By Lori L. Ferguson

As a 2004 Vermont state senatorial candidate, Jane Kitchel ’67 faced formidable odds. She was a Democrat vying for an office that her party had not held since 1912. And she was a woman, running in a very Republican region of the state against two male incumbents—a move, Kitchel wryly observed, that is generally not recommended. But she was heavily recruited and believed she could make a difference, so Kitchel went for it.

Not only did she succeed, she was the top vote getter, as she has been in every election since. “I worked really hard to win that race,” Kitchel said, “but my feeling is, ‘If you take it on, you’d better step up.’ As my mother always said, ‘Take what you do seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.’ ”

Kitchel has always taken her role as public servant seriously, and over the past 49 years has leveraged every opportunity to deliver for her constituents. Currently in her sixth term, she is among the most knowledgeable politicians in the state and, as chair of the Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful. She’s had a hand in many critical pieces of legislation and garners respect across party lines. “Jane is funny, articulate, reasoned and practical,” said state Sen. Richard Westman, a Republican from Lamoille County. “She has government experience and a practical nature that allows her to be one of the most effective members of the Legislature. I feel extremely lucky to have her as a state Senate colleague.

“She's also one best bakers I know,” he added. “Everyone in the building looks forward to her cakes!”

 Kitchel brushes off the praise with characteristic modesty. “I like to work through others and give credit where credit is due,” she said. “And I never ask anyone to work harder than I’m willing to work myself. People notice these things.”

One of 10 children, Kitchel was raised on a large dairy farm in the Caledonia County town of Danville, in the area commonly known as the Northeast Kingdom. In addition to managing the family farm, her parents, Harold and Catherine McDonald Beattie, served as guardians for people with developmental disabilities and mental health issues. Her mother also served a term in the Legislature in the mid-1960s.

“Throughout my childhood, I was exposed to values of civic engagement and community involvement,” Kitchel recalled. “That’s the breadth of experience I had as a child. We were constantly exposed to people from all walks of life—their stories, needs, trials and tribulations. I remember having dinners with U.S. Sen. Ralph Flanders, who was a family friend. As kids, we just took it for granted.”

It seemed a foregone conclusion that Kitchel and her siblings would continue the family legacy of giving back to the community. Today Kitchel is joined at the statehouse by her younger sister, Catherine ‘Kitty’ Toll, who serves as a Democratic state representative for the Caledonia-Washington district. 

Kitchel wasted little time in getting involved in the business of her state. After graduating from Wilson College in 1967, she took an entry-level position in what was then Vermont’s Department of Social Welfare, and over the next 35 years, worked her way to the top, retiring in 2002 as secretary of the Agency of Human Services.

After stepping down, Kitchel toyed with the idea of leaving the public sector. “I thought I could do some of the things that I hadn’t been able to do while working full time,” she said. Soon, however, she was encouraged to run for a state Senate seat and, after much deliberation, she decided to take on the challenge. “I thought to myself, ‘What if I don’t do it? Will I look back with regret?’—and I also asked myself, ‘What if I don’t win?’ But I’ve always believed that if you only undertake things where you are guaranteed success, you won’t try much, so I decided to give it a go.”

After her election success, Kitchel threw herself back into the legislative maelstrom that has come to define her life, a press of meetings and committee work that frequently spills over into the weekend, a time when senatorial duties are interspersed with household chores. “Every day is pretty much scheduled from the time I enter the statehouse to when I leave,” she explained. As the chair of the Appropriations Committee, Kitchel is in constant demand for meetings. She serves on the Transportation Committee, as well.

Regular committee work begins at 9 a.m., so Kitchel books meetings early in the morning, as well as during lunch and afternoon breaks. “We have no staff to assist us and we have no offices, so much of my work, such as correspondence, emails and reading, has to be done at home on weekends,” she said.

The work is taxing, yet Kitchel clearly revels in the challenges. “For me, this is a demanding and rewarding job, since policy priorities all have to be translated into how fiscal resources are allocated. I’ve been very fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time, and I’ve been recruited to take on the right jobs,” she said.

