The death of Richard W. Mallary last week brought forth a flood of genuine appreciation for this “gentleman,” “statesman,” (“elder statesman,” according to one headline, and “humble statesman” in Rep. Peter Welch’s words). For others: A “public spirited Vermonter” with a “dry wit,” who was an inspiration to many, and, as former Gov. Jim Douglas told Vermont Public Radio, “a very nonpartisan Republican.”
A review of the high praise finds the word “politician” nowhere in evidence. The tenor of the admiration was for a man for whom, in one former reporter’s words, “public service was a high calling and a noble venture. He never sought personal recognition for his work. It was simply what you did to be a good Vermonter.” This from Steven Terry, who covered the Statehouse for the Rutland Herald when Mallary was beginning his career there.
There are many still serving the state who were inspired by Dick Mallary who died at the age of 82 last week. But something set him and a handful of other Republicans from his era apart. And an account by Mallary himself, from a 2001 interview from the Snelling Center Project Collection of the Vermont Folklife Center Archive conducted by Jane Beck, serves to provide a clear look at what Vermont Republicans of that era stood for.
The Republican brand of the ‘60s
Mallary’s own description of politics as he knew it, sharply focused and immediate, fleshes out the terms “statesman,” “public servant,” “man of principle” and even what it meant to be “non-partisan.” It also tells us something of what the Republican “brand” was that so suited Dick Mallary, a man who prized compromise and bipartisanship, words he used pointedly as he looked back.
He went from “Young Turk” Republican in the 1961 legislative session—the youngest of a group of eight Republicans and three Democrats” who were, as he put it, “disaffected” with the old party leadership, to a disillusioned Republican, who felt compelled to leave his party in 2000, as Sen. James Jeffords would the following year.
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From the start, he did not see himself as a “liberal” Republican but as a “moderate.” Describing his mother, who served in the Vermont Legislature through the 1950s, Mallary made a distinction between her “moderate-to-liberal” Republicanism (she and his father had admired Wendell Willkie for criticizing FDR for New Deal policies he thought were inefficient and anti-business) and his own “moderate” stance, which he described as ‘fiscally conservative but a social moderate.”
The fiscal conservatism emerged most strongly during his years in the House when Democrat Phil Hoff became governor. While he and Hoff knew, liked and respected each other, Mallary was clear about what he thought the limits of state government should be in the new era–what he called “the pace of government.”
My view was that we should not become pawns to all the programs that were being hatched in Washington. I had a concern that became enhanced as we went on that we were, because of the War on Poverty and the number of Federal programs that were coming in, that Vermont was taking on obligations–and many of these programs were seed money to get something started. And we didn’t have the resources to continue them. I mean, we’d appropriate money to start a program, we’d appropriate money for the last two months of the year and the people that were hired to fill it, and then the following year we’d have to find State money to fund twelve months. And so I felt that we were…getting into an unsustainable fiscal situation. And so I did what I could in various ways to try to restrain some of the program advancement or enhancements that we had statewide. I think Phil was quoted at one time as saying that I was the greatest obstacle to progress in the State of Vermont, or something of that sort. But…we had a philosophical difference about it.
Phil was in his third term and had national aspirations, I think, and was speaking around the countryside and attempting to change the social structure of the State of Vermont, …I think at a rate faster than Vermont was ready to accept…. I have no question about his motivation, but I think his understanding of the pace of acceptance and the desire for governmental control—I think his view of Vermont’s tolerance for that— was different from mine.
Mallary said Republican Deane Davis was “in many ways my favorite governor,” because “he came in and solved or addressed some of the fiscal problems that had been created by the over-spending during the Hoff years.”
The ‘Young Turks’ make their mark
The political scene had changed dramatically in 1963 when the Young Turks of both parties were in charge. The Legislature was still Republican, but most leadership positions went to the young Republican Turks, and the governor was Hoff, the first Democrat in 106 years to win that office. Hoff had been one of the three Democrats among the Young Turks and, says Mallary, was so surprised at having won the governorship that he had no program in place. He remembered this as a time when “both parties were sort of…trying to find how they were going to live together and work together in the new environment of a bi-partisan state. …Ralph Foote was Lieutenant Governor. And I think his posture and that of most of the [Republican] leadership was that we should give the Governor a chance and there shouldn’t be an alternate program. … The traditional pattern [had been] the Governor…setting the program and the Legislature reacting.”
By the next session, this nonpartisan cooperation gave way to a confrontation between the administration and the Legislature and led Hoff to calling Mallary “the great bookkeeper.”
Reapportionment and civil unions
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Then, in 1965, came the re-apportionment vote, which meant even more dramatic change for the Legislature and the state. Mallary looked back on that emotional debate as presaging, in some sense, the debate over civil unions 35 years later. Both were court-ordered. Though the re-apportionment vote saddened many, as towns would no longer have “the kind of voice in State Government that we… had in the past,” as Mallary observed, he knew that it would pass.
There was lots of opposition to it. Many people … were distressed and unhappy, but I think the majority recognized that the court had spoken and that…we had no option. So the question wasn’t ‘Shall we re-apportion?’ The question was ‘In what manner shall we re-apportion? Shall we continue to have 246? Shall we cut to 150? Shall we cut to 100? Shall we change the size of the Senate? …How do we carve up the State? And so it was a matter of lots of compromise.
