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‘Everybody eats, and drinks water’

Rep. Carolyn Partridge, seeking her eighth term in House, enjoys the work

As the adage goes, if you want something done, give the task to a busy person. Or, maybe, just give the task(s) to a farmer, like long-serving Rep. Carolyn Partridge. Farmers do not shy from hard work.

Over her previous seven terms in the state House of Representatives, Partridge also served in the House leadership. She is also a member of the Windham School Board and raises sheep on her small farm, spinning and dying yarn for retail sale.

This election, Partridge is running against Rep. Matt Trieber, D-Bellows Falls, and challenger Chris Moore for one of two House seats in the newly-redistricted Windham-3 district — now Athens, Brookline, Grafton, Rockingham, Windham, and part of Westminster — in the Aug. 28 Democratic Primary.

But, Partridge reminds voters, early voting is available to anyone who can’t make the primary. Of the three candidates, the two who get the most votes will earn a place on the November ballot.

Looking forward to another two years, Partridge wants to continue advancing Vermont agriculture and helping to develop policies and infrastructure to bridge farms to their communities and dinner tables.

“I really enjoy it,” she said about her time in Montpelier.

Every year, Partridge said, she gains new knowledge and experience.

“Job number one is representing my constituents and helping when they’re in need,” she said.

Partridge likes hearing from people, adding, “If they need help, I’m glad to do it.”

Getting the eggs (and milk, and kale, and artisan cheese) to market

Partridge chairs the House Committee on Agriculture and hopes to do so again. She has said she appreciates the committee members’ diversity of perspectives and experience, which has helped the committee produce better policies.

The committee has helped make agriculture cool and important, she said.

Montpelier has experienced a culture change regarding agriculture, Partridge said. While in many Vermonters’ minds farming and forestry stays tucked away and not regarded as important as other activities, she refuses to accept this mindset.

“Everybody eats and drinks water,” counters Partridge.

Partridge said the shift in state government culture started under former House Speaker Gaye Symington, who served as House Majority Leader from 2003 until 2009.

She applauds the continuation of this shift with the committee’s big bill in the last biennium: the Working Lands Enterprise Investment Bill, which Partridge calls the “No. 1 job creation and economic development” bill to come out of the Legislature last session.

Working Lands aims to stimulate economic development in agriculture and forest products by creating the Working Lands Enterprise Fund, which is overseen by a new board.

Even in a tight budgetary climate, Partridge managed to persuade her fellow lawmakers to come up with $1.75 million to fund Working Lands.

There’s a great need for wrap-around services, programs that take farmers and foresters through the complete process of launching or growing their businesses, she said.

In previous interviews, Partridge has said that farmers and forest managers need to remember that they are entrepreneurs. These small business owners require the same assistance other business owners need for activities like market research, marketing, developing business plans, and access to capital.

The bill itself is a continuation of Farm to Plate initiative, approved in 2009. This initiative developed a 10-year strategic plan to reinforce Vermont’s food system by connecting consumers to local food producers.

Dairy still stands as the agriculture anchor business in Vermont, Partridge said. This industry helped provide physical and policy-based infrastructure for the diversified agriculture now gaining a foothold in Vermont.

“Not so many [agriculture] eggs are in one basket,” she said.

However, rebuilding local agriculture requires more than new policies, Partridge said.

People have adapted to grocery stores and packaged food. Many consumers have forgotten the basic skills of preparing and working with raw ingredients.

To help farmers find markets for what they can grow, raise, or harvest, consumers also need to be taught how to cook the food.

Locally-produced food also needs to be accessible and affordable to people on low incomes, she added.

Vermont has taken some steps in that direction, Partridge said. Many farmers markets have Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) machines or accept coupons for people receiving food subsidies.

Partridge said the work on Working Lands will continue in the next House session. The program must find sustainable funding. She is not sure, at this stage, if this job will fall to the Agriculture Committee or the governor.

The bill, however, is No. 8 on the administration’s priority list, she said.

More work to do

Partridge expects the bill requiring companies to list genetically engineered ingredients on their products will take center stage during the next session. The controversial bill, now in the House Judiciary Committee, never made it to a House or Senate vote.

In a previous interview, Partridge quoted one biotech industry lawyer, who said that if Vermont passed H.722, even with its trigger clause (which stalls its implementation until other states approve similar measures), the industry will consider such legislation an “imminent threat” and would bring a lawsuit immediately.

It’s a good bill, Partridge said. But it will still require time and work.

One local issue Partridge has focused on is the Vilas Bridge, linking downtown Bellows Falls to Walpole, N.H., closed by New Hampshire in 2009 for safety reasons.

Partridge describes the bridge as “a historical treasure that should be fixed.” While this bridge acts as a gateway to the community’s center, other nearby bridges act to funnel visitors around and out of the downtown, she said.

“Bellows Falls is this little gem of a downtown,” Partridge said.

In 2005 and 2006, Partridge and former Rep. Michael Obuchowski helped pass resolutions that stressed the bridge’s importance, asking New Hampshire to make necessary fixes. She thinks the state may need to develop its own strategy for dealing with the closed bridge.

New Hampshire, which is responsible for the maintenance of the bridge, has pushed back the rehab date even though it appears on the state’s “red list” as a top priority. It appears on a list of unfunded projects in the New Hampshire Department of Transportation’s latest 10-year plan, with an estimated rehabilitation in 2021.

Partridge would also like to see the Green Island Project, a local economic development effort in Bellows Falls, continue.

She added that her district is still recovering from Tropical Storm Irene, which pushed to the surface pre-existing vulnerabilities in the Vermont economy, transportation infrastructure, and the state mental health hospital in Waterbury.

Partridge believes that Windham County, in general, requires more economic development to stem the county’s receding economic tide. She compliments the work of the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS) in planning for a future without the Vermont Yankee nuclear power station.

Although the Legislature can help find funding, Partridge said, she wasn’t sure if Montpelier should do all the heavy lifting.

Instead, “The local approach I think is something very sensible,” Partridge said.

Leadership

In her time in the House leadership, Partridge spent much of her time recruiting Democratic candidates. Her work as assistant minority leader from 2001 to 2005 helped the Democrats regain control of the House in the 2004 election, and it made Symington the first female House speaker in the chamber’s history.

Her 14 years in Montpelier has put Partridge in front of headline-making bills, a few of which she considers crowning moments.

She cites as one example the Civil Unions bill in 2000, making Vermont the first state in the nation to confer legal status to same-sex couples.

“I’m proud of that from a civil-rights perspective,” she said.

She followed that example with the Marriage Equality Bill in 2009. After the “uproar” caused by Civil Unions, Vermont became the first state to pass a marriage equality bill without a Supreme Court ruling, she said.

She also counts the Working Lands bill as a proud moment. So many new farmers in Vermont are young people, she said, hinting that farming might be one avenue in which Vermont can retain or attract more young people.

The bill encompasses job creation and economic development, which act as overt benefits, she said. But Partridge also counts the addition of forest products as a crucial component and opportunity.

Forest products, like logging, “needed a boost,” she said. The state needs to stop sending its logs to Canada, she added; instead, it should keep the jobs and resources in the state.

Partridge stressed that after seven terms, she brings to the table experience in the ability to work with others in a nonpartisan way, to work hard, and to provide leadership.

“That all produces effective representation [for the district],” she said.

“I really enjoy doing the job and work hard at it,” Partridge said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #164 (Wednesday, August 8, 2012).

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