Photo by Randolph T Holhut
by Joyce Marcel Vermont Business Magazine There are two great threats to American democracy today and neither one are named Trump, said Vermont’s lone-ranger congressman, Peter Francis Welch (D-VT).
“One is (the US Supreme Court decision) Citizens United and the immense amount of money in politics that’s not accountable,” Welch said. “And the other is gerrymandering, where you get boutique districts designed for either the extreme right or the extreme left. Those two issues have gotten worse since I’ve been in Congress. Trump just upped the ante.”
Vermonters elected Welch to the House of Representatives as their standard-bearing liberal/progressive, throwing him into the flaming fires of Washington politics in 2006, back when George W Bush was president. Liking what they saw, they have sent him back every two years since.
If Vermonters thought Welch would have an easier time after Bush, when Democratic President Barack Obama came into office, then two words should correct that thinking: those words are Mitch and McConnell.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is the man who vowed to stonewall every piece of Obama’s legislation that he could get his hands on. He remains Senate Majority Leader. And now there’s President Donald Trump. You have to wonder if Vermonters have a collective death wish for Welch.
Welch, however, loves his job and refuses to talk about retiring.
“Congress has been a tremendous opportunity for someone who believes we’ve all got to pitch in to do the best to maintain our democracy,” he said. “I just love serving in Congress. And my period in Congress has been extraordinary times for the country.”
In person Welch looks like a buttoned-down lawyer, but he has an unexpected history of involvement in social justice issues that some might call radical.
“It’s the culture I grew up in,” said Welch, who was born into a large Irish Catholic family in Springfield, Mass. “When I was a kid we took a trip down south to Florida. I think we were in Georgia when I saw the segregated water fountains and bathrooms. They were quite shocking and I wasn’t prepared for it. So when I got involved in community organizing in Chicago, I was working with an organization affiliated with Dr Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The first summer, we took buses and went down to Atlanta for the SCLC convention. We went to the Ebenezer Baptist Church, heard Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams and then Martin Luther King speak. That was quite a stunning experience for this person from Springfield, Mass.”
In Vermont, Welch, 70, served as a public defender and as a principal in the small White River Junction law firm of Welch Graham & Manby. He served in the Vermont Senate on two occasions, both times being elected head of the chamber. According to his website, he was the first Democratic president pro tem in the history of the state.
“I say this for a laugh, but there’s a lot of truth in it — I’d been gone so long people forgot why they were mad at me,” Welch said. “So they elected me Senate president a second time. In my job, no matter what you’re doing, people are always mad at you. Whatever you’re doing, you should be doing something else.”
Welch went to Congress after a 2006 campaign that was called “the cleanest in American politics.” He and his Republican opponent (Martha Rainville) vowed not to run negative campaign ads; even under party pressure, they kept that vow.
For a lone congressman from a tiny state, Welch has been in the thick of things ever since he won that fight. He is a Chief Deputy Whip of the House Democratic Caucus and a member of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. He serves on the Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
In his Congressional career Welch has experienced more ups and downs than a roller coaster, but he has retained his principles, remained a firm liberal and, in the spirit of Jim Jeffords and George Aiken, been a strong supporter of civility, progress and across-party cooperation in politics.
“Peter Welch is a model statesman,” said Christopher P Gibson, a Republican from upstate New York who served in Congress from 2011 to 2017 before retiring from public life. “He works very hard for all his people. He works well with his colleagues in Washington, DC. He’s somebody I have the utmost respect for.”
Together, Gibson and Welch worked on Hurricane Irene relief, veterans’ assistance, the farm bills and legislation to help fight Lyme disease.
“We worked together on very important legislation,” Gibson said. “After Hurricane Irene, we were co-chairs of the relief task force and were successful in delivering significant federal funds to help our areas in the region recover. When it comes to fostering small business growth, job creation and seeing wages rise, Vermonters have a tremendous advocate in Peter Welch.”
Welch is married to Margaret Cheney, a commissioner of the Vermont Public Utility Commission. His first wife, Joan Smith, died of cancer in 2004. Welch has five stepchildren from his first marriage and three stepchildren from his second.
In conversation, Welch is earnest, intense, thoughtful, accessible and friendly. He has a sense of humor so dry it borders on irony. He may be somewhat lacking in flash, brash or charisma; the best words to describe him are “thoroughly decent.”
Or, as climate change activist and Middlebury Professor Bill McKibben said, “He is a gentleman in every sense of that word, and people respond to that.”
Other notable Vermont constituents feel the same way.
“I have been so grateful for the opportunity to know and work with Peter Welch,” said Green Mountain Power CEO Mary Powell. “Peter has been the source of great inspiration for me when it comes to making a difference and tackling challenges head on. Maybe even more important, though, is his ability to tackle challenges with what feels at times like endless love, curiosity and a true desire to bridge differences and create rational, practical and meaningful outcomes. Vermont is lucky to have him serving us in Washington.”
