Doing It His Way
Vermont’s 80th governor continues to serve
by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
Correction 7/6/2016 9:26 a.m.: It was Congressman Peter Welch who ran against Governor Douglas in 2004, not former Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle.
James H. Douglas, Vermont’s governor from 2003 to 2011, is professor of the practice and an executive in residence at his alma mater, Middlebury College. But he insists he’s still not sure what he wants to do when he grows up.
Former Gov. James H. Douglas says his wife, Dorothy, once admonished him that he has no hobbies. “Of course I replied, ‘You, my dear, are my hobby.’”
He continues in a more serious vein. “We often thought we’d find something to do in our old age, that we could do together and have fun with, I guess. But people ask me, ‘How’s retirement?’ and I say, ‘I think I’m flunking.’”
This is classic Douglas — speech sprinkled with dry humor on his way to making a point. Although he claims to have less civic involvement than he once did, not everybody believes it.
“He’s serious about the business at hand and public service,” says Tim Hayward, who served with Douglas in the Legislature, worked with him on Gov. Richard Snelling’s senior staff, and when he was elected governor, managed his transition and served as chief of staff. “He feels it’s almost a civic obligation. But also mixed in with all that is just a rich sense of humor.”
These days, Douglas’s “day job” is with Middlebury College, his alma mater, where he is an executive in residence in the political science department. He teaches a couple of courses, supervises independent study projects, and lectures in other classes. For 30 years, he has been Middlebury’s town moderator; he serves on several corporate boards, including National Life Group, Union Mutual of Vermont, and NBT Bancorp; and he sits on the nonprofit board of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation.
“The whole point,” says Douglas about the foundation, “is not only to preserve the legacy of our 30th president, but to preserve the values he exemplified. Civility, for example. He used to have breakfast with congressional leaders a lot. He’s one of the few presidents on whose watch the federal government actually got smaller.”
It may be quixotic, he says, but he’s also a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center, “a nonprofit founded by Senators Baker, Dole, Dashle, and Mitchell about 10 years ago. They saw the deterioration in the civility of our public discourse. It’s been fun to try to work with them.”
Douglas says he never had a career plan, but sought opportunities as they presented themselves. He grew up in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, one of three siblings. His father was in sales, “and after the three of us were able to fend for ourselves, my mother went back to get a master’s degree. I recall her telling us about those classes with kids 20 years younger than she most of the time, but she was determined to get that, and went into teaching when she was 40 or so.”
In high school, Douglas took a couple of years of Russian, and chose it as his major when he entered Middlebury College. He was inducted into the Russian Honor Society and continues to attend meetings.
In college, Douglas was active in the Young Republicans, and as state chairman, met a number of state and party leaders. In 1972, the year he graduated, he decided to run for the Vermont House.
“I didn’t know what I might want to do after graduation,” he says. “I just wanted to stay in Vermont, and Ralph Eaton, one of the two representatives from Middlebury, was not running that year.
“Dick Snelling had become a mentor and friend. He had been in the Legislature and then ran unsuccessfully statewide, but he was planning to go back to the House, and that was partly an influence on me. He convinced me to run and assured me we’d have fun.”
Douglas also had support from Eaton, who told him to wait until after commencement to announce in order to avoid the headline “College Student Runs.”
Douglas won the seat and served, including a term as Majority Leader, until 1980. Realizing he had found a way to live in Middlebury permanently, one of his first actions was to find a doctor and dentist. “I went into a dentist’s office — a practitioner just out of dental school so I wouldn’t have to change often — and I met this dental assistant.”
That was Dorothy Foster, the woman he would marry in 1975. “I’ve often explained,” he says, “that it was love at first bite.”
They would have two sons, Matt, now an engineer in New Hampshire with two sons of his own, and Andrew, “a very eligible bachelor” who lives in Oregon and works for a company dealing in importing consumer products and components for manufacturers.
Douglas’s star was on the rise. In 1980, he was elected secretary of state, a post he held for 12 years; in 1994, he was elected state treasurer; and in 2002, voters elected him the state’s 80th governor. He served four terms.
