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Family Calling

Rutland Herald (VT) - May 8, 2005

To win election as the first woman and second modern Democrat ever to serve as a state senator from Vermont's rugged, right-leaning Northeast Kingdom, you have to be accommodating.Jane Kitchel has a lifetime of experience.

The 59-year-old points to her hometown of Danville, population 2,240, and the dairy farm her family has run there for 175 years. The second oldest of 10 children, she grew up drawing kitchen duty in an era before microwaves and electric dishwashers.

But the stove and sink were only the half of it. Kitchel cooked and cleaned for her mother, father, three brothers and six sisters. And for all the disabled and displaced people her parents took in. And for all the struggling neighbors called to meals by a red flag raised over the house.

"Our family always had a very strong sense of responsibility to others," she says.

Kitchel brought it to jobs as a social worker, then state welfare commissioner, then head of the $1-billion-annual-budget Vermont Agency of Human Services. She commuted almost two hours roundtrip for three decades before retiring from government in 2002. That's when friends told her to turn around and run for the Legislature.

"At first I thought, 'Do I really want to obligate myself?' And then my son Nathaniel said, 'You know, if people who have knowledge, commitment and strong values don't step forward, what can we expect?'"

And so Kitchel has moved from the farmhouse to the Statehouse. She represents Caledonia County and six towns in neighboring Orange County. As vice chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, she's helping draft the state's nearly $2.5 billion annual budget.

How can a freshman legislator wield such power? With care. This Mother's Day, Kitchel tells a personal story that's not about strong-arm politics; it's about what you can do with the muscle of the heart.

Duty and dishes

Kitchel was born Martha Jane Beattie a week after the end of World War II in 1945. Her Danville roots date back to her great-great-grandfather, who founded the family's 350-acre farm in 1830. But Kitchel's own memories start with her grandmother, May Wilson McDonald, a teacher in and out of school.

"Our grandmother was not the typical housewife. I would call her an example of a strong-spirited independent Vermont woman," Kitchel says. "Back in the days when you sat on porches, people would stop by her home and talk about whatever was troubling them. She would give them support, good guidance and common sense. Her home was information and referral central.

"McDonald passed that love of service to her two daughters: Kitchel's aunt, Alice, a child welfare worker and later chairwoman of the Vermont Parole Board; and Kitchel's mother, Catherine Beattie, who took over the family farm.

"My mother really was the farmer. She did all the milking, she managed the herd," Kitchel says. "With a big family, we older children had a lot of responsibility. I got to do lots of dishes

."Ten children and 50 cows would seem enough for most households. But Kitchel's family also took in men and women with mental disabilities and boys in need of foster care. Ask 84-year-old Catherine Beattie why and she'll respond as if you're wondering why people wake up in the morning.

"I don't know, just because we did it," Beattie says. "My mother always did it, too. There was no welfare back in those days. Last night there were 12 of us here for supper. That's the way it works.

"As a high school student, Kitchel spiced up her kitchen duties with her first taste of politics. She attended President Kennedy's 1961 inauguration with help from U.S. Sen. Ralph Flanders, R-Vt., whose daughter lived next door to her grandmother. She also volunteered on Philip Hoff's 1962 campaign to become Vermont's first popularly elected Democratic governor.

Graduating from Danville High School in 1963, Kitchel went on to Wilson College, a women's Presbyterian school in Pennsylvania. Her family was ecumenical enough to support not only the local Congregational Church where her father was a deacon, but also the nearby Catholic and Methodist parishes. But her choice of school wasn't sparked by religion.

"I wanted to get out of New England, and being one of 10 children, I was interested in the best financial package."

Welfare work

Kitchel came home with a degree in history in 1967, married her hometown's new schoolteacher, Robert Kitchel of nearby Barnet, and took a job in the district office of the Vermont Department of Social Welfare in St. Johnsbury.

"I thought maybe I'd work a few years ..."

