Mitzi Johnson Carves Out Her Own Agenda as Speaker of the House
by Gail Callahan

Mitzi Johnson
photo: Jan Doerler

Mitzi Johnson wears the mantle of a woman for all seasons well.

The Democrat from South Hero is Vermont's third woman Speaker of the Vermont House, officially securing the position in January. Johnson was unopposed in her bid to become Speaker. At one time, her opponents on the Democratic side included Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford), who dropped her bid to become Speaker, citing Johnson's strong support from other legislators, and Rep. Chip Conquest (D-Orange-Caledonia). Conquest withdrew from consideration in late fall.

Johnson succeeded Shap Smith of Morristown, a Democrat, who ran in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. He was defeated by the now-current lieutenant governor, David Zuckerman.

Johnson's success in winning the speakership proves she has the support to best other candidates. As Speaker, Johnson is responsible for assigning the 150 representatives to committees and naming the chairs of those panels. The Speaker also sets the House list of priorities during the particular legislative session and schedules meetings that fall among House and Senate leaders and the governor's office.

A member of the House since 2003, Johnson has sat on the House Appropriations Committee for nearly a decade, serving as its vice chairperson and then, eventually, as its chair. "I really loved working on the budget," said Johnson.

Johnson said the process of sculpting a spending plan for the state can be daunting. Since the new legislative session is weeks old, Johnson said she isn't certain about the course the 2017 budget will take. She pointed out that a level of tension builds as work to refine a financial plan ticks down. "There's a lot of pressure from the community and the media," Johnson said. "They want to know what the next thing will be."

Johnson believes the Appropriations Committee should hold "vibrant conversations to see what the state's needs are. When the budget is being done, it you don't take into account how to better serve Vermonters . . . then it's a math exercise."

Her freshman and sophomore terms in the House included a period spent serving on the Agriculture Committee, a period in which she also was a working farmer. Her tenure on those panels helped to shape and broaden her experience in the House. As Johnson noted, "I have a very wide and deep knowledge of state government."

"I think I'm more of a pragmatist rather than a politician," said Johnson. "I try to engage all members no matter their [political] party."

Johnson is among a new field of leaders now steering Vermont. Peter Shumlin opted not to run for reelection as the state's top executive, and Vermonters elected Phil Scott as the state's sole Republican statewide officeholder, Zuckerman of Hinesburg, a Progressive who ran on the Democratic ticket, was sworn in in January as lieutenant governor, and Sen. Tim Ashe, a Chittenden County Democrat/ Progressive, and is the new Senate leader. This is the first time in 49 years that all four of the offices boast new members.

In the weeks leading up to Scott's swearing-in in January, Johnson met with the Green Mountain State's then in-coming chief executive. At the time of the meeting, Johnson was quoted in the media as predicting serious disagreements between a Republican administration and a legislature, both the House and Senate, dominated by Democrats. Johnson declined to talk about Scott's call to freeze education and state budget spending. She noted that Vermont school boards have a limited amount of time to warn proposed spending plans in order to get them placed on March town ballots.

Generally, school boards complete the work of warning their respective budgets by the middle to the end of January. She noted, however, that the legislature wouldn't change the law so that school directors can go back to the table to redo their financial proposals.

Johnson with Chief-of-Staff Katherine Levasseur
photo: Jan Doerler

House Committee Changes

Johnson has wasted no time since she stepped onto the podium in the House chamber. Shortly after becoming Speaker, Johnson moved jurisdiction over mental-health-care issues to the Health Care Committee. The move was part of a series of far-reaching and sweeping changes made affecting how the state creates and implements laws on health care, business, information technology, energy, and agriculture.

"I want all committees to have a solid understanding of their work," said Johnson, who noted a diverse work level on House committees. Johnson said the membership of the House "does a good job representing their communities," and she is anxious for representatives to continue to get to know one another and find out what they have in common.

A number of changes and adjustments have been made to House committees. Johnson has said that affordable housing is one of her top priorities. The House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs is now an 11-member panel. Previously, the group's membership numbered seven, and the expansion will likely allow the group to study affordable housing. Johnson is keen on looking at the Commerce Committee, gauging the strength of training programs and developing the workforce. As a result, the Education Committee will bow out of workforce creation.

