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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Friends, Colleagues Remember Chittenden Senator Sally Fox

Sen. Sally Fox, D-Chittenden, an advocate for the poor and a longtime lawmaker, died Thursday night after a battle with a rare form of lung cancer. She was 62.

Fox was elected to the Senate in 2010 and served seven terms in the Vermont House of Representatives before that. In the Senate, the South Burlington Democrat was an assistant majority whip and was co-chair of the Mental Health Oversight Committee.

Fox was known as an advocate for poor and underprivileged Vermonters. She focused especially on poverty and healthcare issues.

In 1992, nearly a decade before a divisive civil unions bill would upend the Statehouse, then-Rep. Sally Fox took to the House floor to advocate on behalf of gay and lesbian Vermonters.

“Mr. Speaker, this bill does not promote anything,” Fox said of legislation that would prevent employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of sexual orientation. “It doesn’t endorse or require any belief system on any Vermonter. What it does is simply this: it prohibits making decisions about individuals on the basis of stereotype and status. And for that reason, this bill is about fairness.”

Fox’s words came long before the gay rights movements had gained a foothold in the mainstream. But House Speaker Shap Smith says Fox tended to be in the vanguard when it came to demanding protections for her marginalized constituents.

“She was at the forefront, she pushed for things that she believed in and she made sure that people who needed help got it,” Smith said.

A former chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, lawmakers say Fox had a sharp mind for numbers. She was also a lawyer, and played a key role in the creation of the family court system in the Vermont judiciary. Colleagues say they remember her most for taking on uphill battles in the Statehouse, like the one she led in the early 1990s for a sexual harassment policy in the Legislature.

“She was in the lead to establish a sexual harassment policy for the Legislature and had to overcome a great deal of old boy resistance,” said Rep. David Deen, a Westminster Democrat who served alongside Fox in the House. “And she was successful.”

A single white rose lay on the desk of Fox's Senate seat number nine. Her colleagues wept.

Robert Appel is a Hinesburg attorney who met Fox when he served as Defender General under Gov. Howard Dean. He remembers Fox as a compassionate advocate who devoted her life to helping underprivileged Vermonters.

"It's sort of a personal ethos for those who are drawn to public service," he said, "to work with those who are marginalized, those who are disenfranchised, those whose voices are not heard. And Sally committed her professional career to doing that - and her personal life. I mean, this was not a nine to five gig for her."

Appel said Fox's work as a lawmaker went hand in hand with her previous work as a legal advocate for the poor.

"Her heart, her brain and her commitment will be very, very, very, very difficult to replace," he said. "And I wish the governor the best in finding a suitable appointee to take her place pending next year's election."

Gov. Peter Shumlin is tasked with appointing an interim senator to serve in Fox's place until the next general election in November.

Senate President John Campbell convened a floor session late Friday morning to deliver official news of her death.

A single white rose lay on the desk of Fox’s Senate seat number nine. Her colleagues wept.

“Unfortunately, today we lost probably one of the most compassionate advocates for people whose voice is often not heard quite often in this building,” Campbell said after the floor session. “She was a champion of our most vulnerable citizens.”

Shumlin served with Fox when he was a young member of the House. He released this statement:

“Sally took me under her wing and taught me a great deal about how to effectively serve Vermonters in the State House. She was a great friend, and I will miss her tremendously.”

Shumlin ordered flags be flown at half-staff for the beginning of next week in honor of the late senator.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who presides over the Senate, released this statement on Friday:

It is with a heavy heart that I gaveled in today’s session; our friend and colleague, Senator Sally Fox, passed away early this morning, bringing the first week of this legislative session to a tragic close. Sally was elected to the Vermont Senate the same year that I assumed the Lt. Governor’s office. It is a sad way to start a new session, and Sally will be deeply missed by all of us. My thoughts and prayers, as well as those of the entire Vermont Senate, are with Sally’s husband and her two grown sons, as well as her extended family and friends. A resolution will be read in honor of Senator Fox on Wednesday, January 15, in the Senate.

Senator Bernie Sanders sent this statement Friday afternoon:

Today is a sad day for Vermont. I knew Sally Fox for many years as someone who, as a lawyer and legislator, worked diligently to improve the lives of the poor, the sick, and the disabled. She will be greatly missed and I know her spirit will live on in the Legislature and throughout Vermont.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger issued the following statement on Friday afternoon:

On behalf of the City of Burlington, I express my deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Senator Sally Fox. I admired her passion for helping the least fortunate people among us, for giving a hand to those who needed it most. Burlington, Chittenden County, and the entire State of Vermont have lost an effective advocate who advanced the rights and protections of vulnerable Vermonters.