Welch’s strong support of the environment has also earned him McKibben’s approval.
“I know a lot of members of Congress, and Peter Welch is unique in a couple of ways,” McKibben said. “He is relentlessly progressive and doesn't pull his punches. But he manages to work across ideological boundaries in the moment in American history when that may be hardest. On environmental issues he's been absolutely stalwart from day one. He’s always willing to pitch in to help. And since he's very respected by his colleagues, that means he can accomplish a good deal.”
Former Speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives Shapleigh Smith, now an attorney with Dinse Knapp McAndrew, knew Welch even before he went into politics.
“He and I had a case together, probably in the late 1990s,” Smith said. “I found him to be someone who was just incredibly interested in what other people had to think. He’s just an easy person to talk to. When I came into public service, he was that way in the building — very open, very approachable, really willing to consider all points of view. And that’s still true.”
On the issue of health care, Welch has won the admiration of, among others, Thomas Huebner, the president of the Rutland Medical Center.
“Peter has been involved in health policy issues since he was in the Vermont Legislature,” Huebner said. “He has been a strong advocate in health policy matters. He has really pushed for broad coverage for Vermonters in Vermont and in Congress. He was active in helping to establish Catamount Health and the Affordable Health Act. He’s been a friend to health care providers — to hospitals and doctors — helping to ensure we have the federal resources we need to take care of our community. He’s a 100 percent reliable friend to us. He’s been really active in helping our health care system in Vermont to be successful.”
At this writing, the Trump Administration is trying to cut back on the 340B Drug Discount Program that requires drug manufacturers to provide outpatient drugs to eligible health care organizations and others at reduced prices.
“We count on that revenue to help pay our bills,” Huebner said. “There’s a new rule that’s trying to take that away from us, and Peter has been terrific in trying to sustain that for us. He’s been there every time we need him. It’s a proposed rule and it has not gone into effect and he’s trying to prevent that from ever happening.”
Welch doesn’t pull his punches. In a health-care related Tweet on October 13, he called Trump’s decision to cut off payments that defray out-of-pocket costs for low-income Americans “stunning, reckless and cruel.”
He went on to say, “After failing to convince Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act, he is now openly sabotaging it, which will raise the premiums of hardworking Americans by 20 percent. He is also undermining bipartisan discussions well underway in Congress to make much needed improvements to the law. I hope this irresponsible decision is overturned by the courts. In the meantime, Congress should move forward with making the Affordable Care Act work better for working families.”
The issues may change but Welch remains constant — and constantly a Vermonter.
He keeps his promises. For example, he went to DC with a mandate to end the Iraq War.
“We became a majority and Nancy Pelosi was Speaker,” Welch said. “That’s when we really started putting pressure on to get us home from Iraq. Not that things are calm over there now by any means, but we don’t have the same number of troops as we did. Vermonters paid a high price in Iraq. We had the highest death rate per capita in Iraq and Afghanistan for a period of time. It’s sort of a Vermont tradition — we had the highest death rate per capita during the Civil War as well.”
Within three months of getting to DC, Welch was on the ground in Iraq with both Republican and Democratic colleagues. Then he went to the White House and met with George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
“It was my chance to advocate for my position directly to the president on the behalf of Vermonters who felt very strongly about it,” Welch said.
Things should have been easier for Welch during the Obama administration, when, for a brief time, Democrats held the White House and a majority in the House and Senate. But that’s when the Republicans shifted the playing field — in what some worry might be a permanent shift.
“In 2010 the Tea Party came to Congress, and from my perspective it was terrible,” Welch said. “We went from a Congress where we were engaged in public policy — and you can debate whether we could have done a better health care bill or a better Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act — to a Congress where the sole objective was summed up by Mitch McConnell when he said, ‘My job is to make sure Barack Obama is a one-term president.’ I found that truly bizarre. When Jim Douglas, a Republican, was governor of Vermont, I remember a lot of my Democratic colleagues wanted us to give him a hard time. They thought that would somehow lead us to the governorship. And I reminded them that the same people who had voted for us voted for him.”
Serious competition should be practiced during the campaign, Welch said. After that, elected officials should get down to the hard work of governance.
“That was not the Mitch McConnell’s orientation,” Welch said. “But it’s the orientation of Vermonters. McConnell was explicit that his job was to just say no and actively undercut anything Obama was proposing. That’s flat-out wrong. That’s not the job of an elected official. Then we went through the process of voting to repeal health care like 60 times, voting to repeal Dodd-Frank 60 times, or however many times it was. It was sort of a show Congress, in the sense that the Republican majority in the House couldn’t get their legislation passed. Either they couldn’t get it through the Senate or they couldn’t get it signed by Obama. So there was a lot of wheel-spinning and symbolic work and it’s emblematic of why people are getting so frustrated with the institution.”
