Politics

Krowinski worked behind the scenes for years; now, she’ll lead the House

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Jill Krowinski
Jill Krowinski, the incoming speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives, speaks at a Rally to Elect Vermont Women last August. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield, remembers meeting Jill Krowinski for the first time in 2002.  

Krowinski pulled up to the home of one of Emmons' friends in Springfield in a little black Chevy. 

Krowinski, then 22 and a newly minted college graduate, arrived in Vermont that summer to work on political campaigns for Democrats in Windsor County.

Krowinski was new both to political work and to Vermont. She grew up in a suburb of Buffalo, New York, and had just finished her studies at the University of Pittsburgh. 

She was drawn to Vermont politics because two years prior the state was the first to legalize civil unions for same-sex couples. 

Emmons said Krowinski brought a lot of "energy and focus" to her work. Local candidates quickly warmed to her and listened to her advice. She helped three Democrats in Windsor County earn their first terms in office.

The image of Krowinski driving to campaign events in her "tiny little Chevy" still stands out to Emmons, the longest-serving representative in the Vermont House.  

"She'd pull up and she would be pulling out these signs and banners and all of this stuff and we would just stand there and say, 'How do you fit all that in that little car?'" Emmons said. "We kidded her about that a lot.” 

Nearly two decades later, Krowinski is poised to lead the Vermont House of Representatives.

The Vermont Democratic caucus unanimously nominated her as the Democratic Party's candidate for speaker. She beat out two competitors, Reps. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, D-Bradford, and Charlie Kimbell, D-Woodstock, for the nomination. Krowinski had already been the Democratic Party’s majority leader in the House, and since Democrats hold 99 of the 150 seats in the House, her election as House speaker is a certainty.

Krowinski will be part of a historic all-female leadership team in the Legislature, joining Senate President Pro Tem-elect Becca Balint and Lt. Gov.-elect Molly Gray.

Even before she was appointed to the House by Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin in 2012, Krowinski was a fixture in the speaker's office. Before she became a legislator, she was assistant to then-House Speaker Gaye Symington. After she became a legislator herself, she was an assistant majority leader under Shap Smith, who was speaker until 2016.

And for the past four years she has been the majority leader, collaborating closely with Speaker Mitzi Johnson to advance the Democratic Party's priorities in the Statehouse. 

"I'm a little bit jealous," Johnson said of Krowinski. "I think she has a better sense than any previous speaker in this century of the crazy range of issues that land in the lap of the speaker.”

Before the November election, House lawmakers hadn't expected that they would be electing a new leader in 2021. But Johnson lost her reelection bid, meaning Democrats rapidly had to find  a new candidate for speaker.  

While she faced competition for the Democratic nomination, party members swiftly coalesced around the majority leader from Burlington.

Emmons said the fact that Krowinski worked closely with Johnson — particularly in the efforts to set up a system for remote legislating during the pandemic — likely gave her an edge.

"We lost Mitzi, which was not what we expected. And you're kind of in midstream here with this remote functioning and I think probably people knew that Jill was working hand-in-hand with Mitzi in terms of how we transitioned to that form back in March," Emmons said. 

"I think people had the trust and the faith in Jill for that," she said.

Knocking on doors

Krowinski was raised in North Tonawanda, New York, just outside of Buffalo. Her father is an electrician and her mother worked for a bank before she retired.

Growing up, politics were not on her “radar” at all, she said. After college, she planned to go to graduate school for urban planning and community development, but had some time to kill before she would continue her studies. 

Molly Gray and Jill Krowinski bump elbows
Molly Gray, left, bumps elbows with Jill Krowinski at a Rally to Elect Vermont Women last August. Gray is the incoming lieutenant governor. Krowinski is the incoming speaker of the House. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

A friend encouraged her to apply for a job with 21st Century Democrats, an organization that helps elect Democratic candidates nationwide. 

She took a post with the organization in Vermont where Democrats had lost their majority in the Legislature in 2000 following the vote to legalize civil unions

When she began working in the 2002 election cycle, Krowinski said it became clear she wanted a career in politics. 

“I spent the whole summer and fall knocking on doors and talking to people and working for people who were putting themselves out there because they cared and they wanted to do something to make their community better,” Krowinski said. 

“It was just having those conversations and hearing what was inspiring people that really created that shift for me,” she said. 

After work in Windsor County, she was hired to direct the campaigns for the House Democratic caucus in 2004. In 2005, when Symington was elected House speaker, Krowinski was hired as her top aide. 

Symington said Krowinski excelled at juggling multiple tasks and keeping her on track. 

“That part of her that is methodical and disciplined would have the talking points and know what was coming next and know who I really needed to connect with in a particular event,” Symington said. 

“And yet she could also talk to like the librarian in Jericho Center and help her figure out what to do when my kids’ pigs got loose on the Jericho Center green,” Symington said. “She's navigating stuff all over the place.”

While Krowinski took her job seriously, she also brought a sense of humor to it, Symington added.

“She has a laughter that just takes the tension out of the room,” she said.  

Symington said with the window she's had on the speaker's office over the years Krowinski is taking on the role with an understanding of “both its power and its limitations.”

“She comes to the position understanding the pace of the incoming that needs to be managed. And she comes to the position with a lot of trust from her caucus,” she said. 

