A day in Vince Illuzzi’s quest for statewide office

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During a September interview on the Mark Johnson Show, Vince Illuzzi of Derby says 32 years of serving the Northeast Kingdom as a senator has prepared him for statewide office. Photos by Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle 10-17-12

by Paul Lefebvre

On a rainy early September morning, Senator Vince Illuzzi is heading to the State House.  No legislation is seeking his attention, but as the place where he has forged a formidable political career, the State House may be the place where he feels most comfortable as he prepares for a debate in his first run for statewide office.

The senator spreads his notes out on a table in the cafeteria, which feels hollow as a cavern now the Legislature is not in session, but his attention strays to a State House worker heading in his direction.

“How you doing?” he says, exchanging pleasantries with the man, who knows who the senator is without any introduction.  “Hope I can count on your vote.”

The exchange is vintage Illuzzi — a politician who might be said to have brought campaigning to a height that even surprises some veteran observers of Vermont politics.

The live debate this morning is being broadcast on the Mark Johnson Show, a daily feature on WDEV, a radio station that takes pride in its coverage of all things pertaining to Vermont — especially politics.  Mr. Johnson is a familiar, regular face at the State House, conducting live, face-to-face interviews with legislators as the business of governing Vermont swirls around him.  Today’s debate is being held in a small bakery and café in Middlesex, and marks the first public encounter between Senator Illuzzi and his opponent, Doug Hoffer, in the race for state auditor.

It’s a show that is driven in part by listeners calling in with questions.  Driving from the State House to Middlesex with his notes in his lap, Mr. Illuzzi isn’t sure what to expect.  He raised the possibility there might be a plant, someone who has been put up to call in with a question designed to embarrass him.  But once the debate begins, his anxiety recedes into the background.  Although he may fidget in his chair, running a hand in and out of his pant’s back pocket, he answers questions assertively, mixing anecdotes with facts and numbers.  When the other’s fellow’s turn comes, Mr. Illuzzi shifts his attention to café patrons, a smile here and a wave there.  And then he’s on his feet, going from table to table, shaking hands when the show breaks for advertisers.

Acting somewhat perplexed that his guest is breaking away from the show’s routine and may be straying from its timetable, Mr. Johnson is prompted to remark on the senator’s relentless campaigning style.

“Does he stop and shake hands with every guy he sees standing beside the road?” he wonders.

Except for a caller’s complaint that he is monopolizing the conversation, there are no trick questions that morning for the senator.  The debate over, Mr. Illuzzi bristles at the suggestion he is driven in his quest to win a statewide race.  He is fashioning his campaign around his 32 years of experience as a state senator, and a political philosophy based on pragmatism and common sense.  Ideologically, he has no center.  Or what he calls in an interview “no red line in the sand.”

As someone who came from a working class family — his father worked in the Barre granite sheds as a sculptor — and as someone who identifies his base as the 47 percent that Governor Romney recently singled out as those Americans left behind, Mr. Illuzzi may be the state’s most unlikely Republican.

He recalls that when he first ran for the Senate in 1979, the people who quickly lined up behind him were workers.  He says the legislator he admires the most is the former Speaker of the House Ralph Wright, a Democrat.  And in interviews and in public, Mr. Illuzzi repeatedly touts his ability to work with legislators regardless of their political affiliations.  To hear him tell it, he is the non-partisan candidate.

“Vince works in mysterious ways,” says Robert Appel, the executive director of Vermont’s Human Rights Commission and someone who has worked in the Legislature for 20 years or so with Senator Illuzzi.  “He was willing to be an ally on issues that held nothing for him.

One of the strongest showings of the Senator’s bi-partisanship came when he announced his candidacy for state auditor inside the granite shed where his father had once worked.  The make-up of supporters surprised at least one veteran State House lobbyist.

“I don’t know how he did it, but they were there,” says Ed Lawson, executive director of Vermont Forest Products, who added he never saw such a mix of support from labor unions and business types.

At the Vermont History Expo that was held in June on the fairgrounds at Tunbridge, Mr. Illuzzi already had his campaign in hand, right down to the straw hat.

Orleans Republican Jim Greenwood, who served in the Senate for five terms beginning in 1996, recalls that Mr. Illuzzi was seen as a legislator who listens.  If someone had a problem and was trying to figure out what he would do, Mr. Greenwood would often hear him say:  “I’m going to call Vince and see what he can do for me.”

And often he came through.  “The next thing you knew, he was writing a bill,” says Mr. Greenwood.

