Free and Independent: The Initiation of a College Professor Into State Politics – a Candid Look at How Our Laws Begin
by Frank Smallwood
Publisher: Penguin Books
Summary: In 1972, Dartmouth College professor Frank Smallwood decided to take a long-shot run at the Vermont State Senate. He won. Free and Independent is an interesting account of what it was like to campaign for and serve in public office.
Review: Professor Frank Smallwood went from political theory to political practice when – running as a Republican – he won election to a two-year term in the Vermont State Senate in 1972. Smallwood’s book – Free and Independent – is at its best when it provides readers with a behind-the-scenes look at the political scene.
One of the best parts of Smallwood’s book is his description of his campaign. The rest of his family was against the run for office, but Smallwood threw his hat in the ring, anyway. His descriptions of small-time “retail politics” – visits to fraternal organizations, shopping centers, etc. – provides readers with a good idea of how hard one must work to get elected.
Once Smallwood secures his senate seat, the book loses some momentum. Smallwood does a good job of explaining just how many issues legislators must address. One particularly-interesting section discusses the passions people on both sides felt about the Equal Rights Amendment. While the issues facing the legislature are often “dry,” the ways that laws are made – over breakfast, in the hotel swimming pool, etc. – are fascinating and Smallwood provides a vivid account of legislative life “outside the office.”
Another good section deals with the diverse problems that Smallwood’s constituents brought his way. For instance, a gas station owner complains that he gets taxed for gasoline that he cannot sell because the gas contracts once it is in the underground storage tanks at his station.
The book closes with Smallwood deciding whether to run for re-election in 1974.
I recently read another book on state politics – Mike Hubbard’s Storming the State House – on the Alabama Republican Party’s takeover of the state legislature in 2010. One sharp contrast in the two books is that Smallwood presents 1970s Vermont politicians as dedicated people who try to work together, despite differing opinions. Hubbard presents contemporary Alabama politics as trench warfare between avowed enemies. I think that – at least in part – the differing perspectives reflect how far downhill our politics have gone in the last 40 years.
In short, political junkies with an interest in state government and legislative life will enjoy Smallwood’s book.