Strong relationships

Though she had worked for state politicians — including Symington and former state Senate President Peter Welch, whom she helped get elected to Congress in 2006 — Krowinski hadn't considered running for office herself until she was appointed to a House seat in 2012.   

“They say that women have to be asked seven times to run for office and that is pretty much what happened for me,” Krowinski said. 

“I would push back whenever anyone asked me to consider putting my name out there, and I would say, 'I would be super happy to help whoever wants to do this; just let them know I'm here for them,'” Krowinski said.

But after the House seat came open, she again received calls from legislators, neighbors and friends who suggested that she put her name in the running to fill the vacancy. 

“It was a long conversation with my partner and my friend. And I finally made the decision to put my name out there for the appointment,” Krowinski said. 

Before she became House majority leader in 2017, Krowinski was an assistant majority leader on then-House Speaker Shap Smith's leadership team. 

Then-House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, left, confers with then-House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski last February, pre-pandemic. Krowinski is succeeding Johnson as speaker of the House. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Smith said Krowinski had a strong “feel for what was going on in the caucus” because of the strong relationships she had built with legislators in her various positions. 

“She was able to give very clear feedback about how people were doing and what people were thinking about various issues, and she was willing to be very candid about things,” Smith said. 

Her close relationships with legislators have been even more important in the last four years as majority leader. 

In that role, she has been instrumental in rallying support for Democratic initiatives such as minimum wage increases, establishing a legal marketplace for marijuana, and the Global Warming Solutions Act, which legally requires the state to meet targets for reducing carbon emissions. 

House Democrats overrode Gov. Phil Scott's vetoes twice in 2020 — once on a minimum wage increase, and once to make the Global Warming Solutions Act become law. 

“We had really strong votes on tough issues and where the Democrats were concerned that was all about Jill,” Johnson said. “Listening to people, checking in, making sure that we were tackling the policies that people really wanted to get done right. 

“She's really adept at herding cats,” Johnson said. 

In addition to her work as majority leader, Krowinski has been executive director of Emerge for the past two years. The organization recruits and trains Democratic women to run for political office. She is leaving Emerge to focus on her duties as speaker.  

Krowinski is married to Tim Farbisz, an ultrasound technician at the University of Vermont Medical Center. When she isn't legislating, she says she and her husband have spent a lot of time over the past six years restoring a 140-year-old house two doors down from where they live in Burlington. 

‘I hope that she listens’

Just after Democrats nominated her as speaker in December, Rep. Rob LeClair, R-Barre, the assistant Republican minority leader in the House, said Republicans have some concerns about Krowinski — particularly the fact that she is moving from the “more partisan” role of majority leader to speaker.   

But in general, Republicans hope Krowinski will be able to work across party lines. 

“I've always had a really good working relationship with her,” said Rep. Pattie McCoy, R-Poultney, the House minority leader. “I think anyone you talk to in the Legislature knows that I'm pretty direct and I don't play any games and Jill knows that.

“She is now the leader of the House, which includes Democrats, Republicans, Progressives and independents, and I hope that she listens to every single one of us,” she said. 

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, said she hopes Krowinski will approach her role as speaker in the same way that Johnson did. She said that Johnson did a good job making legislators, regardless of party, comfortable participating in policy debates.

“The people who come to it from a political perspective, it can be very different,” Scheuermann said. “And I'm hopeful that those years that she spent under Mitzi, she was able to see the wisdom in really getting people invested in the policymaking.”

As majority leader, Krowinski said that she frequently asked Republicans and Progressives for their thoughts on legislation. 

“Whenever a member of a different party came to me asking advice about a bill or asking why something was happening, I always made sure that we had a really good conversation,” she said. “So my pitch to them is to just talk to me if they're worried or they have a concern. And we can work it out.” 

Krowinski has yet to detail specific priorities for the legislative session that begins this week, but has made clear the primary focus will be responding to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. 

“My top priority is to bring people together and create a plan of action to beat the virus and it needs to be a recovery plan that leaves no one behind,” she said. 

‘All in that together’

In her near-decade in the House, one moment that stands out for Krowinski is one of bipartisanship. 

In March when House members met for their last in-person session before going remote, a handful of lawmakers showed up at the Statehouse in Montpelier hoping to work with legislators attending online to quickly pass a slew of Covid-19 measures. Legislative leaders were hoping to minimize the number of people in the building because of public health concerns. 

However, Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, unexpectedly called for a quorum, requiring at least 76 members of the 150-member House to convene in Montpelier to pass the legislation.  

Krowinski recalls swiftly working with McCoy, Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, and Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, P-Middletown Springs, then leader of the House Progressive caucus, to safely accommodate members who would file into the House chamber and vote on the policies. 

“We all just had the same goal — that we wanted people to be safe, and we wanted to make sure that we could pass good policies to help Vermonters. And while we didn't agree on everything, we just worked so well together,” Krowinski said. 

“That moment in time, it was just striking to have that relationship and that feeling like we were all in that together no matter what,” she said.  

House Majority Leader Rep. Jill Krowinski speaks to the House Democratic caucus
Rep. Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, speaks to the House Democratic caucus at the Statehouse in Montpelier in January 2019. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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Xander Landen

About Xander

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories for NPR affiliates including WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. While at WNYC, he contributed to an award-winning investigation of how police departments shield misconduct records from the public. He is a graduate of Tufts University and his work has also appeared in PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor.

Email: [email protected]

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