How the son of the grocer became Montpelier's most influential pol
Dick Mazza isn’t a cigar-chomping political party boss. And, while he does have a “back room,” it isn’t smoke filled. The 71-year-old state senator holds court in the rear of his general store in Colchester, in a modest office plastered with photographs and campaign memorabilia spanning his three decades in Vermont politics. Guests are welcomed like family, usually with offers of food and drink, by a guy who looks like a wise and benevolent grandfather.
But make no mistake: Dick Mazza is a power broker. In fact, to hear some Vermont political heavyweights tell it, he’s the most politically influential person in the state.
“There’s a popular misconception that Vermont is run out of the fifth-floor governor’s office in Montpelier,” says Congressman Peter Welch, a Democrat, “when in reality, it’s run out of the deli section of Mazza’s store.”
In the course of his 30 years under the golden dome, the moderate Democrat has become a close and loyal adviser to governors of both parties. A notoriously shy man who shuns the limelight, Mazza (D-Grande Isle) has wielded his influence largely behind the scenes. He met weekly with governors Howard Dean and Jim Douglas when they were in office — referring to the ritual as “chit-chats” or “visiting” — and had the ears of Madeleine Kunin and Tom Salmon before them.
For governors, Mazza acts as a sort of consigliere, a sounding board and direct connection to regular Vermont voters. To wannabe politicians, he is a law-abiding godfather — or king maker — whose blessing can launch their political careers, those close to him say.
“If you’ve ever driven to Mazza’s store, the road is deep with grooves,” Welch says. “[That’s] the worn travel marks of aspiring Democratic lawmakers seeking an audience with the king maker.”
Since many of those pols have prevailed, Mazza is ideally positioned this session to advise the powerful. The new governor, lieutenant governor and Senate president all describe him as a “mentor” and say his advice will be essential in steering state government through another difficult session.
“Dick Mazza was an equal partner in helping run the Senate, and he’ll be equally important in helping the state of Vermont,” says Gov. Peter Shumlin, the former Senate leader. “He’s someone that I see as a mentor and an adviser and a great friend.”
That doesn’t mean the two men will see eye to eye; Mazza and the new administration are miles apart on some crucial issues. Shumlin has charted an ambitious course for the next two years that includes making Vermont the first state with its own universal health care system and shutting down the state’s aging nuclear reactor — two policies Mazza opposes. Last year, Shumlin’s decision to impose a mandatory pay cut on legislators caught Mazza off guard, leading to a rare public rebuke by the even-tempered Senate veteran.
Mazza says he’s already counseled the new governor to “slow down” and “think things through.”
“He wants to go, go, go, go,” says Mazza, sipping from a plastic water bottle during an interview at his store. “It’s a whole new role from Senate leader to governor, and the expectations are high. You don’t want to promise things you can’t deliver.”
Ask Vermont’s political elite what makes Mazza so influential, and you’ll hear the same response over and over: He knows what average Vermonters are thinking. While his colleagues often lose touch with their constituents, Mazza sees his every day in his general store and telegraphs their views to the halls of power in Montpelier. That’s why an endorsement from Mazza is viewed as political gold.
“If Dick is ultimately for you, it gives you confidence that he represents a real cross section of practical, down-to-earth Vermonters,” says Welch.
Mazza helped Welch with local talk- radio hosts Charlie Papillo and Ernie Farrar, whose right-leaning morning show features Mazza as a frequent guest. “They went from overt hostility to grudging acceptance, all because of Dick Mazza,” Welch recalls.
Friends describe Mazza as incorruptible, and that’s no small feat for a politician with so much power. Mazza’s positions as chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation and vice chair of the Senate Committee on Institutions give him control over millions of dollars in public money.
“He could do more wheeling and dealing for his own political gain than any person in the Senate,” says Welch, noting that when, as a state senator, he sat on Mazza’s transportation committee, he went “by the book. Projects were funded on the basis of priority and plan, not on political influence. That’s extraordinary. We take that for granted in Vermont, in part because Dick Mazza has established that as a standard.”
Officially, much of Mazza’s authority derives from his position on the Committee on Committees, the three-person Senate panel that doles out committee assignments and appoints members of legislative commissions and conference committees. The other two members are the Senate president pro tempore and the lieutenant governor. The post makes Mazza part of Senate “leadership,” which affords him weekly meetings with the gov. Mazza has held that spot — uncontested — since 1997 and has generally used the power fairly, fellow senators say.
That doesn’t mean all senators get the committee assignments they want, or that they’re happy Mazza retains the position. In fact, Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell admits he recently had to put down unrest among senators who wanted to oust Mazza from the post for supporting Republican Phil Scott in the recent lieutenant governor’s race over Democratic candidate Steve Howard. Mazza’s act of party disloyalty didn’t come as a surprise; Scott is like a son to him, Campbell observes. When Scott was sworn in as lieutenant governor, Mazza administered the oath of office.
Mazza hung on to his post because Campbell persuaded his caucus that Mazza’s “consistency and historical knowledge” were vital to maintaining “decorum” in the Senate. For Mazza, that includes showing deference to the governor. He says he’s “always respected” the office, no matter who occupies it. A handful of his peers voted him “Governor’s Pet” in Seven Days’ survey of lawmakers last year.