Welch’s technique is to build bridges, build alliances, build relationships and build anything else he hopes will help him serve his state.
“When we were in the majority, when we were doing the climate change bill and I was doing an energy efficiency bill, even though I didn’t ‘need’ Republican votes, I went and saw every Republican member of the Energy and Commerce Committee to ask if they had any suggestions about what to put in my energy efficiency bill,” Welch said. “They appreciated that I stopped by, they gave me ideas, and if they were good ideas I incorporated them in my bill. Even though, in the end, they didn’t vote for it. But it made it a better bill.”
The Democrats were in the minority in Washington when Tropical Storm Irene tore up much of Vermont.
“We were in real trouble in the House with Irene,” Welch said. “We had a Republican majority, I was a delegation of one, and I wasn’t on one of the jurisdictional committees. I needed Republicans to help me, and a lot of those Republicans I’d been to, unsolicited, and asked them for their input, well they remembered that and said, ‘Let’s see if we can help Peter.’ One of those people was the House Majority Leader at the time, Eric Cantor (R-VA). He helped me the most.”
The laws governing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had to be changed to give Vermont well beyond the maximum amount of financial help allowed by law at the time.
“We needed that because our damages were so great,” Welch said. “We needed legislation. We had a Democratic majority in the Senate at the time; Senator Leahy was on the Appropriations Committee and he was in a solid position to help Vermont. I was in a precarious position. But by the end of the whole process, when it was very contentious and politicized, the Cantor staff was coming up to me on the floor of the House and asking me, “Mr Welch, do we have everything in the bill that Vermont needs?’ Some of my colleagues couldn’t believe it.”
This being Congress, even doing the right thing was quid pro quo.
“Now, Eric Cantor and I disagreed about tax and budget issues and the war and a lot of things,” Welch said. “But on the other hand, my job was to do things that Vermont needed done. Irene was a big deal and I’d established relationships that I think helped us get through it. I worked with Eric on another bill and the Democratic leadership was upset with me. He asked me to co-sponsor this bill to get more money into pediatric cancer research. At the time the Democrats — and I was among them — were very upset with the budget proposals of the Republicans. They were really shrinking the research budget for the National Institutes of Health. I thought that was terrible. So there was a reservation on the part of the Democratic leadership about doing a piecemeal approach. My view was why not? If we can get money for kids’ cancer, then let’s do it.”
The cancer research money would come from taxpayer dollars previously earmarked to support the Democratic and Republican conventions. Both sides had already agreed it was no longer an appropriate use of public funds.
“So I broke with the Democrats,” Welch said. “We’d like to have more research for cancer, especially for kids, so what’s the problem? I was the lead Democratic sponsor and eventually we wore down the resistance and got that passed. We even had an Oval Office signing with President Obama.”
Finding common ground may be difficult, but it can make things happen the right way for Vermont, and Vermont expects it, Welch said.
“We’re hanging on, but still trying to do things that Vermont needs to get done,” Welch said. “I found some common ground in energy efficiency with a lot of my Republican colleagues. Even if they deny climate change, they can see the benefits of efficiency — because you spend less.”
Common sense is one of the biggest arrows in Welch’s quiver. Right now he’s arguing with the Democrats about offering support to out-of-work coal miners; his position puts him squarely in Republican territory.
“The more we work to address climate change issues and move from a carbon economy to a clean energy economy, the more we have to reach out and try to help the folks in coal country who are being hammered by the transition,” Welch said.
Two years ago, Welch visited a coal mine in West Virginia with Representative David McKinley (R-WV).
“We went down 1,000 feet and four and a half miles in,” Welch said. “I was a little scared — it’s so dark and deep. Then they turned the lights off.”
Welch enjoyed meeting the coal miners, who reminded him of Vermont dairy farmers.
“They are wonderful people,” Welch said. “The only people I’ve ever met who work so hard are Vermont dairy farmers. They’re the salt of the earth and they’re proud of their work. And it’s dangerous work. They’ve suffered a lot, but they kept the lights on for us in Vermont. So yes, we have to move away from the carbon economy. But that doesn’t mean we have to move away from the folks who helped us.”
With that in mind, last year Welch was the lead sponsor on a bill that successfully restored coal miners’ health care benefits.
“They also lost their pensions,” Welch said. “I had a press conference just the other day, three members from West Virginia, all Republicans, and me, trying to get their pensions back.”
The election of Donald J Trump as president of the United States only amplified the anti-government feeling in Congress typified by McConnell.
“There’s an emerging opposition to the role of government,” Welch said. “There are a lot of Congressmen who basically don’t believe in government. And that’s unique. In the state Senate, I served with liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans but everyone believed that government should function. They believed there are roles the government should play. We’ve got a lot of people down there now who challenge that. They’re willing to shut the government down. They’re willing to default on the debt.”
Welch blames Citizens United and gerrymandered districts for the problem.
