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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Protest At The Governor's Inaugural Wasn't Unprecedented

Angela Evancie
Protesters disrupted Gov. Peter Shumlin's inauguration on Jan. 8; ultimately, 29 were arrested. It wasn't the first time protests took place during a gubernatorial inaugural.

Last week's protest at the Statehouse during Gov. Peter Shumlin's inaugural address wasn't the first time that a governor's speech has been interrupted by protesters. A similar incident took place 24 years ago.

The date was Jan. 16, 1991 and Gov. Richard Snelling was set to deliver his budget address to a joint assembly at the Statehouse.

Snelling was beginning his second tenure as governor. He was elected to four terms starting in 1977. There was great interest in the speech because the state was facing a budget deficit of more than $60 million.

Earlier that week, President George H.W. Bush announced military action against the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. It was the beginning of what was known as "the first Gulf War."

Dozens of people filled the balcony of the House chamber to protest the war. Snelling was at the beginning of his speech when they stood and chanted. It caused him to stop speaking.

"Money for peace, not for war! Money for jobs, not for war! Money for education, not for war! Money for health care, not for war! Money for the environment, not for war!" the protesters chanted.

"Freedom of speech not only guarantees the right to dissent; it also guarantees the right to be heard. And that includes the governor of this state." - Lt. Gov. Howard Dean, to protesters in the House Chamber who interrupted the budget address of Gov. Richard Snelling in January of 1991

Lt. Gov. Howard Dean was the presiding office of the joint assembly of the Legislature. Dean slipped past Snelling and addressed the protesters directly.

"This democracy was founded upon the principle of speech, freedom of speech. Freedom of speech not only guarantees the right to dissent it also guarantees the right to be heard and that includes the governor of this state,” said Dean. “Who I now reintroduce to you, Richard A. Snelling, to continue his address."

Fast forward to last Thursday afternoon at the Statehouse. More than 100 people from the Vermont Workers Center came to Montpelier. They are strong advocates for a single-payer health system and they were very upset because Gov. Shumlin had concluded that the financing of a single-payer system would hurt the Vermont economy.

They called for a special public hearing to review the issue and they voiced their feelings right after Shumlin had concluded his inaugural address and just before the closing benediction.

"When I think of what other counties do to silence their differences, aren't you glad you're an American?" - Reverend Robert Potter of the Peacham Congregational Church, speaking over protesters at Gov. Shumlin's inauguration

The presiding officer of the assembly was Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. And like Howard Dean, he tried to bring order to the chamber.

"I'd please ask you to respect the chamber, the decorum of the chamber," said Scott. 

The Rev. Robert Potter of the Peacham Congregational Church opened his benediction with an unscripted message.

"When I think of what other counties do to silence their differences, aren't you glad you're an American?” said Potter, to enthusiastic applause from lawmakers.

Virtually all state office buildings have some level of security at their entrances but the Statehouse does not. Some lawmakers think the time has come to implement additional measures, such as metal detectors.

However, Shumlin says lawmakers should not over-react to last week’s protest, and that the openness of the Statehouse needs to be preserved.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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