In other changes, the House's Natural Resources and Energy Committee has been scrapped, its responsibilities handed to two existing committees and a novice one. Duties falling under natural resources, such as air quality and land use, are now part of the old Fish and Wildlife Committee, leading to the birth of the Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee. Anything dealing with state parks, lands and forestry are now under the eye of the Agriculture and Forestry Committee, formerly known as Agriculture and Forest Products. In the past, three separate panels oversaw forestry.

Energy regulation now is the task of the new, eight-member Energy Technology Committee. In addition to this, the panel will also be responsible for telecommunications and is also guiding information technology projects.
Any issues related to utilities for electricity and telephone consumers are now also handled under one committee. The Public Service Department and the Public Service Board now only has one committee to deal with during the legislative session.

"My main focus is to get the committees to look at how well Vermont's government is serving the people of Vermont," Johnson said, adding, "so more Vermonters can access better wages and better jobs."

Farmer Turned Politician

A native of Clifton Park, New York, Johnson enrolled in the University of Vermont, majoring in environmental science and international development. Following her 1993 graduation, she wasn't quite ready to don a pair of heels and a power suit. She opted instead to wear more casual and comfortable attire: dungarees. "Out of college, I did work on a small farm," Johnson said.
Johnson put down roots in the farming community, working at Peters Farm in South Hero. During that period, Johnson met Ray Allen, the face behind the multigenerational, family-run and -operated Allenholm Farm, another South Hero farm. During Johnson's tenure there, she worked as a crew leader, overseeing workers from Jamaica, who pick apples at the farm during fall. She also created an agricultural program that grew fresh vegetables, serving dozens and enjoying widespread community support.

Not too long into her tenure on the farm, Johnson hired a young man—David Zuckerman—to work the land. Zuckerman went on to own and operate his own organic farm, Full Moon Farm, in Hinesburg.

When Zuckerman told Johnson he wanted to run for the legislature, Johnson said she teased him. She recalls that she told him, "Why would anyone want to run for the legislature?"

In 2000, a former House representative approached Johnson about running for elected office. What she soon discovered was that "an enormous gender divide" exists when candidates are looking to jump-start a campaign. She noted that potential male officeholders decide on their own to throw their hats into the political ring, while women more often than not must be asked by others to consider adding their names to the ballot.

"The vast majority of women are asked by someone else to run," said Johnson. "Get out there and ask someone to run and ask them frequently."

Around that time, Johnson said she did some volunteer work for the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force. She said she wanted her voice heard on the issues about which she feels strongly. Johnson received her master's degree in public administration from the Harvard School of Government four years ago.

Johnson's maiden campaign saw her challenge John LaBarge, a Republican incumbent, for a seat in the House. Johnson said she knew LaBarge and liked him and figured her bid "had a snowball's chance in hell" of succeeding.

Johnson campaigned hard. Though she wound up losing her initial bid to oust LaBarge, she managed to garner 40 percent of the vote. During that run, Johnson promised herself that no matter the outcome, she would run again. In 2002, she was the top vote getter in a four-way race.

Serving the community has long been part of the fabric of Johnson's life. On Thanksgiving Day, she and her family would deliver meals to needy Vermonters. She worked for nearly two decades on the South Hero Rescue Squad and was part of the grassroots startup of the South Hero Land Trust. She also did policy work for Hunger Free Vermont and is a former board member of the Visiting Nurse Association of Chittenden & Grand Isle Counties. She also served for four years on UVM's College of Agriculture and Life Science Advisory Board.

Johnson also built her house, nail by nail, and didn't shy away from other manual tasks, such as pouring concrete.

Because Johnson has steadily climbed up Vermont's political ladder, there are rumors that the dark-haired Speaker, who conducts the Statehouse Singers, a group of nearly two-dozen lawmakers and staffers, is being groomed to be governor. That notion surprised Johnson, and she responded without skipping a beat, "If anyone is grooming me, then they haven't told me yet," Johnson said. "I'm focused on the House and how we will govern and serve Vermonters. That's what I'm really interested in."



Gail Callahan is a freelance journalist based in Burlington.