Kitchel moved to the state office in Montpelier in 1973, then won appointment as its deputy commissioner in 1985 and commissioner in 1992.

Kitchel inherited a department that oversaw welfare programs for about 10,000 families. After years on the frontlines, she could have sat down and put her feet up. Instead, she spearheaded an overhaul.

On her watch, Vermont became the first state to move low-income families from unlimited welfare to work programs with job training and health and childcare support. Critics called the plan an assault on parents who'd have to leave the home. But Kitchel considered it a way to help both adults and their children.

"I didn't think anything was more economically oppressive than a lifetime of welfare dependence," she says today. "And kids, when parents aren't working and their education is minimal, are at high risk of not succeeding.

"The change reaped results: In five years, the number of Vermont welfare parents who found work increased 8.5 percent, from 1,425 to 1,546, and their average wages increased 30 percent, from $380 to $495 a month. Parents remained eligible for supplemental benefits such as child support, food stamps and Medicaid. But the number of families requiring welfare checks declined 32 percent, from 10,006 to 6,797.

Critics who argued with Kitchel professionally never attacked her personally.

"I know that she feels very strongly about adequate supports to families with children," Alan Hark, former director of the Vermont Low Income Advocacy Council, told this newspaper in 1995. "She is a native within that native tradition, someone who has remained committed."

Feeling the heat

As welfare commissioner, Kitchel helped administer the creation of the Vermont Health Access Plan for uninsured adults and expansion of a similar Dr. Dynasaur program for children and pregnant women. But she also faced congressional funding cuts and a state budget crisis that ate into Medicaid, welfare and heating aid money. Kitchel told reporters she'd never felt more challenged in her three decades in public service.

That was before she became head of the Vermont Agency of Human Services in 1999. As secretary of the largest unit of state government, Kitchel oversaw 3,000 employees and a $1 billion annual budget for almost a dozen departments dealing with everything from preventive health to prisons.

"It was not without its challenges," she says today, "but maybe it's like the old story about the frog and the hot water ..."

Kitchel has gotten used to the pressure cooker of government, so she didn't flinch when things started boiling. Even so, she felt the agency needed to change.

"The agency was created by bringing together some preexisting departments, but it really didn't function as an organizational whole. It became sort of a labyrinth and the public got frustrated because it couldn't understand where to go."

Kitchel wanted Human Services departments to share more and duplicate less. And so she drafted a restructuring plan, then helped the Legislature implement it after she left the agency with the end of Gov. Howard Dean's administration in 2002. Click on the agency's Web site today and you'll be directed to streamlined departments with names like Children and Families and Aging and Independent Living. The maze is still big, but it's more manageable.

Kitchel retired in the spring of 2003. A year later, voters in her Senate district urged her to seek office.

Running would by anything but a walk. The two Republican incumbents were popular. The Northeast Kingdom had elected only two Democratic senators: Scudder Parker, who served from 1981 to 1989, and a turn-of-the-century Republican who, legend has it, switched political parties to spite his family. And, most dauntingly, no woman had ever held the seat.

"On the other hand," she says today, "if you never risk anything, life isn't very interesting. I always used to tell people that opportunities don't present themselves all the time, so if it's something you think you'll look back and regret not doing, you should do it. I thought I'm not a hypocrite. I'm not going to give people advice I'm not willing to accept for myself."

'Hard-work ethic'

Newspapers statewide reported Kitchel's decision to run last summer.

"She's president of the Fairbanks Museum's board of trustees and secretary of the Danville Chamber of Commerce," an Associated Press story said. "Kitchel's mother, Catherine Beattie, was once a House member and her brother, Marty Beattie, runs a grocery store and gas station just outside town.

"(For the record, her late father, Harold Beattie, was a selectman.)

Some 250 friends and neighbors joined her at a campaign kickoff on the Danville green.

