New Legislator Sue Buckholz
I’ve never taken a conventional path,” admits – or rather, proclaims – Sue Buckholz, the new Representative in the Vermont House of the Windsor 4-1 District that includes a chunk of Quechee. She left high school after her junior year to attend Yale. “I was ahead in a lot of classes, French, Math,” she recalls, “and I took freshman English at Yale to meet the high school requirement for four years of English. But then the high school told me they couldn’t let me graduate because I hadn’t done four years of Phys. Ed! So I’m a high school dropout with a Yale degree.”
Growing up as one of seven kids, Buckholz learned how to compromise, which she believes will be helpful for her work in the legislature. She explains that she was exposed to a range of opinions even at home. “My parents’ votes canceled each other out. It was the late ’60s, the time of Bobby Seale [of the Black Panther Party] and tanks in the street. My dad thought Nixon got a raw deal, but my mother, one time in a fight, yelled at my father, ‘If I were black, I’d be a Black Panther!’”
“There’s too much time wasted on underscoring differences,” she adds. “We need some respectful discussion of differences. I’ve told supporters, ‘You’re not going to like everything I say.’” She expects exchanging ideas will expand her own understanding as well as that of her constituents.
Buckholz went to law school for a year after Yale, but left for a break that became two years of traveling in the U.S. and seven years of living in England. She recalls that she and her then-husband were “pioneers in the whole foods realm – we brought soy foods to the North” of England. Sue eventually returned to the U.S. and followed her unconventional college career with a trip through Vermont’s unusual option for becoming a lawyer: reading law, and clerking in a law office in Norwich, VT, as preparation for taking the bar exam, which she did in 1995. Since her admission to the Vermont Bar that year, she has pursued a career in family law.
Bucholz accompanies these tales, as she does many of her stories about herself, with a hearty laugh. Her ability to see the humor in the human comedy should stand her in good stead as she enters the legislature.
A good use for lawyers
She looks forward to her new role as a legislator in part because she feels it’s “really important to have lawyers in the legislature because we understand consequences of legislation in a way that normal people don’t. It shouldn’t be only lawyers,” she’s quick to add, but “lawyers can craft laws in a way to avoid unintended consequences, and if it’s intended, to make sure the consequences are the ones that we wanted.” Adding time in Montpelier to her schedule promises a heavy workload, but she’s used to that. “I generally work seven days a week anyway,” she says, laughing again. “I have a great four-year law clerk and a wonderful office manager who both do a lot for me. Without them, I wouldn’t have even tried to run for the office.” And everyone in the Legislature has to juggle his or her work life, except for those who are retired. Buckholz plans to come home each night, weather permitting, rather than camp out in Montpelier.
The Legislature meets Tuesday through Friday, from January into April or May, depending on the workload. Study groups meet throughout the year in preparation for the legislative session. Everyone serves on one committee. “You apply by saying what you’d like and why – and then they put you where they need you,” she says. She has been assigned to the Committee on Agriculture and Forestry.
Agriculture and Forestry will be a new project for Buckholz: her career in recent years has focused on children and families. “I went to law school to work in juvenile court,” she says; in Vermont, this field expanded to include family court work. “I never wanted to do transactional work, pushing papers,” such as wills and trusts. “I want to talk with, work with people.” Her interest in working on behalf of children rests on a strong desire to improve the community and the world. “Everything we do to and for kids sets the stage for everything that will happen in their lives,” she maintains. “If kids grow up sideways, lopsided and hurt, we have to deal with the consequences.” The pain each person feels when caught in abusive situations also moves her strongly. “After more than 21 years in court, I see how we screw up. We have a history here of terrible things happening to children.”
“People don’t harm children because they were taken care of,” she notes. “We want it to be bad people doing bad things, but it’s not that simple.” Improving family life ramifies into many branches of human services, for example, prisons. Since most prisoners return to the community eventually, educational, mental health and social programs in prisons can be an excellent investment. Vermont’s out-of-state incarceration program began in the late 1990s when she was working with Prisoners Rights Division of the Vermont Defender General’s office. There was a push at the beginning, she says, to keep prisoners who had young children in Vermont, but the Department of Corrections did not make this criterion a priority. One result, according to Buckholz, is kids who are angry because they never get to visit their parents; when they act out, they may land in the care of social service agencies, or move on themselves into Corrections. “People feel offenders are getting what they deserve,” she notes about a reluctance to fund services for prisoners. “Most prisoners are coming back into society at some point, and we’re all better served if they have had some programming, some treatment. Where’s the self-interest on the part of the citizenry?”
…but staying sane
Almost 20 years ago, while she was beginning her law career, a friend kept trying to introduce her to her husband, Jim Dow. Both resisted meeting for half a year, saying, “Leave us alone. We’re very happy. We have no time for this.” When they finally met, further resistance was futile; they married five months later. Jim may be the beneficiary of the increased pressures of Buckholz’s new job since she cooks to relieve stress. “It’s my meditation, that and staying physically active,” she says with – of course – a laugh.