New AARP Chapter Has Strong Base in Vermont

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(Host) With more than 115,000 members, the Vermont Chapter of the AARP has the highest per capita membership in the country. The AARP is the second largest non-profit in the state. Yet until eight months ago, there was no
AARP office in Vermont.

As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, now that the organization has opened up shop, it’s become an influential force in state government.

(Zind) The headquarters of AARP’s Vermont chapter is on the fifth floor of a downtown Montpelier bank building, in 4,500 square feet of prime capital city real estate. From her spacious office, State Director Bobbie Kamen has a panoramic view across the Statehouse lawn to the golden dome:

(Kamen) “We were in the governor’s office a couple of weeks ago and he was just telling us how wonderful his view was. I didn’t want to tell him I have a better one.” (Laughs.)

(Zind) These days, AARP keeps a close watch on the Statehouse. Almost overnight, the organization has become a key player in the legislature. Last year AARP opened new offices in nearly two dozen states, including Vermont. With over 34 million members nationally, the organization is large and well funded:

(Kamen) “Our budget is sufficient to do the work that we need to do. It’s just not a topic that I really want to discuss.”

(Zind) This year AARP has worked aggressively and successfully to pass legislation designed to lower prescription drug prices. Among statehouse lobbyists, AARP is one of the biggest spenders. AARP has also lobbied for legislation on telemarketing fraud and elder abuse and it’s fought utilities over electric rates. Rutland Senator John Bloomer says AARP does a good job getting it’s members to call their legislators, urging action on bills important to them:

(Bloomer) “I think they have a pretty substantial influence in that they motivate their members. They have a large base, and it’s what you hear from home, your constituents.”

(Zind) AARP’s emergence as a political force is a relatively new phenomenon. Bobbie Kamen says the organization has gone from reacting to government policies to helping to formulate them.

(Kamen) “That’s a very positive step. Our executive director, Bill Novelli, his number one goal is for AARP to be number one in social change. That’s a very different message than ‘to serve, not to be served.'”

(Zind) The message has changed because AARP’s membership has changed. While the organization has always been open to people fifty and over, it’s made a concerted effort to court the younger end of it’s demographic. This is not your father’s AARP.

(Sound from AARP commercial.)

In fact, AARP no longer stands for American Association of Retired Persons. It stands simply for AARP. Despite the push to recruit baby boomers, Kamen says the organization still works hard for its older members. In Vermont, it partners with senior citizens groups like COVE, the Community of Vermont Elders. Harriet Goodwin of COVE says AARP has given a higher profile to issues important to the group. She says COVE has a good working relationship with AARP, despite the size difference.

(Goodwin) “The elephant and the mouse, I guess, rather than the 800 pound gorilla. And I think the elephant and the mouse are quite compatible.”

(Zind) Bobbie Kamen of AARP says lobbying the legislature is only one aspect of the organization’s mission. She says AARP encourages members to take part in community projects. And she acknowledges that many people join AARP simply for the organization’s membership discounts.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Montpelier.

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