“No majority leader in the history of the country has ever lost a primary, but Eric Cantor did (in 2014),” Welch said. “And it doesn’t make sense, because a majority leader is in a position to really help his or her district. The money in politics just turns people off. We’re flooded with ads that are toxic and people throw their hands up and get sick of all of us.”
Democrats are partially to blame for this situation, Welch said.
“A lot of America has not been doing well economically — and rural America especially,” Welch said. “There really is a divide. People who voted for Trump used to vote for Democrats. They saw the banks getting bailed out but they didn’t get help on their mortgages. They saw the one percent doing great but their kids either can’t go to school or, when they get out, they’ve got debts equal to the mortgages we had when we were starting out. They feel government policies are not helping them get ahead. It’s partly from trade deals but also from technology that’s taken over jobs.”
For example, when Welch was down in the mines he saw gigantic grinding machines chewing up the walls and dumping coal directly onto conveyor belts that traveled six miles just to reach the surface.
“Twelve people were working with this incredible machine, taking out tons and tons of coal,” he said.”Thirty years ago, there would have been 300 people down there doing that work. It’s the technology and the transition in the economy. There are winners and losers and I don’t think our political policies have caught up with the challenges we face.”
There’s a word for a world without government, and that word is anarchy. It would make for a frightening end game, if that’s where the country is going.
“I’m not exaggerating,” Welch said. “A lot of folks think we’ll all be better on our own. Now, some of these folks, if your house was on fire, they would be there to help. As a neighbor they’d be fantastic. But they get skeptical or outright hostile about government. You saw that when those folks wanted to repeal Obamacare and had no replacement. Another moment came a few years ago when it came time to raise the debt ceiling and pass a budget, and they were willing to shut government down — and they did! Or they were willing to default on the debt, which they came within an inch of doing. Those are nuclear tactics. Default on the debt and you’ll do enormous damage to the country and our credit rating. It would cost us billions of dollars. This is something really new.”
Brinksmanship, tense negotiations, seeing who’s going to blink first — these are not unfamiliar tactics to Welch.
“I worked with Ralph Wright and he wasn’t afraid to be really aggressive,” Welch said. “But most of us have some limits, because we know if we go beyond them we risk doing more harm than the good we claim is justifying our position. Those boundaries are eroding, if not vanishing, under President Trump. The norms, the guardrails, the things that establish reasonable boundaries whether you’re a liberal or conservative? Those guardrails are collapsing.”
Welch was born into a large Irish Catholic family in Springfield, Mass. He has an older brother and sister who are twins and three younger siblings.
“We’re all still close,” he said. “Everyone’s doing well.”
His father was a dentist and his mother a homemaker. Both are now deceased.
His father wasn’t interested in politics per se, Welch said, but he was very interested in what was going on in Springfield.
“The congressman in Springfield back then was Eddie Boland, and he used to be over at the house every now and then,” Welch said. “The first campaign I worked on was his. I was passing out bumper stickers and literature — a very high level job.”
Back then, Springfield was called the City of Homes; but urban renewal in the 1960s tore down a large swath of those homes in the name of progress and the Interstate highway system.
But before then, in the 1950s and early 1960s, Welch said Springfield “was a great place to grow up. There were lots of manufacturing jobs. There was a big insurance company. It was very ethnic. Our neighborhood was very much mixed. We had a lot of Catholics who identified where they lived by their parish, and lots of Protestants and Jews. They all lived on our street. It was an eclectic place.”
The term “helicopter parent” was unknown while Welch was growing up. He would hop on his bicycle after school and go hang out with his friends — he says he’s still close to many of them. He was an athletic kind of guy. He played hockey at Holy Trinity Church and basketball at Holy Name. In baseball season, he was at the park.
Work was always an integral part of the picture, not because he had to work but because he wanted spending money. When he started out as a caddy at the Longmeadow Country Club, where caddies could play for free on Mondays, he was 12 years old.
“I worked all the time,” Welch said. “All the summers. I worked in a quarry in East Longmeadow, in a machine tool company and as a camp counselor. One of the jobs was at a freight yard loading trailer trucks. All my brothers and sisters worked. We didn’t have cars. We could walk to school, including high school. But I needed money to be with my friends and go out and do teenage things. The big job to get was construction because they paid the best. But they were the hardest jobs to get. Mostly you had a have a father who was in construction and could hook you up at a job site.”
After high school, Welch went to the nearby College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, where his father had gone and where some of his brothers also studied. He began a degree in history and kept right on working.
“I used to work at the Holiday Inn,” Welch said. “One year I had 13 W-2s. I’d get a job whenever I needed some money. When it snowed you could go down to the railroad yards and shovel the switches. I’m most proud that whenever I needed money I could go to the fright yards in Worcester and Springfield. Just show up. They almost always needed someone to load the boxes onto the trucks.”
