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Bartlett courts the political middle in her campaign

BRATTLEBORO—With just 20 days before the Aug. 24 Democratic Primary, there is very little separating the five candidates who are running for their party’s gubernatorial nomination.

“You’re going to find a lot more in common between the five of us than you’ll find differences,” said state Sen. Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille. “But the primary process is like a job interview. This is where voters see who has the right knowledge, the right skill set and the right temperament to lead Vermont now.”

The 63-year-old senator from Hyde Park —  along with Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, Sen. Doug Racine, D-Chittenden, and former Windsor County Sen. Matt Dunne — have been crisscrossing the state over the past few months to make their case to the voters who will decide which Democratic nominee will face Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie in November.

“We’ve done close to 50 candidate forums so far, and we’ve had good turnouts at nearly all of them,” said Bartlett. “For a voter who wants information about the candidates, there’s no shortage of it. But anyone who tells you who is going to win this primary is remarkably self-confident.”

As the only one of the five Democrats who has never run for statewide office, Bartlett is seen by many as an underdog. With the party primaries this year being held before the traditional Labor Day kickoff for serious political campaigning in Vermont, Bartlett said who wins will hinge on who shows up to the polls.

“Aug. 24 is not an optimal time for a primary,” she said. “I think of primaries as hand-to-hand combat. Talking to voters one-on-one as individuals is what usually motivates voters to come out. If the total turnout is more that 50,000 or 60,000 votes, it will be a miracle.”

‘Power of the middle’

Bartlett, the longtime chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said that when people ask her about why she’s running, she responds that she entered in the race to represent moderate voters who often get overlooked.

“The conventional wisdom is that moderates can’t win primaries,” she said. “I think that we Democrats lost the governor’s seat when we lost the middle. When I hear the question, ‘why are you different,’ my answer is that I have very clear ideas about what kind of changes I would make to state government and who I will bring into my administration.”

Her belief in the power of the middle comes from her experience running for office in Lamoille County. In 1992, she became the first female senator elected from the county. With its mix of rich and poor, and politics that range across the spectrum, she sees her home county as a microcosm of Vermont.

“I’ve run for office for 18 years, and even after voting for Act 60 and civil unions, Lamoille County has stuck with with me. I have good relationships with Progressives and Republicans, and that’s necessary because the only way you get solutions is when you get ideas from everyone.”

“That’s what good leadership is about,” she continued. “The support I have from the middle shows that I am the candidate who can beat Brian Dubie and that people can trust me.”

Bartlett said her decade of experience in leading the most important committee in the State House — the one that has a say on every piece of legislation involving money — means that “I can walk into the governor’s office tomorrow and have no learning curve at all on money issues.”

She also said that as a state, “we need learn how to say no, and keep saying no, until the economy improves.” She said she firmly believes that the state must hold the line on taxes and spending for the foreseeable future.

Economic plan

When it comes to Vermont’s economy, Bartlett said she believes that “government can’t create jobs, but it can create the environment and the attitude that can make the economy grow.”

Her economic plan that she released last week has some new spending, including bonding for $15 million a year for affordable housing that will create construction jobs. However, most of her proposals involve reallocating money in existing programs.

Bartlett seeks to properly fund all the regional economic development corporations — nearly eliminated by the Douglas administration this year — and proposed an office of innovation and intellectual property, which she said would help Vermonters to develop new products and protect their innovations.

She also envisions using the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA) as a conduit for small business lending to stimulate the economy.

“There are so many small businesses around the state that are ready to grow, but can’t get the money from the banks,” she said. “We can use VEDA to help them get the money they need.”

Bartlett would also like to see a real plan for the state — and Windham County — to make a smooth transition should the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant not be relicensed in 2012.

While she supports closing the plant when its current operating license expires, she said that “closing VY is going to have a profound economic impact,” she said.

She said she supports siting a biomass- or natural gas-fueled power plant on the site, to preserve the electrical transmission infrastructure on the site.

“Why hasn’t the Douglas administration done anything to prepare for its closing?” she asked. “Because the governor never had a plan.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #61 (Wednesday, August 4, 2010).

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