BRATTLEBORO—With barely a month of campaigning left before the Aug. 14 primary, three of the four Democratic candidates for governor came to the monthly Brattleboro Citizens Breakfast on July 6 to make their pitches before about 60 people.
James Ehlers of Winooski, Christine Hallquist of Hyde Park, and Brenda Siegel of Newfane took turns answering questions that were submitted in advance of the event at the Brattleboro Senior Center.
The fourth Democrat in the race, Ethan Sonneborn, an eighth-grader from Bristol, didn’t attend.
With less than 40 minutes allotted for answering questions, the candidates didn’t have a lot of time to state their positions, which, for the most part, were pretty similar.
All expressed their opposition to Act 46, which calls for consolidation of Vermont’s smaller schools, and all agreed the state’s education funding system is flawed. However, they didn’t offer a way to address rising education costs amid declining school enrollment.
With the state struggling with “both a lot of poverty and an opioid use disorder, this is not the time to underfund education and it is not the time to change the student-teacher ratio,” Siegel said.
In many small towns, schools serve as the community hub, and Siegel noted that closing them would do more harm than good. Instead, she suggested they be integrated into the ways that social services are delivered to Vermonters.
Ehlers spoke of the need to shift away from funding Vermont’s schools through property taxes, and move to a system primarily based on the income tax. He said that while he supports consolidating administrative functions at smaller schools, he said he is “absolutely opposed” to forced consolidation.
Hallquist called the state’s education funding system “a flawed system from the very beginning,” and agreed with Siegel’s idea of using schools to help deliver social services in communities.
But she also challenged the prevailing narrative that Vermont is in a demographic crisis, with young people fleeing the state.
“The problems we’re seeing in Vermont are the problems we’re seeing across rural America,” she said. “There is a digital divide.”
Hallquist wants to see a rollout of high-speed, fiber-optic based internet in every city and town in Vermont to boost the state’s economy and make Vermont an even more attractive place to live.
“People move here because of the quality of our education system, and degrading that quality will make things worse from a demographic shift standpoint,” she said. “If we close schools in rural communities, people aren’t going to move there.”
All three candidates support universal heath care, but none offered specifics about paying for it.
Like Hallquist and Siegel, Ehlers said he supports the “Medicare for All” model, but that he recognizes that the monopoly power of the insurance companies and health care providers are “impediments” to such a system.
He said a good start toward bringing costs under control would be requiring “transparency” in pricing for medical procedures, so consumers would know up front what something will cost, rather than finding out after the care has been delivered when the bill arrives.
Vermont “can be the tip of the spear” for advancing health care reform, Ehlers said, adding that former Gov. Peter Shumlin could have implemented Act 48, the legislation that would have created a single-payer health care system in Vermont, but failed to, because “there was a problem with the messenger.”
Hallquist didn’t disagree with the concept of Medicare for All, but said that “I’m not going to make promises I can’t keep,” adding that the path toward universal health coverage is currently blocked by the federal government.
She did note that the payroll tax proposed for funding Act 48 would have been $4.3 billion and would have added $10,000 a year to the average Vermont worker’s tax burden.
If Medicare coverage was expanded to cover all Americans, Hallquist said, it could deliver health care at a lower cost. Currently, she said, “31 cents of every health care dollar in Vermont is spent on administrative overhead. Medicare spends 5 cents.”
Vermont can’t go it alone, and any meaningful reform has to happen at the federal level first, she said, but joining with other states to help force the issue could be useful.
Siegel said she disagreed with Hallquist and that Vermont could lead the way toward health care reform by fully implementing Act 48. She noted that, on key issues such as abortion and marriage equality, change started first at the state level.
“States lead the way,” she said. “We need to realize that, at this moment, we’re not changing what the U.S. government is doing. We’re fighting back. The only way we’re going to change what the U.S. government is doing is by making progress in our own communities, locally and throughout Vermont.”
She told of how she recovered from a serious illness a few years ago because she had private health insurance that covered the treatment she needed.
That someone’s insurance status should determine whether they get the health care they need “is unacceptable,” she said, adding that she feels it is equally unacceptable to wait until health care is fixed at the national level.
Hallquist, the former CEO of the Vermont Electric Co-operative, said solving climate change had been “a passion” of hers for years. The co-op’s current energy portfolio is now 96 percent carbon-free, she said, an outcome accomplished without raising electric rates for over the past five years.
“You can solve climate change, and it doesn’t have to cost more money,” she said, adding that Vermont spends $2 billion a year on fossil fuels and transferring that money toward carbon-free and renewable energy would create more jobs and put more money into the state’s economy.
Ehlers pointed out that transportation and home heating are the two biggest users of energy. To address this, he said there needs to be greater investment in public transportation and weatherization.
Vermont has committed itself, in principle, to meeting 90 percent of its energy needs with carbon-free sources by 2050. Siegel said she believes that Vermont can, and should be, completely carbon-free by that date.
But she and Ehlers differed with Hallquist in their view that achieving a carbon-free economy won’t come without additional spending.
While the three were more or less in agreement on the issues, what differentiated the candidates was their personal stories.
Ehlers, the executive director of Lake Champlain International, an environmental group, emphasized his record as a Navy veteran and a state representative.
“This race for me comes down to each one of you,” he said. “It’s been said that we don’t get to pick the times, the times pick us. My life has been one of service. I was willing to give my life when I was in the U.S. Navy, and I have served working for everyday people for the past two decades. I am running not to accrue power, but to ensure justice for each one of you here.”
Hallquist spoke of how she rallied the Co-op’s employees to bring the utility back from the brink of bankruptcy.
“I’m a person who pulls people together to do big things, and I do that through collaboration,” she said. “A good leader listens to both sides and puts it all together.”
She also spoke of the support she received from her co-workers, friends, and Vermonters everywhere over her decision to transition from male to female in December 2015.
For all of Hallquist’s accomplishments in business, the community, and in family life in Vermont, there was a secret that was kept under wraps for years — even from family members — until it could be kept secret no longer.
Once Hallquist made the decision to publicly identify as a woman, she said, “I thought I would lose my job and I would lose everything, but the truth was more important.”
Instead, “Vermont welcomed me with open arms,” she said, “and that love is so deep, that I can’t do enough for Vermont. I will fight for the Vermont that I love and that has loved me in return.”
Siegel, an activist and the executive director of the Southern Vermont Dance Festival, also touted her collaboration skills.
She said she started the dance festival in 2012 as a way to boost the Brattleboro economy after Tropical Storm Irene.
“I wanted something that would bring people to the community over and over again, not just for the four days of the festival, but throughout the year, and get them to move to our state, or at least visit regularly,” she said.
Working with all sectors of the community, Siegel said the festival brings in up to 5,000 people annually and has become another way of building up the local economy “for the long term.”
Siegel also spoke candidly about how the opioid overdose death of her nephew earlier this year has driven her campaign for governor.
“In this community, we are impacted every day by the opioid epidemic — needles on the ground, panhandling, thefts, and our children dying,” she said. “We need to focus on harm reduction first, because that’s what stops deaths and what limits the collateral damage.”