Dick McCormack to retire after 3-decade Senate career

Dick McCormack (Courtesy photograph)

Dick McCormack (Courtesy photograph)

By SARAH MEARHOFF

VTDigger

Published: 03-12-2024 3:14 PM

After more than three decades representing Windsor County in the Vermont Senate, Dick McCormack plans to retire next January at the conclusion of his term. 

The veteran Democrat disclosed his decision to constituents on Town Meeting Day last week and explained his thinking to VTDigger in an interview Monday. On the one hand, McCormack said, he will be 77 years old at the end of this term, 12 years past what he called the “traditional retirement age” of 65. On the other, he still feels energetic and sharp — though not as much as he once did, he concedes — and wants to go out on a high note.

“That’s the good time to retire,” he said. “You want to leave while at least some people will be sorry to see you go.”

McCormack was first appointed to the Senate in 1989 and served until 2003, four of those years as majority leader. He then left office (“I needed to straighten out the finances in my non-Senate life”) before returning in 2007, and there he has remained.

He’s departing a chamber that has historically valued seniority and institutional knowledge. It has also in recent years seen a wave of generational change. Ahead of the 2022 election, roughly one-third of the 30-member Senate opted to retire, and a new class rose to fill the open seats.

One of those new senators was McCormack’s district-mate, Sen. Becca White, D-Windsor, who moved from the House to the Senate in 2022, filling the seat of former state Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor. McCormack pointed to White as an example of the Senate’s future.

“There’s never actually a good time to leave. Whenever you leave, you’re going to be leaving unfinished work, and it’s egotistical to think that I’m the only one who can do it,” he said. “You have to, at some point, trust. I look at my former student, Becca White, and I say, ‘Okay, she’s smart. She’s full of energy. I’m leaving things in good hands.’”

McCormack’s retirement will leave an opening in a three-member district that includes much of Windsor County, along with some neighboring towns. Along with McCormack and White, Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, also represents the district. Major party candidates for the seat must file by the end of May — ahead of the August primary and November general election.

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Asked about his unfinished business, the longtime member of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy quickly responded, “Global warming, for one.”

“It’s not like we’re doing nothing on global warming, but we are not fully treating it even now. We’re not rising to the occasion,” he said. “This really is an emergency and … I think we’re treating it as though it’s sort of an option, doing something about global warming.”

Also generating intense discussion in Montpelier in recent years has been Act 250, Vermont’s half-a-century-old land conservation law. Housing and economic development advocates point to its strict building guidelines as a barrier to solving the state’s housing crisis, while conservationists say the law protects Vermont’s environment.

One of Act 250’s staunchest proponents in the Statehouse, McCormack will conclude his tenure as the Legislature and Gov. Phil Scott’s administration debate whether to roll back elements of Act 250.

“I came into the Senate in the first place as a defender of Act 250. I have always been a defender of Act 250, and sadly, I may be going out watching Act 250 be seriously weakened,” McCormack said. “But I will have remained true to that cause. I’m proud of that.”

McCormack’s departure also coincides with a fierce debate over the state’s education funding structure. On Town Meeting Day last week, roughly one-third of school districts’ budgets were voted down, largely in response to expected property tax hikes.

It’s an issue McCormack has focused on for decades. A crowning achievement of his legislative career, he said, was helping to shepherd into law Act 60, the 1997 statute that sought to bring equity to school funding. 

“(Act 60) did away with, or at least minimized, lessened, the advantage that property-rich towns had over property-poor towns,” McCormack said. “Now this year, we are also seeing that our school funding system is a mess. And it happened on my party’s watch, and there’s no getting away from that.”

“There’s no easy way out of this,” he continued. “But I am not leaving now because I can see the problems coming. There has never been a time that there weren’t problems during my Senate career.”

Also among McCormack’s proudest accomplishments, he said, was his work as vice chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Vermont legalized civil unions for same-sex couples in 2000. The law wasn’t perfect, he said, referring to it as “separate but equal,” but he said it “was the best we could do at the time.”

Now, McCormack has aspirations outside of the Statehouse, and he said he wants to retire with enough energy to cross them off his list. They include spending more time with his grandkids, picking up his folk music again and seeing all of the 48 contiguous states. Failing to hike the Appalachian Trail before his arthritic knees ruled out the possibility taught him a lesson, he said. 

“When a colleague of mine decided to retire, she said, ‘Dick, there comes a moment when you know it’s time,’’’ McCormack said. “And I realized that’s not my personality. That moment will never come. But I’ve seen people, I think, people who stayed too long.”