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Emilie Kornheiser, a Democrat, represents District 1 in Brattleboro.

News / Column

Hearings prompt new state rep ‘to sit and listen deeply’

Kornheiser discusses a context of civility in the Statehouse and what economic development truly means for those of us in Windham County

This interview is adapted from Montpelier Happy Hour, a new podcast from Commons reporter Olga Peters. The show — distributed by Peter “Fish” Case’s Earspoon local podcasting network — drops on Friday afternoons. To hear audio of the show on demand, visit the show’s Soundcloud page at soundcloud.com/user-795427523.

BRATTLEBORO—My first guest on my new podcast “Montpelier Happy Hour” was Vermont State Representative Emilie Kornheiser, one of three representatives from Brattleboro.

Kornheiser represents District 1 and, according to her biography, she “comes to her work in the legislature with a passion for supporting and amplifying community voices — asking communities to own and tell their own stories in order to facilitate shared visions and outcomes.”

A Democrat who was first elected to the Statehouse in November, she holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Marlboro College and attended the master’s program in community development and applied economics at the University of Vermont.

Kornheiser has served overseas promoting democracy and supporting small business development, and she has held numerous positions at community-based organizations throughout Vermont. She also started her own small business downtown.

She currently works as the director of workforce development at Youth Services, where she designs and supervises programs that, she writes, “put connection at the center of skills building and economic justice.”

Folks can email her at EmilieKornheiser@gmail.com or they can add a question on her website. “Or they can find me on Facebook and post it there,” she says. “I’m pretty easy to find and whatever way people want to get questions to me, they are welcome to do that.”

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Olga Peters: So let’s dive in to talk about what’s been happening in Montpelier recently.

Emilie Kornheiser: One thing that happened this week in Montpelier was on Feb. 6, when we held a big public hearing in the well of the House for H.57, the bill that looks to codify into Vermont law the abortion practices that have been existing in Vermont since Roe v. Wade.

It is a first — Vermont has no existing laws on the books regarding abortion. We’ve been just following the federal precedent of Roe v. Wade since that passed in 1973.

And this year, legislators have been pausing and thinking about what they need to put into place to protect Vermonters if things change dramatically at the national level. So H.57 is one of those laws.

O.P.: Even if it codifies into state law the right to choose, a Vermont law can’t supersede federal law, right? So what happens if Roe v. Wade gets overturned? Will this Vermont law still be in place?

E.K.: My understanding is that because Roe v. Wade was basically something that superseded the state laws, if it’s overturned, then the power devolves back to the States again.

O.P.: That still needs to go to the Senate, correct?

E.K.: It does. Only if it actually gets to pass out of the Committee on Judiciary — it hasn’t even been voted on the House floor. I wanted to bring it up here because this big public hearing was really interesting to me for a number of reasons.

One, I want to point out the incredible dignity that the committee really led the hearing with. People were asked to sign up in advance for testimony, and they had to indicate whether they stood either for or against the issue. That’s sort of one of the things that makes me uncomfortable about work in the Legislature — that one is for or against something rather than just bringing further understanding and nuance to it.

And so people signed up for or against, and they sat down for testimony. A hundred people gave testimony. Everyone had exactly two minutes.

A lot of men gave testimony against a woman’s reproductive rights. That was quite interesting. For me, it was a really powerful opportunity to sit and listen deeply to people I really disagree with. And because of the atmosphere of respect and dignity and quiet in the well of the House, it made it possible for me to listen fully to people I disagree with. I had no opportunity to be reactive.

I had to let it all sort of wash over me, rush through me and to listen fully. So for me, that was a really powerful opportunity as a legislator to listen to people that I know in the normal course of life I might struggle to just finish listening to.

O.P.: That’s pretty powerful.

E.K.: It was really powerful. People talk a lot about the ritual of the Statehouse, and sometimes it feels just like a little bit like a “bougie” excuse. But all of the stagecraft really does make a difference in some ways in our ability to be present with folks who are here to testify.

O.P.: I think you really hit the nail on the head when you talk listening fully to people you might not agree with. It resonated for me as a journalist. When I sit in a meeting and I am not allowed to speak, when I am just there as a witness, it does change how I interact with the meeting.

In this day of being able to share something on Twitter and see it go around the world in 3 seconds and being able to be constantly reactive, it is really important to have those spaces of listening and witnessing and taking it all in.

E.K.: “Witnessing” is the exact word that I used in the lead-up to the hearing. There was a lot of sort of support given to us by the caucus, because people were really nervous about the hearings. There was a lot of energy downstairs, and a lot of people didn’t feel safe.

But for me, I was looking forward to it as this opportunity to witness various people’s pain and fear about the laws that were passing. So it was pretty incredible.

