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For Vermont's youngest lawmaker, flood recovery and rural issues hit home

A woman with blonde curly hair wearing a black jacket stands outside on a sunny day. Green grass and a white building are in the background.
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
Rep. Lucy Boyden, a Democrat from Lamoille County, stands outside of the Statehouse in Montpelier on April 25, 2024.

Walking into the Statehouse in Montpelier on a weekday in March, hectic energy abounds. Lawmakers in suits are bustling through doors, lobbyists and media mill about, and there’s the occasional classroom field trip.

Among the fray are young kids in dark green blazers, running up stairs, shuffling around papers or passing notes between lawmakers on the House or Senate floor.

These are the Vermont Legislative Pages — a program for eighth grade students which gives them experience in the Statehouse, watching lawmaking in action and delivering messages and mail during the session.

The goal is to get Vermont students involved in state politics at a young age. One example of it working: Lucy Boyden.

About 10 years ago, as a then-eighth grader, Boyden joined the program, unknowingly kickstarting her political career.

“It gave me a spark, definitely,” she said. “And I think I stored that in the back of my head and said, you know, someday, I'd really like to run for office.”

In 2022, she did. After being encouraged to run for Rep. Lucy Rogers’ seat as a senior in college, Boyden beat out Republican candidate Rebecca Pitre with more than twice the votes.

But perhaps most surprisingly — Boyden won when she was just 22, fresh out of finishing an undergraduate degree at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.

Boyden is one of only 38 lawmakers in Vermont’s Statehouse who are millennial or Gen Z. She’s currently Vermont’s youngest lawmaker, turning 24 just recently, and one of the youngest state politicians in the country.

But she says she doesn’t really think about it.

“Age is not really a part of who I feel like I am,” she said, during a recent interview at the Vermont Public studios in Colchester.

She balances the Gen Z with the political identity she now carries. On the one hand, she wears what one could call power suits to Montpelier, but also keeps a stud in her nose piercing and her blonde hair curly.

She has a Wikipedia page, but can casually drop the word “yap” in a sentence in a way that makes it clear she scrolls on TikTok like everyone else her age.

She bakes and skis in her free time, and makes it a point to prioritize “work-life balance.”

A woman with blonde curly hair, wearing a green jacket, stands at a desk with a chair and holds a stack of paper. Others around her sit at their desks.
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
Lamoille County Rep. Lucy Boyden speaks on the Vermont House floor on Thursday, March 22, 2024. Boyden reports H.622, legislation she co-sponsored regarding emergency medical services, or EMS, ahead of the annual crossover deadline.

While age isn’t something Boyden focuses on, she says she knows it’s something other people recognize about her.

“Having your workplace be within the Statehouse is very unique, and especially all the people that come with it as well,” she said. “From first meeting people to working with them, you know, sometimes I got the impression that my age is one of the first things that they identify.”

She says sometimes that means “having to kind of prove myself,” but she says Montpelier is also full of people willing to generously share their insights and experience.

“The Statehouse is really interesting, because it's a lot of people with institutional knowledge and people who really care about decorum, which is so important,” Boyden said.

More from Vermont Public: Young lawmakers join Vermont Future Caucus coalition to advocate for youth voters

Vermont’s Statehouse is nicknamed “the people’s house.” Lawmakers work about four months a year. Most, including Boyden, have a day job.

In recent years, there’s been a lot of discussion about who can afford to serve in “the people’s house.” Lawmakers make just over $800 a week — roughly $15,000 per year — which leadership has said prohibits the majority of working class people from serving. Gov. Phil Scott vetoed a bill last year that would have raised the weekly pay to about $1,200.

The last time the ages of House and Senate members were tallied was 2017, but at that time the average age of a House member was 63. For the Senate, it was 65. Anecdotally, the last few years have brought a younger crop of lawmakers onto the scene.

More from Brave Little State: Low Pay, Weird Schedule: Who Exactly Can Pull Off The Legislator Lifestyle?

Still, age is one reason the Vermont Future Caucus was created. Formed through the national Future Caucus organization, the Future Caucus works with young lawmakers at the federal and state level to bridge partisan divides and support collaborative governance. Boyden is a member of Vermont’s chapter.

“We're establishing priorities, and looking at subject areas to really hone in on, of where we can organize and provide support,” she said.

Boyden said it’s important to have representation at the Statehouse. It’s valuable to have people with lived experience at the policymaking table. And she brings some of that — having grown up on a farm in a rural part of the state, being a fifth generation Vermonter, as a new renter, a recent college graduate. But at the end of the day, she sees herself as just a regular person.

“You never know when one part of your life is going to change and suddenly, that's not a part of who you are anymore,” she said. “At the end of the day, I'm Lucy Boyden, who really loves Vermont, loves to be outside.”

