O’Brien, Ferro Learn The Ropes in Capitol
By Zoë Newmarco
John O’Brien and his 14-year-old stepson, Eli Ferro, are both spending an inaugural term in the State House—O’Brien as the Windsor-Orange-1 representative and Ferro as a legislative page.
O’Brien wears many hats in his hometown of Tunbridge, including those of a selectman, farmer, and filmmaker. Ferro, the son of Justin Ferro and Emily Howe (now O’Brien’s wife), is an eighth grade student at Tunbridge Central School and an avid snowboarder. Ferro and O’Brien each emphasized that learning how things work at the State House has taken up a lot of time, but that it’s been exciting to take on their new roles there.
Ferro explained that he began working as a page right before legislators started talking about the heavily-debated H.57, an act relating to preserving the right to abortion.
“We kind of just got thrown in on the busiest day,” said Ferro, “It’s a really controversial topic, so lots of people would call in and … ask their representative to vote a certain way.”
He explained that pages are responsible for delivering all of the messages to the 150 representatives, which was very tricky between the high volume and the fact that the pages knew barely any of the representatives’ names, let alone which seat they were in. Since then, the work has calmed down, said Ferro. Now he is more familiar with the many representatives and rarely has to consult his pocket-sized booklet, which contains all the representatives’ and senators’ names and photos, before finding someone.
Starting in the State House
For O’Brien, one of the biggest challenges can be learning the (often unspoken) rules of decorum in the State House, which can lead to some embarrassing slip-ups for him and the other freshman legislators, he said.
One such rule, he said, is that the male legislators must wear a coat at all times, which apparently can become quite uncomfortable during a summer session (something O’Brien has not yet experienced). Men are only permitted to remove their coats if a female representative asks the speaker of the House on their behalf, he said.
O’Brien, noting that he’s always had a “passion for civic service,” said it’s nice to have someone to talk about the daily happenings at the State House on the drive home.
“Yeah, now I finally understand what John is talking about,” laughed Ferro. He emphasized that despite the hard work of being a page, “it’s really awesome.”
Although the two carpool, leaving Tunbridge early enough for Ferro to arrive in Montpelier at 7:30 a.m., along with the other pages, they sometimes stay until nine or 10 p.m., as O’Brien finishes out the day’s work. Their days rarely overlap.
“It’s the kind of job … you could put 24 hours in a day, if you had the energy,” said O’Brien, who wakes up at 3:30 a.m.–or earlier—to complete chores around the home or farm before his day of work at the State House.
For Ferro, “waking up is the hardest part,” he joked. “I usually just hear my alarm and go back to sleep.”
On the way to the State House, Ferro sometimes dozes, or the two talk about state government, or “The Beatles and The Beach Boys,” said Ferro.
O’Brien grinned and said they have been exploring history through his music collection.
A Day in the Life
After arriving at the State House, O’Brien spends most of his days in the House Chamber or in Room 32, where the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry meets.
“You hear it all the time, but I don’t think you realize until you’re here … [committees are] where all the magic happens,” said O’Brien.
For Ferro, the days vary significantly. At times he’s posted in the back of either the House or Senate Chamber ready to take messages to or from legislators. Other days, he said, he’s posted in the Sergeant at Arms’ office, taking messages from there to their intended destination.
Ferro noted that earlier in the session he and the other pages were taken up to the dome, which O’Brien still hasn’t seen from the inside.
“He gets to see way more of the ins and outs of the building,” chuckled O’Brien.
Pages also occasionally go on field trips, or have to take quizzes about Vermont history or government, beyond their daily duties in the State House.
All that leads to Ferro spending most of his weekends catching up on homework, as he tries to keep up with school as well, he said.
The Other Chamber
O’Brien noted that another difference between the position of representative and page, is that Ferro gets to spend much more time observing how the senate works.
The most notable distinction between the two bodies, according to Ferro is “they’re very serious,” he said of the Senate, noting that in the House Chamber “funny things are always happening.”
But the funniest moment that Ferro recalls, did happen in the Senate Chamber when—during one of the many mundane periods of time that pages spend waiting for the next thing to happen—one of Ferro’s fellow pages started whistling loudly, in the otherwise fairly quiet Senate chamber.
“He was just so bored,” laughed Ferro, “he didn’t realize that someone was being interrogated.”
On the car ride home, said O’Brien, the two often share animated discussions about the day, or turn on VPR and listen to reports about people they just got to work alongside at the State House.
While they might not overlap much on the job, they agreed that it’s nice to have a familiar face among the many people who work in the State House every day.
O’Brien said when Ferro delivers a message to someone on his committee, it’s nice to realize “that oh–I know you.”
Ferro said, with a shy smile, that having O’Brien around makes being in the State House “much less scary, I think.”