Welch came of age in the mid-Sixties, when the civil rights and anti-war movements were heating up.
“I left college at the end of my sophomore year and spent my junior year doing community organizing on the West Side of Chicago,” Welch said. “That was a risky decision. It was the height of the Vietnam War. If you weren’t in school you could get drafted. I went out there just for the summer but got so involved that a few of us decided to stay out there for the year. That was long before there were internships, and my parents were upset. My father went to talk to Father Brooks at Holy Cross to urge him to tell me to go back to school. And he said, ‘Well, we think what your son is doing is very good.’”
Thanks to Father Brooks, Welch was able to enroll at Chicago’s Loyola University, continuing his studies and staying out of the arms of the draft.
“Father Brooks arranged for us to take some courses, and I’m just so grateful to the Jesuits,” Welch said. “Sometimes professors would come to our apartment on the West Side. It gave us an extraordinary degree of flexibility.”
Welch returned to Holy Cross for his senior year. Then he returned to Chicago as a member of the first class of Robert F Kennedy Fellows — about 30 young people from around the country chosen because they were doing community organizing.
The Fellows program was established by Kennedy’s family to honor his legacy and “to advocate for a more just and peaceful world” after the senator and presidential candidate was assassinated.
“The grassroots community organization I started working on, called the Contract Buyers League, had become this big organization in Chicago,” Welch said. “So I went back.”
African-American families were being ripped off when they tried to buy homes. The League fought for their rights.
“Instead of being able to buy with a conventional mortgage, they couldn’t get a mortgage from the banks because the banks had red-lined the neighborhood,” Welch said. “They couldn’t get Federal Housing Administration support. The real estate speculators would buy a piece of property and double the price and sell it by contract — not even a mortgage — to the black families moving in. And they charged higher interest rates. Under a contract, if you missed a payment after four or five years you would lose your house. It was brutal, very brutal.”
The League organized rent strikes which quickly became confrontational.
“The sheriff was coming to evict people,” Welch said. “We would find out where the sheriff was going and put rings of people around the house to protect it. That went on for quite a while.”
Welch was also swept up in the police riots outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968.
“I was at the Hilton during the demonstrations,” he said. “I was participating in a lot of the meetings with the students who were organizing a presence. For a lot of us, it wasn’t that we showed up to demonstrate. We wanted to go in and then all hell broke loose with the Chicago cops outside the Hilton. Mayor Daley’s police did not use the light touch. It was quite astonishing to see this enormous use of force. The National Guard got called out as well. When you have that breakdown in dialogue, it was apparent to me even then that nothing good can come out of it.”
When the mayor and the police became involved in the housing issue, everything changed.
“Daley sent us a message by having the police ring an entire block,” Welch said. “They evicted a family — it was their first successful eviction — and when the police left we moved the family back in. Then we went down and had negotiations. I was in a conference room doing a lot of the press work and contract work, and the mayor was coming into our room and then going to the Contract Buyers in the other room. And we would try to mediate a resolution to the dispute. Ultimately we made some significant progress.”
The banks agreed to write mortgages. The FHA agreed to insure the mortgages. The contract sellers began to renegotiate the deals so African-American families could get a legitimate mortgage at a reasonable price.
Welch put in another year and decided to go to law school.
“I saw that the law has really made a difference,” Welch said. “Bad laws were discriminating against good people and were causing enormous pain. And I saw how politics made a difference. Mayor Dailey had an enormous amount of power that eventually he used in a way that was constructive. He used it to bring about a better resolution for the folks I was advocating for.”
At the time, Welch thought his community action activities had been successful.
“But it’s still tough in that neighborhood,” Welch said. “The ways in which injustice finds a way to emerge is just ongoing. The fight never stops.”
Coming to Vermont
Welch chose to take his law degree at the University of California at Berkeley. Then he chose Vermont to put down roots.
“My uncle was town manager in Barre, and my father liked to come up to fish and ski,” Welch said. “I used to come up with him and always liked it up here. I’m not much of a fisherman, but I liked being with my uncle and my father. And I liked skiing. When I got out of law school I had to make a decision. I had opportunities to work on K Street or Wall Street and I ended up on Bridge Street in White River Junction. And coming from Berkeley to White River Junction? That was culture shock.”
Welch’s intention in coming to Vermont was to work in a small law firm and find ways to be active in his new community.
“Where that was going to lead wasn’t quite clear to me,” he said. “But I ended up, instead of being in a big firm where you’re working on a big case and you’re a small part of it, working with a small law firm for nine months. I did my clerkship and became a public defender. So I was trying cases.”
Politics was still in his heart, however. Welch won a state Senate seat in 1980.
“It was something you could do in a small community,” he said. “That opportunity to be really involved. I like the responsibility of it. And it was the year of the Reagan Revolution. I rode in on Reagan’s coattails.”
By his second term in the Senate Welch was minority leader; soon after that he was president pro tem.