Driving from Burlington, through Essex and Jericho and into Cambridge, two large, blue silos and farm buildings dot the landscape off the curve of Route 15.

The silos sit just along the edge of town, where Routes 15 and 104 meet, and they belong to the Boydens. The white house up front is where Lucy and her siblings grew up — the fifth generation of Boydens to grow up in that patch of Cambridge.

Boyden Farm belongs to Mark now, Lucy’s dad, who inherited it from his dad and so on.

Mark doesn’t expect Lucy to inherit it one day — which, he said, has felt freeing. But the farm has still shaped her as a person, and a lawmaker.

Dark blue silos with a flag and white text stand out against a light blue sky on a sunny day.
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
The blue Boyden Farm silos, which can be seen from Route 15 driving through Cambridge.

In addition to the Future Caucus, Lucy is a member of the well-established Rural Caucus, which works to support rural Vermonters at the Statehouse. This session, the Rural Caucus has been involved with legislation regarding Act 250, the right to repair agricultural equipment and emergency medical services, among others.

She’s also gotten involved in issues that affect her community outside of legislative work, like the longtime water moratorium in the village of Jeffersonville.

The state started enforcing a moratorium in the village in 2016 due outdated water systems and data that showed there wasn’t enough water to supply the village. Ever since, the moratorium has prevented Jeffersonville from creating any new water source hookups — meaning people looking to build new businesses, homes or rental properties in the area aren’t able to.

It’s been an ongoing issue between the people of Jeffersonville and Vermont since before Lucy was a lawmaker — and it’ll take several years to change. But Lucy says it’s an important issue for the community, so she’s taken on the role of organizing meetings and starting discussions of how to move forward and compromise — acting as a liaison between Lamoille County and the state.

“I think it was really good to get the people from the state [to] come sit down with our people within our municipality and just talk face-to-face,” Lucy said. “Because that was one thing, where [the] state was saying one thing, our municipality was saying another, and I was the middleman.”

Lucy is working with Lamoille County Sen. Rich Westman on the issue.

The moratorium has only been further complicated by flooding. As the Cambridge and Johnson area loses housing through buyouts by the federal government, amid Vermont’s ongoing struggle with a lack of housing options, it’s even more crucial to be able to build housing where space is available.

“I felt like I'd opened a can of worms because I was hearing everybody out,” Lucy said. “But it was actually really, really great. And it's really beneficial to our community, because something that it's prohibiting us from having [is] additional housing hookups for water and sewer, since we have a moratorium on our water system, at least in the village. So if we can continue to work together with all parties, then it would benefit us.”

A black cow ducks it's head under a railing. It has a small tag on it's left ear.
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
A cow at Boyden Farm. The Boydens have been farmers in Vermont for five generations. Mark Boyden currently runs the farming business, and has seen its transition from dairy to beef, among other changes.

The Boyden family is well known and well connected in Cambridge. Over the years, the farm has transitioned away from dairy, and acquired a winery and wedding venue — still, the family’s legacy in the area looms large.

It’s not necessarily a coincidence that Lucy got a start in politics at a young age, being a part of a family so embedded in the small town community, and being raised by Mark.

Mark said the political seed was planted early in Lucy, when he would drag her along with him when he’d go to Montpelier to testify at the Statehouse.

He said he used to think he’d work in politics, when he found the time, but it never happened. But it was something he continued to follow and talk about at home, and he was happy to pass that on to his daughters. Lucy said he’s a big part of why she’s a lawmaker now.

“A lot of my experience and interest really stemmed from these kitchen table conversations that my parents were having and then slowly it evolved to including my sisters and I,” Lucy said. “So to be able to continue that with my dad, and both my parents as well, it's really special.”

That doesn’t mean, today, they always see eye-to-eye on things. Lucy is a Democrat, whereas Mark describes himself as an “old school traditional Vermont Republican.”

“He's always trying to put his two cents in my ears about issues that are going on and how he thinks I should vote or think about certain issues,” she said. “And I always just remember that I represent everybody, everybody in Cambridge and Waterville, not just my family.”

For Mark’s part, he said he understands why Lucy associates more with the Democratic party. But he also said what’s special about Lucy is her ability to step back and act for her constituents without being stuck between party lines.

“When we were doing the campaign … she wanted to visit every single house in Cambridge and Waterville. And she got every house in Waterville, and she got most of the ones in Cambridge,” Mark said. “And she really did a good job of going to the people and just listening, and I think we need more people like that in this world who can just step back and listen, regardless of what their background is.”

