by Doug McClure
HARDWICK – On a crisp late-September morning, several of 2020’s statewide Democratic candidates began a tour of the Northeast Kingdom in Hardwick at Atkins Field. Rep. Chip Troiano (D-Caledonia-2) emceed the event, with current lieutenant governor and gubernatorial candidate David Zuckerman speaking first.
Also on hand were State Treasurer Beth Pearce, Attorney General T. J. Donovan, Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia), and newcomer Matt Choate, who is vying for one of the two House seats in the upcoming election for Orleans-Caledonia. Each candidate spoke to core themes in the 2020 Democratic platform: social and economic justice, climate change, and their ideas for solutions to the demographic crisis Vermont faces with an aging population and younger people leaving the state for better opportunities.
Speaking first, Lt. Gov Zuckerman described the upcoming election as “the most important election of our lifetime,” citing COVID-19, the climate crisis, and “decency and civility and democracy” which he said was made more salient with the passing of US Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Zuckerman had opened his words with a moment of silence for Justice Ginsburg.
“I think just it makes it all that much more clear what a tipping point in the balance we are in, in terms of what direction do we go, going forward? What is our future? What investments are we going to make, what policies are we going to make, what are the values of our community that we can instill not only in our day-to-day lives but in our civic lives as school board members, select board members, legislators?”
He was quick to clarify he believed Governor Scott was “a very fine, decent individual” and “he’s doing [his job] well with respect to COVID… [I] would have moved forward the same, although I would say with a mask mandate earlier.” He faulted Governor Scott’s two vetoes of minimum wage increases, saying with that extra pay “$2,000 more dollars” would be in working Vermonters’ pockets “right now, 70,000 Vermonters, that’s $140,000,000 that would be circulating in the local economy, would be keeping people afloat.”
Zuckerman also decried the Scott administration’s reaction to former Vermont State College Chancellor Jeb Spaulding’s proposal to shutter three of that institution’s campuses earlier this year. “The governor’s response was this may be a consequence of the money situation and COVID, maybe we can’t save [the colleges].” He said the legislature found the money to solve the short-term financial crisis precipitating that decision and a longer-term solution as well in the just-passed budget. He said that budget found a way “to keep our state colleges open as a part of the promise of the future for Vermont’s working-class youth to have an opportunity for a better future.” Zuckerman said the economic impact of the colleges extended into the wider community including stores and restaurants.
He said Governor Scott “had the courage” two years ago in signing gun safety legislation, as well. Zuckerman returned to COVID-19 and said he would keep Dr. Mark Levine in his role as Health Commissioner during the transition, characterizing Dr. Levine as “my hero in the state right now.” He said “We can thank [Governor Scott] for” the thus-far successful response to COVID-19, “but we don’t have to send him a thank you in the form of a vote. I would ask you to vote for our future, vote for working-class Vermonters, vote for our climate, and our futures.”
State Treasurer Beth Pearce described presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden as “a moral man” and spoke of the importance of paid family leave and of the housing crisis.
She said in her role as treasurer she focused on “the bottom line” and explained what that meant. “I care about that bottom line, but that bottom line belongs to everyone, to every single person in the state, regardless of income, regardless of gender, regardless of ethnic background,… everybody should share in that bottom line.”
Pearce said “every single person in this state should have an opportunity for a lifetime of financial well-being” and spoke of a “new normal.” She addressed affordability in the context of the state’s demographic challenges. “[People] talk about cutting expenses, but that’s not what you do,” she said. “You invest in your communities, you invest in your clean water, you invest in paid family leave, you invest in benefits because that’s what keeps people here.”
She used the example of a new college graduate living in Burlington. “You’re saying ‘I’m in Burlington’ and now you’ve got to have all these roommates because you can’t afford housing… the housing stock is not what it should be. You’re looking and saying ‘I don’t have the benefits I need to live in Vermont.’ You’ve got to keep young people here by having those benefits, and you’ve got to take care of older people.”