There followed a long series of adventures, issues, successes and controversies in Vermont politics — all thoroughly covered in the media and too many to be covered here.
Welch gave up his Senate seat to run in a four-way primary for Congress in 1988, where he lost by 54 votes. “Not that I remember,” he joked. (Paul Poirier won the nomination and finished third to Independent Bernie Sanders and Republican Peter Smith; Sanders came back to beat Smith in the rematch in 1990).
Two years later Welch ran for governor and lost to Dick Snelling, who died soon afterward. Lieutenant Governor Howard Dean then became governor.
“Then I was back practicing law, and I was out of politics pretty much for the 90s,” Welch said. “And it wasn’t clear to me that I’d be back. Then Howard Dean appointed me to return to the Senate in 2001 when one of our senators took a full time job. I came back to fill up the second part of her term. And then the next year I was elected Senate president again.”
Winning And Losing
The jobs of Senate president, governor and congressman are very different. Was Welch running for higher office just because the seats were open and they looked like the next steps up in his career? He thinks it’s more than that.
“When you get in a campaign you put enormous energy into it,” Welch said. “When you lose, the biggest disappointment is that you lose the opportunity to do the work you’ve been talking about. You really get invested in wanting to do the work. Winning office is less about the satisfaction of that night when you’re declared the winner, and more about the two years ahead when you have the opportunity to do the work you love to do.”
Welch felt his campaigns had given him a handle on Vermonters’ challenges and aspirations. When Senator Jeffords retired and then-Congressman Bernie Sanders ran for his seat in the Senate in 2006, Welch ran for Congress again, against a formidable Republican opponent, Martha Rainville, former Adjutant General of the Vermont National Guard and the first woman in the country to serve in such a position.
Early in the campaign, Welch and Rainville met and signed what is called a Clean Campaign Pledge, promising not to run a negative campaign.
“Even now, Vermonters thank me and her for that,” Welch said. “It was the only contested race in the country where the two candidates promised — and kept the promise — that they wouldn’t run a negative ad. Why? We thought negative ads were toxic. It would be bad for Vermonters and bad for the dialog. We could debate the issues and people could decide who they wanted to represent them. It was old-fashioned. We couldn’t do it now. It was before Citizens United.”
Before Citizens United, candidates had control over their political campaign ads. Today they may control their own ads, but any person or group can put out an ad supporting any position they want — without the approval of the candidates, even the ones they’re supporting.
The campaign that Welch and Rainville ran garnered national attention as the cleanest race in the country. Both candidates, however, were under pressure to conform and put out attack ads.
“Both of us had to be very assertive with the national campaign committees,” Welch said. “The head of the Democratic National Committee was that sweet and gentle guy who’s now mayor of Chicago, Rahm Immanuel. And he wanted me to run negative ads. I said, ‘No way. No how.’ Martha and I were so locked into this and it was so public that both the Republicans and Democrats had to respect it. They knew that whoever went first with a negative ad, Vermonters would punish them. So they restrained themselves.
“Now if the Koch brothers or whoever wanted to spend a lot of money, they could come in and run whatever ads they want to run. We could not enforce something like that now. It’s a toxic effect of Citizen’s United. Vermonters wouldn’t be able to figure out who was paying for the ad, so they’d associate a very negative ad with the campaigner.”
Welch won the race and began his career in Congress.
Since then, has he met the extremely wealthy, ultra conservative and anti-government Koch brothers?
“I haven’t had the pleasure,” he said dryly. “I’m not invited to their retreats.”
When Welch arrived in Congress he had to maneuver in a world ruled by the kind of formal etiquette you hardly ever see outside of a European royal court. Of course he made mistakes.
“When I first got here, I screwed up and it was a real lesson,” Welch said. “I was in my first year here. It was the height of the Democratic effort to get us out of Iraq. I was pretty upset with Bush and his ‘weapons of mass destruction.’ I was on the floor of the House and got overzealous.”
It may surprise some people, but one of the arcane rules about speaking on the House floor is that you’re not allowed to make personal comments.
“I said something about President Bush that probably crossed the line,” Welch said. “And as soon as I did that I had a sinking feeling. It was not the way I wanted to introduce myself to my colleagues. The person running the floor was then-Representative Ray LaHood (R-IL). He was subsequently the secretary of transportation. Unlike what some of my colleagues would do, which is take advantage of my mistakes, he very gently said, ‘The member from Vermont might reconsider certain words.’ He gave me the opportunity to amend my remarks.”
There was a lesson to be learned here.
“How powerful that gracious gesture was to me, and how important it was when I had the opportunity to do it for others,” Welch said. “We’re losing that generosity of spirit; we’re losing the willingness to give colleagues the benefit of the doubt. There was a tone in this institution that I thought Ray LaHood embodied. Vermont-like decency. He gave me a break.”
