MONTPELIER – In one small way whether Bernard Sanders or Richard Tarrant wins the race for U.S. Senate won't make any difference. Neither of the two front-runners is a native of the state, and – presuming that one of them wins the job – this year will mark the first time Vermonters will have sent a non-native to the U.S. Senate since Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. That was the year Luke Poland, born in Westford, was elected to the Senate seat which has been held by Vermonters ever since and is now occupied by Patrick Leahy, who was born in Montpelier. The state's other slot in the Senate, now occupied by the retiring Sen. James Jeffords, who was born in Rutland, has been held by native Vermonters for even longer. In 1851 Solomon Foot of Cornwall took the job, which is now the subject of the race between Sanders, an Independent who is also backed by the state Democratic Party, Tarrant, a Republican, and a handful of other candidates who are not getting support from the major parties. Still, the question of who is a "real Vermonter" will likely be less of a campaign issue than it has been in the past. In part, that is because neither Tarrant, who lived in West Orange, N.J., until he moved to Vermont in his late teens, nor Sanders, who still has the Brooklyn accent of his Flatbush childhood, can claim to be anything – at least by birth – other than what Vermonters sometimes call a "flatlander." Sanders, as a member of the U.S. House since 1991, has had experience running for national office as a non-native Vermonter. In a state in which non-natives are becoming more and more prevalent, Vermonters will judge their candidates on what they have done and what they believe, not where they were born, he said. "In the year 2006 Vermonters are judging the candidates on their views on the issues, on their records," Sanders said. After four decades of living in Vermont and meeting many tens of thousands of Vermonters, he said he does not think – at least anymore – the issue of whether a candidate is a native Vermonter is that important. It may have carried more weight at one point, he said. "More and more non-natives are coming in and staying in the state," Sanders said. "That has become less of an issue." About that, at any rate, Tarrant agreed. "I consider myself a Vermonter," he said last week. Given the years he has spent in the state and his feelings for it, "I consider myself more of a Vermonter than most people," Tarrant said. He chose to move to the state – Tarrant came here to play basketball at St. Michael's College – and to stay afterward and work for International Business Machines, before co-founding IDX Software. It was while driving around the state for IBM, trying to sell computers in the Northeast Kingdom in the 1960s, that he got starting learning Vermont's back roads, Tarrant said. "I think I have a pretty good feel for it," he said. Going back to some of those same towns again for the first time in four decades while he campaigns, he said he is surprised that not much has changed in some of them. "The only difference is that the trees have grown 40 years taller," he said. Early in his campaign, Tarrant was dogged with questions about whether he was legally a resident of Vermont or Florida, where he has a second home. He plans to retire one day to the Sunshine State for the winter months, at least, he said, although he added he will still spend time in Vermont. "My grandkids are here," he said "You never get far from your grandkids." Tarrant may be surprised by the lack of change in the state, but Greg Parke, one of his primary opponents who did spend his childhood in Vermont, is running for just the opposite reason. "I left for 22 years or so to serve in the U.S. Air Force and I came back to a very different Vermont than I grew up in," Parke said. Government regulation and new residents with more money have changed the state, Parke said. "It is the complete opposite of the state I grew up in. It disturbs me greatly," said Parke. "The flatlanders, as we used to call them, are coming up and bidding up the price of land so high" that farmers can't stay in business, he added. By and large, though, a candidate's birthplace doesn't seem to matter as much as it once did in Vermont politics, said Garrison Nelson, a political scientist at the University of Vermont. "Once upon a time it might have made a difference," he said. Even as recently as the campaign of Jack McMullen, who lived in Massachusetts for most of his life before running in 1998 for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, the issue of native against flatlander was a serious one. McMullen lost to retired dairy farmer Fred Tuttle in part because Tuttle ran as a real Vermonter facing down a flatlander. After winning the nomination, Tuttle supported Leahy, the Democrat. "Neither has chosen to conceal their non-Vermonter origins," said Nelson. That can be an argument in a candidate's favor, he added. "The implication is that my love for Vermont is even greater because I choose to come here." Interestingly, despite Vermonters' apparent reluctance to send a non-native to the U.S. Senate, the state has had three decades of non-natives in the top state political post. Deane Davis was the last native Vermonter to hold the job of governor. "We would only send a Vermonter to Washington, where we couldn't watch them very closely, but we didn't mind having a non-native here where we can keep a close eye on them," Nelson said. Like Tarrant, Gov. James Douglas, who was born in Springfield, Mass., came to the state for college – Middlebury College in his case. "I have stayed ever since," he said last week. Vermonters, along with everyone else, are used to people moving from place to place now, so it probably doesn't make much difference in an election where people are born, Douglas said. "We are a mobile nation, a mobile world," he said. Neither of the two front-runners in this year's election for the state's lone U.S. House seat was born in Vermont, either. Republican Martha Rainville is a native of New London, Conn., while Democrat Peter Welch was born in Springfield, Mass. But it has been common for non-natives to hold that job, most recently Sanders himself. A native Vermonter who is in that race, Republican State Sen. Mark Shepard, said he doesn't think it makes nearly as much difference where candidates were born as what they want the state to become. "I think the real difference is whether people understand … and try to preserve the independent way of life," said Shepard, whose brother lives in the same Hartland house where his father and grandfather were born. "That really is the Vermont heritage." John McClaughry, an Illinois native and so a flatlander by birth, but a Vermonter for the last 40 years, agreed. "Every state has a culture and an image and a tradition," he said. "Anyone who exemplifies that tradition of Vermont values and has been here long enough to become involved in Vermont's society is a credible candidate for high office." Among the most important of those values are a sense of a "resistance to centralized power, commitment to liberty and sense of community," he said. But Frank Bryan, who also teaches at UVM, said Vermonters don't seem to care nearly as much where someone running for office is from than they did even two decades ago when he co-authored "Real Vermonters Don't Milk Goats," a short book poking fun at flatlanders. But maybe they should, he added. "Fighting through" the first 20 winters of your life "when one's enduring values and dispositions about life are being formed and hardened … imparts a definable perspective that is key to making judgments about that place," Bryant said. "Vermont's a hard place to 'adopt' and know thoroughly," he said.

You must be logged in to react.
Click any reaction to login.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.