From the debate in Middlesex at the Red Hen Bakery and Café, Mr. Illuzzi veers off the campaign trail to attend a funeral in Barre for Oreste Valsangiacomo, who once headed the financially powerful House Ways and Means Committee.  He grabs a quick lunch at the Wayside Diner on the Montpelier-Barre Road, where he resumes campaigning and shaking hands before heading south to Manchester and a scheduled interview with the local paper.

“I’ve worked hard all my life,” he says, straying for a moment to recall the long hours that his father put in at the sheds.  “I’m married to my work.”

If campaigning alone could ensure a victory in a statewide race, Mr. Illuzzi would be a shoe-in.

Mr. Greenwood says his former colleague has an irrepressible work ethic; someone who “works night and day.”

These days there hardly appears a trace of Mr. Illuzzi’s characterization of himself as a shy young man who had to change his ways.  He says it wasn’t hard, but he may have overdone it by becoming “overtly aggressive in engaging other people.”

Mr. Greenwood, who is an economic development specialist for the Northeastern Vermont Development Association, says that because he was the youngest politician to be elected to the Vermont Senate, the media was quick to pick up on Mr. Illuzzi.

He was depicted as young, knowledgeable, and quite aggressive from a region whose politicians were traditionally seen as laid back, recalls Mr. Greenwood.  Back home there was a feeling that the Kingdom had “a new life blood in Montpelier.”

Mr. Appel calls Mr. Illuzzi a politician who “doesn’t lack backbone”; as one who “put in a lot of time and political capital” pushing legislation for state recognition of the Abenaki as a native people and helping to improve conditions for inmates in Vermont prisons.

North Troy’s Bobby Starr, the most recent senator from Orleans County to serve with Mr. Illuzzi, says his colleague “would go to the mat” with an issue in which he believed.

On the drive to Manchester, Mr. Illuzzi is constantly on the phone.  He says he buys 4,000 minutes of airtime a month, and uses every one of them.  He uses a cell phone like a magician uses a wand — to make something happen.

“Harry, where are you?” he says, in a call made while he’s driving.  “Well, I’m in Rutland, and I was going to stop and see if you could introduce me to some of the people in your office.”

At the Manchester Journal the Senator tells editor Andrew McKeever that “the problem with ideology is that it gets in the way of common sense in solving problems.”  He goes on to say that relationships “are so important” in politics, and that he is “a known quantity.”

But among some people who work in the State House, Mr. Illuzzi is regarded as unpredictable.  And sometimes dangerous.  A legislator, says one lobbyist who spoke on condition his name not appear in print, who can side with you one day and be against you the next, depending on what’s up for trade.

“You never know when he’s going to call in his chips.”

Mr. Appel, who also served as defender general before becoming head of the state’s Human Rights Commission, says that Mr. Illuzzi was often a legislator who waited until late in the session before coming out on an issue.

“He was very conscious about showing his hand,” said Mr. Greenwood, who characterizes Senator Illuzzi as “a front bench personality” who was most effective when he was at the center of the action.

One lobbyist, who spoke on condition of remaining anonymous, characterized Mr. Illuzzi as being “emotionally intelligent” for his ability to see where people on his committee need to land on any given issue.  As a front bench player, he would not take a lead but rather wait until he could identify that point where all the other players could find agreement and move the legislation on.

At least one lobbyist believes that as a legislator, Mr. Illuzzi wanted a seat at the table so badly that it didn’t matter what the issue was, just as long as he was a player.

That Mr. Illuzzi went into negotiations without taking a stand or showing his hand didn’t trouble a former colleague.

“That’s the mark of a good politician,” says Mr. Greenwood.

Ever the pragmatist, Mr. Illuzzi has his own explanation.  “I’ve always seen myself as a problem solver,” he says.  “People look up to me to get the job done.”

The legislator most admired by Mr. Illuzzi, Democrat Ralph Wright, was repeatedly elected speaker in an era when House Republicans were the majority party.  In his book, All Politics is Personal, published in 1996, Mr. Wright says he won the support of House members by being a good listener.

Mr. Illuzzi believes there is “a lot of truth” in the book’s title, and he says — and others confirm it — that in pushing for state recognition for the Abenaki bands, he was keeping a promise to the St. Johnsbury senator, Julius Canns, a sponsor of the legislation who died before it could be brought to a vote.

