MIDDLEBURY Poised on the brink of her 80th birthday, Sally Foley has spent several decades witnessing the evolution of the local Republican party of which she is chairwoman with increasing dismay. You have people who are concerned about saying theyre Republican, because people will come to you and say, youre a Republican? I wont do business with you, Foley said. That has never happened in the past. Never. And its happening now. When the Town of Middleburys Republicans convened on April 14 for a caucus to elect delegates for the May 17 state convention, a mere 10 residents attended. I would attribute the decline in the party to the stupidity of people who dont understand what the Republicans believe, said Dick Calhoun. Vermont is very, very liberal. Most of these liberal Vermonters are people from out of state. Theyre not native Vermonters. Theyre people who have come in during the past 20 years with highfalutin beliefs. They say, lets do it the way we did it in New Jersey! Like Calhoun, Foley finds the dwindling party numbers and lack of balance between the parties worrisome. My fear is that the Republican Party here in Vermont is being changed to the degree that we dont have the numbers of people who will even declare that they are Republicans, Foley said. And thats sad. Because to have our democracy and our federation go forward, we have to have a strong two-party system, where people have a discourse with dignity and equal share, instead of bombastic rhetoric. Others recalled a bygone era when the ranks were strong and when the current switch in the numbers seemed nearly laughable. Twenty years ago, when we would have this caucus, there would be 30 or 40 people there, Selectman Don Keeler said. The Democrats used to meet in the phone booth across town, he joked. Now its the reverse. But there are a few good Republicans who hang in there, proud to be Republicans. It is this pride that local Republicans hope to build on to reinvigorate the party. We would love to get the Republican party more vibrant, because Addison County is dominated by liberal Democrats, said Marion Bauer. When we first moved here 35 years ago, at town meetings, you would get vibrant conversations-people arguing back and forth and debating-and you would learn a great deal by just listening. Now, its really not that way. We have a complete dearth of anyone who is willing to take the cudgels, Foley told the group. I think that you as the party stalwarts need to encourage people to run for office. I know for many people its going to a money thing, a business thing. Youre against a very, very strong independent and Democratic group in this state. Theyre very organized. Brian [Bauer] ran for office in Middlebury and went door-to-door asking for support, Keeler said, and in some cases, he heard, you know, Im all for you, but I cant put that sign in my lawn. Were lined up here, Foley said. We all did. That happens here, Keeler said. That happens in a small town. Selectman Dean George recounted the experience of returning to his district during his time in the state legislature. It began to be more and more focused on what party you were representing, he said. People would say, I dont really want to hear what you did. I dont really want to hear what you worked on. I dont really want to hear what you accomplished for this community. I want to know whether youre a Democrat or a Republican. And then they made up their mind. Bauer, like George, recalled the differences of the past. It used to be that you could have two people differ in their ideas and they would run against each other and one would win, Bauer said. Then they would get along. Now, if a Republican wins, all hell breaks loose on the Democratic side to try to defeat the person because of their ideas, instead of working together. So what is happening in this community is that if youre a Republican businessperson, you have to say to yourself, do I put a sign out on my lawn for [Gov. Jim] Douglas or someone else who is a Republican and take the chance of losing business that I need, or dont I put the sign out? Do I put something in the newspaper supporting the Republicans or do I just hold back? Am I a person who owns a business, and my employees may be Democrats, and they dont understand our relationship? Am I paying them wages, and yet theyre acting like Im the devil because Im a Republican? Brian Bauer suggested that a similar attitude permeates Middlebury College. A college employee in attendance at the meeting, for instance, requested that he not be identified in the [Middlebury] Campus [newspaper], concerned that being outed as a Republican would yield undesirable consequences. The college is a block of Democrats, Bauer said. In some cases, when you as a student want to say something, you have to say to yourself, do I want my grade? Or do I want to say what I feel? Foley cautioned him against leveling such a charge. What youre saying is correct in many instances, she said, but I dont think its fair to say that everyone at the College isnt going to listen, and is going to give a poor grade. What Im suggesting is, as a whole, as a body, [the college] embodies a Democratic approach, and that liberalism, Bauer said. And I know that there are students who have tried to say