For the past 30 years, Bob Stannard has been an on-and-off fixture in the Vermont Statehouse.
Now, Stannard says, he’s hanging up his gloves, but not his snazzy suits.
The eighth-generation Vermonter walked into the Statehouse for the first time in 1983, as a Republican representative from the Manchester area. He spent six years in the House and switched to the Democratic Party in his third and final term, when he says the party shifted away from the moderate politics of former U.S. Sen. Robert Stafford and former Gov. George Aiken.
“I went out deer hunting and came back a new man,” Stannard says.
He lost the next two elections and took over as general manager for East Mountain Transport, before Casella Waste Systems bought out the trash service.
“I went from politics to garbage and saw it as a promotion,” he said.
Stannard went back to the Statehouse as a lobbyist in 1995 to fight the statewide property tax law Act 60, which leveled the playing field between “gold” towns like Manchester and poorer towns like Salisbury. After a two-year reprieve from the Legislature, he returned as a lobbyist for the Vermont Citizens Action Network, which is advocating for the shut down of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. In 2012, Stannard formed the state’s first Super PAC. Priorities PAC was set up by lobbyists associated with KSE Partners to draw attention to the issue of big money in politics.
In his three decades in Montpelier, Stannard has made a name for himself as much through his in-your-face character as he has through lobbying.
He is the kind of guy who wears a crushed red velvet suit on Valentine’s Day and puffs a cigar while walking down State Street. The blues musician once belted out a tune with his harmonica hero Charlie Musselwhite, and on another occasion he grabbed President Jimmy Carter’s press secretary, Jody Powell, by the lapels during a Seattle fire alarm.
The husband, father, grandfather, black belt in karate and jack of most trades reflected on his years in the Statehouse with VTDigger before the end of the session. With his off-the-cuff style, Stannard broke down the power lines, the Statehouse struggles and some fundamentals for moving legislation.
An edited version of that conversation follows.
VTD: What does it really mean for you to retire?
Stannard: For me it means I am no longer going to be seeking out clients to pay me to track legislation and fight for their position on various issues. The commitment to leave my house on dark mornings on Tuesday and drive 101.1 miles to Montpelier, live here for the week and go home Friday afternoons, will cease.
What will happen to your Super PAC?
It’s funny: I’ve had people ask me what am I going to do when I retire? The bigger question is what am I not going to do? I don’t have to focus on things to support myself. There’s a new movie out called “Django Unchained,” and I’m thinking of my new life as “Bob Unchained.”
VTD: So, are you still going to run the Super PAC?
Stannard:Yeah, I’m going to still be involved with that. I do that in conjunction with Todd Bailey and KSE Partners, and I’ll still keep a hand in that because we started the Super PAC for the reason of trying to rid the world of Super PACs. I’m still committed to the idea that it should not cost a fortune to run for office in the state of Vermont. Super PACs are changing the world, and if I can modify the role that Super PACs play, I’ll continue to do that.
VTD: Is there a chance you might come back? Are you going to pull a Michael Jordan or an Axl Rose?
Stannard: One never says never in politics.
VTD: Why are you doing this? Why retire?
Stannard: We had three family members die in a five-month period of time, and I was left enough resources where I no longer have to work. That was unexpected. I had assumed I was going to drop dead in this building in my 80s trying to fight for issues on behalf of someone who was paying me. Cosmically enough, on my 30th anniversary of having walked in here for the first time in the January of ’83, circumstances were such that I could walk out of here. Three decades is a long time; you haven’t even been on this earth that long.
VTD: How does power play out in the Vermont Statehouse?
Stannard: I’ll give you an example. When I was freshman rep, I was pretty clear that the way things worked was that you convinced the other side that your issue was the right thing to do, and they’d vote for it. I was on a conference committee, and on the committee was the president pro tem at the time, and his name was Bob Bloomer. He was the current Secretary of the Senate John Bloomer’s uncle, and Bob Bloomer ruled with an iron fist. He was a very tough guy.
At one point, I remember saying to him, this is a really important issue, and I remember him looking at me and smiling, and saying, “I don’t give a shit about the issues.”
He didn’t just pop my balloon; he shot my balloon with a 12-gauge Magnum, and I can remember thinking what kind of hideous person is this, and it took me a couple of years to realize he ran the place. He couldn’t afford to care about the issues because if others found out there was an issue he cared about, they’d grab that issue and hold it hostage and leverage him, so he had to project to everybody that there was nothing he cared about. There was nothing you could hold over him, and as a result he was the most powerful man in the building.
That’s inside baseball; you don’t get that on the tour here.
VTD: Who currently runs the Statehouse?
Stannard: I would say the building is run by the Speaker of the House. If you look at the way the Senate is set up you have the committee on committees, and the president of the Senate can’t really do anything without the lieutenant governor and the other member of the three-member committee, which assigns senators to committees.
The speaker of the House doesn’t have that problem. All of that power is concentrated in one individual.
I think Shap Smith, the current speaker, is arguably one of the most dynamic speakers in my time, since Ralph Wright, and Ralph was speaker from 1984 to 1994. The longer you have that job, the more enemies you create. It’s just a matter of time before you have more enemies than friends.
VTD: Why does Shap Smith stand out?
