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Retiring Vermont senators Jane Kitchel, Dick McCormack, and Bobby Starr reflect on their long careers

A photo looking down on people sitting at rounded long desks. The carpet below them is green.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Vermont's senate is made up of 30 members elected from multi-member districts.

Three longtime members of the Senate have announced their retirement. In March, Sen. Dick McCormack of Windsor County announced his decision to retire after a three-decade career in the Senate. Sen. Bobby Starr of Orleans County announced in April that he'd step down after 46 years. Sen. Jane Kitchel announced her retirement in May after 20 years of service to Caledonia County. All three are Democrats.

The three joined Vermont Edition to reflect on their careers, share memories of two beloved colleagues who recently died, and offer advice for future legislators.

On the passing of Sen. Dick Sears

Longtime Vermont State Senator Dick Sears died over the weekend at the age of 81. He represented Bennington County for more than three decades. A Democrat, he championed judicial reform and advocated for a more trauma-informed approach to rehabilitating at-risk youth.

Kitchel described Sears as a very passionate person who would emote strongly, and was caring and hard working.

"Sometimes, it would just be as simple as reaching out and putting my hand on his arm," Kitchel said. "We had a certain way of communicating after 20 years. I mean, we probably lasted longer than most marriages."

Starr said he got to know Sears during their time in the appropriations committee.

"He'd get gruff some days," Starr said, "and Jane [Kitchel] some days had her hands full keeping him under control. But there was always a reason as to why he got that way. There were many times we'd make little changes to a bill that he would then get happy as heck about."

McCormack recalled that he was often the subject of Sears' ire. He described Sears as a physically large man with a rough voice, but deep down he was "a big teddy bear."

"He felt deeply, and there were times when he felt he had been wronged and he protested," McCormack said. "We didn't just make peace afterward — it almost seemed like it never happened."

On the passing of Sen. Dick Mazza

Sears’ death came on the heels of the passing of another titan of the Vermont senate, Dick Mazza, who died at the end of May at the age of 84. Mazza, a Democrat, represented Colchester and Grand Isle County. He spent 42 years in the Statehouse while also running a general store.

Kitchel's seat in the Senate Chamber was next to Mazza's. She recalled the many hours they sat next to each other on the floor.

"As I reflect on 20 years and the number of committee members who have come and gone, I probably spent more waking hours with Senator Mazza than maybe any other senator," Kitchel said.

Starr considered Mazza a very good friend. He said Mazza often kept a close eye on transportation issues because it had a direct impact on his business.

"He was a great guy to work with," Starr said. "He always had a little candy in the room so he could sweeten you up with that. We agreed many times over the years, but sometimes we would go with the other side to make issues better. He was very even-keeled."

McCormack recalled years of banting with Mazza amidst their work.

"Mazza always criticized me for talking too long," McCormack said. "If I spoke on the floor, he'd do the 'finger across the throat' now and then. If someone was being long-winded, I would send him a note just saying, 'do not ever accuse me of being long-winded again.' And then he laughed. We got along fine."

On partisanship and the future of the Senate

"We have ideology on both sides, and it's very hard to come to a common ground," Kitchel said, "and yet, there's so much that gets done. Many of us describe ourselves as moderate Democrats or Republicans. I worked for Gov. [Howard] Dean, and he was fiscally conservative and socially liberal. I think [that] experience shaped how I look and think about issues."

McCormack said he believes old Vermont Republicans don't know what happened to their party.

"I have always had many close friends [who are] Vermont Republicans," he said. "Including my mother-in-law, who I asked at one point to put my sign up to get people to vote for me. I said to her, 'you haven't voted Republican in 20 years, why don't you join the Democrats?' And she said, 'never.' She was a good Vermont Republican."

Starr said it could be a challenge to square his constituents' opinions with those of his fellow lawmakers.

"You can fall into traps in Montpelier," he said. "You've got to, you know, keep close to the people that you represent."

Starr urged his former colleagues in the Senate to keep their constituents' voices at the center of their work rather than their own. "You learn twice as much by listening as you can by talking," he said. "Never forget where you came from."

Broadcast live on Monday, June 3, 2024, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.