More to the point — and the reason govs of all stripes have trusted him: When Mazza does disagree with the governor, Campbell says, he does so privately.
“One understanding I’ve always had with governors: We don’t surprise each other,” Mazza says. “If I had an issue, I’d go in and talk to them. I do not want to go to the press and make a statement to criticize the governor.”
By the time the governor announces something publicly, it usually already has Mazza’s stamp of approval, or at least his input. Senate presidents, too.
“I’m always careful to get Mazza on board on key ideas and policy before I talk to others, because I’ve watched him stop things dead in the tracks,” Shumlin says. Asked for specifics, the governor replies, “There are too many examples to count. But those who underestimate his power to make things happen, or to make things not happen, do so at their own peril.”
On a recent Tuesday, Mazza is holding court at his home away from home — the Statehouse’s Senate Committee on Transportation room. A parade of officials from the Vermont Agency of Transportation is briefing his committee on what to expect from the governor’s upcoming transportation budget. Translation: which projects are likely to get funding priority.
Mazza leans back in his swivel chair, a gold-ringed finger resting on his cheek, as Transportation Secretary Brian Searles delivers the bad news: Not only has $120 million in federal stimulus money dried up, but gas-tax revenues are “falling off” as Vermonters switch to more fuel-efficient automobiles. Nevertheless, Searles says the governor is committed to funding transportation projects that create jobs, and will propose a budget that prioritizes rail, public transit and bike-pedestrian programs.
Rail is of particular interest to Mazza. During the Dean years, he worked to green light the since-aborted Champlain Flyer commuter railroad between Charlotte and Burlington. He wants to expand passenger and freight service along Vermont’s “western corridor” — from Burlington to Bennington — and ultimately imagines trains connecting Burlington and New York City, St. Albans and Montréal.
Joe Flynn, VTrans’ rail program manager, reminds Mazza and committee members that the feds have twice rejected Vermont’s funding requests to improve the western corridor. Seemingly unfazed, Mazza asks Flynn what it would cost the state to make improvements needed for train service from Burlington to the Big Apple.
“I’m afraid I couldn’t answer that,” Flynn replies, and adds that it would require $74 million just to make needed track upgrades between Burlington and Rutland. Repairing a single dilapidated bridge on that route this year will cost almost $14 million, Flynn notes. In all, there are 83 bridges in various states of disrepair on the tracks connecting Burlington to Bennington.
Mazza cuts Flynn off before he’s finished, because two lobbyists have been waiting for a while, and it’s almost time for the committee to break for lunch. Mazza gives a warm welcome to Marilyn Miller, who represents the Vermont Automobile Dealers Association, and she passes him a baby picture of her twin grandchildren. He’s already got a copy tacked to the bulletin board in the committee room.
Once they’ve exchanged personal stuff, Miller gets professional: She and the dealers she represents want to discuss legislation that would simplify some aspects of car buying in Vermont. After her comes Allison DeMag, a lobbyist for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, who makes a quick pitch for clarifying legislation that would permit a Shelburne Mercedes Benz dealer to sell cars equipped with “SplitView” screens that allow the driver to see a navigation map and the passenger to watch a DVD.
Mazza listens intently but adjourns the committee for lunch without making any promises. It’s way too early in the session for that.
Mazza was born big. He weighed 12 pounds at birth, in 1939, and still has a hulking frame with broad shoulders and arms that stretch out like tree limbs. The Mazza clan is big, too, and seemingly ubiquitous in Colchester, where they own a general store, two farm stands and an auto-parts store. Mazza is the youngest of five boys born to Joseph and Mary Mazza, who met in Winooski, where Joseph worked at a bakery owned by Mary’s father.
In 1954, the Mazzas sold a vegetable farm they owned and plowed the profits into opening a 22-by-30-foot general store in Malletts Bay. Today it is the much larger Dick Mazza’s General Store, famous for its homemade pies and Thanksgiving turkeys. Despite his father’s urging, Mazza never went to college. He scrapped plans to study accounting at St. Michael’s College or Champlain so he could work at the store instead.
He took over the family business in 1965, the same year he married his wife, Dolly. The two met at a root-beer stand in Colchester, where Dolly worked nights as a carhop. Mazza’s affection for vintage Americana is on display behind his store, where a nondescript building houses a “Corvette museum” with several mint-condition cars, as well as a collection of cherry-red Farmall tractors and a ’50s-style diner — complete with a lunch counter, checkered floor and Elvis memorabilia — that Mazza built for family dinners and parties.
The political bug was another thing Mazza caught from his father. Joseph served in the Vermont House as a Democrat from 1961 to 1971. Mazza won his dad’s seat two years later as a write-in candidate after failing to meet a deadline to get on the ballot. After four years in the house, duty called him back to the store full time.
His Senate career began in 1985, after Howard Dean, then chair of the Chittenden County Democrats, recruited Mazza to run for the Colchester-Grand Isle seat. “I thought he would win,” Dean recalls, “and we wanted the seat.”
When Dean became governor five years later, Mazza grew into a trusted confidant.