The other thing that was really difficult for me was that I know a young woman in Brattleboro who really very much wanted to come up and testify. She has a very powerful painful story to tell. But I was not able to find her a ride up to testify — no one from Brattleboro came up to testify.

O.P.: Unfortunately, that doesn’t surprise me. While Vermont is a kind of a small state, we’re not a state where it’s easy to get anywhere a lot of the times. I’m not surprised that folks from the corners weren’t making that trip to Montpelier.

E.K.: We’re not hearing people from both margins of the state: those at the geographic margins, or people at the economic or social margins who have trouble with transportation or timing or work. We’re missing the stories of the people who are most affected.

I was able to get the young woman’s video testimony into the record. But that’s different — the media is never going to see that. Only certain members of the committee, I assume, are going to be able to take the time to listen to her testimony. It’s not the same for us, and it’s not the same for her to have the power of being in front of our committee speaking in that way.

O.P.: We have talked a lot about economics and wages and what that means when policy is being created in Montpelier, what it means economically for people in the rest of the state.

I know that the legislative session is still getting going. But what has resonated with you so far around that issue of economics and income inequality?

E.K.: I requested to be on the Committee on Commerce and Economic Development, the committee that I think is able to look long-term and really sort of build slowly. I really wanted to be a voice on that committee for an expanded view of economic development — to understand it as an increase in standard of living and as about the social well-being of people — ideas that are not traditionally found in economic development.

And so it’s been really powerful to be sitting in meetings in my committee. To be able to bring in issues of housing and child care. To say that unless employees are having sufficient life experiences, employers are not going to be able to thrive either. To say that we need to build out our communities if we want to attract people who we’re thinking about to the state.

If we want business to be able to thrive, communities need to thrive.

I’m getting a little soapbox-y here, but traditionally in economic development the theory is if a business thrives, the people will thrive. But we’ve known for more than 20 years in mainstream economic development that communities need to thrive in order for businesses to thrive. So it’s been really incredible to be part of expanding that conversation on my committee.

O.P.: I like how you defined “economic development” because so often I think it’s used as a big catch phrase without a definition. What has been the response when you bring up those issues from your fellow committee members?

E.K.: I think people understand the concept instinctually. It’s a little uncomfortable for us to go out of our lane a little bit. Generally, child care is addressed in the Committee on Human Services and the Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs. So I’d like to really understand the interrelationship of these topics and to see how far we can get into it in a way that is meaningful within the committee’s jurisdiction. But I think people are ready and willing and excited to have that conversation.

We’ve had a number of people from the Child Development Division of the Department of Children and Families come in to testify about both the challenges of the child-care workforce and the challenges of the cost of child care and that very complex equation.

O.P.: One concept I want to bring up is the concept of making Vermont more affordable — Governor Scott’s buzzword. Looking at your committee work so far, do you think we have some good things on the horizon which can make Vermont affordable, or do you think we’re shooting in the wrong direction?

E.K.: I think making Vermont affordable means making sure that people’s wages are going up — to be in line with the rest of the country.

It also means making sure that our health-care costs and our housing costs are not. Health care and housing are not in such intense scarcity as they are right now in Windham County, so those costs can go down. We have made some progress on that.

A lot of employers are coming in and talking about workforce shortages, so when we talk to employers, there’s less emphasis on creating new jobs and more emphasis on making sure the jobs that exist are the jobs that are going to attract and retain employees.

And so that means we really can focus on the wages and benefits and training in a way that we haven’t been able to before.

We’re looking at workforce development, whether that means talking to middle-school students to make sure that they’re engaged and excited about their future or whether that means that we’re looking at the well-being of all of the folks in Vermont who leave high school and don’t go on to a certificate or a four-year college.

And we want to make sure that people have ways of moving into more well-paying employment without accruing debt.

O.P.: I’ve recently interviewed folks at the Windham Regional Career Center and they’re talking about their new health care path where students actually have the opportunity to sit for the state licensed nursing assistant (LNA) exam, after they finish their block of study at the Windham Regional Career Center.

I thought that was so great because while it’s not perfect for every student, it does give students a definite pathway to access, to get their foot in the door, for nursing which we have a shortage of in Vermont.

E.K.: Yes. And so I think it’s really powerful that people have easy access to an LNA. But we do still have a problem with an LPN — it does not pay a living wage. It’s still paying the same as working in a fast-food restaurant. And people should be able to pay their bills when they work at a fast-food restaurant. So it is just one piece of the puzzle.

For the folks who are still at the jobs that are farther down the economic pyramid, those jobs are always going to be there, so they need to pay well, too.

Employers who pay more have less trouble retaining good staff — that is common sense. And so our goal is to make sure that employers have the ability to do that — and understand that that’s a key part of the solution.

O.P.: We have to remember that in Vermont, we are competing with other states like Maine, like Rhode Island, like Connecticut, like New York — and especially like New Hampshire and like Massachusetts, where, from what I understand, our cost of living is on par, but our wages are lower.