Yet a cursory review of Kitchel’s accomplishments belies such humility. During her tenure in the Agency of Human Services, she played an instrumental role in establishing Dr. Dynasaur, a publicly funded healthcare program created in 1989 to ensure universal health insurance coverage for all Vermont children. She was a key player in the creation of Vermont 2-1-1, a general resource number that provides state residents with information on hundreds of important community resources, from emergency food and shelter to senior services and legal assistance. And she was on the frontlines of Vermont’s first-in-the-nation statewide overhaul of the public welfare system during the Clinton era.

“Jane is one of the most capable people I’ve ever met,” said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. “She was the architect of our universal healthcare program. She’s a real treasure, and we’re lucky to have her.”

Kitchel is proud of what she's accomplished for her state, but concedes that advocating for change hasn't always been easy. "When we were working through the welfare overhaul, I was accused of leading an economic assault on the most economically oppressed women in the state," she said. "It was difficult, but I believed creating alternatives to welfare dependence through education, training opportunities and other human capital investments for single women was worth the battle." Wilson embraces these same values, she noted, in the College’s Single Parent Scholar program.

Yet throughout it all, Kitchel remains committed to listening and building bridges. “I always ask for other’s opinions. You can’t be a committee of one. You need to engage people, respect their thinking and value their perspectives. No matter the task at hand, you don’t need to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. You can’t. You must form partnerships and work collaboratively. It’s the only way.”

Among those with whom Kitchel has collaborated over the years is Democratic 2016 presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. “Bernie has a great ability to connect on a personal level and he nurtures relationships,” she said. “His history in Vermont is one of trying to improve the lives of ordinary people wherever possible.”

Sanders is equally complimentary. “State Sen. Jane Kitchel is respected around the state, not just because she is the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, but because she puts the needs of ordinary Vermonters above all else,” he said. “Her vast experience in state government—having served as Secretary for Human Services—is grounded by a hard-working family farm life. Jane has always been someone my staff and I could count on to discuss health, education and other important issues facing Vermont and in particular, the Northeast Kingdom.” 

Kitchel is also a tireless community volunteer, serving a host of leadership roles for institutions such as the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium, Danville Chamber of Commerce, Vermont Food Bank, Northeastern Vermont Area Health Education Center and Danville Congregational Church.

Dean once described Kitchel as “the quintessential Vermonter,” a moniker she gladly accepts. “Vermonters believe in hard work and the value of money,” she said. “They realize the importance of community responsibility and have a deep-seated respect for sense of place and self.

“I grew up on a farm that’s been in the McDonald family since the 1830s,” she continued. “My mother continued the tradition and operated the farm for nearly 50 years.” Now it is Kitchel’s nephew who leads the farming enterprise. “The land is part of your soul,” she said.

When it came time to go to college, Kitchel cast her gaze farther afield. “I wanted to get outside of the New England region for a while and meet new people, and I was also interested in attending a women’s college,” she recalled. A family friend suggested she consider Wilson College, a school known for its commitment to intellectual rigor. Kitchel liked what she found. “I was also fortunate to be the recipient of some generous scholarships from Wilson, which—coming from a large farm family—helped considerably.” 

Kitchel majored in history at Wilson and credits the liberal arts education she received there for contributing to her success. “The values I encountered there, including the honor principle, were solid and the exposure to the larger world was invaluable. I learned to read with a critical eye, analyze a situation thoughtfully and write.”

Kitchel has leveraged those lessons to great advantage over the course of her career, and she shows little sign of slowing down. She’s currently focused on securing data that the Legislature can use to evaluate return on investment for the services and programs they support. “We need to make sure that our public investments serve us well,” she said.

“I’ve been blessed with good health and I’m always working to keep things in perspective,” Kitchel said. “I look back at my career and think, ‘I was there at some interesting and pivotal times relating to social policy.’ Our legacy defines us and the next generation. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished on behalf of the people of Vermont.”

 

Published: May 12, 2016