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After long political career, 'citizen' Douglas settles in

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Posted on August 29, 2011 |
By John Flowers



Jimdouglas9330.jpg
FORMER GOV. JAMES Douglas relaxes, without a tie, in his office at Middlebury College, where he is "executive in residence" and teaches some political science courses. The Middlebury Republican says he has been busy since leaving office, but not too busy. Independent photo/Andrea Warren

MIDDLEBURY — Former Gov. James Douglas may be retired from politics, but he has no problem staying busy.

The Middlebury Republican, now eight months removed from office, is settling into a new life that includes such luxuries as spare time, more time with his family, the ability to finally drive himself to places and the flexibility to dress-down if he wants to.

But old habits are hard to break.

Douglas, governor of Vermont from January 2003 to this past January, apologizes for being “under-dressed” in that he is not sporting a tie for a recent sit-down interview with the Addison Independent at his new digs in Middlebury College’s Munroe Hall. Even without the tie, he is immediately recognizable with his meticulously parted auburn hair, showing a little more silver at the temples, as well as his trademark wire-rimmed glasses

His quick, dry wit is also intact.

“I try to fade into anonymity, but have limited success,” Douglas said.

Douglas is settling into his position as an executive in residence at Middlebury College, a role that sees him deliver guest lectures at various classes — primarily those dealing with the field of political science.

He taught a course titled, “Vermont Government and Politics” during the 2011 winter term, and will teach the same course again this winter.

But Douglas’s new working relationship with his alma mater doesn’t end there.

The former governor was scheduled late last week to teach at the four-day “Alumni College” held at the Bread Loaf campus in Ripton. It is an offering for Middlebury College alumni, who get to come back to their alma mater for some fun studies. Douglas will teach some alumni about Vermont’s governmental and political workings. He was scheduled to lead his students on a trip to the Statehouse on Friday, Aug. 26.

The trip gave him an opportunity to renew acquaintances in Montpelier with former political allies and adversaries. He took his first group of students to the Statehouse last winter, and got his first taste of what it would be like to roam his former stomping grounds as a citizen.

“I told myself at some point that I wouldn’t set my foot in the Statehouse for some time, but I thought, ‘How can we study Vermont government without going there when the Legislature is in session?’” Douglas said.

He joked of his former colleagues’ reactions to seeing him in his former milieu.

“It was like they had seen a ghost; they kind of did a double-take,” Douglas said.

It is a milieu that Douglas knows well. After being elected a state representative from Middlebury in 1972, Douglas has spent almost all of his years since working in state government.

Douglas, who turned 60 this summer, does not find himself yearning to be back in the seat of power since his departure. He now enjoys more free time and being able to drive himself wherever he needs to go. As governor, Douglas was always escorted by a Vermont State Police officer.

“My life was so prescribed, was so regimented, every moment scheduled and spoken for,” Douglas said. “I’m finding ways to stay busy now, but it is at a different pace.”

He has no regrets retiring from office after eight years as governor and a combined total of 38 years of service to the state as a legislator, secretary of state, treasurer and chief executive.

Douglas recently met up with two former governors from other states who were voted out of office, and he appreciated his own decision to step down.

“I thought, ‘I (left) on my terms,’ and I am grateful for that,” Douglas said.

Indeed, Chris Graff, former longtime Associated Press bureau chief in Vermont, has cited Douglas and Dean Davis as the only two Vermont governors who left office “on time,” without over-staying or under-staying their respective welcomes.

“I’d rather go when people believe, as I do, that I could have been re-elected,” Douglas said. “It’s like they say in theater, ‘Leave them wanting more.’”

Though he undoubtedly has opinions about how his successor, Gov. Peter Shumlin, has been doing since being passed the baton, Douglas will keep those thoughts to himself. It has been an unwritten tradition among governors to not provide commentary on their immediate successor.

“Gov. (Howard) Dean was good to me, and that is a good tradition to uphold,” Douglas said.

History will ultimately judge Douglas’s performance, and he has left behind an abundance of documents for future researchers and historians to peruse. Per state law, he has sent along all of his official papers to the state archives. Most of the items that do not fit within that category — such as campaign material and finance records, certificates, banners, photos and some gifts he received during his tenure — are being given to Middlebury College.

“I am working with a (college) intern and the college archivist this summer to organize it and catalogue it,” Douglas said of the material. Some of it is already on display at the college library.

“It’s kind of interesting,” Douglas said of the process of sorting and cataloguing the political memorabilia.

Douglas is committed to the college through a multi-year contract, the length of which he prefers not to disclose. But his college duties leave him with enough time to pursue other interests.

ON SEVERAL BOARDS

He serves on the boards of the National Life Insurance Co. in Montpelier; Union Mutual Insurance Co., also based in Montpelier; and the NBT Bank, based in Norwich, N.Y., with some branches in Vermont. He has also joined the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation board.

