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Rascal king of the north

"The thing about Illuzzi is that he does what he says he'll do, and doesn't do the things he says he won't do."

By Jon Margolis

Governor Howard Dean was about to announce the biggest property transaction in modern Vermont history - and he needed some cover. He knew that the only opposition would come from some of the property's neighbors in the northeastern corner of the state, up in what Dean's celebrated predecessor, George Aiken, called the Northeast Kingdom. So who better to have at his side than the Kingdom's most popular and powerful politician?

``Vince, come up here,'' Dean said. ``I told everybody that this was your idea.'' And from his chair on the floor of Room 11 in the State House, 45-year-old Republican state Senator Vincent Illuzzi - slender, sharp-eyed, snappy in a well-tailored light suit - walked with just a touch of reluctance to sit at the head table.

Actually, Illuzzi didn't just sit. Vince Illuzzi does not just sit. Even in repose, he is in motion, a collection of potential nervous energy barely able to restrain itself. For the next 45 minutes, while Dean and US Senator Patrick Leahy held forth, Illuzzi sipped coffee from a styrofoam cup, fidgeted, moved his hands into a semi-prayerful position with his fingers together at his lips, wagged his tongue from one corner of his mouth to the other.

This was in early December of last year '98, just a month after Illuzzi had won two elections - one, as the incumbent Republican, to the state Senate, the other, as the independent insurgent, to be Essex County state's attorney.

So now here he was, in triumph and on display, the man a Montpelier lobbyist once described as ``the hardest-working, most effective, least ethical member of the Legislature,'' serving as the governor's point man to ease local angst about the impending sale of 133,000 acres of Champion International Paper Company land in Essex County.

Not bad for a guy who barely escaped being disbarred.

Vince Illuzzi is modern Vermont's version of James Michael Curley, a politician who gets more popular the more he is punished by the proper. Unlike Curley, Illuzzi never had to try to win an election from jail, but being suspended from the practice of law suspended from the practice of law didn't hurt.

Consider his recent election as a state's attorney, an outcome that enraged the respectable folk of the Northeast Kingdom. The St. Johnsbury Caledonian-Record assailed him as a double-dipper at the public trough. From Newport to St. Johnsbury, lawyers and businesspeople grumbled that he didn't really want the job, he merely wanted revenge against incumbent Jan Paul, one of the many lawyers who had testified against him in one of his many disciplinary proceedings.

A fat lot the voters of Essex County cared about the disapproval of the respectable folk. Theirs is the non-cute part of Vermont, where a worker is three times as likely to be unemployed as he is elsewhere in the state, and where respectability is a luxury some cannot afford. Illuzzi got 1,448 votes to Paul's 792.

Nor have Illuzzi's professional transgressions upset most of his legislative colleagues. Democrats and Republicans regard him highly, defer to him often, and keep him as chairman of a powerful committee even though he's in the minority party.

As chairman of the Institutions Committee, through which state construction projects must pass, he is a fierce guardian of the taxpayer's dollar. Unless, that is, the taxpayers are going to finance something in his district. He has, in recent years, arranged for a new $16 million state office building and a new firehouse in Newport and state assistance to transform the old railroad station in the village of Island Pond into a commercial building.

In Montpelier, Illuzzi files lots of bills and puts out lots of press releases but does not spend much time on the Senate floor. He's too energetic. Besides, though he's a superb writer (and there's no doubt he writes his own stuff; Vermont legislators have no staff), he's not a great orator. In conversation, he's vibrant; on the Senate floor, he speaks in a monotone.

He does his real work in his committee, which he runs firmly but fairly, and behind the scenes. He does deals. Sometimes, he makes threats, such as the one that Lieutenant Governor Douglas Racine remembers about taking away the parking places of the Supreme Court justices.

His enemies contend that it is this willingness to throw his weight around that explains his clout in the Legislature. ``People are afraid to cross him because he has this reputation that he'll stop at nothing to get revenge,'' says one former official, and even Senator Elizabeth Ready, a Democrat who is one of Illuzzi's closest friends, says, ``He doesn't forget the people who have hurt him.''

