Representative Barbara Murphy from District Franklin-2 (Fairfax) in Vermont was elected in 2014 as an independent to the state legislature. In the 2017-2018 legislative session, she served on the House Committee of Transportation as well as the Legislative Council Committee. Even if you do not live in Rep. Murphy’s district, her insights on being an independent in the legislature are important and contribute to the knowledge on the value that independents bring to government.
Rep. Murphy said that the main benefit of being an independent is that:
I don’t have lines drawn about who my allies are and who my enemies are. I can really look at each issue and ask questions of different colleagues and gain perspectives without having to feel like any lines are drawn or ears are closed.
She noted that while both sides spend time worrying about the other, they often agree and she can see this by meeting with both parties. Additionally, instead of being told how to act or vote from party leadership, as an independent, she can fully listen to the needs and desires of her community, and represent her constituents instead of a political team.
Yet the advantages come with challenges and Rep. Murphy noted that “the negative is sometimes that you are a singleton in a system that is driven by and looks to this idea of who has the majority.” While it is not necessarily negative, she spends more time clarifying her positions, as stating “independent” does not convey how she might think about an issue, whereas stating “Democrat” or “Republican” does carry implications behind how one might vote. Information exchange was also one of the earlier obstacles during Rep. Murphy’s time in office. While not done maliciously, independents in the Vermont state legislature were at times not provided pieces of information regarding proposals or the status of key bills due to the absence of party leadership and a caucus. Rep. Murphy stated that after this instance, she was invited to begin taking notes at leadership meetings, serving as the “ears” on behalf of the independents in the legislature .
Rep. Murphy consistently focuses on her constituents. This theme was cemented when she mentioned that instead of always coalescing with other independents, the independents’ allegiances in the Vermont state legislature are with their constituents in their respective districts. Not belonging to one of the main parties allows for this dedication to communities and also presents novelties when acting as a state official. Rep. Murphy stated that,
When you are an independent you don’t have any of that pressure around someone telling you how to think or what to do, which is to me the only way to serve. But I do have to do it all by myself. I have to do the research … I have to read everything that comes to the house floor, I have to figure out how I want to vote, and there is nobody there to tell me anything unless I ask.
Rep. Murphy’s 75 entries for sponsored bills and resolutions in 2017-2018 show the wide range of issues and topics that she is concerned with in office. From sponsoring an act relating to the Clean Water Fund to changes in statewide education property tax, Rep. Murphy worked with Republicans, Democrats, and Independents to support core state interests.
While she works across partisan lines, Rep. Murphy highlights how Vermont’s politicial environment is conducive for independents in office and she credited colleagues and other key officials for truly respecting independents in the legislature. She stated that,
Our speaker has been very generous in inviting us to have a representative sit in on leadership meetings to help us stay in the loop with everything, but also our governor, who is a minority governor, a Republican, has truly replaced independents with independents when we’ve had people leave the legislature to serve in the administration or elsewhere.
Rep. Murphy’s experience demonstrates that the obstacles are not insurmountable and instead allow for creative solutions. Independents in the legislature sponsor bills, bridge the partisan divide, develop innovative solutions, and address the common frustrations citizens feel about a government in gridlock.
Leanna is a second year student in the MA Conflict Resolution program at Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. She is currently a research fellow for the Unite America Institute.