Article republished with permission from the League of Conservation Voters


“Trust Yourself and Your Intuition” as a Leader, Says Vermont State Rep. Esme Cole

An alum of LCV’s governance training program reflects on her first year in office.

by Shanthi Gonzalez, Senior Manager of Candidate Recruitment and Training

Esme Cole was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives in 2023, and at 27 is one of the youngest people ever to serve in the state’s legislature. She’s also an alumna of an LCV governance training program held in early 2023 with the Vermont Conservation Voters, one of our 30+ state affiliate organizations in the Conservation Voters Movement.

Looking back after her first year as a representative, Esme thinks the biggest value of the training program was learning about the importance of relationship-building with colleagues and constituents. “It’s such an important skill for the role. It wasn’t what I expected going into the training (I thought we were going to talk about the environment!), but it turned out to be what I needed the most,” she says.

Esme found that a central challenge of being a representative is connecting with and gaining the approval of others, both to get elected and to collaborate with senior lawmakers, while staying true to your values and health. “There are so many loud voices in the building, but you have to trust yourself and your intuition,” she explains.

“These factors make it all the more important to set clear, personal boundaries to protect your physical and mental health. The legislature is a very transactional environment, and it can be hard to ever feel like you are doing enough. Given that there is no clear end to the workday, combined with it being a public-facing role, there is an underlying pressure to always be on.”

Balancing the demands of the role has also posed financial challenges. Vermont state legislators receive only a small stipend for their service, no healthcare, and no staff. Esme works two other jobs to make ends meet and she considered forgoing re-election because of the toll it has taken on her.

Thankfully, Esme has connected with constituents who are a source of support and are helping her accomplish more for her district. She was invited to speak at Dartmouth College, where she met a group of students who volunteered to help with constituent events, research and other projects.

Despite the challenges of her first year in office and with the support of her volunteers, Esme fought for and won her signature achievement: making a previously temporary universal free lunch program permanent. The state-wide program had started as a temporary pandemic measure, but Esme helped secure it as a permanent program.

Esme ran for office in part because of her interest in food policy. Early in her career she interned at the Vermont Department of Health, supporting several initiatives including the food access programs WIC and 3SquaresVT. She has also worked as an operations coordinator, classroom aide, and manager of the Child and Adult Food Access Program at a nonprofit early childhood education center.

Securing the universal free lunch program is only the first of Esme’s food policy goals.

“Now I want to look at other issues related to school meals. I am interested in bringing more locally-sourced food to schools and equity around the quality of food different districts are serving,” she says.

In addition to her interest in food policy, Esme will be focusing more on clean energy policy alternatives for the state. She explains, “I’m interested in making geothermal energy legal and a regulated energy source for the state, and also capturing heat waste from wastewater plants. The technology is there, so we can stop using the antiquated stuff.”

Going into her second session with the legislature, Esme will continue to fight for equity for her constituents. “For me, a good leader is one who uses their platform to lift up others who don’t have a seat at the table,” she says.

Esme will also help lift up new colleagues joining her in the legislature: she’ll be working with LCV as a trainer for the next group of newly-elected Vermont legislators in early 2025.

Learn more about LCV’s work to develop future leaders who share our vision of a world with a healthy environment and healthy communities, protected by a just and equitable democracy.