"We had little kids right up to people in their 90s and we fed everybody... for free," she recalls. "We wanted everybody to feel important, involved and connected. My view was if you're not willing to work hard to get elected, then how can people be confident you'll work hard when you get here?"

As candidates for loftier office poured millions into television ads, Kitchel shook hands at the dump and debated at the Grange. On election night, she finished first in the two-seat district with 8,579 votes (Republican incumbent Julius Canns, who died Feb. 20, won the second seat with 8,100 votes, while fellow Republican incumbent Bernier Mayo lost his post with 7,902 votes.)

The conservative Caledonian-Record grudgingly congratulated her in a post-election editorial."We seldom agree with most politicos in her party," the St. Johnsbury newspaper wrote, "but we know Senator-elect Kitchel is a Danville Beattie. And the Danville Beatties are known for their sunrise-to-sunset, hard-work ethic. We hope she will remember her roots rather than the palaver in the Senate Democratic caucus in January.

"The weekly Herald of Randolph, in contrast, ran an enthusiastic headline: "First-Ever Orange Co. Woman Senator!"

"She grew up in a large family on a large dairy farm in Danville and she knows how to deal with an extended family that includes siblings and cows," the Randolph newspaper wrote. "She's imbued with the spirit and steadfastness of the Kingdom, and that basically guarantees her success in the People's Palace in Montpelier."

'There in my apron'

Kitchel no sooner took her oath of office this January when she was named vice chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the seven-member panel where, in her words, "policy and money converge." It's a plum assignment for any legislator, let alone a freshman.

"But I didn't have the benefit of a honeymoon experience," she says. "I just knew from being in the executive branch how difficult it was. I came in feeling the gravity of the work ahead of us from day one."

Even so, she didn't anticipate the literal weight of it. Her old office spilled over with paperwork, but it all centered on human services. Now she faces reports from all six government agencies - add administration, agriculture, commerce, natural resources and transportation - as well as correspondence from constituents in her 23-town district and colleagues in her two assigned committees.

Sen. William Doyle, R-Washington, author of "The Vermont Political Tradition: And Those Who Helped Make It," serves with Kitchel on Government Operations.

"She's very personable, very talented, well informed and well known in state government and Caledonia," says the professor of history and political science at Johnson State College. "Obviously she has all the attributes of a person who could win office."

Out of the office, Kitchel escapes through gardening and reading such seemingly taxing titles as "When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences." But you won't find family members lamenting her workload.

"Town Meeting Day my sister said, 'I don't care if you're a senator or not, your role is to help on the library's benefit dinner,' so I'm there in my apron. It doesn't matter who you are or who you might aspire to be. Our value system is that we have a responsibility to make our community better."

Common good

Some might think of Kitchel as one good woman taming the big, bad government. She doesn't.

"I feel government is oftentimes maligned," she says. "There's a natural tension that exists: You hate regulations if you're having to deal with them but love them if you're trying to use them to advance an interest. Government needs to always focus on how it can work better, but government plays an extremely important role in how we define and protect the common good. To me that's really what government is all about."

Kitchel has spent her life fixing one problem, only to face another. Some people would lose hope. She doesn't.

"Growing up, we were always admonished, 'Don't stand there and lick your wounds. Pick up, move on and learn from your experiences.' There are some very unfortunate things that happen in life and you can't change them. 'Woe is me' doesn't get you anywhere. It keeps you where you are."

Kitchel recalls the struggling neighbors who once ate at her family's table. When they died, they left $100,000 from the sale of their land to the town and its ambulance squad.

"The public doesn't usually see the success stories. I was in Bradford when a couple said, 'You probably don't remember, but 30 years ago you helped us. We had no home. We were living in a tent. And we voted for you.' It was just the most wonderful feeling. That's what keeps you going."

Kitchel, for the record, lives a half-mile from the farm where she grew up.

"I haven't made it far in life," she says with a smile.

This is part of a monthly series profiling Vermonters whose stories offer perspective on life in the state.

Contact Kevin O'Connor at