Stannard: It is remarkable to see the respect he garners from all parties. He’s very effective and a lot of it is because he’s ridiculously smart and can get up to issue at breathtaking speed. I think people know he has the ability to get pretty angry, and people here are smart enough not to put him in that spot, but it’s there, and it adds to his influence. I’ve never seen him use a heavy hand, but you can tell that beneath that soft velour finish, there’s a layer of steel.
VTD: What were you thinking in the 1980s when you decided to run for the Manchester seat in the House?
Stannard: I was recruited by a friend of mine, Seth Bongartz, who was in the House at the time, and he called me up to run with him. I assumed you had to be an attorney to be up here. I owned a lawn mowing business, so I didn’t think I was remotely qualified, and my friend said it was best not to be a lawyer. I had never given running for office an ounce of thought. I thought about it then, it sounded like a fascinating thing to do, so I ran. I had no issues I was running on.
VTD: You’ve been lobbying now for years, and the term “lobbyist” has a bit of negative connotation to some people. Why do you think lobbying, as a trade, garners a negative reputation?
Stannard: Jack Abramoff comes to mind. He’s a very high-profile example of a reasonably corrupt Washington lobbyist. When you see the influence of money from lobbyists on politics, and you see how hamstrung our Congress seems to be, the responsibility falls on lobbyists. We just lost a no-brainer, background-gun-check bill because of NRA lobbyists.
We’re all described and defined as lobbyists because we’re hired by others to influence legislation, but the difference between a lobbyist in this building and a lobbyist in the capitol building can’t even be accurately compared. There’s not one lobbyist here making a shit ton of money. They probably have to do something else. Most of them are attorneys. No one in this building is making a lot of money. No one.
VTD: What is the upside of lobbying for Vermont’s democracy?
Stannard: The people who work in this building actually serve as a support staff because you know that when you’re elected to serve here, the first thing you get for staff is nothing. You have Legislative Council, which is a bank of lawyers who are fabulous people drafting legislation for 180 people. They aren’t your staff.
Legislators stop lobbyists and say, we’re taking up this bill today, can you get me this information in the next hour. It’s a very hard job to describe to people because most people who have jobs know what their job is. In this case, your job is really to walk around and happenstance-ly bump into people whose memory is jogged and need information, and you become a provider of information. And you damn well better provide accurate information. If you give them wrong information, you get to do that one time, and then you never get to do that again.
VTD: In terms of lessons you’ve learned, how do you get a piece of legislation passed?
Stannard: There should be two rates lobbyists charge clients. There should be a rate that you charge to pass a bill, and a much-reduced rate to kill something because killing legislation is a boat-load easier than passing it. Passing legislation the way you want it passed is arguably one of the hardest things in the world to do.
This whole process is about having these great ideas and taking off the blocks at the starting line. You’re running as fast as you can, and if you’re lucky you get almost around the course — sometimes you only get 10-12 feet — and you run right smack into a brick wall. Bam! Full speed ahead! You didn’t even see it. It was an invisible wall.
Then, you’ve got to decide: Do I back up and run into that sucker again or find a way to go around it? If you’re smart, and you have any respect for your forehead, you’ll find ways around the problem. It’s an art form.
VTD: How do you get something off the wall?
Stannard: You compromise and you negotiate and you find a way so that when you’re done you have something. This is a game of getting something. People come in here and think, “We’re going to do this on merit because it’s the right thing to do.” It’s a dead skunk on the side of the road — real quick. The building doesn’t work that way. It’s a half-a-loaf game, if you’re lucky.
VTD: As a seasoned lobbyist, how do you approach an issue when you get tripped up?
Stannard: It is about advancing and trying to convince the person who is paying you not an inconsequential amount of money to be happy with what you’re getting. I know you’re not happy, but be grateful that you’ve got an audience because maybe you’re positioning yourself to get a little more next year.
VTD: What was your biggest victory in the Statehouse?
Stannard: The most exciting vote relative to me was the Feb. 24 vote of 2010, when the Vermont state Senate came up with a 26-4 vote of no confidence for Entergy Corporation running the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. That was a tremendous personal victory for me in that they said they did not want the plant to operate. And I understand it’s still operating, but that was a huge turnaround from 2002 when everyone loved Entergy and thought it was a more solid company.
VTD: How did that vote play out?
Stannard: There was a funny moment that few know about. Then President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin was outside the Senate. They’re about to vote, and he grabs me by the arm and says, ‘Walk with me” — My job consists of hundreds of 30-second vignettes throughout the day. He asked me, “What’s your vote?”
And I said, “25-5. “
He says, “You’re wrong; it’s 26-4.”
I said, “No way,” because you know who is with you and who is against you with those numbers. Then, at one point during the debate, Sen. Randy Brock stood up and made his famous speech that if the anti-nuke advocates were on the board of directors they couldn’t run it any worse.
I looked over at Peter Shumlin as he’s giving that speech, and Peter Shumlin leaned back in his seat, and we make eye contact, and he winks his right eye at me. Somehow he knew Randy Brock was very unhappy with Entergy; I had never counted on support from Randy Brock.
VTD: What is the most monumental vote you’ve witnessed in the three decades you’ve spent in and out of this building?
Stannard: The most significant vote that has taken place in my 30 years of being in this building was the vote when this body sanctioned gay marriage. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. I’ve never seen anything as emotional, as powerful, as liberating, and I’ve never seen a vote that has made me as proud as I could ever be to be a Vermonter.