But Racine, who often disagrees with Illuzzi, finds him tough but not venge- ful. ``He does push the limits here,'' Racine says. ``He's always testing. But he's flexible and reasonable.''

Others say Illuzzi succeeds in the Legislature because there, if not everywhere, he is a straight shooter. ``The thing about Illuzzi is that he does what he says he'll do, and he doesn't do what he says he won't do,'' says a senior member of Vermont's tiny legislative staff. ``He's a man of his word.''

That is not a universally accepted judgment. ``Vince Elusive'' is one of his local nicknames, and, in fact, it is sometimes hard to tell just where Illuzzi fits into the political spectrum.

This gentleman has stated in a very good way the opposition to this project,'' Illuzzi tells some 30 constituents at a breakfast meeting in Newport. ``I understand that there is a philosophical disagreement.''

In fact, the gentleman has been spouting nonsense. The subject is that same forest land sale, and the objection is that it would ``take away all of the logging rights'' on the land, which it would not.

But Newport, the seat of Orleans County, is the metropolis of the northern half of the Kingdom, the heart of Illuzzi's district. A smart politician does not insult his constituents, so instead of arguing, Illuzzi explains why he supported the sale to the private, nonprofit Conservation Fund and the $4.5 million the state was to kick in as its share. The Fund plans to sell and give the land to a combination of private and public interests.

``Given what's at stake,'' he says, ``it's a very small price to pay to guarantee public access to this land forever.''

Nobody seems convinced, not even the three other Republican legislators sitting around the table at the East Side Restaurant. Oddly, Illuzzi's only apparent ally is the host, Barton lawyer William Boyd Davies, who was among the locals a few years ago who created a campaign called ``O.I.,'' for both ``Operation Integrity'' and ``Oust Illuzzi.''

``What bothered some of us about Vince was that, let's say, we wanted him to be more traditional in his approach,'' says Davies, whose allies included state Representative David Hathaway, writer Jules Older, and Chris Braithwaite, the publisher of The Chronicle, Orleans County's lively weekly newspaper. ``He would stop at nothing to win for his constituents, and perhaps he didn't always play by the rules.''

Vince Illuzzi is also something of an interloper, and at the Newport breakfast, he looks it. Most of the businessmen and politicians at the breakfast are dressed in checked shirts or heavy wool sweaters and workman's pants. Davies, in a tweed sport jacket, is Ivy League casual. Hathaway, who is the brother-in-law of Davies's law partner, is preppy in a red sweater and charcoal gray slacks.

Illuzzi has his own style. Even in Montpelier, he is less likely to wear the standard dark suit than a blue or tan blazer, Italian-cut trousers, black or brown loafers, and a silk handkerchief in his jacket pocket. At the breakfast, he wears an expensive white sweater with a roll collar above black ski - or perhaps apres-ski - pants.

This sartorial idiosyncrasy reflects Illuzzi's political situation as well as his personal life. He represents the Northeast Kingdom without really belonging to it. A sophisticate if not an intellectual, Illuzzi prefers operas to country music, salads and good wine to a burger and a beer, button-down white shirts to red plaid.

On many issues, he votes more like a liberal than a conservative, and on most evenings during the legislative session, he is more likely to socialize with Democratic than Republican colleagues. ``I am not as conservative as I used to be,'' he says. Late in last year's campaign and without enthusiasm, he did endorse Ruth Dwyer, his party's very conservative candidate for governor. Howard Dean won easily, but Dwyer carried the Northeast Kingdom.

In 1994, when Republicans held the Senate majority, Illuzzi and another Republican broke with their party to pass an increase in the state's minimum wage. He regularly votes for generous public assistance, and though he was dubious about it, he ended up voting for Act 60, Vermont's controversial and progressive new school financing system.

He is an abortion-rights advocate, he's against the death penalty, and if two guys want to marry each other, ``It's OK with me.'' Sometimes it seems that the political hero of the Northeast Kingdom is politically out of touch with his neighbors.

