BRATTLEBORO—Workforce development. Economic development. Revenue generation. Those three topics are what drive state Rep. Valarie A. Stuart, D-West Brattleboro, to run for her fifth term in the Vermont House.
“At the end of the day, I think it’s about people feeling good about their lives. Being able to feed their families. Going to a job. Pulling a Paycheck. Being able to put a house over their heads,” she said.
It’s what Stuart believes many people want. But, she added, the state needs “to make it accessible.”
She feels sad witnessing Vermonters struggle with poverty.
“We need to rebuild the middle class in this country — it’s always been our hope,” she said.
Stuart represents the Windham 2-1 district — essentially, West Brattleboro. She currently serves on the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development.
Stuart remembers even in high school wanting to do something to change the world and improve people’s lives. Working in the Legislature is a way to do that.
“It’s a big challenge but it’s also a big opportunity,” she said.
“This has been eight years of almost graduate school in civic engagement,” she joked.
If reelected, Stuart wants to continue her work focusing on job creation, workforce development, and increasing the state’s — and Vermonters’ — income. It’s a lack of these items that Stuart sees as the root cause of many sad struggles for Vermont families.
Vermont needs to support the people who live here with better wages, Stuart said. The state also needs to attract and keep young people.
Attracting new Vermonters while supporting current residents is one reason Stuart also supports the state’s efforts to market Vermont.
According to Stuart, she helped spearhead a marketing program targeting young people living in the state. The program built students’ understanding of skills employers are seeking now so that students can access the estimated 4,000 jobs currently open across the Green Mountains.
In a news release launching her campaign, Stuart wrote that during her four terms on the House Commerce Committee, she “has helped secure $750,000 in funding to create and, then, implement the campaign targeted to attract new residents to Vermont.”
According to Stuart, the campaign aims to stake out Vermont’s territory as an “innovative, green, and clean” state where people want to build businesses and raise families.
In her view, she brings multiple talents to her work in the Legislature. These include innovative thinking, creativity, and problem solving. She feels qualified to communicate with others and to be there for voters.
She worked in the design world and marketing before moving to Vermont. Collaborating on projects with other creative people strengthened her own natural problem-solving and creative skills, Stuart said.
“I love this work,” she said. “There are a lot of challenges and you’ve got to be ready for that.”
Stuart said she comes from “humble roots.” She thanks her parents and husband for their support.
If voters send her back to Montpelier in January, Stuart hopes to also continue her work in other areas, such as childcare, economic development, and climate change.
Vermont needs to make childcare accessible and affordable, she said. That way, women can work and be sure their children are in safe hands. Stuart noted that she herself worked full-time when her children were small.
“I’d really like it to be easier for other people than it was for me,” she said.
Workforce development is a key issue for Stuart. She wants to create programs for students that would help them receive the education and training they need to flourish in the job market.
According to Stuart, Vermont has 3,000 recent graduates who, every year, stay in Vermont.
“But they don’t get the good jobs,” she continued. “They get the retail jobs at Price Chopper and such. It’s good for people to have jobs, but we want people to have jobs that pay a livable wage.”
Stuart seeks to develop apprenticeship programs and certificate programs that offer alternatives to a four-year college degree.
“Not everybody needs a four-year degree, but there are a lot of people who could get a two-year degree,” she said.
During her four years serving on the House Education Committee, Stuart said she and her colleagues worked on ways to help first-generation college students access higher education or career technical training. The funding formula, however, needs “to be recalibrated.”
Until the “dust settles” from Act 46 and other education issues, Stuart doubts the state will make funds for technical training a priority.
“All problems are solvable with enough time and energy and focus, but we’ve been focusing on the problem of enrollment going down and costs going up,” she said.
Reducing the harmful impacts of climate change is also close to Stuart’s heart.
Stuart said she serves on the House’s Climate Solutions Caucus. She says she has generated the ideas behind “several successful initiatives” around climate change.
For example, she claims credit for generating the idea that eventually became the Vermont Council on Rural Development’s three-day “Catalysts of a Climate Change Economy” conference held last year in Burlington.
According to Stuart, the summit drew 500 investors and entrepreneurs to the state last fall.
Her work around finding solutions to climate change won her recognition from Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility as a “Climate Change Solutions Champion” last year.
“I came up with the idea for such a national conference at one of the VCRD’s Climate Economy Summits several years ago as a way to position Vermont as a renewable energy job creator and leader,” Stuart said. “Vermont generated 14,000 jobs in that sector in 2014 — that was more jobs per capita in the renewable energy sector than any other state in the Union had created at the time.”
“As a marketing person,” Stuart continued, “I knew it would be a great way to attract the kinds of clean, green, renewable energy companies and entrepreneurs we want to live here or move to Vermont and establish businesses.”
Stuart’s work on helping to build gun legislation in the current session also received recognition. Gun Sense Vermont awarded her a Certificate of Appreciation.
Stuart also expresses pride for her efforts to raise awareness of the economic disparities in the state.
Early in her legislative career, Stuart supported a concurrent House/Senate Poverty Awareness Day Resolution. Then governor, Peter Shumlin, proclaimed April 1 as Poverty Awareness Day in Vermont.
“I believe that the best way to safeguard our state’s future is to grow our population, create jobs, and educate our workforce to do the jobs of today and tomorrow,” she concluded.
Stuart is running in one of several contested races in Windham County. In the Aug. 14 Democratic Primary, she squares off against newcomer Emilie Kornheiser.
When asked how Stuart and her opponent may be similar, or, how they may be different, Stuart had little to say.
“I’m not really sure, I don’t really know what Emilie’s platform is,” Stuart said.
According to Stuart, she had never heard from her opponent until she learned Kornheiser would run against her.
Stuart guessed she and Kornheiser agree on core issues around childcare and workforce development.
Still, Stuart said that Kornheiser’s platform isn’t clear. “I’m not really sure what she proposes to do.”
For her part, Stuart said that she does everything with her whole heart and gives it all she’s got.
“I’m quite intelligent and I’m an innovative thinker,” she said.
Creative thinkers are needed to solve the issues facing Windham County and Vermont, she added.
“I think my core values are really strong,” Stuart said.
Stuart said she and her family moved to Vermont 24 years ago. She relocated to the Green Mountains from New York State because she viewed it as a “beacon of hope.”
“I’m a brave person and I’ve always fought hard for the things I believe in,” she said.