Profile in Leadership: Gaye Symington MBA '83 Speaker, Vermont House of Representatives
Communication: The Key to Collaboration
By Merrill Douglas
Gaye Symington first sought political office almost in spite of herself. She ran for the Vermont House of Representatives in 1996 because she was fired by a cause: she wanted to change the way her state financed its public schools. Her goal was to make sure students in all communities, rich and poor, had an equal shot at a good education.
She thought about running for her local school board; she audited a college course on school finance. "But the more I learned about the system," she says, "the more I realized that it was embedded in the structure of how we pay for schools." The way to gain equity was to change the law.
As a freshman Democrat in the House, Symington worked on Act 60, the law that replaced locally determined property taxes with a statewide tax base to fund public schools. As she continued pushing for issues she held important, she gained a reputation for hard work, determination, and discipline. In 2005, she became Speaker of the House, just the second woman to hold that job in Vermont and one of only two women serving as speaker in any U.S. state legislature today.
Symington's rise to the speaker's podium started in her first term, when she quickly impressed the leadership with her intelligence and knack for bringing herself up to speed on the issues. "As a freshman, she was appointed to the Ways and Means Committee. That's almost unheard of," observes Carolyn Partridge (D), currently the House majority leader.
"I think it was the fact that I was comfortable with numbers, I was comfortable with spreadsheets, that helped me convince the leadership I could handle that assignment," Symington says.
Although she's done it successfully five times, the act of running for political office has never sat easily with Symington. "It asks people to do unnatural things, like walking in a parade, or having your name plastered around the community you live in, on people's lawns, or standing up in front of people and answering questions," she says.
But she has a talent for connecting with constituents, going house-to-house in campaign season, investing time even with those people who already plan to vote for her, says William Frank (D), Symington's district mate. "She wants to serve her constituents, making sure people know that they really do have a representative who's a real, live person, someone you can talk to."
After her party lost the majority in the House in 2000, Symington took a similar approach to getting Democratic candidates elected in 2002, engaging people one by one. She drove from district to district, asking people, "Who in town do you respect most?" and then persuading those people to run. She also raised money to hire others to recruit candidates. That November, Democrats won back 26 seats.
Plenty of face-to-face communication is an important part of Symington's strategy in the House as well, and it extends to political opponents as well as allies.
"She is wonderful at pulling people together who understand an issue from both sides of the aisle, and working collaboratively to find a solution that will work," says Martha Heath (D), who has served in the House for 14 years. "She's very inclusive and, I think, very focused."
"She tries to involve people, which is really important," says Partridge. "For instance, there's a very, very conservative member who's a Republican, whom Gaye has had in to talk about school funding," a mechanism whose details Vermont legislators continue to refine. "It really has added to the perspective of the conversation."
"I always felt that I could go and talk to her about anything, and she did indeed invite me in to resolve some issues that were deal breakers at the end of this session," says Richard Marron (R), who served as vice chair of the Appropriations Committee during the session that ended in 2006.
Along with drawing together individuals with many viewpoints, finding common ground among opponents in order to reach a consensus is a keystone of Symington's political philosophy. "We have a House of 150 people. You just can't move anywhere without 75 people agreeing with you," she explains. "I find I work most effectively when I can work with teams of people to reach across the typical barriers."
One recent opportunity to reach across the barriers came as Vermont's legislators worked on a bill to make it easier for many more citizens to afford health insurance.
Gov. James Douglas vetoed the bill the Democratically controlled House and Senate passed in 2005. In 2006, legislators put two versions of a bill on the table – one the governor had said he would sign and one that Democrats favored, which he would veto, says Margaret Flory (R), the House minority leader. Symington "understood that I had the votes to sustain the veto," she added.
Douglas said he had numerous objections to the Democrats' version, Symington says. "On the evening before the House was scheduled to vote on the final bill, I went to the governor myself and listened and heard a more limited objection" – really just one point on which he would not budge. She then suggested a different way to accommodate that objection and persuaded her allies to agree to that change in order to pass a health care reform bill. "When he narrowed his list, that gave me the opportunity to say, 'I think we can do this.'"
"Inherently she's an idealist," Flory says – adding that Symington was also pragmatic enough to know that if she couldn't get exactly the bill she wanted, she needed to get the best bill she could.
Along with education funding and health care, Symington has focused on issues such as sustainable energy and rural economic development. One theme that has run through her career, including her days at the Johnson School, is the need to promote local agriculture.
It's an interest the part-time citizen legislator also pursues in her other job, as development director of the Intervale Center, a Burlington not-for-profit that develops land- and farm-based business enterprises. For example, it provides equipment and business and marketing services to organic farms; it produces and sells compost products made from recycled yard, farm, and food production waste; and it runs an entrepreneurship program to teach at-risk urban teenagers to grow and market produce.
"I think it's really important in Vermont and throughout the country, but particularly in the Northeast, to look at the viability of our agriculture and our food system," she says.
Symington uses her particular skills, and her work in the legislature and Intervale, to promote causes she deems important to the well-being of her community and the world. But, as she has pointed out, a career in business also offers opportunities to make a better world: "I hope that other leaders who are in the private sector are using their education in that way too, to think about how we can do business differently."