Living Red in a Blue State

Robert Ide skiing with his granddaughters
Photo Credit:  Robert Ide

Robert Ide skiing with his granddaughters Photo Credit: Robert Ide

Adelyne Collin, Writer

Robert Ide is an 8th generation Vermonter who grew up in Danville, Vt., near the Connecticut River.

Years later, while Ide was a part of the Vermont Senate, a friend of his, who was teaching at a high school in New Hampshire, invited him to speak in front of the class. After a 30 minute presentation, Robert asked the students if there were any questions. One boy replied saying “yeah, I’ve got one,” and said “are you a Republican or a Democrat?” 

Ide thought to himself, “Wow, if what I’ve just spent time preparing and presenting, if that’s the first question out of the chute.” He believed this was clearly due to New Hampshire’s political culture by being a primary state. 

Born in 1951, in Danville, Vt., Ide grew up as the youngest of four with a, as he described it, “traditional [American] family”, surrounded by local small family-owned farm businesses.

After graduating from the University of Vermont in 1974, Ide became involved in his family business, where agriculture feed and grain was sold. Ide’s career in public service began with six consecutive elections to the Vermont Senate.

Ide sees himself as a moderate Republican and connects to political figures such as Bob Stafford, Jim Jeffords, Jim Douglas and Phil Scott. 

“If you identify as a Republican in Vermont, you are a distinct minority,” he said, “and politically you feel that all the time.”

The following is an interview with Robert Ide:

How do you think work has influenced your political views?

Ide: After I graduated from UVM, I joined our family business, so we were an agricultural feed and grain business. We were a large Blue Seal dealership in Caledonia County. I was working with a lot of people who owned their own businesses that worked the land, that worked very, very hard. At a very young age, I became a selectman in Saint Johnsbury, so I started to learn how the government interacts with the populous. It can play a very, very positive role, or it can become more of a burden as well. It’s trying to find that middle balance that has always been important to me. 

How does it feel to live in a state that’s majority liberal and where the news media focuses mainly on Democrats?

Ide: If you identify yourself as being a Republican in Vermont, you’re a distinct minority, and politically you feel that all the time. Both political parties in Vermont have very, very wide spectrums. Geography sometimes… geography does influence the two parties. I would say a Democrat from Chittenden County is much more liberal than a Democrat from Caledonia County or Franklin County or Windsor County. There are great schisms within the parties as well as there are schisms between the parties.

You find what I’ve always considered myself to be one of those people in the middle; I’ve always wanted to have good friends who were members of both parties. I would tell you that I served over my years both in elected office, and in appointed office, with people of both parties that I’ll consider to be my lifelong friends, and people I enjoy being with. Every now and then there’s somebody in both parties that makes you want to say ‘well you know if I had to kick somebody away from my Thanksgiving table, you know I probably could come up with that name and life would go on and be fine.’

How do you think your experience working as a Vermont senator has affected your political views?

Ide: Serving in the Vermont legislature was one of the greatest joys of my life. It was such a privilege, and you meet so many wonderful people. You meet people who’re genuinely trying to solve problems. If there is something I’ve witnessed in the 30 years that I’ve kicked around the state house is that the two parties don’t talk to each other as much as they should. 

When there are so few Republicans, you can understand why… I always tried to find ways to listen to all the opinions and to try to find if there were middle ground. My biggest goal in life is that the government should work. I think it should work for both the citizens and the employees that are working in the state government.

In America we’re very divided because of the political parties… Do you have any ideas on how America should be rather than how we’re acting as a nation right now?

Ide: I’m deeply, deeply concerned about this issue, and you phrased the question very  well… Saint Johnsbury is very near the Connecticut river, so back and forth to New Hampshire is very easy and just part of our life. I had a friend who was teaching at a high school in New Hampshire who asked me to come speak to his class. 

I did what I thought was a bang-up 30 minute presentation and then asked if there were any questions. This boy instantly said,  ‘Yeah, I’ve got one.’ He says, ‘are you a Republican or a Democrat?’ I thought to myself, ‘Wow, if what I’ve just spent time preparing and presenting, if that’s the first question out of the chute, clearly New Hampshire politics, because of their primary are more acute than Vermont politics.’ 

I do worry that the two parties aren’t talking to each other and seem to hold each other with great disregard. I look at the situation in Washington and just wish that everybody there would come home, and we could start with a new team. It’s curious to me, I was a motor vehicle commissioner, and eight years is a long time to serve in that capacity anywhere in North America. 

And our governors, if you look back, we’ve had in my lifetime four year, six year, eight year– and Governor Dean, who was there for a little more than 10 years. That was an extreme case. I just think it’s important for people to do a job and realize their time is up and come home. Whether it’s a school principal, a member of the clergy, a DMV Commissioner, a governor, or a U.S Senator. There’s a time where you’re adding value and a time where your ideas have all been exposed. A turnover on all levels is good. 

What’s your favorite memory from working at your family business?

Ide: The people–the friendships. You know, I call them customers, but they were really friends, they were people I had known all my adult life, and families I’d known. Vermont doesn’t have a great deal of separation, and the people that you played high school basketball with–you might sit with them and watch your kids all play. I really appreciate that about Vermont, it’s a very, very integrated community, and it’s very homogeneous. 

What is the biggest accomplishment that you feel like you’ve achieved when you were working in the Vermont senate?

Ide: My biggest accomplishment was that I felt like I was always an honest broker, and that at the end of the session when we had to find common ground, I always felt like I was a part of those conversations and helping other people achieve some of their goals. Nobody gets exactly what they want in legislation, and nobody should be left out. I always valued my role sort of as being a diplomat, trying to bring everyone together, and trying to break down those partisan barriers and focus on the good for the vast majority of Vermonters in the state of Vermont. 

Is there a specific example that you can think of where you had to step up and take the role of being a diplomat?

Ide: Every year in the budget negotiations. I was on the negotiation committee for the budget– eight times or maybe more, and it’s a very very difficult end of session work, and I frequently was on the conference committee for the transportation bill, too. In both cases, there’s a limited amount of resources, there’s incredible pent up demand, and you’re trying to figure out where you can put your money where it would do the most good. 

One of the things I worked on, which is really–we identified there was a problem but it’s really come to pass in the last couple of years, is the whole higher education question as it relates to UVM and the state colleges and VSAC. I always felt frustrated that we didn’t make more progress, and we left a problem–we inherited a problem, and I left a problem, and it’s now really, really come to roost. Even in the time I was there, somehow, the decline birthrate just hadn’t become a significant part of the conversation, with so many fewer students graduating from Vermont high schools.

When I was at [the] DMV, I could see very clearly what was happening because we sold Learners’ Permits to 15 year-olds. Approximately 80% of every student who is 15 gets a Learner’s Permit during that one year. We have a bar graph that showed dramatically that our number of permits sold was dropping off, and to me it was one of the greatest visuals on what’s happening with the school-age population. I think about–you know, I went to Danville High School, and that school is still in existence. 

The graduating class is a little smaller than when I graduated. A lot of the high schools that I’ve played competitive sports against are no longer schools. If you had said to me five years after I graduated that there will be no Rochester High School, there’ll be no Chelsea High School, I would’ve said that’s impossible. Vermont’s going to continue to grow, we’re going to continue to have growing students.