Welch joined the Energy and Commerce Committee and started his life in Congress in 2007. The economy tanked in 2008. Wall Street banks started failing. When Obama became president, there was serious work to be done.
Welch was the leader on the energy efficiency component of the Waxman-Markey Bill, designed to create clean energy jobs, achieve energy independence, reduce global warming and pollution and help the US transition to a clean-energy economy. It got through the House but died in the Senate. Welch also supported Dodd-Frank.
“The Dodd-Frank Bill was really essential,” Welch said. “We did the recovery act, the health care bill, a climate change bill. It was an extraordinarily active period of time, the first two years of the Obama presidency. The threat to our economy was real. It was terrifying when the financial sector collapsed.”
It was especially gut-wrenching for him and many of his colleagues to bail out Wall Street without giving a similar bailout to Main Street.
“For those of us who had to make the tough call to rescue the financial system, it was not that we wanted to do a favor for anybody,” Welch said. “But we wanted to avoid the harm for everybody where there were collateral consequences to the bad conduct of the Wall Street actors.”
Welch remembered a beautiful October day when he was driving down the Interstate and got pulled over by the state police.
“The state trooper was so courteous,” Welch said. “He asks me for my license and then he recognizes me. ‘Peter,’ he says, ‘what are you guys doing down there? My wife and I lost $5,000 of our retirement the last couple of days.’ It was terrible what was happening to people. I think we had to bail out the banks, but there was a real residue from it that resulted with some elevation of the Tea Party. And we’re still feeling that.”
Welch’s career in Congress can almost be described as whiplashed.
“I go from the excitement of getting elected and the return of Democratic power,” Welch said. “We were focusing on ending the war and trying to bring our troops home, to Obama’s getting elected and a very affirmative agenda, but dealing with the worst economic crisis that the country’s had since the Depression, and then the Tea Party came in and a lot of my class got defeated.”
Welch is famous for his constituent service. A good example came in 2014 and it concerned the cheeses of Jasper Hill Farms in Greensboro.
Jasper Hill has won many international quality awards; its cheeses are impressive as well as delicious. So it was somehow fortuitous that Jasper Hill co-owner Mateo Kehler happened to be in Washington for an American Society of Microbiology conference when the Food and Drug Administration — with epic bad timing — announced it was banning the use of wooden shelving for ripening cheeses.
Jasper Hill is also famous for its enormous and profitable cheese-ripening cave. All the cheeses are ripened on wood shelving — 20 linear miles of it, according to Kehler. He called the FDA ruling an “existential threat” to his business. He was in town so he called Welch.
“The FDA ruling was going to be devastating to that cave,” Welch said. “There are millions of dollars of cheese boards there. The whole aging process was going to be destroyed. It was an overreaction by the FDA.”
According to Welch, when the FDA found sanitation problems in one cheese-aging plant in New York, it blamed the boards and banned them everywhere.
“Obviously, the problem was the lack of sanitation in that particular operation,” Welch said. “They could have been using granite shelves.”
Wooden shelving has been in place for hundreds of years in Europe. Many cheeses depend on the aging and flavor the wood brings to the ripening cheeses.
“So many cheeses rely on wood to give them their distinct flavors,” said an article on the subject in the Huffington Post (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/culture-magazine/fda-bans-wood-aging-boar...) "Taleggio, Beaufort, and Parmigiano-Reggiano all use wood as an integral part of their processes, using the porous material to draw out moisture.”
“This is supported by sound science at this point,” Kehler said. “If we replaced the wood with stainless steel — which is a surface not as good as wood for ripening natural rinded cheese because it creates anaerobic conditions on the surface of the cheese — essentially we would have to spend many millions of dollars. There were cheese microbiologists in Washington when that announcement was made. We were able to bring microbiologists who had careers spent in studying the use of wood in traditional cheese making to sit down with Congressman Welch and his staff and lay out the science. Congressman Welch really stopped that effort to ban wood in its tracks.”
And how did Welch save the cheese-aging industry? By enlisting, of all people, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI).
“Paul Ryan was the chair of the budget committee,” Welch said. “We contacted Ryan's office and I see him on the floor. ‘Paul,’ I said, ‘you and I have a cheese problem.’ That got his attention because he’s from Wisconsin. We called the FDA and said, ‘We have a cheese problem but you better be sure you don’t have a budget problem.’ We were successful in getting that ban derailed, and also in creating a dialogue. We started having the FDA come up and interact with our cheese producers — to educate the regulators. They could see that the cheese makers were totally committed to health and the quality and safety of their products.”
Kehler emphasized that the industry was not adverse to regulation.
“We believe we need good regulation,” Kehler said. “We’re not anti-regulation. But having good regulation that’s based on sound science is something Congressman Welch’s office and his staff believe in. Welch’s ability to commit to understanding these complex issues is a real benefit to Vermonters. There are big political risks he’s willing to take because he has a team that has a handle on the science. That’s something that separates him from many of his colleagues in the House.”
