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Bongartz: Freshman orientation very different for lawmakers 40 years later

BY GREG S UKIENNIK Manchester Journal

MANCHESTER — One day 40 years ago, then state Rep.-elect Seth Bongartz turned the ignition key of his used Volkswagen Squareback station wagon and pointed it north toward Montpelier, where his orientation as a new member of the Vermont House of Representatives awaited.

Back then, learning the ropes for new members meant one five-hour session at the Statehouse.

“That was it,” Bongartz recalled. “We were shown around the Statehouse. We were shown where legislative counsel lives. We had a couple of people from the press talk to us about interacting with the press. Then we got in our cars and went home.”

Things have certainly changed since 1980. That VW Squareback is long gone. In the past 40 years, Bongartz has graduated from law school, helped raise a family, worked as a practicing attorney, and served as president of Hildene and of the Burr and Burton Academy Board of Trustees (both roles he has since relinquished).

But Bongartz is yet again a state Rep.-elect, having finished second in the race for the Bennington-4 District’s two seats in the House.

BONGARTZ, Page 3

“It’s been almost a full-time job, almost since the election. That’s very different than what it used to be.”

SETH BONGARTZ, State Rep.-elect, speaking on the differences between the Statehouse in 1980 and now

Bongartz

FROM PAGE 1

By the time Bongartz and the rest of the House take the oath to be “true and faithful to the State of Vermont” on Wednesday — remotely, this time, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic — he and his fellow new members will have days of thorough preparation under their belts. That includes training no one would have thought possible, let alone necessary, in 1980: how to engage in debate by remote video, and how remote voting works.

And there have been meetings. So many meetings.

“I have probably been invited to 70 Zoom conferences between every state agency, non-profits, the Democratic caucus and legislative caucuses,” Bongartz said. “It’s been almost a full-time job, almost since the election. That’s very different than what it used to be.”

That said, the transition has gone quickly, said Rep. Kathleen James, with whom Bongartz campaigned for the Bennington- 4’s two seats.

“Seth didn’t need a whole lot of pointers,” James said. “We’ve just gotten off to a really fast start together.”

Bongartz and James will be hosting their first Zoom constituent coffee hour on Saturday, Jan. 9, with plans to hold more such sessions on the second Saturday of each month.

Bongartz said he will work closely with James in the new biennium, as they consider “what we can to make sure the needs of this district are being accounted for.”

The biggest difference between 1980 and now, Bongartz said, is the level of preparation offered to new members.

“What I’m struck by is the difference in the base of knowledge a state rep is expected to carry with them at all times,” Bongartz said. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the information, he said. “You just have to accept that some of this is just going to sink in by osmosis. You can’t internalize every bit of it.”

Bongartz has also had time to meet with fellow new members — again, by Zoom.

“It’s not the same as being able to really be in the room with them,” he said. “But I will say that I am impressed with what I see as diligence across the board in the freshman class. I have the sense they’re sharp, they’re engaged and really doing everything they can to be prepared.”

James also sees a sense of urgency in the freshman class, and among House veterans, as the Legislature prepares to tackle the state’s economic recovery from COVID.

“it has been incredibly busy. The pace has been nonstop,” said James. “Speaking for myself it really feels like we almost never stopped. [Lawmakers] went from an extended session into the primary, back into the extra session, then into the general election campaign. That gave us a week of downtime. Then the meetings started.”

“Everyone feels a real sense of urgency and focus,” James added. “It seems to me to be supercharged.”

There’s one more important difference for Bongartz: the added perspective that comes from 40 additional years of life and experience since his first term in the House.

“I guess I have a better sense of the depth and breadth of the lives of people in the district and the things that they need,” Bongartz said. “It’s probably true that when I first went to Montpelier, I was thinking about things I believe in and shaping my time and effort around those.

“Just by virtue of having a career, friends and everything I’ve seen in the last 30-40 years … I think I have a better sense of the responsibility I have for the needs of the people who live here.”

Reach Greg Sukiennik at gsukiennik@manchesterjournal. com or at 802-447-7567, ext. 119.

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