NEWFANE—The House race in the Windham-6 district features incumbent Democrat Richard Marek, who is seeking his fifth term, against Republican Gaila Gulack, for whom this race marks her first foray into politics.
Both say they have the ears of voters and understand the needs of the residents in the district’s towns of Marlboro, Newfane and Townshend.
“In Vermont, we make an attempt to hear what people have to say by taking lots of testimony [in the Legislature] and it often changes your opinion on a bill,” Marek said. “It sways both sides to more common ground.”
“This is a democracy and you get what you ask for,” Gulack said. “I won’t represent selectively but cohesively.”
Hitting the ground running
Gulack decided to run for the House because she believes the Democratic supermajority in the Legislature has left many Vermonters without a voice in Montpelier.
“With all that’s going on, I heard a lot of issues and needs [going unanswered]. This state is so ‘blue,’ it seems there’s no point to even run,” she said.
She said she realized if she didn’t speak up and serve, she forfeited her right to complain.
Gulack feels Vermont has crossed a point where it must achieve a better balance. “People are trying to hard just to survive. There’s nothing extra anymore,” she said.
Gulack hopes to save Vermonters money through changes to education funding, keeping the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant open, and encouraging small businesses through a streamlined permitting process. She would consider cutbacks to all state agencies because, in her opinion, “entities expand into their spaces.”
One way to save money is reducing the number of days that the Legislature is in session. “[Vermont’s legislature] is open longer than Texas,” said Gulack. “Does Vermont really need that?”
Gulack said she will advocate for her district to increase broadband Internet and cell phone service, preferably by the end of next year, because “it’s not a given who gets first crack at it.” She thinks it’s a public safety problem when essential institutions like Grace Cottage Hospital and the Sheriffs Department don’t have cell reception. Also, she said, people won’t move to the West River Valley without modern telecommunications, and that affects businesses and education.
Vermont Yankee has gotten a lot of undeserved negative press, Gulack said, and she prefers to see that it continue to operate until the state develops alternative energy sources.
Gulack believes Vermont Yankee is safe and shutting it down would “devastate” the area economically and energy-wise.
As a volunteer with the community emergency response team (CERT) and radio amateur civil emergency service (RACES), Gulack said she would never support something she thought could hurt people. Not to mention, she said, the current alternatives — such as wind, solar and hydro — aren’t much better economically or environmentally.
Gullack supports reforming the way the state funds education. She said Acts 60 and 68 eat away at residents’ incomes, and she questions why 38 percent of the education funding goes toward administration costs.
Everything must be at the table when it comes to making cuts, she said. “Vermonters are incredibly kind and generous,” she said, “but, as a woman in Marlboro said at another meeting, ‘my compassion is limitless, but my resources are not.’”
Gulack says her position with the Windham County Sheriffs Department will allow her the flexibility to serve in the Legislature. She knows she’s a newbie, but said she’s up to the job of serving in Montpelier.
“I’m a jack of all trades, and master all trades pretty fast,” she said.
Serving up good public policy
Marek, a former EMT who has sat on numerous state and local boards, said he’s interested in public policy and community service.
He ran a five-week campaign in 2002 after his predecessor came down with cancer. He decided to run after asking, “How do I involve myself and give back to my community?”
The job of representative is more important to him now more than ever. “I have become engaged in every aspect of how Vermont works and how to make it better,” he said.
Marek said his personal political philosophy centers on conserving the best of Vermont — its sense of place, history, civility, respect for the environment, caring about people — and to enhance them as much as possible.
He describes taxes and education funding as a “perennial issue” that has cycled up for discussion every 10 years for the past 100 years. He calls Act 68 the “Republican rendition of Act 60” and laughs because the Republicans often brand the act “unfair.”
“However we fund education, some communities will find it doesn’t serve individual interests,” he said.
This time around, he said, the Legislature will need to meet Vermont’s constitutional imperative to provide equal access to a quality education and find a system that’s fair and equitable while keeping the education funding numbers in balance.
He said the current attacks on taxes from candidates like gubernatorial candidate Brian Dubie articulate the need for change but not how to make numbers work. “It’s basically political talk and doesn’t advance the discussion,” he said.
A responsible approach to tax reform is the Blue Ribbon tax structure commission report which will be based on detailed analysis and fairness due to be presented to the Legislature in January.
“There’s a significant difference between listening to people and agreeing with them,” Marek said in response to Gulack’s charge that he’s not listening to his constituents.
“This is why we have ballot boxes,” he said, and why voters in four consecutive state elections have elected more Democrats each time. He points out he received over 600 votes in the August primary, while Gulack received fewer than 100.
“Good policy actually pays off in the end,” Marek said, “if you can figure out what it is.”
In his opinion, the people making the argument of feeling silenced feel that way because they have very different points of view from most Vermonters. He believes how Vermont will move forward will depend on the new governor.
If Democratic candidate Peter Shumlin wins the seat, Marek said, the state will move forward on corrections, single-payer health care, and modifications of environmental policies. If Republican Brian Dubie wins, the state will be impaired on progress and in a defensive posture, he said.
Marek said he is “open but skeptical” to Challenges for Change, a redesign of government functions approved by the Legislature earlier year. He voted for the plan and agrees with its general concept of finding how to make state programs run better, but he’s not in favor of cutting human services. However, he says, “the [budget] crisis is too deep to hold anyone harmless.”
He doesn’t want to revisit the Vermont Yankee relicensing issue and feels Entergy must pay for the entire decommissioning process. In his opinion, some treat the VY vote as an open-ended question, but the Legislature is the voice of Vermonters and the Senate has said “no.”