‘Doing’ democracy

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(Host) Commentator Peter Mallary reflects on his years as town moderator of Newbury.

(Mallary) In past years Town Meeting has been one of the busiest days on my calendar. As a legislator, I spent the day dashing from town to town reporting on the mysteries of life and politics at the Statehouse. Some years this was more congenial than others. From the gay rights bill to the moose hunt, from seat belts to education funding, you never knew what might pop up to fertilize direct democracy on the first Tuesday in March.

One year – I think it was 1993 – I took Governor Dean around with me. We went to five meetings – my three and a couple extra thrown in for good measure. Now there are a lot of fine folks in the Vermont hill towns we visited that day, but not too many of them are Democrats. In fact, I think some people were a tad surprised to actually see the governor.

At one meeting we got up during a ballot count so that he could take questions. There was a stunned silence. I literally had to ring the political dinner bell. It went something like this. “Hey look,” I said, “Democratic governor over here. Come and get it!” Somebody said the words “property rights” and we were off to the races.

After leaving the Legislature, I filled my Town Meeting Day by taking up the gavel in Newbury. In a life loaded with politics, being Newbury’s moderator has been the most special role for me. To briefly guide the local ship of state is a particular honor. To be trusted to be fair and funny by a broad range of folks who know just who you are and, perhaps more importantly, just what you think, is a special trust indeed. I would not have missed that. But now I will.

Last fall I moved – just 10 miles but a Town Meeting world away – back to my family’s place in Fairlee. For the first time in 16 years I’ll be casting my ballot back in the Fairlee school gym.

Over the past few years I’ve seen lots of different pieces of, and places for Town Meeting – Australian ballots and floor fights in gymnasiums and nineteenth century meetinghouses. (I prefer floor fights and meetinghouses.) I’ve seen lengthy debates over minor salary adjustments, in the same meeting where big ticket items sailed through without a murmur. But for all these variations there remains a remarkable consistency in what we all do on this first Tuesday. One way or another, we talk the whole thing out.

So this year I’ll take up a back-bench and quietly reacquaint myself with the rhythm of Fairlee democracy. I know there’s a race for First Constable. I can feel that paper ballot folded between my thumb and forefinger and I am ready to do some democracy. In fact, I can’t wait.

This is Peter Mallary.

Peter Mallary is publisher of Behind the Times, a monthly newspaper in Bradford.

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