Political Groundbreaking Governor’s Journey

in Nonfiction by

Timing is everything, whether in the political arena or the literary arena.

The most significant political decision I ever had to make was whether and when to run for governor of Vermont after Gov. Richard Snelling announced he would not run for another term, leaving an open seat.

I was serving my second term as Lieutenant Governor, a natural steppingstone to the governorship. I decided to take the plunge and announced my candidacy in the fall of 1981. I had the experience and the confidence to enter the race, but I would be breaking new ground as the first female Vermont governor. I had been chair of the most powerful committee that controlled the state budget.  Many bills, such as funding for education, highways, and the environment, had to receive approval from this committee before they became law. I was the first woman and the first Democrat to chair the Appropriations Committee.

One cold January day, Gov. Snelling changed his mind and announced he would run for another term. Suddenly my world turned upside down. A race that I had had a good chance to win had turned into a race I was likely to lose.

The first decision I had to make was whether I would stay in the race. That was not very hard. I didn’t want to be scared out of running, even though running against an incumbent would be tough. Keeping my spirits up, knowing I had a huge challenge, would be even harder. And convincing the voters I was a viable candidate was equally difficult. I had to believe and act like I was going to win and not let my doubts show.

Well, I lost, but narrowly. I came close. I learned that there are two kinds of losses—“bad losses” and “narrow losses.” I fell into the second category, which enabled me to still have a future in politics.

Two years later (Vermont has two-year terms) as I was in my kitchen, preparing lunch, my phone rang. It was a friend who told me excitedly: “Did you hear the radio? Dick Snelling isn’t running again!”

“Really, are you sure?” I asked her.

“Yes. Now it’s your turn.”

I hung up the phone. What should I do?

If I ran again and lost I would go down in history as a loser. I would disappoint my children once again, and the personal loss would be devastating. But this time, I would have the advantage of running for an open seat and I would not have a Primary opponent. If I won, I could be a good role model for my children and convey to them that you can pick yourself up after a loss.

I stayed on the phone for two hours asking for advice. The message, in the end, was: “Run.”

I weighed the odds, talked with my family and friends, and found the answer.

“Yes, I’ll do it.”

And this time, I won.

Timing is everything — which is why I also knew it was time to write my memoir, Coming of Age: My Journey to the Eighties (Green Writers Press). The epigraph is a quote from the poet Anne Sexton: “In a dream you are never eighty.” Yet, here I am, and not just eighty, but in my eighties. I wrote this memoir for the reasons many of us do: to fulfill a need for self-definition, and because I wish to make sense of what is happening to me. I have the time to look inward now and to appreciate beauty.

Most coming-of-age tales are about the rush one feels as they rapidly move from adolescence to adulthood. This is about something different: the experience of aging, of slowing down, and of taking stock. I have been many things: a governor, cabinet member, and ambassador, and now I am an old woman who has stories to tell and the time to tell them.

With the Kavanaugh hearings still fresh in our minds, an unprecedented number of women running for office this year and a newly diverse Congress to be sworn in, my story is more timely than ever.

But again, timing is everything, and I look forward to spending this time with you.

Coming of Age: My Journey to the Eighties is now available for purchase.

Governor Kunin has written three previous books: Living a Political Life (Knopf), and The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work, and Family (New York Times Editor’s Choice) and Pearls Politics and Power. She has more energy than two 40-year-olds. She is currently James Marsh Professor-at-Large at the University of Vermont where she gives guest lectures on feminism and women and politics. She also serves onf the board of the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC), a nongovernmental organization that she founded in 1991, and she recently launched Emerge Vermont to encourage and support women in politics. She lives in Shelburne, Vermont. Cover photo © Todd Lockwood. Photo by Paul Boisvert

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