Welch’s prompt action on this — and several other issues important to Kehler and his business — have made him something of a hero.
“I think he’s willing to consider all points of view in a way that most politicians aren’t willing to do anymore,” Kehler said. “It’s a challenging time to be a political figure who’s trying to reach across the aisle. Partisans really expect you to stay in your corner and they’ll punish you if you’re willing to accede anything. I don’t think Peter will have political consequences because of that. Vermont, while a blue state, also has an expectation that its people in state government and on the national level are going to try and get things done. I consider Peter one of my role models in how I want to approach my job in the public sphere.”
Welch clearly takes joy in trying to help people, Kehler said.
“He really wants to listen to everybody, not just the people who voted for him, and he has fun in the job,” Kehler said. “I really count myself and our business as fortunate to be located in a state where we can call our representatives in Congress and actually connect with them. Congressman Welch, along with Senator Leahy and Senator Sanders, have been real champions.”
Kehler had special praise for Welch’s staff.
“One thing that really impressed me about Welch is the quality and caliber of his staff,” he said. “They have taken the time and allowed themselves to be educated not just by us but by the scientific community to support science-based issues and the regulatory issues we’ve faced.”
With the advent of the Trump Administration. Welch says his job has dramatically changed.
“Now the job is about defending core values like our civil liberties, like respect for all our religions, like respect for women, like respect for our institutions, like fiscal responsibility — which is getting thrown out the window, ironically, by President Trump,” Welch said. “These tax cuts he wants to pass? He says they will be ‘paid for by themselves.’ That’s a fantasy. All of these things that have been so important in building our country and are much larger than any individual. These are all under assault in this new administration. I now see much of my job as trying to restore functionality to Congress.”
It’s a big job. What are his plans?
“I believe the way we do business in Vermont is what we have to bring to Washington,” Welch said. “It’s about engaged debate and fierce debate, but its civil debate and mutual respect. Now the big challenge is trying to restore civil engagement in a Congress which is basically turning its back on it. So what feels good to me, even in this tough spot, is representing a state where those values are very important. You could have a lot of people from Vermont doing my job, but whether they are Republican or Democrat, we’d be united in saying that we have to be talking to each other. We need mutual respect and we need to be on the level. And that approach ultimately has to prevail in order for us to make progress.”
Give Welch’s talent for bipartisanship, it’s no surprise that he’s already found a way. The Congressional Problem Solvers is a group of House and Senate members who meet regularly to build trust across the aisle. It goes without saying that Welch is a member.
“There are starting to be a lot of us,” Welch said. “We’re 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats. The thing that unites us is the view that at the end of the day, we have to take a step forward. Yelling at each other isn’t the way to make that happen. In the past on health care, for example, it’s always been ‘Repeal! Just throw the whole thing out.’ And there is no replacement. But we got together and made a specific proposal to deal with a concrete problem in the Affordable Care Act. It’s in the individual market. Only a small percentage of people are in the individual health insurance market, but when you hear about premiums going up, that’s where it is.”
Some of the Democratic leadership doesn’t want attention put on changes to the ACA, since it might lead to one of those slippery slopes Congress is so afraid of — scuttling the whole thing.
“Well, there was a problem with the ACA,” Welch said. “And my Republican colleagues were under pressure not to engage with us, because if they were to help fix it, it would be acknowledging that there were some good things about it. Allowing for pre-existing conditions. Making insurance available up to age 26. No lifetime caps.”
At this writing, in both the House and the Senate, Problem Solvers are working on this specific change — it’s a small change — to make the ACA better.
“That’s an example of where getting specific helps, as opposed to any abstract proposal,” Welch said. “It’s the first time since the passing of the ACA that we’ve had a bipartisan proposal to fix a component in the ACA. And we’ve seen it get some legs in the Senate. There are members on both sides who want to make Congress work. A lot of my Republican colleagues are just dismayed at what’s going on.”
Will Welch run for another term? Will he go back into the furnace for another fiery round?
“I won’t answer that question,” Welch said, laughing. “Journalists couldn’t beat the answer out of me with a plastic hose. I really love my job, and I say that fully aware that it’s a very difficult time here. The Trump era, in my view, is quite dangerous. There’s a lack of respect for the institutions. For preparation. For the understanding that a person of power needs a sense of restraint. It’s shocking to me that that person could be elected. I see my job as defending our Constitutional rights and getting us back to being a responsible institution. I spend a lot of time in Vermont seeing how folks are really committed to things like climate change and health care reform. My job is to bring that Vermont approach to Washington. So I still like the job, even though it is markedly different.”
Joyce Marcel is a journalist who lives in southern Vermont. She is currently writing a memoir covering six generations of her family caught in the sweep of history across the 20th Century. She is writing another book about Vermont businesses. More of her work appears at her Web site, joycemarcel.com.