The vote on civil unions, which brings into focus the “social moderate” side of Dick Mallary, was more problematic. While Vermont, under a state Supreme Court order, was required to pass legislation establishing civil unions, Mallary saw that legislators would lose their seats in many districts if they voted for it. He was one of them. He had returned to the House in 1999, after a break to hold administrative jobs or work in the private sector. He did not shrink from voting for civil union legislation in 2000, though he lost his seat representing Orange County, a conservative rural area, as a direct result, and it ended his career as an elected official, though not his public service.
As he said, he voted his conscience and in the belief that the Republican Party stood for principles “of equal rights, justice and opportunity for all,” and in the 2001 Snelling interview, he added, “I do not believe this opposition [to court-ordered civil union legislation] is consistent with the fundamental philosophy of the historic Republican Party that I have supported.” Mallary was both a Lincoln Republican, then, who would have held that slavery was wrong 150 years before because it denied Americans equal rights and opportunity, and a believer in fiscal prudence that had become a watchword for Republicans in the 20th century.
Less room in the party for moderates
When he left the Republican party in 2000, he told Jane Beck, it was because “there is less room in the [Republican] party for moderate Republicans, such as I consider myself to be.” And he dated the Republican shift to the right from the early 1960s and Phil Hoff’s election, “when it became socially acceptable and effective to be a Democrat. Since that time, the character of the Republican Party has changed significantly. …it has been moving ever gradually farther to the right.” He became an independent only in order to run for office once again, but even then he said, “I still have hopes that …there is a party for people who are fiscal conservatives, such as I, but social moderates.”
Mallary’s first public service was as a member of the Fairlee Selectboard. He was 22. Raised in the kind of Republican family that admired Willkie for his opposition to New Deal spending, by 1952 he saw himself as an “Eisenhower Republican” rather than a “Taft Republican.” At the Republican Convention that year, he was not among the Taft backers, whom he called “the old line members of the party”—they abhorred what they saw as the interventionist views of Dwight Eisenhower. He also thought it was “a great idea” at the time “that there was an interest in ditching Richard Nixon as Vice President and substituting Christian Herter, who was then Governor of Massachusetts…. My antipathy for Richard Nixon started way back, I think with the Checkers speech.”
From the start, apparently, Dick Mallary was cast in the farmer-legislator mold, having chosen farming over law. His summa cum laude philosophy degree from Dartmouth College led not to law school but to a year at “a very distinguished Holstein breeding establishment in [Alison], Ontario, to milk test cows.” With his early interest in combining public service with farming, it isn’t hard to imagine that Mallary had read Cicero, who saw country life as “the teacher of economy, of industry, and of justice.” He continued to make his living from farming until 1970, at which point he had already served in local and state politics for 20 years.
What kind of politician was he? His self-assessment was honest and matter-of-fact.
I’m not a good campaigner. I’m not charismatic. I mean, I enjoy talking with people. I enjoy discussing the issues. I’m… issue-oriented, but I’m not good at going to the rubber chicken dinners or going to the cocktail parties and making sure that I work the crowd.
Howard Coffin, who covered candidate Mallary in Vermont in the late ‘60s, has an illustrative story. He was along on one occasion when local Republicans held a rally at a Fish & Game Club upstate. “Traveling with Mallary there was a lot of silence; he was always thinking about a lot of things. We arrived at the club, the crowd was there and Dick had nothing to say. He shook hands, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. He ended up just standing off to the side and not talking with anybody.” Coffin found it “embarrassing.” Mallary likely took it in stride.
In his Snelling interview, however, Mallary said he was “more combative” compared to his mother, Gertrude Mallary, who bowed out of a state Senate primary because under the “Mountain Rule” she felt someone on the other side of her district should have a chance. And indeed he did run again after his defeat in the 2000 election.
Mallary found himself uncomfortable when he moved on from the Vermont House to the Senate, again because he was not comfortable with politicking.
…the Senate I found I liked less well than the House, in one sense, because there’s much more wheeling and dealing and trading of votes. I never was one to trade votes. I mean, …I tended on almost every issue to have an opinion and a conviction. And I was unwilling to vote against my convictions on one thing in order to persuade someone else to vote with me on something or other else. I mean, I’m probably not a good Legislative politician, in that sense…that I have my own set of beliefs and principles. I found times when I thought that the Senate was not voting in the manner that people would vote if they voted as they believed and as they knew was best.
Asked what was the “proudest or the most significant thing you felt you accomplished in the Legislature?” Mallary laughed and issued this modest disclaimer:
I have never sort of had a particular Legislative initiative or, you know, I’ve never …been sort of single focused in the sense of, here’s a project which I want to undertake and get done. I tend to have opinions on everything. And convictions about everything. And I want to change everything the way I think it should be changed. …in many senses, some of the people who become the most distinguished are people who focus in on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. That’s not my nature.
Elaborating on his desire to have a hand in “everything, ” he added:
I tended to want to understand what was going on and not defer to other people … I guess. The question is, who do you defer to and can you trust the people that you defer to, to do it the way you’d like to see it done?
Here, perhaps indelibly, is the portrait of the old “Vermont Republican” that some felt Dick Mallary embodied.
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