Rainville Makes Her Move


Front Page / Oct. 19, 2006 12:00am EDT

In Run for Congress
By M. D. Drysdale

Rainville Makes Her Move

Martha Rainville stunned the Vermont political world 10 years ago when she became the first woman in the nation to head a state's National Guard. She'd like to pull out another political coup in 2006. (Herald photo / Tim Calabro)Martha Rainville stunned the Vermont political world 10 years ago when she became the first woman in the nation to head a state's National Guard. She'd like to pull out another political coup in 2006. (Herald photo / Tim Calabro)

In Run for Congress

By M. D. Drysdale

Vermont first heard of Martha Rainville in late 1996. Now Rainville, a Republican, is in a close race with Democrat Peter Welch to replace Bernie Sanders in the U. S. House of Representatives.

It was late in 1996 when it was rumored that some unknown woman had the effrontery to challenge Don Edwards for the highest military position in Vermont, the leadership of the Vermont National Guard, a position filled by the legislature every two years. Edwards, a former state representative, was a well-known personage in Vermont and the legislature. He seemed to command great authority, and appeared impervious to challenge even by a grizzled veteran, let alone an attractive brunette with no combat experience.

Imagine the surprise throughout the state when early in 1997, the legislature convened, dethroned Edwards and elected Martha Rainville as the commander of the state guard, with the rank of adjutant general, the first female state commander in the country.

When Rainville visited Herald offices this summer, we asked her how she did it. What Guard insiders knew but most Vermonters didn't, she replied, was that Edwards was unpopular within the National Guard. Some legislators knew this, too, but they needed be shown an alternative.

In visits to their offices, therefore, Rainville first established her own personal credibility as a potential commander. Then she asked them to contact Guard members to learn about their wishes. They found out, as she knew they would, that the soldiers wanted a change.

It was an impressive flanking maneuver, worthy of a top field general, and she was handily elected.

'Navy Brat'

As for credibility within the ranks, Rainville had plenty to point to. The military in various guises has been a big part of her life, and its ideals and energy continue to shape in many ways how she approaches life.

She describes herself as "a Navy brat." Born in Connecticut, she grew up mostly on her grandmother's farm in Mississippi, where she went to high school and college while her father served in various Navy posts.

Rainville received a college degree in elementary education, but the military called and she went right into the Air Force instead, trained as a maintenance officer. The position required, not so much fiddling with engines herself, but rather leading maintenance teams.

In the Air Force, she met and married a pilot from the north—St. Albans, Vermont. Moving to Griffiths Air Force Base in upstate New York, and then to Minneapolis, they raised two children of their own and adopted a third before moving to St. Albans in 1988.

Once in Vermont, she joined the Air National Guard, again managing a team of technicians.

In one training exercise, she took her team to the William Tell Maintenance and Weapons Competition for Guard units. Her team not only won the contest but thumped the opposition so badly that the rules had to be re-written next time around.

As she tells this story in a low-key way, she doesn't quite smile, but the listener can sense a profound satisfaction in those results, and glimpse a competitive spirit that might explain why Martha Rainville is running for Congress.

The lesson Rainville draws, however, is that leadership is a people thing.

"People who work together, in a mix of ages for a long time—it strengthens the unit," she explained. "I know it can work."

In the political world, she said "There's too much focus on the partisan nature of policy, or who gets credit."

While being in the Guard and raising a family, Rainville plunged into community activities in St. Albans. She joined the planning commission and eventually graduated to become the chair of the District 6 Environmental Commission. She became the organist at Holy Angel Church. She joined the board of the Northwest Vermont Medical Center.

Looking Ahead

Meanwhile, she says, she knew she "didn't want to stay forever as adjutant general" and had been "looking for what I could do next in public service."

She said she was approached more than once about political involvement, and when Jeffords decided to resign, she knew it was an opportunity that would not come often.

She speaks frequently of public service which, to her, is of a common thread with her military service: "It's that immense satisfaction of feeling that you're doing something for the common good," she said.

"It's more than a 9-5 job. All people in the military feel that. There are important issues, important changes to be made—I want to be a part of that."

Unlike her Democratic opponent, Peter Welch, Rainville hasn't had years of experience in the legislative and policy wars, and some of her positions on issues are frankly works-in-progress.

Since she decided, after some uncertainty that she was a Republican, she may have had help from GOP strategists in framing her positions on issues such as spending ("Congress must become responsible") and tax cuts ("They generated money for the treasury.")

Inexperience Shows

Her campaign made the news early this month when it was discovered that a staffer had plagiarized other people's statements in putting together Rainville's positions for her web site. Rainville received good notices for firing the staffer immediately, but the incident did cast some light on her relative inexperience with political issues.

An exception is her policy on Iraq. With a military background and lots of military contacts, she is deeply critical of the war. Even the concept, she says, was "unrealistic" and she criticizes the lack of "post-conflict planning."

She condemns torture, is critical of the secret prisons and the lack of due process on Guantanamo. Though she won't go so far as Welch to demand the resignation of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, she is tough on him: "The Secretary of Defense either didn't see the need (for early planning) or didn't listen … the Secretary must listen."

She says she's more worried about staying too long in Iraq than in leaving too soon. And most startling, for a Republican and a military person, she says this is not a war to be won or lost.

"A peaceful Iraq is unlikely," she said in her Herald interview. "I will never use the word 'victory' for our goal in Iraq."

The other issue on which Rainville has put a personal stamp is her call for a Congress that works differently. She says the first bill she would introduce is an ethics package because she, like those she talks to, is "outraged" at the way business is being done. She also is sure that the team leadership approach that has made her successful within the Guard can succeed in Washington, too.

"Nobody has the answers, we must work together," she said. "It's hard to make progress without listening to each other."

A naïve attitude to take to a hardball, partisan, backbiting Congress? Maybe. But the evidence is that Martha Rainville truly believes it.

Return to top