BRATTLEBORO—This year, Peter Galbraith seeks to add governor to his long list of job titles.
Yes, Galbraith — the former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, former United Nations Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan, and former two-term state senator for Windham County — is running for Vermont’s highest office.
“There are issues I care about that haven’t been a part of this campaign,” he said. “And almost nothing about economic justice.”
On this Monday evening, Galbraith is anticipating the next day’s official announcement scheduled for the Cedar Creek Room in the State House in Montpelier, an event that would be filled with the normal pomp and circumstance of political announcements.
But on this eve of the grand announcement, Galbraith, fresh from a frustrating hour trying to open his campaign’s bank account, builds a fire on the living room hearth of his Townshend home.
“I should find my blue Crocs,” he jokes, referencing a photo of him that appeared in The Commons in 2012.
He returns moments later wearing the footwear, now somewhat faded.
Standing by the fire, he notes that after 24 years as a diplomat taking orders, he enjoyed elected office.
The voter is the boss, he said.
Galbraith, a Democrat, says his campaign will focus in part on improving economic justice in Vermont.
If voters want a higher minimum wage, if they want a fair tax code, if they want to protect their ridgelines from industrial wind, and if they believe corporate money should get out of Vermont politics, then, he says, he offers that choice.
“Frankly, elections are about choice,” he said.
Measures for economic justice
If elected, he would focus on the issues over which the state has direct control.
One such issue? Raising the minimum wage immediately to $12.50 per hour, with scheduled incremental raises to $15 per hour.
“I think this is the single most important thing the state of Vermont can do,” he says, noting that such policy will work “to help working people, to combat poverty, to boost our economy, and even to give some tax relief to taxpayers.”
The most direct way to reduce income inequality, spur the economy, and help with affordability is for people to have more money in their pockets, Galbraith says. Lower- and middle-income earners tend to spend their dollars in their local economy, he asserts.
Fair working conditions are also good for economic development, Galbraith says. Workers who are treated fairly are more productive.
“My affordability program is raising the minimum wage,” he says.
According to Galbraith, wages are low because of government programs that support workers making little money. Large corporations take advantage of these safety nets to bolster their own bottom lines.
In the 1980s, he says, President Ronald Reagan’s people decided to transfer labor costs from the corporations to the taxpayers. Thus, the federal earned income tax credit was born, he notes.
Galbraith supports the earned income tax credit, but feels it shouldn’t be used as a tool to justify low wages.
In response to the argument that raising the minimum wage will hurt Vermont business, Galbraith said Stratton Mountain Ski Resort can’t outsource its lift operators to Keene, N.H. No one will cook hamburgers in Hinsdale, N.H. and then truck them to Brattleboro during the lunch rush.
Interest in fighting special-interest money
Galbraith told The Commons that he aims to get special-interest money out of politics.
He said he would do so by advocating a new campaign-finance policy for legislators with respect to money from special-interest groups.
Earlier this month, Galbraith joined fellow gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne, who had announced that he would return $16,000 in corporate campaign contributions.
Galbraith has also pledged to keep corporate money out of his campaign. He’s opting for individual donations.
No, he says, he’s not able to foot his campaign’s bill, despite his famous stake in a Kurdish oil field.
Vermont’s legislators rail against the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, he says — yet, they simultaneously have their hands out for corporate money.
“Then [they] trim their sails to appease their donors,” he says. “That’s not going to happen with me.”
If elected, Galbraith plans to update the tax codes so they treat wage earners more fairly. Right now, he believes Vermont’s tax codes favor the lobbyists.
“Our tax code is loaded with special interests,” he said. “Whenever you give somebody a tax break, you’re essentially increasing the taxes for everybody else.”
And who gets these tax breaks? According to Galbraith, those with the lobbyists and the political power.
As an example, Galbraith points to cloud computing.
Lobbyists touted cloud computing as the key to making Vermont a tech hub, he said. Those using such services bypass the state sales tax, essentially enjoying a $4 million annual tax break.
Galbraith would also eliminate Vermont’s home interest deduction.
