Vermonters know if they need to talk to a state leader, all they have to do is try.
The access we have to our elected officials — whether it is the members of our congressional delegation, the governor, state House and Senate leadership, or our rank-and-file lawmakers — is uncanny.
In fact, visitors to Vermont (and specifically the State House) find it remarkable that in the crowded halls of the capitol, you can rub elbows with the governor as he makes his way to a committee room or the floor of one of the chambers.
But that quaintness, that uniqueness was destined to come to a stop. Unfortunately, threats were made against lawmakers (in particular, racist threats made against former House member Kiah Morris, of Bennington, who is African-American), and several death threats were made against Republican Gov. Phil Scott after he signed gun control legislation into law last April. There have been other instances, as well.
In response, officials who oversee the public safety of lawmakers (and State House visitors) have taken the first steps toward providing a layer of protection. Personal information — email addresses and home phone numbers — will not be listed on lawmakers’ web pages. That will make it much more difficult for constituents to as easily offer input or concern to lawmakers about pending legislation.
Given the volatility of the times, and that the threats against Vermont leaders have been rooted in hate speech, it seems only inevitable that this is only the beginning.
Vermonters have taken great pride in not having metal detectors at the entrances to the State House. Or that anyone — from a citizen to a tourist to someone with an intent to inflict harm — can access nearly every point in the historic building.
And while Capitol Police don’t discuss what security measures are already in place, it may simply be dumb luck that there has not been a serious incident.
For sure, we want our citizens, lawmakers and the many people who work at the State House when the Legislature is in session, to be safe. We want everyone tending to the people’s business to feel free to have the discussions and debates needed to thoroughly analyze issues. But a key piece of that process is input from the public. And that input often comes by phone or email — those are the tools of our times.
Rightly so, steps are being taken to ensure lawmakers are not cut off from the voters who elected them (or not). As parties who benefit daily from that easy access to our elected officials and governor appointees, we are lamenting that it has — finally — “come to this.”
Those state leaders who have been the target of said threats would probably argue that if protections had been in place, their fear and concern might not have been as raw. But it is where we are.
There is also some concern for the building itself. Our State House is filled (try and find a wall that doesn’t have a portrait or painting on it) with art, including some truly valuable works.
There is always the concern there could be an accident, an act of vandalism or, worst of all, a theft.
As the recent restoration of the State House dome and its new statue of Agriculture atop the golden dome has shown, the building is a source of pride for Vermonters. The building, too, needs protections and protocols.
Hopefully, though, the next steps don’t include more armed law enforcement or guards surrounding our state leaders — or body cams on security. Or stricter protocols and safeguards that take too much time and cause significant frustration. (Think the TSA.)
At a minimum, many states require signing in at a central desk and require a photo ID.
For now, our greatest concern is for everyday Vermonters, who are — more than likely — going to have to rely on USPS and leaving messages for lawmakers. It is how laws were made 50 years ago.
Regularly on these pages we have had to call for civility in the last three years or so. Some of our outrage was directed at racists making threats; other times we decried the polarizing (often vitriolic) debate about gun control. And we have had to remind letter writers and commenters on our websites and social media to exercise reason and restraint.
Once again, for the safety of our lawmakers and the people who work to keep our state government, the courts and the Legislature running, respect one other. Honor the work that is set out to be done. Appreciate the process and the protocols being put into place.
Without those steps of decorum, the days of bumping into our leaders, our neighbors and our friends inside the State House will be numbered.