something, and had their grades reduced as a result of it. At a Middlebury College Republicans meeting later the same evening, students weighed in on Brian Bauers remarks over a quart of apple cider Rachel Pagano, Class of 11, brought back from the caucus as a visible bridge between the two groups. Most of us have experienced that in classes, said Heather Pangle, Class of 10. Not all classes. There are better classes and worse classes. In some classes, you feel like you cant speak out as a conservative, because the professor is obviously very biased. I think a lot of us have had particular experiences where we felt under attack in classes. I haven't had my grades affected, but I know people who see a direct correlation between something conservative they say in a paper or in a class and a consequent drop in their grade or a penalty of some sort. Sometimes its not even the political classes that turn political, Lauren Vollmer, Class of 10, said. Ive actually had math professors make political comments that are completely unrelated to the topic at hand. You dont need to talk about the current presidential election when youre learning to take [math] integrals. It just seems inappropriate in that sort of a setting. Other students have found themselves in similar situations where politics have woven their way into other coursework. I was in a Chinese class, and the professor said, lets talk about gay marriage today, and asked us to basically go around the room and say what we thought, Zach Elmore, Class of 08, recalled. Her father was gay. Everyone in the class except for me was liberal. It didnt matter what I said. Everyone had their eyes focused on me. It wasnt such a matter of will this hurt my grade? but what can I say to get out this room alive? Club members believed that this tension extends beyond the classroom to the atmosphere at large on campus. Its definitely very difficult to be conservative at Middlebury, said Siobhan OMalley, Class of 10. Ive definitely had people just out of nowhere, because they know Im conservative I have an American flag on my wall attack me verbally for my beliefs. I just kind of shrug it off and let it pass, because its not worth getting worked up over. It isnt so much hostility I see, said Rohan Maitra, Class of 09, but misguided assumptions about who we are and what our views are. Elmore has been confronted by these assumptions since his first week at the college. I remember fielding questions like, do conservatives really want to bring around the end of the world so heaven on earth can be established more quickly? he said. Wed like to do more things that get people to understand what our real viewpoints are, so theyre not just asking us if we want to end the world, Pagano said. Vollmer observed this emergence of mistaken viewpoints earlier in the year, when the college Democrats challenged the club to a debate on the instruction of evolution in public schools. They assumed that we are all creationists, and that isnt the case, she said. There is certainly that element in the party, but its a matter of understanding where these specific students are coming from, rather than just applying the general assumption of Bible-thumping, fundamentalist, evangelist Christians to a more enlightened view. At the caucus, Keeler referred to President George W. Bush as baggage for the party, suggesting that widespread disapproval of him spurred anti-Republican sentiment on a local level. I think people assume that all of us agree with every single thing Bush has ever done in office, and thats not true, Vollmer said. Were not all copies of Bush, just like all Democrats arent copies of Kerry or Howard Dean, Elmore added. To date, this is the only state Bush hasnt visited, Maitra said. Thats because they would try to arrest him if he went to Brattleboro, Elmore explained to a chorus of laughter, referring to a measure passed at the towns annual meeting in March in favor of indicting and arresting Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for war crimes, perjury and obstruction of justice if they ever set foot in the state. And Salisbury impeached him last year, Vollmer added. Elmore doubted, however, that any single figure could rescue the Republicans in a region so heavily dominated by left-leaning views. In a state like Vermont, it wouldn't matter if Bush had a 95 percent approval rating, he said. It wouldnt help the party very much. Many agree that what would help is healthy communication. Numerous groups on the Middlebury College campus are working diligently to foster this end. Were working with the college Democrats and the Iraq study group to bring two prominent people to campus to debate the Iraq War at the beginning of May, Pangle said. Whenever theres face-to-face interaction and conversation, its almost never as bad as we feel it is. Its somehow anonymity that brings out the bitterness and hatred in people. But when theres an actual dialogue, it usually turns into something productive. Foley believes such dialogue is vital in stemming the tide of divisiveness. There needs to be respectful exchange, Foley said. And if you dont have that, you're failing. Special thanks to Middlebury College and the Middlebury Campus newspaper for permission to reprint this article.