Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Vermont State Senator Diane Snelling Testifies before NJ Senate Committee

Vermont Freedom to Marry
December 7, 2009
The New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee members voted by a 7-6 margin on Monday to advance a marriage equality bill. The full NJ Senate is expected to vote later this week. Vermont's own State Senator Diane Snelling was there to testify at the committee's invitation. [Link] Her words:

It’s an honor to be here today to testify in favor of Marriage Equality.

I’m a moderate who has served eight years in the Senate as the only Republican in a six seat district, and as one of only seven Republicans in a 30 seat Senate. My standing Committees are, Appropriations, and Natural Resources and Energy. I’ve worked hard to earn a reputation for being non-partisan and have always been elected with strong Democrat and Independent support.

I’m grateful that the Democrat majority in the Senate respects my work and that I have been able to fully participate at a leadership level. I serve on the Joint Fiscal Committee, the Budget Conference Committee, the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, and, the Joint Legislative Committee on Government Accountability.

Some sense of my background may be helpful. I grew up in a small town in the District that I represent. Of course, compared to New Jersey, all towns in Vermont are small. I attended local schools and currently live about 3 miles from my former high school. I graduated from Harvard in 1974 with a degree in Visual and Environmental Studies and received my Masters in Studio Art from NYU in 1994. I have worked in advertising and marketing in New York and in Vermont, but I am an artist by training and practice.

Obviously, I am not a New Jersey voter, but I believe you all have some constituents like me who have been active in the community serving on local boards and commissions.

Vermont is a small state of small towns where everyone knows everyone and neighbors and family and friends look out for each other. It is still mostly rural. However, the same issue before you today was intensely debated throughout the State.

Growing up I was surrounded by politics. My father served several terms in the Vermont House and also ran and lost for Lt. Governor and Governor, before being elected Governor of Vermont in 1976. He served four consecutive terms, then ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1986. He was then re-elected Governor in 1990.

We spent many days campaigning as a family and learned first hand as children about many sides of politics. My two brothers, my sister and I all went door to door by ourselves seeking petition signatures and distributing brochures and bumper stickers.

We learned about the issues, but mostly we learned about responsibility and about how people express political opinions.

When I was younger it was difficult to process losing so publicly, but now I understand it was a valuable lesson. My father taught me that doing the right thing isn’t always easy but it’s always important to do the right thing.

After my father’s sudden death in August of 1991, my mother ran and was elected to two terms as Lt. Governor. In 1996, she began a campaign for Governor but had to drop out after she suffered a near death from a ruptured aneurysm. However, she recovered in time to run for the State Senate and was elected. In 1998, she ran again for Lt. Governor and was defeated by less than a thousand votes. In 2000 my mother ran again for the Senate and was elected. She served until 2001 when she suffered a stroke in August and didn’t recover sufficiently to return in January.

Governor Howard Dean appointed me to fill my mother’s seat in January 2002.

At that time I found myself transitioning from being my mother’s primary caregiver to being a State Senator during the second half of a biennium. I knew I had to choose a party, and I chose to honor my parent’s contributions as moderates within a changing Republican party. For myself, I set out from the beginning with the knowledge that good policy was my most important goal, and that working collaboratively and creatively would deliver the best results.

The Civil Unions law, enacted in 2000, was prior to my time in the Senate, but my mother did vote for it. During my first campaign I advised voters that I supported the law and would have voted in favor of it. In subsequent campaigns as the issue of Marriage Equality was discussed I was clear about my support for moving beyond “separate, not equal” and that I would support legislation.

I have a long standing commitment to civil rights, beginning with an intense awareness of the Freedom Riders and the Civil Rights actions in the 1960s. One of my proudest accomplishments in the Senate was the passage in 2006 of Legislation I sponsored that recognized the Abenaki and acknowledged their cultural contributions to the State of Vermont. I currently serve on the Vermont State Advisory Committee to the U.S, Commission on Civil Rights.

Like New Jersey, Vermont passed civil unions in response to a court decision. Although it was groundbreaking at the time, it was also a compromise. The law didn’t provide full equality, and left many Vermont same sex couples and their children as second class citizens. We did experience a period of intense division then, but in 2009 it’s a different world and most Vermonters have accepted the fact that same sex couples are neighbors and friends and family and deserve equal legal rights in their commitment to each other.

This year the Vermont Legislature passed Marriage Equality by supermajorities in both Houses, and with a majority of Republicans (4-3) in the Senate. We heard much of the same testimony you have and we counted pro and con messages from constituents. For some Senators it was a difficult decision. I can honestly say that whatever fears legislators had voting yes were underscored by pride. I can also say that it is important to acknowledge that some decisions must be made by courageous elected leaders and not determined by vocal opposition to a minority.

Contrary to many concerns we have experienced relative calm after the passage of the law in Vermont. There will always be people who see the issue differently but I believe most Vermonters are willing to understand and accept the logic of equal rights for all citizens.

I have received hundreds and hundreds of thank you notes from Vermonters who support Marriage Equality so I know that any votes I may have lost have been replaced many times with new supporters. I also know that none of my colleagues in the Vermont Senate regrets their vote.

Today, I ask you to be brave and do the right thing, please vote yes for Marriage Equality in New Jersey.

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