BRATTLEBORO—Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Lisman likes ideas. Specifically, good ideas.
It’s the quality that compelled him to launch Campaign for Vermont, the political advocacy group he stepped away from since starting his campaign for governor.
Good ideas drive his determination to turn Vermont in a new direction, Lisman has said.
On a sunny, breezy Monday, Lisman stopped for lunch at The Marina restaurant for a discussion with local Republican movers and shakers.
Speaking rapidly, Lisman — less short than he is compact, like a wound gear ready to spring — said his message resonates with Vermonters.
In his opinion, he offers specifics rather than gossamer promises.
Vermont must tackle big issues requiring big investments, he said — issues like cleaning up Lake Champlain, ending the heroin epidemic, reducing the prison population and recidivism, and rebuilding the economy.
Lisman also wants to see stronger ethics regulations for legislators, coupled with “transparency and accountability.”
“I’m big on offering solutions to what seem like intractable problems,” he said.
From Burlington to Wall Street
Lisman grew up in Burlington’s Old North End. His mother took a job at the University of Vermont so her two sons could receive the employee educational discount.
On his campaign site, www.lismanforvermont.com, Lisman highlights his years working everyday-people jobs like demolition or driving a taxi.
But most of his career was spent in the financial world of New York City. Lisman held top leadership roles at Bear, Stearns & Co. Inc., where he was co-head/CEO of institutional equities of the global financial company, which failed in 2008, the first casualty of the global financial crisis.
According to his profile on LinkedIn, Lisman worked for a year at JP Morgan Chase & Co., where he chaired the company’s global equities division.
He retired and returned to Vermont in 2009.
Lisman describes himself as “not the state’s usual candidate.”
“I give straightforward answers,” he said between bites of his lunch. “That’s kind of a novelty.”
For two years, Lisman said he has listened nonstop to Vermonters’ concerns. He’s heard their anxiety increase.
Montpelier doesn’t listen, Lisman said: Property taxes keep going up. Housing is unaffordable. Outside Chittenden County, the rest of Vermont’s economy is “dangerously fragile.”
His own anxiousness for his state’s future has moved from anxiety to irritation to anger.
He finally told himself: If he wanted things to change, he should stop talking and run for governor.
Growing an economy
In his gubernatorial announcement last month, Lisman said, “Our government needs a change in culture.”
He pledged to stand for personal freedom and the benefits of a shared prosperity. He had an “unwavering commitment to restore [economic] growth.”
In his speech and on his campaign website, Lisman said that he would focus on growing the economy, which touches everything else in the state, he said.
Reducing property taxes and making Vermont more affordable for its residents also tops his list of priorities.
“Our state budget has become the enemy of the people,” he said to those gathered for his gubernatorial announcement and to the camera filming the speech for his website.
The state is suffering from a case of “primitive management at its worst,” he said.
If elected, he promised to cap state budget increases at 2 percent for three years.
To help close the gap between low wages and a relatively high cost of living, Lisman has several ideas.
First, the state has played a role in pricing Vermonters out of Vermont, he said. Between fees, regulations, and property taxes, the cost of living and working in Vermont is rising much faster than those expenses are in other states.
Second, the state must become competitive, he said.
According to Lisman, business owners who have moved from Vermont told him that it costs them 20 percent less to operate in other locations, where it’s also easier to find workers.
So the state must actively build relationships with business owners, both large and small, he said — but especially the small businesses that make up more than 90 percent of Vermont’s businesses.
The relationship between business and state should be so strong that Montpelier should “never be surprised” when a business leaves Vermont, he said.
To support business growth, Lisman would unleash the University of Vermont’s research commercialization program, which helps entrepreneurs bring their technology to the marketplace.
Imagine what could have happened if even as few as five former engineers at Vermont Yankee had stayed in the community and launched successful businesses, Lisman said.
Lisman charges that the state has spent Vermonters’ money “badly,” increasing spending an average of 5 percent per year, while Vermont’s economy averages 2 percent annual growth.
He intends to wring 2 percent worth of efficiencies out of state government to bring some tax relief to residents.
Lisman would enact a two-year moratorium on all new industrial renewable energy projects like big wind and solar.
The current way of approving renewable energy projects neglects measuring the projects’ environmental impacts, he said. A bigger issue, in Lisman’s opinion, is that the state does not provide local communities a seat at the table or a voice in the process.
“Honestly, it’s all about money,” Lisman said.
