Once upon a time, the dump was a part of the stump

Politicians don’t campaign at the town dump here in Lincoln, Vermont the way they used to. Of course, the town dump isn’t really a dump anymore. It’s a transfer station. But it’s still only open on Saturday mornings, and so a lot of us in the town assemble there at the start of the weekend with our blue tubs of tin cans and paper bags filled with newspapers. And when I first moved to Lincoln from Brooklyn, in the weeks before an election day I was likely to meet a local politician with a huge box of doughnuts.

The quid pro quo was pretty simple: A doughnut for a minute or two of my time. Aside from the reality that back then we were likely to be eating those doughnuts atop a mountain of garbage the size of a ski slope, it was a pretty civilized way for voters to learn where a legislator stood on the issues. It also spoke to a politics of scale that works well in a place as small as Vermont.

10296646_10152348108362118_9020770751855044848_nTuesday is Election Day, and because we are not electing a president, turnout will be lower than those Novembers when we are watching a battle of thebig dogs. Think of the terms we use. It is an “off year.” It is a “mid-term election.” Is there anything we want less to be a part of than a mid-term?

Moreover, we are not electing U.S. senators on Tuesday here in Vermont, and the race for our lone congressional representative is not exactly a nail-biter.

Consequently, we will be focused on the state and local contests. But make no mistake, these races count, too. I spent a couple of weeks in the Vermont Statehouse during the last session advocating for a particular resolution, and I learned a great deal — and not all of it about parking in Montpelier. (It’s a myth that you can’t find a space when the Legislature is in session. Simply arrive in the city around four in the morning and have a lunchbox filled with quarters.)

The principal thing I discovered is this: A state senator or a state representative works monumentally hard. The learning curve for almost any bill or resolution is rigorous and legislators have to ascend it quickly. They must become knowledgeable — if not experts — on literally dozens of subjects, and they have to do so with preternatural speed. Health care. Genetically modified organisms. Telecommunications. I happened to watch a couple of committee hearings, and there were moments when my eyes were glazing.

They also have to remain calm in the face of constituents and lobbyists and, yes, their peers. They have to play nice in the sand box, even when another senator or representative is feeling … entitled. Or, worse, empowered.

It’s easy for a voter like me to become cynical or presume that all politicians are jaded, but my sense is that no one becomes a state legislator to feed his ego. Okay, almost no one. But those who do don’t last long. Sure, occasionally someone will get elected who feels an annoying, soul-sucking need to be the smartest person in the room, but that’s no way to win friends or influence people – and, as far as I can tell, it is a whole lot easier to get a bill passed if you have friends and influence. And even making friends takes time. It takes meetings and coffee and lunches and sidebar conversations in the hallway.

My point? No one does this for the groovy license plate. And no one does this because they want to eat lunch for five straight months at the Statehouse cafeteria – which isn’t bad, but it also isn’t L’Amante or the Revolution Kitchen.

People do this because they feel a moral responsibility to try and make the Green Mountains a better place. They see problems and want to try and solve them – which is why I will be sure and do my small part on Tuesday and vote.

There are a lot of reasons why I celebrate Vermont legislators on both sides of the aisle, even though they no longer pry me with doughnuts at the dump. But the big one? They care about this state as much as I do.

(This column appeared in the Burlington Free Press on November 2, 2014. Chris’s most recent novels are “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” and “The Light in the Ruins.”)

bohjalian jacket double

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.