our collective disadvantage."
Erica: "So, if we are being encouraged to sort of scrap among ourselves, what in your estimation are the some of the antidotes to that?"
Mike: "You know, the writer Johann Hari said, sobriety is not the opposite of addiction — connection is the opposite of addiction. I sort of think connection is the answer to everything. You know, by connect I do not mean Instagram and Facebook. That stuff is addiction and the opposite of connection. And I actually think Vermont has a much better infrastructure for the sort of connection I'm talking about than most places. Because for whatever reason, I still think there's this neighborly spirit that's still here and hasn't been as crushed as I think it has on the national level. And as it doesn't exist in places like Facebook."
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Erica: "The demographics here in Vermont are changing for a variety of reasons. What are the challenges therein? And what do you think we ought to be thinking about?"
Mike: "I guess one possibility is to recognize the things that you have, or the things about you that just sort of came to you not based on anything you did, or the fact that your family was here in Vermont, for you know, several generations before you were born, is such a thing. Like, it's just, it's just true, but it's not because you did something to have it be true.
"And so people who are choosing to be here, as long as they're not total jerks about it when they show up, like the fact that they want to be here to the point where they're leaving a job and moving a great distance, like that's pretty cool. And the fact that someone's been here for seven generations is also pretty cool in a different way. Because that also shows a commitment to a place. So if you ask someone questions about, you know, their status as a seventh-generation Vermonter or their status as a someone who just moved here from somewhere else, asking about it is qualitatively different from judging it, reacting to it, taking a position about it. Those are all closing a door. Whereas asking a question is opening a door."
Erica: "By ‘connection’… are you talking about, you know, talking about your greatest, you know, hopes and dreams? Or are you talking about cupcakes?"
Mike: "I think I actually do have an example. So we bought a camp in Woodbury a couple of years ago. And one of our neighbors right close by, his name's Larry. And I think his family has been in Vermont for a long time. And he can do anything. He's got every piece of gear you would need, and he knows how to use it.
"And I feel like Larry and I kind of sit on opposite sides of the whole, you know, Vermonter-Flatlander thing we were talking about before. But Larry, in the short time we've been there, has been so unbelievably generous and helpful in a number of situations that have arisen. I have not done a single useful thing for Larry, because I'm not capable of it. Like there's nothing he needs that he can't do himself. Well, I take that back. I looked at some legal papers for him. And I felt really good that I was able to do something in return.
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"But you know, the first time we met, I was standing in the driveway. And we ended up just talking for an hour, and you read cues and stuff, like I could sort of tell like all the differences between us. But you know, at the end of the conversation, I felt like we're neighbors, we're on the way to being friends. And honestly, if Larry goes home and kind of rolls his eyes about me because I'm just like this doofus for Montpelier? That's honestly fine, because he's nothing but kind and generous to me, in our interactions.
"And from my side of the equation, what I can say is, I think he and I are a pair of people who all of these forces that we were talking about earlier, like the they are designed to drive apart. But that's stupid, because one conversation in the driveway proved that there's plenty there between the two of us to be good neighbors and friends and to help each other. Because lord knows if there was anything I could do to help Larry, I would, and he has certainly helped me a number of times."
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