But as Speaker Wright knew very well, being personal in politics cuts both ways.  To this day, Mr. Illuzzi blames Judge David Suntag for getting him in hot water with the Supreme Court that led to his suspension from the practice of law for five years.

While Mr. Illuzzi admitted at the time that the allegations he had submitted against the judge were not based on fact, he says today the judge was arrogant, refusing to hold court in Guildhall, causing Essex Country residents to drive to courthouses elsewhere in the state.

That the suspension had no bearing on his political career comes as no surprise to him.

“Why would the locals hold that against me?” he asks.

To many of the senator’s constituents, it may have appeared that powers outside the Kingdom wanted to cut Mr. Illuzzi down to size.

Mr. Greenwood says that many people didn’t understand the nature of the complaints, while others suspected that politics were behind the suspension — “holding suspicions that the big wheels in Montpelier were pushing the envelope more than they should have.”

Those suspicions may have been sowed much earlier and before Mr. Illuzzi became a household name in nearly every Kingdom town.

A graduate of Vermont Law School, he came to the Northeast Kingdom in the late seventies as a deputy prosecutor for Orleans County State’s Attorney Leroy Null, a controversial figure who died in office.  Snubbed by the Snelling administration, who chose someone else to fill Mr. Null’s office, Mr. Illuzzi might have fallen into political obscurity were it not for the leaders of the county’s Republican Party.

By 1980 longtime Senator John Boylan of Island Pond, a Republican, had decided to retire from politics and the party leaders in the district were looking for someone to replace him on the ticket.  Recruited by Republicans, Mr. Illuzzi became one, and won his first election to the Senate, gaining a reputation along the way as a tireless campaigner.

“Never heard anyone say he was not a hard worker,” says Mr. Greenwood.

In the Senate he earned a reputation as someone who could write bills and craft legislation.  Mr. Starr remembers Mr. Illuzzi as a committee chairman who would stay up all night writing a bill and have it ready to present to the rest of his committee members the next day.

Recently, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs, he was seen by one lobbyist as the person in the room who could see five or six moves ahead.  And someone willing to make an ally out of opposing colleague by telling him:  “I’ve got something you want.”

As he gained power and won appointment as chairman of the Senate Committee on Institutions, his reputation grew as he brought projects and funding into a district that traditionally lagged behind the rest of the state.

“Don’t know anyone who has brought more money into the Kingdom than Vince,” says Mr. Greenwood, adding that Mr. Illuzzi had the ability “to position himself in the Legislature to do this.”

Around the State House, Mr. Illuzzi says, he became known as Washington County’s fourth senator because of the projects he sponsored and championed, like the new granite museum in Barre.  As the author of the state’s capital construction bill, which funds projects statewide, Mr. Illuzzi had the power to make friends and win influence.

“Since 1991, I’ve had a major say on how every state dollar was spent,” he says.

“He had enough stuff in those bills for everyone, so no one would vote against it,” says Senator Starr.

“Vince is a guy who gets around,” says Mr. Appel.

Mr. Illuzzi is leaving the Senate at a time when the old guard is giving way to younger faces who are not as likely to defer to him — a new wave of legislators and lobbyists who don’t know they should be careful around Vince, says one who works the hallways of the State House.

Senator Illuzzi sees it, too.  During the closing weeks of the 2012 session, his customary role of problem solver did not rise to meet the occasion.

“It didn’t make any difference if the agreements I made had merit,” he says.  “They were flat out rejected.”

After his interview at the Manchester Journal, the Senator makes a quick trip to the mall, where he buys a new pair of shoes before heading to a Republican fund-raiser that is being held in a private home.  He delivers a short speech to the guests, who include former Governor Jim Douglas.  The last Republican speaker of the House, Walter Freed, introduces Mr. Illuzzi as the politician who provided the coattails that Ronald Reagan rode to victory in Vermont during the 1980 presidential election.

From Manchester Mr. Illuzzi drives south to drop off campaign lawn signs on the doorstep of the Bennington Town Clerk’s office.  Then it’s back to Manchester, where he stops at a snazzy restaurant to schmooze with the owner before driving home through intermittent rain and fog.

By the time he drops off a reporter in Barton, candidate Illuzzi — a Northeast Kingdom senator for 32 years and the first politician to seek a statewide office since Em Hebard was elected treasurer in 1976 — has been on the campaign trail for roughly 18 consecutive hours.  Derby and home are still a 30-minute ride away.

Vince Illuzzi marching in a parade in Island Pond.

contact Paul Lefebvre at [email protected]

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