Except that they aren't really his neighbors. Like many legislators and more than a few congressmen, Illuzzi doesn't live in his district full time. He spends most of his time in Montpelier, where he owns some downtown property. People there even joke about him as their county's extra senator.

Vince Illuzzi's troubles and his public service began at the same time, and as the result of a peculiar political situation. In 1978, Orleans County voters elected as state's attorney a deputy sheriff named Leroy Null, who was not a lawyer and therefore could not handle arraignments. Declaring a law-and-order crisis, Attorney General Jerry Diamond threatened to take over local law enforcement. At the last minute, Illuzzi, recently out of law school, applied to be Null's deputy. Despite some misgivings, Diamond agreed to give the new arrangement a chance.

Zipping northward from his home near Montpelier for his first day on the job, Illuzzi got a speeding ticket. The next day, Null wrote to Washington County's state's attorney that Illuzzi had been going so fast only because he was ``responding to an emergency call regarding a homicide investigation.''

He was not. In short order, the Vermont Supreme Court publicly reprimanded Illuzzi for ``requesting that his employer fabricate a story aimed at persuading another prosecutor ... or for acquiescing in the false report.'' Not a great career opener.

Less than a year later, Illuzzi allowed the police to interview an accused person whose lawyer was not present even though Illuzzi knew that the fellow had a lawyer. Then he never got around to giving the lawyer a report or telling him what happened. The result was another Supreme Court reprimand, but a private one this time.

In 1983, Illuzzi - no longer a prosecutor but a senator and a lawyer in private practice - got his second private reprimand for ``knowingly concealing facts or making a false statement'' when he implied to the court that his client remained in the poky even though he had been released pending trial on other charges.

And in 1989, he broke a rule often broken, especially in rural areas: He communicated directly with an insurance company in a personal injury case, even though the company was represented by a lawyer.

Big deal, as his defenders still say.

Except that's not all he did. He bad-mouthed the opposing lawyer, telling the insurance company, ``If you want to keep the meter running on your legal costs and expenses in this case, that is a decision which is up to you,'' a remark later judged to be an effort to ``disparage'' the rival attorney.

The rival attorney, not surprisingly, filed a complaint, and in 1991, the Professional Conduct Board commenced an investigation headed by the bar counsel, Wendy Collins. In July of 1992, Collins claimed that among Illuzzi's transgressions was ``submission of false evidence or false statements during the disciplinary process,'' which was not going well for him.

Then the accused turned accuser. In late 1992 and early in 1993, Illuzzi filed three judicial conduct complaints against a state trial judge named David Suntag. Illuzzi was not the only Northeast Kingdom official unhappy with Suntag, who was holding some Essex County cases in courthouses far from the county. But Illuzzi may have had further motivation: Suntag is married to the person who was heading the investigation of Illuzzi, Wendy Collins.

In the summer of 1993, Collins's investigation concluded that Illuzzi had violated the Code of Professional Responsibility and moved to suspend his law license. Illuzzi fought all the way to the state Supreme Court, but the justices ruled against him, determining that ``his conduct was aimed at interfering with a pending legal proceeding.'' On September 1, 1993, his six-month suspension went into effect.

Then the justices took a look at those complaints Illuzzi had filed against Suntag. On January 6, 1994, four of the five Supreme Court justices initiated a complaint with the Professional Conduct Board alleging that Illuzzi had filed ``unfounded'' complaints against a judge.

Illuzzi and the justices were not on good terms, anyway. As chairman of the Institutions Committee, Illuzzi had scuttled Supreme Court plans to have luxurious office space in a new state office building in Burlington and had held up courthouse improvements in Middlebury. The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union wondered whether there was some connection, and the editorial page of The Burlington Free Press suggested that the justices might have been ``out to get'' the senator.