In 2005, when Sen. James Jeffords announced he wouldn’t seek re-election, there was a lot of interest on the part of the Republican Party for Douglas to join the race for that seat.
“It’s hard not to have thought about it,” he confesses, “but there were a couple of considerations. I really felt committed to the task at hand. Things were going pretty well, but I just felt that four years was a pretty brief tour of duty and I wanted to stick to it. I had just approved a major health reform; we approved a package of assistance for our farms, which were struggling; reformed our permit process.
“Then the political consideration is, although Vermont had elected 10 governors in a row of alternate parties, the desire to go to Washington is not as great. The voters see that as a different sort of Republican Party and would be less likely to bolster it.”
One stellar moment, he says, was the creation in 2006 of Catamount Health, “which reduced our insurance rate by a large amount here. And it was bipartisan and different from what it was in 2005 when I vetoed it.” He credits Rep. Peter Welch, who ran against him in 2004, with setting the tone for finding “a compromise that we could all support, although not that everyone liked.”
Douglas subsequently received an award from AARP for his leadership on health-care reform. “We were named the healthiest state in the nation. The state was highly ranked and regarded late in my tenure, and that makes me feel good.
“One ranking said we were the fourth least economically stressed state coming out of the Great Recession. One said we were the fourth best managed state. I don’t remember who came up with all these rankings: the greenest state, not surprisingly; the safest state; we were number two for a while in terms of crime rate. We have the cleanest air in the Northeast and are the only state not subject to the new EPA emission rule; the only state that is a net carbon sink, and, oh! The one that proclaimed us the smartest state.” He laughs. “We’ll take it!”
The World Heritage Council named Vermont the second most desirable destination on the planet, he says. “The great Barrier Reef beat us out, and now they’re having some issues there.”
On Douglas’s wall hangs a certificate and medal from his 2010 induction into the Academy of Distinguished Canadians and Americans. “Quebec is our strongest trading partner,” he says.
He was also appointed to the National Order of Quebec (l’Ordre national du Québec) bestowed principally on Quebec residents, “and a few foreigners,” says Douglas. “I think a couple of former French prime ministers, a Mexican ambassador once, but Jean Charest [then premier of Quebec] told me I was the first incumbent political leader to receive the order.
During his time as governor, Douglas became known for appearing at just about every public event in the state, including ribbon-cuttings, leading the late columnist Peter Freyne to dub him “Governor Scissorhands.”
“I always felt I was swimming upstream politically in Vermont, so I had a need to get around more than perhaps a Democrat would, and to show people that I didn’t have horns, no matter what they might hear and read,” says Douglas.
His staff, he says, would often groan when he’d come back from the road, “because they knew I had a list of issues to pursue and things I would ask, but I felt that was my responsibility. And sometimes when I had challenging discussions with the Legislature, I would say, ‘Listen, there’s something you have to admit: Nobody has talked with Vermonters more than I have.”
“He enjoyed very much being governor; took it very seriously,” says Hayward, his former chief of staff. “He loved spending time out in the towns and villages. I had a computer program tracking how much time he spent in each county. He would say, ‘I get my strength from people.’”
“The Jim Douglas you meet on the street is the same Jim Douglas you meet in the governor’s office or giving the inaugural address,” says Neale Lunderville, general manager of Burlington Electric Department, who ran Douglas’s first campaign for governor and worked for his administration in several capacities, including Secretary of Administration and Secretary of Transportation.
Often, Douglas says, people ask about Dorothy, who sometimes accompanied him on his visits around the state. “She’s doing fine,” he says. “She was out there on Greenup Day in May — nothing drives her crazy more than litter — and works with a group that provides free lunches for people in need in the community. But we seem to be not quite as busy as we were.”
He claims he’s still not sure what he wants to do when he grows up. “I’ve been serious about my campaigns, but I never had a master plan at the beginning of what I wanted to do. And I still don’t.”
“He has great comedic timing,” says Lunderville. “In another career he could do stand-up.” •