A person wearing an orange hat, pink coat and dark pants walks through bright white snow, several inches deep, on a sunny day. There's a clear view of a large mountain in the background.
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
Lucy Boyden trudges through several inches of snow in her backyard in Cambridge on Monday, March 25, 2024. She lives in the valley, a short drive away from her family at Boyden Farm, with a view of Mt. Mansfield in the back.

Lucy also isn’t the first young person Cambridge has put its faith in. Before it was Lucy Boyden, it was Rep. Lucy Rogers, who was elected in 2018 right after graduating from the University of Vermont. She encouraged Boyden to run for her seat in 2022.

Veteran lawmaker Sen. Rich Westman — whose family has also long resided in Cambridge — got his start in politics 40 years ago, getting elected to the House at the age of 23.

“The community wants to give their young people a chance,” Westman said. “Lucy's very serious. And she's serious about doing a good job. And, you know, the one thing I will say about the Cambridge community: They sent young people, but everybody they've sent has been pretty serious.”

When she’s not in Montpelier, Boyden lives on the outskirts of Cambridge, in a rented house with a view of Mt. Mansfield in her backyard.

It’s a short drive away from Boyden Farms, and a scenic one, too. But it’s hard to miss the downed trees and debris piled off to the side of the road, or in the trees in her backyard.

Behind a small wall of snow, trees stand, with some downed trees and other damage seen throughout.
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
Fallen trees caused by weather events sit in Rep. Lucy Boyden’s Cambridge backyard on March 25, 2024.

The debris pokes out of several inches of late March snow. But the damage has lingered since the rain cleared last July.

Cambridge was one of many towns across Vermont hit hard by flooding in July 2023. The Lamoille River peaked at about 21 feet in Johnson on Tuesday, July 11, 2023. It washed out fields, homes, roads, wastewater plants and nature trails in Lamoille County; it dumped waste into water sources, and left mud, oil spills, mold and more in its wake. The damage cut off entire towns in some instances, with no power or cell service or roads to leave. And towns have been rebuilding since.

And then in December, Cambridge was hit again with minor flooding. In January, a powerful wind storm battered parts of the community.

More from Vermont Public: Tuesday night's winds hit hard for farms in Cambridge's Pleasant Valley

For people who lived through this series of disasters, it’s been on their minds ever since. The amount of damage, and how to move forward, has filtered into the Statehouse this session.

For Boyden, it’s an especially personal issue that also happens to be work. Not only is she representing Vermonters going through this, she’s witnessed her family go through it, too. Like other farms in the state, Boyden Farm had significant flooding in their fields, leading to crop loss.

“It was really almost emotional to go through and to, like, think back on,” she said. “Because during the moment, we just had to let the rain fall and let everything happen. And suddenly, our community was being cut off from each other within the area, but also other towns, too. And as a community, we really rely on each other for support. So, to just kind of sit back and wait until support could be provided was really hard to do.”

Snow covers farmland on a sunny day, near a river that snakes through the area.
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
The Lamoille River cuts through Boyden Farm in Cambridge, just off of Route 15. The farm experienced crop loss when the river peaked during widespread flooding in Vermont in July 2023.

She said it started a conversation in Vermont about how to provide support for the people still actively going through recovery — a conversation lawmakers have been having for months.

She co-sponsored legislation this session that had flooding at its core — one bill would have created a Community Resilience and Disaster Mitigation Fund; another proposed providing financial assistance to municipalities to plan for and respond to flood risk and other natural disasters. While these House bills didn’t progress this year, similar legislation and other flood-related bills that originated in the Senate moved forward.

“It's hard to have it constantly on your mind,” Boyden said. “And it's hard also to remind other people that it should also be on their mind as well. That just because we're a little bit out of the woods, you know, we're not completely out of the woods, and resiliency and recovery is a really long term thing to keep considering and making sure that everybody is fully supported.”

As with any job, in any career field, there are learning curves, a settling in period.

“Last year, you know, looking back, kind of felt chaotic. With just so many new members in both the House and Senate, that everybody was just finding their footing, but also the returning members were finding their footing of like, what to do with us, is a funny way to put it,” Boyden said.

But this year, she said she feels more established in her role, and that she’s worked hard to have more work-life balance. At the same time, she said this legislative session has moved extremely fast, and has had tougher topics at times.

“There's curveballs every day,” she said.

From above, a person with blonde curly hair and a green jacket stands behind a wood desk, with papers, phones and computers set down.
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
Rep. Lucy Boyden reads legislation she cosponsored regarding emergency medical services, or EMS, on March 22, 2024 in the House of Representatives chamber.

As she wraps up her first term in the House, Boyden said she has more to give in Montpelier, at least for a few more years.

“I do plan on running again,” she said. “Something I really value as being a legislator is listening, learning and communicating all with an open mind. And I feel like I've done that really effectively.”

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