Maybe, but he was eminently gettable. In the face of the evidence, Illuzzi was forced to stipulate that his allegations against Suntag were ``in reckless disregard of the facts,'' that his charges did not have ``any reasonable basis,'' and that he made them because he ``does not personally like Judge Suntag,'' whom he found ``arrogant and autocratic.''

There's more. During his suspension, Illuzzi apparently continued to represent clients. The first letter of apology he promised to write to Suntag somehow never got sent, and the next one, which Illuzzi insisted had been mailed, never got to the judge, who had not changed either office or home addresses for five years. The third letter made it.

His combined transgressions cost Illuzzi 4 years of enforced hiatus from the practice of law, and the bar counsel (no longer Wendy Collins) moved to have him disbarred. But on March 19, 1998, more than a month after his latest suspension expired, a hearing panel unanimously recommended that Illuzzi be reinstated as a member of the bar.

The Supreme Court sat on the recommendation until July, and some Vermont lawyers are convinced that the justices accepted the recommendation only out of fear. In Vermont, all judges must undergo periodic ``retention'' review by the Legislature, and the retention votes for all five Supreme Court justices happened to be on this year's legislative schedule.

The justices can disbar, but they cannot un-elect, and none of them could have relished having Illuzzi lead the fight against their continued tenure, which is decided by secret ballot in a joint legislative session. Illuzzi kept his counsel, and all five justices kept their jobs.

Illuzzi paid a political price. That ``O.I.'' movement in 1994 had some success. The insurgent candidate that the Oust Illuzzi group backed for the state Senate, Jim Greenwood, finished first in the Republican primary. But Illuzzi edged out the other incumbent for the second spot in the two-member district, and held on to his seat. He actually finished third in Orleans County, but in sparsely populated Essex County, he swamped all the other candidates.

In that northeasternmost corner of the state, there has always been what the recently defeated Jan Paul calls a ``frontier'' attitude, a tolerance for such crimes as domestic violence and drunken driving, and a ``leave us alone'' orneriness that sometimes turns bitter. This is not a mind-set much concerned with legal niceties.

So for all his sophistication and liberal policy positions, Vince Illuzzi and the Northeast Kingdom are a good fit. He shares with many of his constituents the sense of being an outsider, for he hails not from Burlington, the state's biggest city, but from Barre, population 9,500, and at one time the Vermont community sociologically most akin to the rest of the urban Northeast. Early in this century, Barre was home to Northern Italian craftsmen who had come to work in the granite quarries. They brought with them European skills, clannishness, and radical politics.

By the time Illuzzi was born, in 1954, Barre's radical era had passed. Illuzzi's father, also Vincent (but not senior; there have been Vincent Illuzzis for generations), was never a leftist. Young Vincent, who grew up in nearby Berlin, went to parochial high school and St. Michael's College in Colchester, and the real lefties of old Barre were fiercely anti-clerical. But the elder Vincent, now retired in Florida, was an artisan and sculptor who joined the union even when he was self-employed, out of a sense of solidarity with the working class, a sense his son has inherited.

``We were not poor, but we were hard-working,'' Illuzzi says of his childhood and teenage years. ``People are always looking down on people who work for a living'' - work, in this definition, being the kind done with the hands. That this is an overstatement - romanticizing physical labor is as common as snobbery - only underscores how important the sentiment is to Illuzzi.

``He represents the underdog,'' says Elizabeth Ready, the liberal Democrat who chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee. ``He's the champion of the working person, and that comes from a deep, personal place inside him.''

From that same place, it seems, comes a tribal resentment, a conviction that whoever is not for me and mine is my enemy. ``Vince's belief is that either you're a friend or you're a foe,'' says Richard Franco, a lawyer who has worked with him.

As a politician, Illuzzi merely adapts these inherited attitudes to a different setting. The tribe to which Vince Illuzzi is loyal is not an ethnic group but the lower-middle-income working people of the Northeast Kingdom, people who have some real grievances and some imagined enemies. Illuzzi deals with the former and exploits the latter.