Attorney General Donovan also mentioned Ginsburg in his opening and said she worked at “leveling the playing field for women and so many people in this country.” He said Governor Scott “has done a fine job of dealing with COVID and we give him credit for it” before pivoting to talk about a “race for the future” which he said this election is about.
“What’s it going to look like with the next generation of Vermonters growing up here? Can they grow up here and stay here, can they get a job, can they afford to go to school, can they afford to buy that first house or even rent that first apartment?
“When we talk about the economy, it has to be an economy for all of us. Make sure that we don’t leave anybody behind, and we can have a community and an economy that works for everybody and isn’t just about surviving, it’s about giving everybody the opportunity to thrive in this state.”
He spoke to his role as attorney general and viewing justice beyond the traditional punitive model to focus on restorative justice, and framed that as an economic issue with even wider implications. He said the combination of crises in housing and mental health are among others “exacerbated and being amplified by the COVID-19 health crisis.”
Donovan made a point to thank “the public school teachers who are showing up and teaching not only my kids but your kids and getting ready for this generation of leaders” as well as essential workers, in which he included “the grocery clerk who’s going to work making sure that people going to the store get food to feed their families… don’t just talk about a minimum wage but a livable wage.”
He laid out a vision for the future “to truly make Vermont a leader in the 21st century, to come up with a new identity of who we are in this state, that it is always going to be freedom and unity.” Of his own role in the process, he said “disagreement is part of debate, and debate is part of democracy, and that sacredness of this democracy will always be protected as long as I’m the attorney general.”
Sen. Kitchel spoke next and said that due to the pandemic the start date for her campaign was delayed.
“As I drove over this morning, I was thinking, I usually start my campaigns in Hardwick with the Memorial Day Parade. This year, there was no parade,” she said.
She spoke about how the budget was passed unanimously within days of receiving it from the house as an example of how “in Vermont we still are able to work across party lines.” She said the job description for legislators this year might, in part, read “we’re the lobbyist for the lowest-wage essential workers,” with a recent COVID program passed providing grants to “about 60,000 essential workers.” She said, “We have used the COVID money to try to get long-term benefits.” She spoke of investments in housing as one example and then mentioned broadband, stating the legislature did what it could within the federal restrictions imposed on broadband funding.” Kitchel concluded by reminding everyone “Vermonters respect each other and wear masks.”
Troiano spoke primarily about climate change and the Vermont House’s override of Governor Scott’s veto of the Global Warming Solutions Act. Troiano said the climate crisis was one with wider economic implications up to and including the state’s bond rating which determines the rate at which it can borrow, and said recently Vermont has gone in the wrong direction for carbon emissions. He said while Governor Scott expressed an intent to follow the Paris Climate Agreement after the United States pulled out, “we have not.” Troiano said the primary focus of the state’s program is encouraging electric vehicles, which are not viable means of transportation in rural NEK due to a scarcity of charging stations. “We cannot get our carbon emissions under control simply with electric vehicles,” he said.
For this year’s Orleans-Caledonia house seats, a newcomer on the Democratic side is Northeast Kingdom-born Matt Choate, who works at the Central Vermont Medical Center (CVMC). Choate said “I got to see [the pandemic] first-hand from an employer’s perspective and a healthcare professional’s perspective” and described that experience as “exciting and scary.” Exciting because these departments get to see plans they’ve drilled on going into action, he explained, and scary because of his medical understanding of the seriousness of the disease.
Another scary element from an employer’s perspective, said Choate, was “looking at our workforce in the 15, 20, 25 years and the demographic shift projected not only in our population but in our workforce… who do we have coming behind folks who are their 40s and 50s now who will be retiring in another 20 years? I want to make sure we can help advocate for those right investments to help retain younger Vermonters we have here with a place to live, a job, a way to raise their family, and also attract new residents… we really have to add population to the state.”
The first gubernatorial debate is this Thursday. September 24, 7 p.m., on Vermont PBS.