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Jim Kenyon: Norwich’s Kathy Hoyt a Veteran Lawmaker in Her First Term

Al McGuire, the late college coach and all-around basketball sage, is credited with saying, “The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores.”

What holds for basketball players could also be said of legislators.

Most newly minted Vermont lawmakers don’t contribute much to the legislative process. They spend their first session at the Statehouse figuring out which parts of the building get the best cellphone reception (stand near the windows in the House foyer) and how to avoid the lunch lines in the cafeteria (sneak out of committee meetings a few minutes before noon).

Kathy Hoyt, of Norwich, is an exception.

Prior to the start of the 2014 session earlier this month, Hoyt had spent more than a dozen years working the halls as a top aide for Govs. Madeleine Kunin and Howard Dean. She knows how the legislative sausage is made in Montpelier.

Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed Hoyt, a Democrat, in September to replace Rep. Margaret Cheney, who stepped down in midterm to join the Public Service Board. Although he didn’t arrive in Montpelier until about the time that Hoyt was retiring from state government in 2002, House Speaker Shap Smith was well aware of what he was getting in the newest member of his caucus. He appointed Hoyt to the high-profile House Health Care Committee, which is serving as the public’s watchdog during Vermont’s move to the federal Affordable Care Act.

To get her on the Health Care Committee, Smith bumped Republican Rep. John Mitchell, of Fairfax, from the panel, which now has just two GOP members. Last week, Smith told me that he wanted Hoyt on the 11-member committee that is “facing some big challenges,” partly because she’s “been in the trenches.”

Smith also recognized traits that her former bosses — Kunin and Dean — learned to appreciate: Hoyt doesn’t have a big ego and she’s a calming influence.

Former state Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, a Republican who spent 32 years in the Statehouse, recalled Hoyt’s days as Dean’s chief of staff and later secretary of administration, the top Cabinet post.

“Howard was kind of a hothead, and Kathy was the one who put out the fires,” said Illuzzi. “He’d take a position that the liberals wouldn’t like, and Kathy would have to smooth things over.”

When I relayed what Illuzzi had to say, Hoyt nodded with a smile. In her 11 years with Dean, there were mornings on her hour-long commute from Norwich to Montpelier when she’d get a call from the governor. “You’d better call so-and-so,” Dean would tell her. “I was just on the radio and said something he might not like.”

Rep. Paul Poirier, a Statehouse veteran who also serves on the House Health Care Committee, said that the past couple of administrations could have learned something from Hoyt about keeping a “friendly manner” and toning down the arrogance when dealing with legislators.

“The Douglas administration was terrible at it, and I’m not thrilled with the Shumlin administration, either,” he said. “Kathy was never stuffy. She was personable. She understood that it was important to have good relationships with all legislators. That’s what made her effective.”

Although Hoyt has voting power on proposed legislation for the first time, “She’s probably in the least influential position that she’s been in in a long time,” said Illuzzi. When she’s in the same room with lawmakers, she’s no longer talking on behalf of the governor.

For that matter, she’s not doing much talking at all. “She’s not jumping in and taking over committee discussions. That’s not Kathy,” said Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, of Bradford, the vice chairwoman of the Health Care Committee.

On Wednesday, during 41/2 hours of committee meetings, Hoyt mostly listened and took notes. “It’s sort of the way that I’ve always worked,” Hoyt told me. “I think it’s smart to spend most of your time listening, especially when you’ve been away from here for 12 years.”

But her presence hasn’t gone unnoticed. A lobbyist mentioned that she’s already seen Hoyt with Smith, the House speaker, at lunchtime in the cafeteria. “You don’t typically see freshmen sitting around in the first few days of the session with the speaker,” said the lobbyist.

“Issues here tend to cycle through,” said Smith. “It’s very helpful to hear her perspective. Her unassuming personality and her depth of experience make her a great team builder.”

But Hoyt, 71, is back in Montpelier without her longtime teammate. Her husband of 40 years, Norrie, died in August of congestive heart failure at age 78. They met in the early ’70s, when she was working in the state’s office of Economic Opportunity and he was in the Vermont Tax Department, where he later became the commissioner.

Between them, the Hoyts spent about 60 years working in high levels of state government. (Norrie was also elected five times to the Legislature.)

In the winter of 1974, Kathy and Norrie, were married in the Statehouse. It’s believed to be the only marriage ceremony held in the Statehouse. (Funerals are another matter.)

The sergeant-at-arms objected, but then-Gov. Thomas Salmon, for whom Norrie Hoyt served as general counsel, overruled him, making Kathy’s return to the Statehouse both a personal and professional homecoming.

She is one freshman who knows the score.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com