The immigrant experience did not just form social attitudes. It also inspired personal ambition, and Illuzzi has always been chock-full of that. A typical young man in a hurry, he worked as a disc jockey while he was in high school, served on the state Board of Education while still at St. Michael's, and was a member of the Vermont Law School board of trustees while a student there.

A driven young man, no doubt, and a driven, if chastened, middle-aged man who does not really like to discuss what drives him. A certain restraint in talking about oneself is another trait shared by Italian immigrants and longtime Northeast Kingdomites. This business of letting it all hang out came along later, among the citified and educated. Some people find it embarrassing.

``Well, I did a lot of dumb things,'' Vince Illuzzi says, a few days after the start of the 1999 legislative session. ``What can I say? You do a lot of things at 25 you don't do anymore when you're 45.''

Considering that he did some of his dumb things when he was 40, Illuzzi's apology bares some resemblance to US Representative Henry Hyde of Illinois calling the activities of his 40s a ``youthful indiscretion.'' But even some of his rivals agree that Illuzzi seems calmer, less combative, and even a bit contrite these days.

``I think he has matured,'' says Bill Davies. ``For one thing, he says hello to me now.'' Another one-time political foe, former Democratic governor Philip Hoff, wrote in 1998 that Illuzzi had ``matured and changed'' from the ``ambitious, self-absorbed, and immature'' young man of two decades ago. The new Illuzzi ``no longer acts impulsively,'' Hoff said.

In Illuzzi's case, accepting responsibility may well be the substance of atonement, not its mere appearance. Not even his worst enemies ever claimed that Illuzzi was a crook, only that he was immature, petulant, and vindictive. So the words ``I was wrong'' represent a major change.

In this case, the change is politically astute. ``I don't want to be anything but a senator, a senator and state's attorney,'' Illuzzi insists, and though even the most ambitious politician talks that way, this politician is probably being sincere and realistic. His past puts statewide office out of reach. In some ways, the Senate is his life. For Illuzzi, a middle-aged bachelor, a family seems as unlikely as the governorship.

He even understands that he'll never entirely escape the consequences of his earlier acts and his reputation.

``It's like this talk that I ran for state's attorney to get back at Jan Paul,'' he says. ``I ran because the sheriff asked me to and because I thought it would be a good way to get back into the practice of law. But I suppose some people will never believe that.''

Elected to two offices, secure in his committee chairmanship, and restored to the practice of law, Illuzzi began the year acting like a man who knew he had been given a second chance, and as determined to behave himself as to fight for his constituents. It was one of the reasons he eagerly embraced the Champion land sale. It offered him the opportunity to help his constituents and enhance his reputation. If he helped shepherd this deal through the Legislature, he would achieve the one thing that had eluded him: respectability.

It didn't work as planned. There was no logical reason for anyone to oppose the land sale, but sometimes illogical reasons suffice. The specter of change displeased some of Illuzzi's angriest constituents. To appease them, he offered a few amendments to the bill authorizing the state's contribution to the sale.

They were bland enough amendments, but politics - personal, organizational, ideological - intruded, and they were not adopted. In defeat, Illuzzi briefly lapsed into old habits. He called the results ``another example of the arrogance of the so-called environmentalists,'' and went on to recite a list of real and imagined insults to the Northeast Kingdom over the years.

But a few days later he had calmed down, and in April, when Dean went to the Essex County seat of Guildhall to sign the bill, Illuzzi accompanied him. By then, at least, he had figured out that the opposition was more loud than strong and that there was little political risk in being identified with the sale. ``I'm convinced that future generations will look at this purchase favorably,'' he says.

Besides, there would be other issues to fight about - electric utility deregulation, for instance, where Illuzzi's anti-establishment tendencies make him suspicious of the utility companies and their ally, the governor. His constituents still need plenty of state help, even (especially?) the ones who insist on their self-reliance. There would be no shortage of opportunities to make deals and headlines, to achieve goals and, yes, perhaps respectability.

Would a respectable Vince Illuzzi be as effective? Sure, as long as he did not become dull in the process. But that doesn't seem likely.

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