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Accessible government

01/06/04 12:00AM By Caleb Daniloff
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Host) Commentator Caleb Daniloff reflects on the relationship between politics and the public in Vermont.

(Daniloff) It was a Monday morning in mid-December. A Nor'easter was raining down snow at a rate of almost three inches an hour. Schools were closed and cars buried. There was scant traffic, plows mostly. The talk was of three feet.

My apartment building stands adjacent to a dentist's office and our shared driveway was blanketed. But in pulls a red Neon and parks at the back. A woman with short grey-flecked hair steps out, her dental hygienist pants as pale as the snow. I know this woman. She and her co-workers sometimes cut through the backyard to grab lunch at Shaws.

I watch her stride into the dentist's office, then return with a shovel and brush. She clears off a buried car that belongs to an older tenant. Then shovels a path around the other side of the office. Common storm activity that day. The only difference was this shoveler was Dorothy Douglas, local dental assistant, and the First Lady of Vermont. It was hard to imagine such a scene unfolding anywhere else.

Most Vermont reporters will tell you what distinguishes their jobs from their colleagues in other states is access to government players. As a rookie reporter at a twice-weekly in Middlebury, I was often able to get the attorney general or secretary of state on the phone on the first try. Agency heads returned calls promptly. Legislators stopped by for sit-down interviews. Hearing the sentence, "Caleb, Senator Leahy on line 2" was a thrill for a kid just out of college.

Though I'm no longer a reporter, Vermont's leaders remain within reach. In the past six months, I've twice seen Bernie Sanders loping through Burlington's downtown mall. I've checked out Mayor Peter Clavelle's entre at an outdoor cafe. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeff Amestoy has been spotted ambling down Church Street, former governor Madeleine Kunin hurrying across UVM campus. This in an age where celebrity interviews are bought and sold like luxury cars.

Several Vermonters I know working on Howard Dean's presidential bid have noted the influence of the state s political nature. "We're an open campaign, of and for the people," one staffer said.

Though Dean engages his supporters on a grass-roots level and still sneaks off to his son's hockey games, there is already talk about a federal security detail in Vermont should he win the democratic nomination. At campaign headquarters, there is now a security door and access passes are required. Before, you could just wander in. No big surprise. The spotlight gets brighter, and Dean becomes harder to see.

But as Vermont's citizen Legislature gets back to work this week, Vermonters ought to take stock in what's at our fingertips, that we live in a place where Dorothy Douglas, the wife of the governor, can still say, "you really ought to be flossing more."

This is Caleb Daniloff of Middlebury.

Caleb Daniloff is a writer and book reviewer.

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