People can deduct the interest they pay on their home mortgages on their federal return, he says. Vermont’s duplicate deduction provides little to no benefit — $200 or so — for middle-income homeowners. Someone with a $1 million mortgage, however, can save thousands.
Instead, Galbraith says he would use the revenue gleaned from eliminating the tax breaks to fund education and reduce pressure on the state’s property tax.
He also points out that most Vermont jobs — he estimates 98 percent — are homegrown and not government-grown.
To that end, he also wants to see the end of state economic development funds used to provide “subsidies to actually very rich corporations.”
The state’s economic-development efforts often give tax breaks or funding to large corporations in hopes they’ll stay in the state, he continued.
One of his last votes as state senator was against the entire state budget because it contained $5 million in direct funds to IBM to keep the company in northern Vermont, Galbraith said.
Meanwhile, Galbraith believes, IBM had its own $11 billion in “cash on hand.”
Galbraith says that while he served as state senator — two terms, from 2011 to 2014 — lobbyists regularly attended committee meetings. Sometimes they spoke more than the senators, he observed.
And while the lobbyists do so, he says, regular citizens don’t have that same access to their legislators — after all, they have to work.
Vermont can’t compete on taxes because of its location next door to sales-tax-free New Hampshire, Galbraith adds — nor can it compete on low labor costs with a state like Mississippi.
Still, in Galbraith’s opinion, Vermont has gems of its own: a sense of community, low crime, a willingness to protect the environment, strong schools, and good health care.
People want those things, too, and will move here for them, he says, urging Vermonters to protect what the state offers.
“And to me, a sensible economic development strategy is to invest in our comparative advantage,” he says. “Let’s simply keep up the quality of what we have in Vermont.”
This point brings him to the environment: Galbraith wants to ban industrial wind projects from building on ridge lines.
These projects, and their associated infrastructure like the new roads needed to reach the turbine sites, destroy a fragile part of Vermont’s environment, he asserts, pointing out that Vermonters are told that supporting wind power is a worthy sacrifice because the turbines help protect the environment.
But what really happens? Galbraith asks.
These companies turn around and sell the Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) out of state, he says — and this way, Connecticut can continue selling fossil fuels.
Calling it as he sees it
Galbraith observes that his time as a successful diplomat primed him for building partnerships and moving initiatives forward.
But, he admits, he doesn’t candy-coat his opinions.
“I’m going to call it the way I see it,” he said.
At this point in his professional life, Galbraith wants to focus on accomplishing goals.
“I’ve had a good career, and I have a certain amount of freedom,” he says.
Voters shouldn’t expect him to make grand campaign promises, Galbraith warns; the governor of a small rural state has little control over large national trends.
Rather, voters need to ask themselves, “What is the next governor going to do?” he says.
The one promise he will make: his proposals or initiatives will have a financing plan attached.
No sense building something if you don’t know how to pay for it, he says, asserting that was Governor Peter Shumlin’s mistake with health care. For his part, while in office, Galbraith submitted a bill proposing a payroll tax to help finance a universal health-care system.
Galbraith claims Vermont as his home. (He reminds people it’s where he’s always voted and paid taxes.)
If elected governor, Galbraith, who has traveled four times to Syria this year, will cease his international work.
When asked what Vermont looks like from the outside, he says, “I don’t think there’s anything like it.”
The scale, beauty, and peacefulness is unlike anywhere he has lived, says Galbraith, who remembers a visit from a Dutch television crew that came to Townshend for an interview.
As they were setting up, the sound guy turned to Galbraith and said that he’d never been anywhere this quiet.
“It’s such a special place,” Galbraith says.
Galbraith’s campaign staff is a small one. Roger Allbee, CEO of Grace Cottage Hospital and former secretary of agriculture, food and markets, is the treasurer. Campaign Manager Ian Moskovitz previously served as the campaign director for the New Hampshire Democratic Party.
Galbraith jokes that he’s already his own press secretary.
“I’m going to run as who I am,” he says.
Blue Crocs and all.