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The lawmaker and professor is slowing, but who wouldn’t be in his ninth decade? He’s bent as the result of a back injury and unsuccessful surgery, and he uses a walker to go from Senate chamber to committee room.
He first sat in his Senate seat the year Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon. And as a result, Bill Doyle has a record: He has served longer than any other senator in Vermont history, he says. And he believes he is the country’s “sixth or seventh longest-serving legislator.”
Still, Doyle is everywhere. No stopping him. If Alfonse D’Amato, the former U.S. senator from New York, could be called “Senator Pothole” for his service to constituents, Bill Doyle certainly could be called (respectfully) “Senator Potluck” for his well-known way of meeting his constituents.
There he is at a church dinner. See him at a community bean supper, a service club picnic.
Recently, on a Saturday after snow and ice had splattered roads and sidewalks, he attended not one but two “pancake breakfasts” at schools in Cabot and Montpelier.
“He loves to eat, and no one would dispute the fact that if there’s a chicken barbecue within 50 miles, he’s there!” says former state Sen. Vince Illuzzi, who over the years has chummed often with Doyle, partnering on the dining circuit.
Together, they also have attended legislative conferences across the country, gone to Republican national conventions, and even taken a good-will legislative trip to Russia.
Many a night they dined at Sarducci’s, Montpelier’s pasta and pizza restaurant overlooking the Winooski River. “I was good at making the rounds (greeting diners at tables), but he’s the expert,” says Illuzzi with a laugh and a degree of admiration.
There’s purpose behind the peripatetic madness, explains Doyle: Get out and meet the voters, learn what’s on their minds, vote their wishes when you can – and get re-elected.
Doyle has always been a good forecaster of political winds; his knowledge has informed both his legislative and his academic interests. Since 1958, he has been a political science and history professor at Johnson State College, where he has focused much on Vermont and where he has earned plaudits as an accessible and practical instructor.
“He was always a good listener. And that helped him design his courses so that students would learn not only what he wanted to impart, but what they wanted to know,” says Sen. Donald Collins, a Democrat who decades ago had Doyle as a teacher. Collins is not alone: Two other state senators, Richard Westman, a Republican, and Anthony Pollina, a Progressive-Democrat, had Doyle as a teacher.
Collins says Doyle never showed a hint of partisanship in the classes Collins took in the 1960s. “You would never know he was a Republican,” says Collins.
Doyle says 64 of his former students have now run for elective office, with half at least once having been elected.
Doyle began teaching at Johnson State after earning a BA from Princeton and a master’s and doctorate at Columbia. He served on the Montpelier School Board for a few terms (his wife Olene taught art in the city’s school system and in college), before winning his Senate seat in 1968.
Doyle did the chicken supper thing even back then, but also that year he mailed a survey to one of every 20 Washington County voters to see what was on his or her mind. The main question in that first poll was whether voters supported Gov. Deane Davis’ proposal for a sales tax. They did — because they saw it as a way to have tourists share in the tax burdens, says Doyle, who soon was to vote “yes” for the tax.
In the ensuing years, the survey morphed into the famed annual “Doyle Poll” that voters now see on Town Meeting Day, gauging opinions on everything from environmental regulations to civil unions to what to do with the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
When it comes to his voting record, Doyle describes himself as old-school moderate Republican. A sampling of his voting: “yeas” for Vermont’s bottle-deposit law; Act 250, the iconic development-control law; and Act 60, the law that helps equalize education funding around the state. He voted “nay” on civil unions, though he wound up a few years later supporting gay marriage.
One of his claims to legislative fame was his strong push in 1974 for an presidential primary in Vermont. Somewhere in his home in Montpelier, he says, is a photo of him looking on proudly as Gov. Tom Salmon signs that primary bill.
Doyle has made another contribution to the state with his book, “The Vermont Political Tradition,” an easy-read of state history that was first published in 1984 and since updated a dozen times. With drawings and photographs, it offers political history from Thomas Chittenden to Gov. Peter Shumlin and has served as a school textbook and guide to anyone interested in Vermont politics.
And so Doyle has been to countless book readings and signings. For years he delivered the books to bookstores himself, carrying them in the trunk of his car.
Spend time with him, and you get the sense that at age 87, he is still as curious a student as he is an informed teacher.
In the “annex” just off the Senate chamber, during a recent noon hour while many of his Senate colleagues are unwinding over lunch in the legislative dining room, he is visiting with Sharon Anglon Treat, a state representative and former senator from Maine.
Doyle asks her one question, then another, then another. His mind is a political and policy curiosity shop, chock-full of trivia he deems worth imparting and thoughts that provoke immediate inquiry.
“How do you account for the high-quality people you send to Washington?” he asks of the Maine legislator.
“I am sorry U Olympia Snowe is not running again,” he declares in practically the same breath.
“Do you have a Green Party in Maine? We have a Green Party here, and they’re called Progressives,” Doyle explains.
“What about Medicaid expansion? How is it going in your state?”
“What about the disparity between the wealthy and poor in Maine?” he asks.
He gets full answers from Treat and, it seems, her respect.
And then lighter questions about the Portland Sea Dogs minor league baseball team, and about whether some schools still close in Maine during potato harvest.
“Yes,” Treat says to the school question. “Some still do close.”
Doyle breaks to phone Senate Education Committee Chairman Dick McCormack to say he will be 20 minutes late for the afternoon session, and then calls the legislative cafeteria to order a bowl of beef and barley soup.
He soon arrives at the sandwich counter. “We take care of him,” says a sandwich-maker, who steps from the counter to place a covered bowl of the soup on the seat of Doyle’s walker as the senator begins heading to the committee room for an afternoon of the work he cherishes on the job he says he plans to keep in the next election.
Dirk Van Susteren of Calais is a freelance reporter and editor.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Sen. Doyle voted against closing the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. He voted “yes” to a shutdown.