He receives some compensation for the board work, which includes some phone work and sporadic meetings.

“I wasn’t sure how busy I’d be when I left office … but I haven’t had a problem being busy enough,” Douglas said.

He still receives requests to make public appearances.

For example, the St. Johnsbury Town Band asked him to conduct their concert earlier this month. Douglas has always been a music enthusiast, having played the trumpet growing up. He would often break out the instrument when the town of Middlebury held band concerts on Friday nights.

While no longer in office, Douglas is not completely removed from politics. He is on the board of the Bipartisan Policy Center, based in Washington, D.C. The center was established by former U.S. Sens. Tom Daschle, George Mitchell, Bob Dole and Howard Baker.

“Their goal was to have a forum where there wasn’t this polarized debate down there,” Douglas said. “They have been focused mainly on federal issues and people, but they asked six of us to form a governor’s advisory council, and I agreed to do that with five former colleagues.”

The advisory council meets a few times a year in Washington and other locations to discuss some of the divisive issues of the day. It should come as no surprise that Douglas is often asked to speak about health care reform, an issue in which Vermont has immersed itself in recent years. Douglas launched Vermont’s Blueprint for Health initiative in 2003 as the state’s vision for transforming the state’s health care system. Building on the Blueprint, the Vermont Legislature subsequently passed comprehensive health reforms in 2006 designed to expand access to coverage, improve the quality and performance of the health care system, and contain costs. The Legislature went even further last session, passing a bill that creates a foundation for a single-payer system.

Douglas has been invited to speak from Boston to Los Angeles on such topics as health care information technology and funding.

“What I generally talk about is Vermont’s record,” Douglas said.

It is a record that Douglas closely monitors — now from the outside looking in, which is a big change for him.

LETTING GO

“I’m still an interested citizen and care about what happens to our state and the people who live here,” Douglas said. “I find it difficult not to pay attention, even though I am trying to wean myself from paying too much attention. Whenever I think, ‘Gee, I’d like to dive back in there,’ I catch myself and step back, and say, ‘Wait a minute; this isn’t my responsibility. I chose to step aside and it’s now somebody else’s task.’”

He recalled a recent conversation with former Gov. Madeleine Kunin who acknowledged, in spite of being out of office for 21 years, that “You never completely let go.’”

Douglas realizes that his name will surface in the coming election years as a potential candidate, particularly for federal office. But people who do so shouldn’t hold their collective breath.

“I explained when I stepped down that Dorothy has a divorce lawyer on speed-dial,” Douglas said with a smile, noting his wife has already soldiered through many campaigns.

The former governor recoils with disgust when he looks at the current political dynamic in Congress. He was particularly appalled by this summer’s stalemate over raising the nation’s debt ceiling.

“The president said recently — not that I agree with him on a lot of things — that ‘People chose divided government, but they didn’t choose dysfunctional government,’” Douglas noted. “They expect people to work together.”

Douglas recalled being involved in a number of budget dust-ups with the Democrat-controlled General Assembly in Vermont, but added, “In the end we got the people’s business done, and we got it done on time. We never failed to pass a budget … and our credit rating has been enhanced over the last 12-15 years.”

OPINIONS ON WASHINGTON

The current political gridlock in Washington has been “embarrassing,” Douglas said, and has sent a negative message to U.S. citizens and other nations.

“Investors are wondering what’s going on,” Douglas said.

Citizen dissatisfaction with Washington, D.C., he explained, has given rise to such new political movements as the Tea Party, which Douglas believes has raised some legitimate concerns.

“It is so polarized,” Douglas said of Washington politics. “The Republicans are afraid of a primary challenge from the right; the Democrats are afraid of a primary challenge from the left. So it gets even worse.

“In Washington, re-election is paramount,” he added. “It appears more important to them than getting the job done.”

And fueling the partisan flames, according to Douglas, are numerous television talk shows that don’t offer interviews and insight as much as have an ideological agenda advanced by their hosts or listeners.

The real solution to the nation’s debt problems will likely involve some sacrifice from everyone, according to Douglas. Along with cuts, Douglas said Congress may have to consider tax increases — and not just on the wealthiest, he cautioned.

“We probably have to go beyond the rich, if we are going to balance this budget in the near term,” Douglas said, echoing a comment he recently heard delivered by former Vermont Gov. Tom Salmon. “That isn’t very comforting to politicians or taxpayers, but we all might have to have a little skin in the game.”

Douglas will let the politicians sort that out. He’s already put in his time. He’s now ready for more quality time.

“Part of my goal is to throttle back … spend a little more time with my wife and family,” he said.

He was pleased he and Dorothy were able to take their first week off in years to travel to Oregon this past spring and spend some quality time with their son Andrew and his family. The Douglases also have a son, Matt, who lives in New Hampshire, and a two-year-old grandson named Timothy — perhaps another governor in the making.

“He’s brilliant,” the proud grandpa says.

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