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'This is Dick Mazza's chair': After dean of the Senate resigns, colleagues reflect on a legacy

Five people site around a wood table in a room with ornate carpeting. One of the chairs is empty.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Members of the Senate Committee on Transportation met Tuesday for the first time since their chair, Grand Isle Sen. Dick Mazza, resigned his seat, which sits empty at the head of the table.

The Vermont Senate has lost one of its most respected and influential members, and his departure signals a potentially generational change in the chamber, where some of the most tenured members are also considering leaving.

Grand Isle Sen. Dick Mazza was diagnosed with cancer last year, and he resigned his post on Monday due to declining health.

The swiveling black leather chair at the head of the antique wood table in the Senate Committee on Transportation sat noticeably empty on Tuesday morning. As the four remaining committee members began their day’s work, Vice Chair Andrew Perchlik, a Democratic senator from Washington County, acknowledged the void.

“This is the first day in 39 years that Sen. Dick Mazza has not been in the transportation committee,” Perchlik said.

Mazza, a Democrat, has chaired the transportation committee since 1991. His colleagues say his steady hand has guided their work for the past 40 years. He’s also served as mentor and confidante to some of the most recognizable names in Vermont politics.

“He was incredibly fair, and his first love was the integrity of the Senate."
Caledonia County Sen. Jane Kitchel

Peter Welch, Howard Dean, Peter Shumlin, Phil Scott and Becca Balint all credit Mazza’s counsel with bending their political trajectories in some form or fashion. Mazza played his star role in Montpelier almost entirely behind the scenes.

A framed cork board with pictures and newspaper clippings
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
A framed cork board on the wall of the Senate transportation committee features pictures and newspaper clippings from Mazza's legislative tenure.

“I just wanted to recognize that we miss Sen. Mazza greatly and recognize his long service sitting in this committee,” Perchlik said. “I feel like we kind of need to leave the chair vacant forever. … This is Dick Mazza’s chair.”

Ask anyone who’s anyone in the Statehouse about what made Mazza the legend he’s become, and you’re likely to hear a version of how Caledonia County Sen. Jane Kitchel explains it.

“He was incredibly fair, and his first love was the integrity of the Senate,” Kitchel told Vermont Public Tuesday. “And he really did not engage in political retribution, he did not carry grudges that we sometimes see in this building.”

Fairness, Mazza’s colleagues say, was his currency in Montpelier. And, according to Lamoille County Sen. Rich Westman, a Republican, his innate ability to remain calm, no matter the intensity of the political storm surrounding him.

“When you’re in the middle of the whirlwind of an issue and you think everything is up in the air, he was grounded toward the center,” Westman said.

Angela Evancie
Vermont Public file
Sen. Jane Kitchel, left, said Sen. Dick Mazza, right, prioritized fairness and the integrity of the Senate.

Mazza is a Democrat. But not always — or even usually — the sort of Democrat who thinks government is the solution to Vermonters’ problems.

“As most of you know, I’m not a big fan of raising taxes,” Mazza told colleagues during a 2013 floor session.

A photo of Phil Scott, in front of a gold frame, speaking into a microphone
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Gov. Phil Scott said Mazza took him "under his wing" when he first joined the Vermont Senate in 2001.

Mazza found a political soulmate of sorts in Phil Scott, when the construction company owner who was best known for racing cars at Thunder Road was elected to the state Senate in the early 2000s. Scott counts Mazza’s mentorship as one of the defining factors in his ascent to the governor’s office.

But all roads to higher office in Vermont seem to run through the office at Dick Mazza’s General Store in Colchester. Chittenden County Sen. Phil Baruth says it was an obligatory stop when he decided to pursue the position of Senate president pro tem.

“You talk with him about your ambitions, you talk with him about what you want to do, and then he gives you a pie as you leave,” Baruth said.

Baruth said Mazza’s boundless generosity is one of the reasons he’s engendered so much trust among fellow senators. But it’s his position on the Committee on Committees — where he’s served since 1997 — that lends him force, Baruth said.

The role gave him outsize influence in determining who sat on what Senate committees. Baruth said it’s a power that’s difficult to understand if you don’t serve in the Legislature.

“You talk with him about your ambitions, you talk with him about what you want to do, and then he gives you a pie as you leave.”
Chittenden County Sen. Phil Baruth

“Every time something really important is going down, you find yourself in Mazza’s store talking it out,” he said.

Orleans Sen. Bobby Starr has been working with Mazza in Montpelier for almost four decades.

“He was always a super good guy,” Starr said.

Starr said he’s concerned about what Mazza’s departure represents. Starr, a Democrat who was first elected to the House in 1978, said he’s thinking seriously about not running for reelection this year. He says other elder members in the body are also contemplating leaving.

“I mean, we’ve witnessed the changing of the guard, you may say, on the House side. And it really makes you wonder,” he said.

That changing of the guard, Starr said, has coincided with a shift to the left in the House, and a newfound willingness to rely on significant tax increases to fund new government programs, such as the $130 million in tax increases House lawmakers passed last month.

Starr said the Senate, though controlled by Democrats, has provided fiscal balance in the Legislature. And he’s worried about the politics of the people who’ll eventually replace members of the old guard like him.

“And if it gets to be like the House side, it will, I think, be very disruptive to our citizens,” Starr said.

Baruth said that, based on conversations he’s had with his members, the Senate will see a major roster change sooner than later.

The beginning of this biennium saw the swearing in of 10 first-year senators. Baruth said he expects more than five more incumbents to hand over the reins in 2024.

“When we meet in January, more than half of the senators will have two years or less experience, which is a sea change by any standard,” he said.

Back in the Senate transportation committee, colleagues recalled Mazza’s easy laugh, and the seemingly endless supply of sweets he’d bring them from his store.

“We will miss him,” Perchlik said. “But, as he would want, we will continue working for the state. So in that vein we are going to talk about H.868.”

And with that, the committee resumed deliberations on miscellaneous changes to Vermont’s transportation laws.

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The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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