After a career in public service, Jane Kitchel to retire from the Vermont Senate

Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell)

Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell) vtdigger — Glenn Russell

By SHAUN ROBINSON

VTDigger

Published: 05-20-2024 4:35 PM

Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, is leaving the Vermont Senate.

Kitchel announced her retirement from the body Friday morning in a press release issued by Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth’s office. She’s set to leave office after 20 years and, arguably, as the chamber’s most influential member. As chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, she’s a leading architect of the state budget each year. 

In an interview Friday afternoon, the longtime public servant said she’s been mulling whether to hang up her coat for about a year. But it was only over the past week, after the end of the 2024 legislative session, that the “agonizing” choice became clear. 

“At some point you have to weigh out your life’s priorities,” Kitchel said, speaking from her home in Danville. “And I’m kind of at that point in my life where it struck me that many of the things that I want to do, and travel, and opportunities that might be out there, have just become secondary to my life in public service.”

In the Statehouse, according to Kitchel, she’s often heard it said that someone should have retired from their seat sooner than they did. “I certainly never want to be in that position,” said Kitchel, who will turn 79 in August and was first elected to the body in 2004.

“Once we adjourned, I reflected back and I was like — do I have two more good years in me? And is that how I want to spend them?” she said. “It’s as simple as that.” 

Prior to joining the Legislature in 2005, Kitchel spent 35 years in state government — starting as a social worker and leaving as a cabinet member. In the 1980s and 1990s, she served as deputy commissioner and then commissioner of what was known at the time as the Department of Social Welfare. From 1999 through her retirement in 2002, she was secretary of the Agency of Human Services.

Working in former Gov. Howard Dean’s administration, Kitchel led a redesign of Vermont’s welfare system and played a key role in expanding access to health insurance for children and pregnant women. She was also an architect of the Vermont 2-1-1 community resource and referral service.

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In the Senate, Kitchel has served as chair of the appropriations committee since 2011 and was its vice chair for six years before that. She’s also served on the Senate Transportation Committee since 2005. 

Baruth, a Democrat/Progressive who represents the Chittenden Central district, said in the press release that for years now, Kitchel “has done the Legislature’s heaviest lifting — designing and balancing budgets that protect the neediest and invest for the future, yet live within our means as a state.” 

He called her knowledge of government “encyclopedic,” noting how often he turns to her for help.

“I have adopted a two-word mantra as President Pro Tem, and it has served me well: ‘Ask Jane,’” Baruth said. “That will need to change now, in the wake of her decision to take a very, very well-deserved retirement, as will many other things.”

Just last month, Kitchel was elected to serve as the third member of the Senate’s powerful Committee on Committees, which appoints members to all other committees.

Kitchel said Friday that she sought out that job “as a tribute” to former Grand Isle Democratic Sen. Dick Mazza, who was the panel’s third member before he resigned in April due to health challenges. She said she had planned to serve “more in a caretaker role.”

“For me, (it) was just an ability to provide that bridge to the next session when a new third member can be elected,” Kitchel said.

Kitchel’s announcement makes her the fourth veteran senator to bow out this year. In addition to Mazza’s resignation, Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, and Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Orleans, are also retiring. All have been in the Legislature for decades.

“Putting ‘retirement’ in the same sentence with ‘Jane Kitchel’ seems very strange,” said longtime Bennington Democratic Sen. Dick Sears in an interview Friday. He called Kitchel a close friend and said that, on top of voting with him on contentious issues over the years, she always made him a favorite dessert — raspberry trifle — for his birthday. 

Without Kitchel, Sears added, “it will feel very different in the next Senate.”

Kitchel said the Senate felt different this year, too, albeit for other reasons. She pointed to the significant workload of trying to craft a budget under significant financial pressures, as well as contentious debates on wildlife management and whether or not the Senate should have confirmed now-interim state Education Secretary Zoie Saunders. 

“The issues are becoming so much more contentious and complex,” she said, “and it’s just, how much more of your personal self do you want to devote this particular way?”

Kitchel’s retirement creates an open race for her Caledonia County Senate seat. And on Friday, she said she had already asked someone to run in her stead: Amanda Cochrane, executive director of Umbrella, a St. Johnsbury-based social services nonprofit.

Reached briefly by phone Friday afternoon, Cochrane confirmed that she was considering running for the seat and said to expect more information soon.

Kitchel said that once the Senate is behind her, she’s looking forward to spending more time in her half-acre garden, where she grows a wide array of fruit and vegetables. She seemed particularly excited, too, at the prospect of going on a safari with her family.

“I’ve learned — I guess, I’m realizing — sometimes you postpone things,” Kitchel said. “And then you’re sorry that you didn’t do it.”