Energetic young filmmaker appointed to Vermont House of Representatives.
This piece first appeared in The Vermont Standard.
Guys like Teo Zagar are increasingly rare in Vermont. He’s a nugget of that precious resource that almost any human community needs to keep going: young adults who nourish and sustain it with unjaded perspective, imagination, and energy. During the last decade, when Vermont’s pool of 25 to 34-year-olds has dropped off by nearly seven percent, Zagar bucked the trend by moving back home to Barnard and laying down the roots that signaled hey, I’m here to stay.
Zagar’s youth and commitment were two of the elements that former Windsor District 6-1 Representative Mark Mitchell considered when he sponsored the 33-year-old’s bid to assume the seat in the state’s legislature that Mitchell recently relinquished because of illness. “Teo grew up in Vermont, he went to Woodstock High School,” says Mitchell, “he belongs to a group of young people who are determined to make a living and raise their families in Vermont.”
Last week, Governor Peter Shumlin added his stamp of approval by announcing Zagar’s appointment. When the Vermont House of Representatives reconvenes, probably in January, Zagar will represent Barnard, Pomfret, West Hartford and part of Quechee for the remaining half of Mitchell’s two-year term.
While Zagar has not long envisioned a career in politics, he did early on embrace a vocation that had him meeting people, learning about their struggles and ambitions, and then weaving their stories to form pithy, cogent messages. As an undergraduate at the University of Vermont, he discovered his affinity for film-making, and transferred to Hampshire College in Massachusetts to pursue it. With a degree, an internship with noted documentarian Ken Burns, and another year and a half or so as an associate producer under his belt, Zagar headed back to Vermont. “This is my home, a beautiful, beautiful town,” he says of his reasons for returning to Barnard, the town he first came to at age seven, “I wanted to be a documentary film maker but I didn’t want to live in New York or Los Angeles.”
Despite a string of well-received films, including one about the struggle for independence in his birth country, Slovenia, and another profiling Lou Gehrig’s disease sufferer and Barnard resident Dr. Tom French, Zagar soon felt the pinch of a sporadic income; he needed a steady job. So five years ago, he signed on with his high school alma mater in Woodstock as a Program Assistant for the special education Learning Opportunities program. He works with a case manager to oversee a resource room. Boys in grades 7 to 12 come in for help with homework, school schedules, and all the assorted frustrations and challenges of being a teenaged boy. The job is “a lot of listening and trying to put myself in their shoes and just really giving them a safe space where they can vent and talk,” says Zagar. And although tiptoeing the fine line between being a friend and maintaining authority can be challenging, he adds, “It’s been a good opportunity, and I’ve really enjoyed it.”
In the seven plus years Zagar’s been back in Vermont, he’s also invested time in getting more involved with his community. Thanks to a high school and college era job at the Barnard General Store, he already knew a number of his fellow townspeople. And after his return, a volunteer job as Second Constable helped expand his circle of acquaintances; chasing down stray and lost dogs, and rescuing a lame goose on a wintery Silver Lake are, apparently, good ways for getting to know people. Not long ago, Zagar joined Barnard’s Design Review Board.
Most of all, though, he’s been talking to people, chewing the fat about ideas like farming with animal power and integrating local foods into school cafeterias and extending tax incentives for use of alternative energy sources. “The [Barnard General] store is the hub of the town,” he says, “I could sit on the porch all day long and just have conversations with people.” It was through the town “grapevine” that Zagar learned of the unexpected opening for a District Representative. A few friends prodded him to offer himself up as a candidate, and the more he contemplated the notion, the more his enthusiasm flowed. It didn’t take long for Zagar to call Mark Mitchell and express his interest.
First, of course, he had to pass muster with locals. In May, he and three other candidates presented their credentials and fielded questions at a joint meeting of the Barnard, Pomfret, and Hartford Democratic Committees, and House leaders Shap Smith, Lucy Leriche, and William Jewett. “The other three candidates…were all very impressive, I was the youngest” says Zagar, “I guess I came across as kind of idealistic, and I would admit maybe I’ve got a little naïve optimism about going into politics.”
But perhaps his sanguine expectations made a mark; former Representative Mitchell says that a vote of the assembled group established Zagar as the top choice. Governor Shumlin had the Committees’ input, as well his own impressions from personal interviews with all of the candidates, to choose the new Representative. Zagar admits to being a little surprised when the Governor called him last week to deliver the news of his appointment. “I thanked him for giving me a shot,” he says.
When Zagar heads up to Montpelier, there will be a lot on his plate. According to Office of the Legislative Council, state Senators and Representatives introduced 571 bills in the first half of the biennium session last winter; they passed and the Governor signed 74 of them. A number of the undispositioned bills, and possibly new legislative initiatives, will be on the agenda for upcoming conclusion of the session, with issues ranging from decriminalization of marijuana to a death with dignity initiative to changes in current use property tax laws. And, a sluggish economic year may mean a budget that is, again, difficult to balance. To get his feet on the ground, Mitchell advises his successor to “Listen. And learn the craft. You learn by doing more than anything else and it takes a long time, several years, to become an experienced legislator.”
Zagar acknowledges the enormity of the task ahead. “I have much research and catching up to do to really have a full grasp of all the issues that I will be dealing with,” he says, “but I’m very excited. I think it is a great opportunity to get involved, and try to work for and on behalf of my neighbors.” He’s loathe to label himself politically, but does admit an attraction to ideas and policies that he sees as “progressive common sense.”
Much of Zagar’s time will likely be consumed with work off the floor of the House; the Speaker will assign him to one of fifteen standing committees, where he will work closely on a particular set of issues. Zagar’s interest in the Natural Resources and Energy Committee comes, in part, from the experiences he’s had overseeing the construction of his small footprint home and the installation of the self-sufficient solar system that generates its electricity. That’s taught him to be especially mindful of the energy he uses. “It’s been a good lesson for sure, I don’t do laundry unless there’s been four or five hours of steady sunlight,” he laughs. Although his mentor Mitchell has made a pitch to land Zagar on his committee of choice, that may or may not happen.
Regardless of his committee assignment and the challenges of keeping up with a myriad of issues, Zagar, says Mitchell, is in for “a wonderful experience. In the Vermont House there is cooperation and respect, even if you disagree.” For his part, Zagar can barely contain his zeal. He’s already planning an election campaign that he hopes will keep him in the House beyond 2012.