Referring to citizens in Grafton and Windham fighting the Stiles Brook wind project, Lisman said that Iberdrola, the Spanish-based wind energy giant behind the proposed project, “doesn’t give a damn if it’s a historic town.”
If the wind project were a factory, regulations would call for an Act 250 process through which citizens can raise concerns, he said.
Vermont schools are doing okay, but they could do better, he said. Hiring great teachers and principals could made state schools great.
On the education-property-tax front, Lisman said he’d lobby to repeal Act 46, the school governance and consolidation bill passed last year.
“It’s a package of misery,” he said. “A dumb bill.”
In Lisman’s opinion, the bill “trashes local control,” will end school choice, and does nothing to control spending.
“Let the people do it,” he said of school-related decision making. “You’ll make the right decision if your vote matters.”
Lisman added that many people have stopped voting or participating in local politics because they have come to believe that their efforts amount to nil.
Governor Peter Shumlin has reduced the prison population, he acknowledged, but he said that the state can do better from the moment someone interacts with law enforcement all the way through to a former prisoner’s return to the community.
Improving corrections must encompass a “robust mental- health system” and a “robust social-services system,” Lisman said.
Newly released prisoners deserve wrap-around services that include intensive support for at least six months after release, with support around finding housing, getting health care, finding work, and receiving education or professional certifications, he believes.
Lisman praised Vermont’s tradition of providing a safety net through human services programs. Still, he said, the “bloated” Agency of Human Services, with entrenched system inflexibility, could do better.
“Vermont has a strong social safety net which provides a helping hand to neighbors in need, makes sure that no Vermonter is cold during the winter months, and protects children who have an unstable home environment,” Lisman wrote on his campaign site.
“This type of safety net encourages entrepreneurs to take risks and allows for economic growth and activity that would otherwise not be possible,” Lisman continued. “Unfortunately, the bloated, unwieldy, and outdated administration of human services has become a disservice to both clients and taxpayers.”
Lisman would update the technology the AHS uses. He also believes in moving to a model of delivering services as a customized package rather than a number of different services that put the burden on the client to find.
“Currently if a person wants to sign up for three different state programs, they need to see three different case workers,” Lisman explained on his website. “Also, if a person signs up for food stamps [3SquaresVT], they are also automatically signed up for fuel assistance (even if they don’t ask for it or need it) and assigned another case worker.”
“Instead, a person should be able to work with one caseworker who can administer multiple programs through one interface and one eligibility process,” he wrote. “This way, the caseworker can build a benefit package that meets the needs of the client and use state resources most efficiently — a better outcome for everyone.”
Lisman recently took some heat over a statement he released calling for a halt to accepting Syrian refugees in Vermont, in contrast to Shumlin, who has pledged to welcome them.
Republican governors in 29 states, and Maggie Hassan, New Hampshire’s Democratic governor, have called for resettlement to halt, though with immigration issues under the purview of the federal government, the practical effects of such opposition is symbolic.
Still, “I’m prepared to say what is right,” Lisman said.
“The easier path would have been to say let them in,” he said. “I didn’t think it was the right path.”
The state should step back “until the smoke clears,” he said, asserting that the federal government feels it can’t adequately vet refugees entering the country.
FBI Director James Comey testified to Congress in October about the difficulties of checking the backgrounds of people from the war-torn region. Once the Federal Bureau of Investigation feels confident in its vetting process, Lisman said he’d feel comfortable.
Lisman noted that he lost friends in in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. It’s still hard, he said: “We’ve forgotten the dangers.”
And, he added: imagine the hit that civil liberties would take if there was another attack on U.S. soil.
Managing for success
Montpelier, he said, must restore Vermonters’ faith in their government’s competence and ability to effectively get the job done, asserted Lisman, who said he’s the only candidate with robust management experience.
“Sometimes it seems our state doesn’t want us to do well,” he said.
With the state, voters should never have to wonder what their tax dollars bought them, he added.
“When we fly in an airplane, we don’t worry about the pilot,” he said. “We expect them to be competent.”
If elected governor, Lisman pledged to roll up his sleeves and complete the hard work.
In a decade, he said, Vermont’s “lower four” — Bennington, Rutland, Windham, Windsor counties, with their slow economies — should act as the ultimate litmus test for how well the state’s economy has turned around.
There should be so many people in downtown Brattleboro that everyone would have to make lunch reservations, the candidate said.