My First Term: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

By Rep. Kathleen James

Two years ago, I was elected to represent the Bennington-4 district — Arlington, Manchester, Sandgate and Sunderland — in the Vermont General Assembly. I was sworn into office on January 9, 2019. When Secretary of State James Condos read my name in the statehouse that day, my chest tightened with emotion and my eyes welled with tears. I was proud of myself, sure, because I’d worked hard to win. But mostly I felt a profound sense of responsibility.

When I took the oath of office, stepped into Seat 43 and was appointed to the House Education Committee, the work of representing our communities in Montpelier began. I have taken this work very seriously.

COMMITTEES: In the legislature, we spend most of our time in committee, taking testimony and discussing bills. Committee work is vital because it’s the sieve any bill must pass through in its long-odds journey to become law. (According to Clerk of the House William MaGill, in the current biennium 1,332 bills have been introduced, and in a typical session about 17 percent will be signed by the Governor.)

I’ve been deeply engaged in my committee work, and the bills we’ve covered have been interesting. During my first year I was appointed to the House-Senate conference committee for S.40 (Act 66), a bill that required Vermont’s schools and childcare centers to test for dangerous levels of lead in the drinking water, and remediate at an action level of four parts per billion. Though delayed by COVID, this important work is underway. You can look up results at leadresults.vermont.gov.

Since spring 2019, I’ve served on the legislative advisory council and board of delegates for the New England Board of Higher Education (nebhe.org), an interstate compact that works across six states on education policy and programs. It’s an excellent resource—a place to learn from other legislators and see how states are responding to the demographic and financial challenges facing colleges and universities across the region. In June, I was named to the Select Committee on the Future of Public Higher Education in Vermont. Though we’re just getting started, this group will take a hard look at the crisis facing the Vermont State Colleges. Our mission is to develop an integrated vision and plan for a high-quality, affordable, and workforce-connected future for public higher education in the state.

CAUCUSES: Beyond my committee, I’m active in several caucuses. To use a high-school analogy, caucuses are extracurricular clubs that bring together legislators around specific policy areas.

I’m on the leadership team of the House-Senate Climate Solutions Caucus, a broad coalition of legislators dedicated to advancing cost-effective policies to transition Vermont to a sustainable future. Last fall, we rolled out a unique idea: Caucus members all across the state hosted local forums to tell their constituents about our priority bills for the upcoming 2020 session, including the Global Warming Solutions Act (H.688). Our well-attended local forum was held at Federated Church of East Arlington in November 2019 and hosted by me, Rep. Dave Durfee, Sen. Brian Campion, and caucus chair Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas. I’m proud of this “road show” because we took a complex bill and invited everyone — supporters and detractors alike — to learn, to ask questions, to comment and to criticize. This is what grassroots democracy is all about, and it’s a good model for citizen participation. As a result of this and other work, I won a 2019 Rising Star award from Vermont Conservation Voters.

This past year, I was an original member of the new Tourism Caucus, a bipartisan group of legislators who support our tourism industry and the towns that rely on it. I’m also a regular at the Rural Economic Development Working Group (REDWnG) meetings and a founding member of the Social Equity Caucus.

COMMUNITY: Here at home, I’m proud of the early role I played in founding the Southern Vermont Communications Union District (SoVT CUD). Last November, motivated by the work I saw happening in Windham County, I organized a forum to let local residents know about the tools and resources available to towns through the 2019 Rural Broadband Act. I invited Reps. Laura Sibilia (I-Dover) and Robin Chesnut-Tangerman (P-Middletown Springs) to attend, because they serve on the Energy and Technology Committee that developed the bill. People from all over Bennington County showed up and formed a task force. From there, volunteers took the reins. On Town Meeting day, 12 towns became founding members of the CUD, since named one of Southern Vermont’s “12 Vital Economic Projects.” Armed with significant grant funding, the CUD is now working to bring broadband to underserved roads and regions across the county.

I’ve fulfilled my promise to communicate with voters, a cornerstone of my 2018 campaign. Before COVID, I held regular office hours in Manchester and Arlington. Since the shutdown, I’ve stayed connected from home. In addition to our intensive legislative work, attending committee meetings and floor debates by Zoom, I’ve helped businesses apply for Economic Recovery Grants and untangled unemployment SNAFUs for many constituents. I publish e-newsletters and post frequently on Facebook, so people know what I’m working on and how I’m voting on key bills. To see my full voting record, go to legislature.vermont.gov and type my name in the Legislator search bar.

CAMPAIGN: Looking back over my first term, I’m proud of the work I’ve accomplished. I’ve voted for bills that I believe help people and help our communities. I’ve focused on mastering the material, making connections and establishing positive relationships with colleagues from around the state. Why is this so important? Because the legislature is a place where debate may rage and votes may differ, but the people who get things done are the people who know how to work well with others.

I’m running for re-election with longtime community leader Seth Bongartz. Together, we believe we can be an effective team for our district. If elected, we’ll work hard to earn the trust and respect of our fellow legislators, and we’ll work hard to earn that same trust and respect from the people of the towns we represent. We ask for your support.

Kathleen James represents the Bennington-4 district (Arlington, Manchester, Sandgate and Sunderland) in the Vermont House of Representatives. Follow her on Facebook (Kathleen James VT State Representative) or learn more at: kathjamesforstaterep.com. Email: KJames@leg.state.vt.us.