If you are a potential worker and you’re looking at a job in Vermont and you’re looking at a job in Massachusetts, you’ll say, “Gee, I could make $3,000 more a year if I live in Massachusetts, yet it’s going to cost me roughly the same amount to live there,” guess what you’re gonna do.

E.K.: I love that you’re flipping that paradigm. I think the conversation traditionally in the Statehouse has been that we have to make sure that we keep costs low because we don’t want people to buy stuff in Massachusetts or New Hampshire. But at this point, we need to say we need to keep the wages high so that folks will want to stay here.

I think that’s a really exciting shift. The line that I used in my campaign was that we are never going to win a race to the bottom. There are other states that are so far ahead of us on a race to the bottom, so—

O.P.: We’ll let them have it!

E.K.: —we’ll let them have that. And why don’t we be part of a race to the top? Vermont already is this place that, in some ways, provides a beautiful, amazing quality of life and rich community culture. So why not continue to build on that with living-wage jobs and accessible health care and good child care and housing that makes people feel warm and safe inside?

We can be the shining light of all of that livability to show America that we can actually do that. And I think wages are where that starts.

O.P.: I agree. Because that’s sort of the shift in the puzzle that has to happen before other pieces can fall into place.

I saw a couple of press releases come across my email recently. One was Governor Scott talking about the ability for new moms to bring their infants to work, and the other was about the Vermont/New Hampshire paid family leave bill.

I’m guessing that the governor would say these are measures that make Vermont more affordable. What are your thoughts?

E.K.: I think it’s really important to talk about the difference between a universal program and a voluntary program and their respective impacts.

Everyone in Vermont is very comfortable with the fact that unemployment insurance is a socialized program. Right? All employers have to pay into it, and when the state pays out from it doesn’t necessarily match up with how much you paid in. It’s a big pool, that pool is invested, it’s held in common for all Vermonters.

That means that it works; that means that there’s stability from year to year, but that if one employer is struggling with it or if a whole group of employers are struggling with it we can look at that system to try to shift it a little bit — to benefit everyone.

With a non-universal family-leave program, we essentially just have a privatized insurance program that people can buy into. Without a universal system, you’re not mitigating that risk, and you’re leaving out the folks who might be the most vulnerable.

I worry that because of how invested we are in bipartisan compromise solutions in Vermont, we often put these halfway measures in as a stepping stone towards something. But a halfway measure such as an opt-in family-medical-leave program is not going to work.

So we’re going to see that as a testing ground for something that’s going to fail, and then we won’t ever be able to move toward a universal system that would work.

O.P.: What about the argument, though, that I hear from some opponents — that it will just make the cost of doing business too expensive and in the long run that will hurt workers?

E.K.: We have employers who are already doing that, right? They’re doing so at significant expense to them, and they’re at a disadvantage in the market with competitors who are not offering health benefits to their employees.

This is a way of really profoundly leveling the playing field and lowering the cost for employers who are doing this. And I think universal health care could have a similar effect of actually lowering the costs significantly for employers who are offering benefits.

Other people would be able to offer those benefits who have wanted to, but who have not been able to afford it.

O.P.: A business owner recently surprised me with their support for universal health care, which they believe will actually free up the workforce and make life easier for employers.

So many employees hang onto a job because they need the benefits. If benefits were more mobile, the employees could move to jobs that they liked or they could retire. That would free the employer to hire someone who would be happier.

E.K.: I have a lot of doubts about the promise of the gig economy because of workforce protections. But we are moving to a workforce that is much more mobile and flexible, so the more of those traditional benefits that can stay with the state and away from the employer, the more flexible businesses will be able to be, and the more flexible employees will be able to be.

The family medical leave legislation from last session was vetoed. The entire cost of it fell on employees, not with employers. It was a payroll tax that was not split. I think that splitting would have been a much more equitable path.

O.P.: So, Emilie, what is on your agenda or what is coming to the House or Senate that you think people should pay attention to?

E.K.: My committee is going to be finishing up our work on noncompete clauses. On the floor, I think we are going to be looking at family medical leave. I think you’re going to be looking at a little bit of work on prisons and incarceration, including private prisons.

Things are not moving to the floor very much. Things are very active in committee right now.

O.P.: If you want to have input on a piece of legislation, doing so while it’s still in committee is, I would say, a much more powerful time to make your voice heard, because the committee has more flexibility to change things.

E.K.: Absolutely. Things are usually pretty much decided before they come to the floor.

So it’s pretty fun to go onto the Legislature website, where you can see all of the bills in and out of committee and just scroll through them.

In five minutes, you can scroll through and see what jumps out at you and take a look at where it is and what’s going on.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #497 (Wednesday, February 13, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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