Eloise Vitelli was literally in a class by herself in Maine’s 126th Legislature. Being a freshman is never easy, but at least when the session kicked off in 2013, the 82 newly elected legislators (65 in the House and 17 in the Senate) could lose themselves in a crowd. Fifteen weren’t even true freshmen, since they had previous legislative experience.
In the second session, Sen. Vitelli, D-Sagadahoc, was the only freshman and it was her first elected office. She was named co-chair of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee (ACF), all areas in which she has no formal training.
“So there was a fair amount of skepticism, I will say, on the part of the committee members as I came on as chair,” Vitelli said.
Yet though it was a fairly contentious session, the ACF Committee clearly worked well, with 14 unanimous reports on its 33 bills, including the Outcome Based Forestry bill.
“What I liked was she was not afraid to asked questions and she based her decisions on the facts,” said Patrick Strauch, MFPC executive director.
Michele MacLean, MFPC lobbyist, said she was “hugely impressed by Sen. Vitelli’s ability to come in, take over the leadership of the committee, which had already dealt with significant issues and had others ahead, and provide good, structural leadership.”
Vitelli, who lives in Arrowsic, has been on a fast track since Senate majority leader Seth Goodall resigned the District 19 seat last July to work for the Small Business Administration. Some thought the special election might be a “cakewalk” for her Republican opponent, Paula Benoit, who won the seat in 2006, then lost it to Goodall by just 169 votes in 2008. But Aug. 27, Vitelli outpolled Benoit 4,631 to 4,169, while Green Party candidate Daniel Stromgren got 357 votes.
With Goodall’s departure, Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Aroostook, became majority leader, and Vitelli found herself leading an ACF Committee where the members were “all experts in some ways, which makes it a really good committee to work with.”
“There are farmers. There are foresters. There are people who know the industries,” she said. “The co-chair, Rep. (Jim) Dill, is the foremost expert on pesticides and pest management. So there was a lot of expertise within the committee that I could rely on and I did look to them for their knowledge and expertise.”
Until this session, Vitelli’s interest in agriculture, conservation and forestry has been personal, rather than professional. She’s the daughter of a tree commissioner (in Pennsylvania), the sister-in-law of a Maine forester and spends considerable time hiking and camping in the Maine woods. She’s also an avid gardener, a strong supporter of Community Supported Agriculture and her local farmers’ market.
“So what I think I brought to the committee is to be able to ask the questions that maybe haven’t been asked for a while,” Vitelli said. “The obvious questions sometimes, like what does this mean? What does this stand for? Why are we doing it this way? Explain to me what this is about, because in all innocence I did not know. I think that was, to some extent, helpful. I tried at the same time to do my homework so I wasn’t asking unnecessary questions.”
Vitelli also brought her professional skills to the committee. She’s director of program and policy development for Women, Work and Community, a statewide women’s economic development organization where she’s worked since 1981. She’s has worked with small businesses across the state and created a statewide job training program for entrepreneurs and unemployed workers.
“That was also a perspective that I was able to bring to some our discussions in terms of what are the opportunities for small businesses, whether it’s a farm business, a food production business, a wood-based business or any other land management business within the context of the policy issues,” she said. “I think that was an added value.”
As soon as the session ended, Vitelli began campaigning to keep her seat, now in the new District 23. She faces Republican Linda Baker, a retired school teacher, and attorney Alice Knapp, the Green Party candidate.
Even in one session, she learned a lot in the 126th Legislature, which she hopes she’ll put to use in the 127th.
“I had a great time. It was a lot of fun,” Vitelli said. “I tried to do my best and look forward to doing some more.”
Here (in brief) are her views on forestry issues that ACF likely will see again next session:
- Arming rangers: “I expect we’ll see that back and I expect if it comes back it will come to our committee first (rather than the Criminal Justice Committee).”
- Outcome Based Forestry: “I think we came out with a good bill. As I said to Rep. Dill after we managed to come out with our final vote, ‘Well the good news is we passed Outcome Based forestry successfully this year and the bad news is we’re probably going to have a conversation about this again.’ This is a policy that we took some real clear steps in clarifying, but that we probably are going to have to come back around and visit it again. It was a process of moving toward Outcome Based Forestry.”
- Forestry labor: “Even though Troy Jackson isn’t going to be there the next time, I think the issue of the labor force in the woods industry is also another one of those perennials. That brings up the whole role of apprenticeships and how we keep the industry vital.”
- Spruce budworm: “That certainly came into our discussions – how do we prepare for it and what’s going to be different this time?”
- Merged ACF Department: “I think we have more work to do in terms of understanding the ramifications of having joined the two departments together. We were not very successful, I would say, in getting good reports back from the department on how that really went.”