Milton grad assists Speaker of Vermont House

CheneyHeadshot

Tom Cheney gives a tour of the State House. Photo by Courtney Lamdin.

It’s 8:26 a.m., and Tom Cheney has already been interrupted from work 15 times.
This is what he calls a “light day.”

“The Speaker’s Office is the hub of activity,” he said from a chair in Speaker of the House Shap Smith’s office in the State House. “Everybody wants to know what’s going on, and usually where they get their information is from the nerve center.”

Already Cheney has fielded questions from Rep. Willem Jewett (D-Addison-2), assistant majority leader, and from Ashley Grant, an intern in the Senate.

After his interview with this newspaper, he had to write something up for Smith (D-Lamoille-Washington-1), his boss since July 2009.

Cheney’s official title is “aide to the Speaker of the House,” which is akin to a chief of staff – except Cheney is the only staff member.

This means it falls on his shoulders to answer phone calls, set up media appointments, attend to constituents’ concerns and keep Smith apprised of important information.

When Smith is listening to testimony on the House floor, so is Cheney but via a radio that streams the proceedings to every office in the State House. If Cheney thinks of something that Smith should know or say, he heads downstairs and taps the Speaker on the shoulder.

“I stay very in tune,” he said.

Politics has been Cheney’s forte for a while now; ask his parents, and they’ll tell you it’s been since birth, Cheney said.

The story goes that 2-year-old Cheney, in his crib for naptime, sang himself a song about Michael Dukakis, George H.W. Bush’s Democratic opponent in the 1988 presidential election.

“I think ever since I was little I’ve had a passion for politics, and my parents have really cultivated that and put me in front of the TV, in front of news clippings and other things to help me broaden that interest,” Cheney said.

He also remembers supporting Bill Clinton in fourth grade for the school’s mock election, as if he was part of the campaign.

“I can’t remember whether we – whether Bill – won or not,” he said, laughing.

Cheney also worked on now-Gov. Peter Shumlin’s gubernatorial campaign last fall and was formerly a justice of the peace in Milton before he moved to Montpelier to kick the 50-mile commute.

Smith said it’s less Cheney’s political dedication and more of his willingness to reach “across the aisle” to all parties that makes him a valuable worker.

He recalled a time when a conservative Republican member of the legislature told him that Cheney was “one of the best people that we’ve ever had in the Speaker’s Office,” he said.

“You need to be able to get along with everyone,” Smith said. “That’s the skill I appreciate most.”

Raised in right-leaning Milton – where Republican Brian Dubie outbid vote totals for Democrat Shumlin two-to-one for governor – Cheney always had good discussions with friends on the opposite side of the political spectrum, he said.

One of these is Jon Hughes, former chair of the Republican party in Milton and in the state, who took up friendly debates when Cheney was in high school.

“It’s always been as long as I’ve known him that he’s been the big liberal, and he’s viewed me as the arch conservative,” Hughes said jokingly.

Hughes recalled one time when Cheney returned a grill he’d borrowed for a football game to Hughes’ house: before leaving, Cheney grabbed Hughes’ Dubie political sign off his lawn.

“He did it intentionally for me to see as a joke,” Hughes said. “We’ve always had good-natured conversations.”

Cheney said Hughes is a role model for making a difference – something he thinks can be done in the State House, even though some cynics disagree.

“Every single day, whether they’re representatives from Milton or Barton, they’re all listening to their constituents, and that influences their choices and actions that they take,” he said. “Often that is forgotten.”

Cheney is excited to assist Smith with the issues this session. He’s most interested in education (his mother and aunt teach in Milton, and his grandfather was an assistant dean at the University of Vermont) but said the speaker’s priorities are his own.

Asked about his aspirations, political or otherwise, Cheney said he just wants to stay in Vermont.

“I really, firmly believe that Vermont’s the best place to grow up, grow a family and grow old,” he said. “What am I going to do? I don’t know, but hopefully it’s something that will be able to give back to my community and to strengthen whatever town or city I’m in.”

On hearing that this was Cheney’s response, Hughes continued their banter, saying, “That’s what they all say when they’re revving up their résumé.”

For Smith, a political career in Cheney’s future sounds like a good thing.
“I can’t say enough about how he is really a shining example for the next generation,” he said. “If most of the next generation is like Tom, then we’ll be in good shape.”

For now, though, Cheney is focused on improving Vermonters’ lives in any capacity he can.

“This building has real opportunity for making change in the state and making Vermont a better place,” he said. “I’m absolutely thrilled to have even a small hand in that process.”

Cheney returned to his desk, where sat a half-eaten bowl of vanilla yogurt and berries. He only had a half-hour left to write his assignment, but first he answered questions for House clerk Donald Milne. Also, Rep. Jewett came back – this time to ask Cheney to fix his iPad.

Just a few more tasks before the day’s work really begins.

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