“When I was governor, he was pretty much in every meeting that mattered,” says Dean, who credits Mazza with helping fund bike-path construction all over the state, among other progressive initiatives. “When it came time to get something done, he was absolutely a very, very important figure.”
In the Senate, Mazza is a swing vote. His centrist politics are such that observers have to guess where he stands — sometimes until the roll is called. Even after hours of interviewing him, it isn’t always clear what drives Mazza’s decision making. In 2000, for instance, he voted yes on civil unions — after coming under intense pressure from his own Catholic church to vote no — because, as he puts it, “It was a rights issue. It’s not going to hurt my marriage by someone else having a civil union.”
Nine years later, when the issue was whether to legalize same-sex marriage, Mazza took a different approach, voting to let Vermonters decide in a referendum. When that measure failed, he joined the majority in the Senate that voted in favor of same-sex marriage rights.
Asked about that flip-flop today, Mazza says he opposes legislating by referendum and doesn’t recall what made him vote the way he did. “It must have been because the voters were adamant about having some input,” he guesses. “But, now that I think back, it’s not a good idea.”
Over the years, Mazza has come to believe that legislation can’t fix everything and that unenforceable laws aren’t worth much. That’s why he opposes a bill banning use of cellphones while driving, even though numerous studies suggest the practice impairs driving almost as much as intoxication does.
“It’s very tough to enforce,” Mazza says by way of explanation. “And are you really going to enforce the phone or the whole conversation, which I’ve been told is just as distracting as the phone itself?”
He has the same opinion of one of Vermont’s most persistent and vexing problems: drunk driving. Until a law was passed last year, Vermont was one of only three states that didn’t use ignition interlocks — breathalyzers that hook to a car’s ignition so it can’t be started unless the person blowing into it is sober — to fight drunk driving. Mazza says he “never knew anything” about interlocks, a preventive tool used in 47 states, and views the technology simply as “one more thing we can do.”
“Is it going to solve the problem? No; we all know that. But it makes a lot of sense,” he says. Still, Mazza believes that, “If a person’s going to drink and drive, they’re going to drink and drive. You can give them a penalty. You can make them pay a fine. You can put them through the CRASH program. But if they desire to go out again, what are you going to do?”
Mazza is virtually untouchable in his home district, which comprises Colchester and Grand Isle County. Voters have sent him back to the Statehouse by substantial margins every two years since Ronald Reagan was president. After senators Bill Doyle and Vince Illuzzi, he’s the longest-serving senator in Vermont — and has repeatedly been endorsed by Democrats and Republicans in uncontested elections. In Colchester, he’s not just the town grocer but a considerable local landowner, with real estate holdings estimated to be worth in excess of $2.2 million, according to town tax records.
Another measure of Mazza’s influence: During the governor’s race last fall, Shumlin made a full-court press for the senator’s endorsement. But Mazza played coy, declining to side with Shumlin or GOP rival Brian Dubie, both of whom are longtime friends. When the Dubie campaign started mud-slinging and wouldn’t stop, Mazza finally came out for Shumlin and, in a rare public dis, criticized Dubie’s tactics.
“He should have stopped that campaign,” Mazza says now. “It wasn’t the Brian Dubie that I knew.”
Around that same time, Mazza found himself the subject of media inquiries following a meeting in his “museum” with Shumlin and several prominent Vermont business and community leaders. The conservative blog Vermont Tiger alleged that Shumlin told the gathering — which included David Coates, Dave Usher and Maurice Germain — that he could support continued operation of Vermont Yankee if the nuke plant had a new owner. Speaking about it now, Mazza says he wasn’t there when the topic of Vermont Yankee came up — “I came down to the store a couple of times to get cookies,” he says.
By all accounts, Mazza rarely wades into partisan political fights and doesn’t leap to defend political allies in the press. There have been a few notable exceptions. He came to Dubie’s defense during the 2006 lieutenant governor’s race when Democratic candidate Matt Dunne accused Dubie of being an absentee. And last fall, Mazza sought to discredit the Seven Days legislator survey in which Shumlin was voted the “most ethically challenged”: He insisted that he and other lawmakers wrote Shumlin’s name in as a joke.
The story got shopped around to at least two reporters — at Seven Days and the Vermont Press Bureau — who didn’t pursue it because Mazza wouldn’t confirm key details of the alleged gag, such as whether he and other senators actually wrote Shumlin’s name in that category. Vermont Public Radio ultimately reported the story based on Mazza’s word that it was a joke, apparently without confirming the alleged involvement of other transportation committee members, including Phil Scott, who was running for lieutenant governor.
Ever the skilled courtier, Mazza emerged unscathed.
Mazza says he has no interest in retiring anytime soon — either from politics or the general store. And why would he want to? He’s got the ears of past and present governors, the respect of his colleagues and what might be the safest legislative seat in Vermont. When this popular pol rides into the sunset — behind the wheel of a vintage Corvette — the Vermont Statehouse will no doubt be a less interesting place.
Calling Mazza “one of the greats” at the capitol, Welch asserts, “His real legacy, in my view, is the power and the dignity of a citizen legislature. And he runs a grocery store.”