House committee assignments come with some surprises

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(Host) Legislative leaders have made committee assignments for the 2005 session, and the appointments have a few surprises. In the House, Democratic Speaker Gaye Symington has named Republicans to chair two panels. And she picked a Progressive organic farmer to lead the Agriculture Committee.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The real work of the Legislature happens in the small committee rooms away from the House and Senate floor. A choice committee assignment, especially a chairmanship, can make a legislative career. A committee that has little action or authority can mean months of legislative purgatory.

So as Speaker Gaye Symington got ready to make her assignments, members of the House were on the edge of their seats. Symington tried to break the tension.

(Symington) “If you are pleased with your committee assignment, please take the time to thank your leadership. If you are disappointed, please blame me. (Sound of lawmakers laughing.) I take full responsibility for these assignments.”

(Dillon) Symington’s picks held a few surprises. She named Republican Richard Westman of Cambridge, a veteran lawmaker who wanted to be speaker, to chair the powerful Transportation Committee. And she placed David Zuckerman, a member of the Progressive Party from Burlington, to head the Agriculture Committee.

“Congratulations, Mr. Chairman.”
“Thank you.”

(Dillon) As Zuckerman walked into his committee room, lobbyists called out their compliments. Zuckerman is 33, a Massachusetts native who attended the University of Vermont. His entr e into politics came in 1992 when he volunteered on Congressman Bernie Sanders’ campaign. He’s farmed for 11 years, first working for others before starting his own 16-acre vegetable farm six years ago in Burlington. He was elected to the Legislature in 1996.

(Zuckerman) “There are a few things I think I bring to this. One is an open mind, two is a fair and balanced approach, three is a love of agriculture – and that’s probably in the wrong order. I’d say love of agriculture is first.”

(Dillon) In the Statehouse, Zuckerman has worked on issues dear to organic farmers. Last year, he pushed successfully for a bill that required labels on genetically modified seeds. And he wants to pass legislation that would protect farmers from legal liability from potential damage caused by gene-altered crops. As chairman, he promises to work on all aspects of agriculture and rural development.

(Zuckerman) “We really want to focus on making the farm economy solid again. It’s been slipping and slipping for a long time.”

(Dillon) Zuckerman at first may seem out of place in a committee that’s always been a bastion of the traditional dairy industry. Democrat Bobby Starr from North Troy chaired the House Ag committee for 16 years. Starr now is vice chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. He says dairy accounts for 80 percent of the Vermont farm economy.

(Starr) “As long as Chairman Zuckerman and the committee doesn’t forget that, we may be able to function well. But if small is beautiful and big is bad, I think it will be incumbent on the Senate to take some kind of a lead role in agriculture – more so than they have in the past.”

(Dillon) Zuckerman says he knows how important dairy farming is to the state. And he promises to work hard on dairy issues. He says he plans to turn to his vice chairman, Republican Representative Bill Johnson, a dairy farmer from Canaan, for advice and expertise on dairy issues.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

Committee assignments:
Committee members – House of Representatives
Committee members – Senate

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