ST. ALBANS — For the first time in 29 years, Kathleen Keenan watched a gubernatorial address not from the well of the Vermont House, but from the comfort of her living room.
After nearly 30 years of service, Keenan opted not to seek reelection this year.
During her time as a representative, Keenan chaired the House Commerce Committee and spent 10 years on appropriations, with a biennium on the Ways and Means Committee as well.
“I’m not feeling the sadness yet,” Keenan said Thursday, watching Scott’s speech on public television, although she was curious to see who had been assigned to her House seat. “There are a lot of people I’ll miss, but I feel good about leaving.”
Keenan, then 48, was appointed to the House by Gov. Madeleine Kunin in April 1989 when her father, Rep. Roland Keenan, died in office. Appointing family members to finish a representative’s term was common then, said Keenan.
“I was in the midst of grief,” said Keenan. During her second week in office, she told the Messenger that while she was enjoying the work, she would rather see her father in her House seat.
Adjusting to the work was easy for her. “I was from a political household,” she said. “They laughed at me because I took to it like a fish in water.”
Because Vermont has a part-time, citizen legislature, Keenan continued to work as a registered nurse at Northwestern Medical Center, putting in 32 hours each week between Friday evening when she got back from Montpelier and Tuesday morning when she returned.
During one shift, a Dr. Dean called to say he was sending a patient to the emergency room. “I said, ‘This is Nurse Keenan.’” In addition to being a doctor, Howard Dean was also the lieutenant governor at the time.
Keenan was initially placed on the health and welfare committee, which was working on insurance reform. Wanting to follow that work through, she asked to be moved to the commerce committee, which was taking up the insurance work. Commerce, she said, was then “the dregs,” a committee no one asked to join.
Fairly quickly, she was made chair of the committee. It was at this time that she was going through a divorce. Her attorney was a member of the Uniform Commission, a national group that creates model legislation for state legislatures with the goal of minimizing the differences in regulation between states.
“We were so far behind. We had laws that went back to 1929,” said Keenan. One such rule limited investments by insurance companies to bonds.
It took three to four years of work, but Keenan and her committee produced a bill updating a slew of Vermont laws related to commerce and business. It was the largest bill to ever pass the House, she said.
“That was probably more meaningful to the business community than any other bill we’ve done,” she said. It took a whole day and the entire committee to report the bill – that is explain it to colleagues on the House floor.
“We did a lot of wonderful work in there,” she said of commerce, including work on downtown development, the creation of a 9-1-1 system, and energy efficiency.
At one point, an ice storm took down the power lines bringing power to Grand Isle County from New York, and VELCO came to the commerce committee for assistance getting power restored.
Keenan asked if they had ever considered putting the lines underground. They believed doing so would be too expensive, she said.
Keenan was willing to help with a temporary fix, but asked that before more permanent work was done, VELCO investigate the cost of underground lines. “They looked into it and it saved them money,” she said. “I thought that was a big plum in my committee’s hat.”
Her committee also came together to fight for Enhanced 9-1-1 service, which provides the caller’s location to dispatchers. At the time, there were others, especially the finance committee chair in the Senate, pushing for regular 911 service instead, because it cost less.
The commerce committee members lobbied their colleagues and were able to get a majority behind E 9-1-1. “We beat the good old boys club that wanted regular 9-1-1,” she said.
“Now our E 9-1-1 is in trouble,” said Keenan. “A lot of areas don’t have it and they don’t even know they don’t have it.” She and the new incoming commerce chair, Mike Marcotte, R-Coventry, worked for the last four years on a fix, but weren’t able to get it through. “There are things I’m feeling bad about leaving and that’s one of them,” Keenan said.
Of all of the bills she voted on in thirty years, the most contentious was civil unions. In 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that denying same-sex couples the right to marry or enter into an equivalent institution was a violation of the state constitution.
The following year the legislature approved civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, making the state the first in the U.S. to offer same-sex couples a form of marriage. The civil unions bill drew angry responses from both Vermonters and those from out of state.
“We were physically threatened all the time by people who came in from out of state,” said Keenan.
When fellow Franklin County representative Leon Graves told people she was the swing vote on the bill, she spent an entire weekend fielding calls at all hours.
Asked how the angry reactions compared to the response to the gun legislation passed last session, Keenan said, “The gun bill was nothing. I was afraid for my life.”
Two local legislators who voted for civil unions, John Edwards and Al Perry, lost their seats that fall. “I was luck I didn’t lose mine,” Keenan said.
Fallout from the civil unions bill temporarily gave Republicans control of the House and Keenan lost her chairmanship and spent a biennium on Ways and Means, just as the committee was taking up Act 68, which modified Vermont’s education tax system.
With the rest of the committee focused on education, she and two other former chairs were able to work on other tax issues, she said.
She would return to Commerce the following biennium before moving to appropriations.
Of the six House speakers she’s worked with, Keenan said Ralph G. Wright, a Bennington Democrat, was her favorite. “He had your back if you were one of his chairs,” Keenan said.
He also had a group of men with whom he shared NHL tickets. “When he needed a vote, he knew where to go,” Keenan observed.
Asked about governors she respected, Keenan named a Republican, Richard Snelling. “I was only there a short time with Snelling, but I was impressed with him.”
During Snelling’s tenure the state was facing a shortage and Snelling worked with the legislature to raise the needed funds. “He did the right thing. We were in a bind and he took it upon himself to work with Democrats,” Keenan said.
She also has a favorable view of Snelling’s successor, Democrat Howard Dean. “When you got to the end of the session, he was there with his sleeves rolled up,” working with legislators.
Keenan clearly enjoyed her time in the House. “I don’t think I was there a day that I didn’t learn something,” she said. “It really was wonderful. I enjoyed the 90s and the early 2000s so much.”
Asked what advice she would give novice legislators, Keenan said, “You’ve got to listen, listen, listen. The last few years, that really hasn’t been the case for a lot of people in the legislature.”
There were more floor debates when she first went to the House, she said. “At that time people knew what they were voting on.” Now people are more trusting of the committees, in her view.
“Nothing went as fast as it does now,” she said. Part of that is simply the sheer volume of work to be done and bills examined. “There’s not as much work going into them in committee as there used to be.”
“I probably wasn’t a favorite all the time with my party,” Keenan concluded. “I did the best I could and I based my votes on what I thought was right.”
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