Though Essex Jct.’s newest state representatives hosted joint campaign events, picketed the polls together and, by chance, now sit within arm’s reach in the State House chamber, they’ve had very different roads to the Golden Dome.
Still, Dylan Giambatista and Lori Houghton share a hopeful vision for the village’s future and believe they’re equipped to lead the way.
“I feel like I found where I need to be to help Essex Jct.,” Houghton said Monday evening at McGillicuddy’s, Five Corners’ newest eatery.
Houghton’s presence at local meetings and affinity for conversation might make it seem like she’s always been a community fixture; her son, Sam, is often stuck waiting patiently as she strikes up a discussion with, well, anyone.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Houghton moved to Essex Jct. in 2002 while dating her now-husband, Jon, an 11th-generation Vermonter and third-generation flower shop owner. She’d spend the next four years navigating a busy travel schedule, to the point where the village never felt like home.
Realizing this, she got involved, first as a volunteer and then on the board of trustees, on which she’s now in her third term.
That spurred her role as one of the Essex Jct. Farmers’ Market creators and led to spots on both the Heart and Soul Advisory Board and the Recreation Governance Study Committee. After three days in Montpelier for the Vermont Leadership Institute, Houghton set her sights on the logical next step: state office.
Giambatista, who speaks with a cadence that seems almost destined for politics, admits his path is a little less conventional.
He secured his G.E.D. as a 16-year-old after dropping out of school in 10th grade, moving on to work a number of odd jobs while doubling as a guitarist for punk rock bands.
His disdain for regimented learning slowly gave way to a growing passion for politics and government, and after earning his associate degree through community college, he transferred to Johnston State with hopes of becoming a history teacher.
Giambatista’s focus shifted again thanks to one of his professors, longtime Vermont Sen. Bill Doyle, who, with a little convincing, steered Giambatista toward Montpelier.
Though the Rutland County transplant initially felt out of place among the sea of suits and ties in Montpelier, a number of intern gigs there helped show Giambatista how his atypical path to the State House might just be a strength.
He worked as state treasurer Beth Pearce’s executive assistant after graduating college, then became former House speaker Shap Smith’s chief of staff, during which time he learned the interworkings of state government — and all that gets lost in the shuffle — compelling him to branch out on his own.
“I wanted to get out, meet my neighbors, talk to them about the issues important to them and make sure they have an active voice in Montpelier that was wiling to listen, but also willing to learn from them,” he said.
So he hit the pavement, literally, traversing slippery sidewalks and ducking dogs to knock on hundreds of doors around town for hours on end.
On one particularly cold, rainy day in late October, his hands were too frozen to make a fist. Unperturbed, he balanced his campaign literature on the back of his hand before offering it to the resident.
Houghton also took up the door-todoor strategy, though she admits preferring to chat with constituents in the warm comfort of the library. Plus, as a trustee, she needed a little less introducing, she admits.
Though their campaigning styles may differ, the novice legislators said it’s been helpful having the other around.
Giambatista’s former State House experience coupled with Houghton’s understanding of local issues helps create a well-rounded duo. And both believe they share commitment, one of a legislator’s most important traits.
“If you want to get into public policy, you need to be willing to show up,” Giambatista said. “You need to go to where the people are.”
That will be put to the test in the coming months during a session that will likely include a major budget deficit and health care decision. On top of it all, their committee assignments — education for Giambatista and health care for Houghton — involve areas heavily reliant on federal funding.
“It’s just fascinating,” Giambatista said. “We’re trying to eye up the challenge partially blind.”
On health care, Houghton’s goal goes beyond more affordable care. She wants to make costs more transparent, saying people may not seek care if they don’t understand the system, and believes health care should be more than diagnosis and treatment, but rather a community project.
“It’s not just you’re sick, you go to the doctor, you get medicine, you get better,” Houghton said. “It’s where you live, the air you breathe, the school systems you go to, the food you eat.”
She’s interested to see how committees collaborate on issues like health care and opioids that touch many aspects of life.
While Giambatista’s assignment carries a notable irony — dropout turned education legislator — he said his experience brings a unique perspective.
“Education is so central to people’s identity and ability to achieve success later in life,” he said.
He spoke to the education “continuum,” believing the state should focus beyond the K-12 model to create more opportunities in early childhood and higher education, including trades training.
Giambatista and Houghton are also attentive to affordable housing, which they believe can address difficulties posed by Vermont’s aging population and shrinking school population.
“Nothing in this state is going to be successful in 30 to 40 years if we don’t find ways to change the demographics before us,” Giambatista said.