LONDONDERRY—The two hopefuls vying to succeed outgoing state Rep. Oliver Olsen, R-Jamaica, stood before a large crowd at Londonderry’s Flood Brook Union School on Oct. 10.
In the county’s only contested race, independent candidates and political newcomers Charles “Tim” Goodwin and Emmett Dunbar have set their sights on the Windham-Bennington-Windsor house seat.
Olsen — who was appointed to the Legislature in January 2010 to fill the unexpired term of longtime Rep. Rick Hube, who died suddenly the month before — decided against seeking re-election. He has endorsed Goodwin.
Town moderator Ralph Coleman read questions from the audience, covering a range of topics: jobs for young people, health care reform, education funding, renewable energy, and sales tax.
Coleman said the forum pulled in a good turnout and that the audience’s questions represented most of the area’s concerns. He added that he axed a few questions that attacked the candidates.
Goodwin: independent and moderate
“[Running for state representative] is a very energetic undertaking,” said Goodwin, 65, who has a background in accounting.
Goodwin has served on the Flood Brook School Board, served in the military, is a lister, and serves on the board of the Weston Community Association, the organization that operates the Weston Playhouse.
Of his decision to run, Goodwin explained that life in Vermont has treated him well. “Why not try to make it that way for somebody else?” he said in a separate interview.
According to Goodwin, who said that Democrats and Republicans alike have voiced their support for him, an independent candidate can better serve the district than someone tied to a party can. Voters feel more comfortable approaching an independent, he added.
He wanted voters to understand that he is politically moderate, cares about creating opportunities for all Vermonters, is interested in maintaining “Vermont substantially as it is from a tourist perspective,” wants to protect a sense of community, and is approachable.
Goodwin also said that he understood the district from an economic perspective.
“It’s important for Montpelier to understand that the state of Vermont doesn’t stop at Route 4,” he said, half-laughing. “That was a joke back in my fraternity house at UVM[, too].”
“Don’t forget to vote, and I’d like it to be for me,” Goodwin implored.
Dunbar: A new perspective
“In Vermont, an independent [representative] really can make a difference,” Dunbar, 40, said. “I see people for who they are and not what I want them to be.”
In a separate interview, Dunbar joked of his leadership style, “I’m a farmer. I’m not afraid of large piles of work.”
He anticipates one aspect of serving in the Statehouse that would pose a challenge for him: sitting still.
Along with his wife, Lini Mazumdar, Dunbar runs Anjali Farms, an organic farm in South Londonderry. They also co-founded the Vermont Farm and Food Trail, a consortium of farms in the southern counties that encourage visitors and direct sales.
Dunbar grew up as a “wharf rat” in Newport, R.I. His father, retired from the Navy, purchased a 18th-century coal wharf, now called Bowen’s Wharf. The wharf houses shops, restaurants, cruise and harbor businesses, and commercial offices. Dunbar serves as the vice-president of the wharf’s board of directors.
Olsen has criticized Dunbar’s characterizing himself as a farmer, given his ties to that enterprise. Dunbar said the wharf is a family business, but his role on the board is non-paying.
He said working with the wharf has provided him with business skills.
Dunbar helped develop the Vermont Farmers’ Market Association. He testified in the Statehouse on signage for farmers’ markets.
Dunbar credits his ability to farm full time to the lessons he received from neighboring farmers. He understands that many people in his district want to preserve the Vermont they grew up in, “but we’ve got to have the people to come after them.”
Livable wages and a healthy economy are upfront in Dunbar’s mind. He sees development of food production and markets as important for economic development in Jamaica, Londonderry, Stratton, Weston and Winhall, the five towns in the district, which represent a mix of old Vermont families, second-home owners, and new arrivals.
On one end of the economic spectrum, people in the district work multiple jobs while they struggle to pay high property taxes, he said. Yet, at the opposite end, families with considerable wealth also call the state home.
“It’s hard to live in Vermont,” he said. Regardless of the job, if someone works full time, “you should earn a living wage.”
“[I hope] to give a large segment of this population a voice,” he said of representing the district. “I love diversity.”
Questions from the audience
At the forum, Dunbar said there was no simple answer to the question about how best to provide jobs for young people to keep them in the area. In his view, the district faces complex problems like a low population, a cyclical tourist industry with seasonal gaps, and no major employer like a university or hospital.
The irony of the district, he added, is that voters have wanted the jobs that come with industry — but without the industry.
In his view, Dunbar said that agriculture presents a viable opportunity for young families.
Vermont’s best export is its educated youth, responded Goodwin.
Goodwin, who grew up on a farm in Weston and has lived there “on and off” since 1949, said he didn’t think agriculture was the panacea Dunbar described. He is glad that farms exist, he said, but he feels that not everyone can live that way of life.
Dunbar countered by saying that the U.S. Department of Agriculture registered more farms for the first time in 150 years, and that farmers in Vermont have also helped drop the average age of the population by 10 years. Per capita, he added, Vermonters spent more on local food than the rest of the nation.
On health care, Goodwin said, “universal health care has made it far enough in Washington so that we have it,” regardless of what politicians might say in debates.
Goodwin said he admired Vermont legislators’ progress toward taking advantage of developments in Washington. Still, he said he feels wary of single-payer health care for the state.
He said that he “shuddered” at the idea of an employment tax and expressed concern that the architects of the state plan still don’t know how to pay for the new system.
Dunbar said the issue required no discussion at the forum, as the Legislature will work out the details for those not covered by private insurance or existing programs.
In Dunbar’s opinion, people in the district should worry more about living on a “health island,” isolated from emergency services like a major hospital.
“As a world power, we have one of the worst health-care systems. Why is this okay with us?” he asked the audience.
Neither candidate supported expanding the state sales tax to cover services like plumbing.
Finding a common level
On the topic of education funding and the Common Level of Appraisal (CLA), the mechanism by which the state determines that owners of properties of equal value pay equal taxes, the candidates said they had questions about the current system.
Goodwin said the district sent over $22 million to the state for education, yet the five towns spent $9.5 million to educate their students.
Dunbar said the district had a “staggering depth of poverty to wealth.” He was not sure that the state’s CLA equation worked for the district.
“How much does Act 60 [The Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1997] cost? How much is our future worth?” he asked.
He said the discussion should focus on education outcomes, charging that Vermont’s education system needs an overhaul without jeopardizing students and teachers.
“Why are we spending so much, and what are we getting?” Dunbar asked.
Goodwin and Dunbar felt similarly about the potential for Vermont to use more solar power.
Dunbar said that he uses solar power at his farm. He took advantage of U.S. Department of Agriculture rebate programs. If there’s money for rebates, he said, the government can and should modify the process, offering money up front.
Instituting some form of public transportation would help combat climate change, said Dunbar.
Some people blame climate change on human activity, said Goodwin. “May it should be [attributed to humans], maybe it shouldn’t,” he said.
Goodwin said he does not think that a public transportation system will solve the problem of climate change. He thinks that solar power would serve Vermont better than wind power, adding that he does not favor ridge line development in the state.
If the residents in view of a wind farm okayed the project, then he would support their choice. But “we sure haven’t seen that yet,” he said.
Outgoing rep’s endorsement
After the forum, the candidates each said they felt the evening went well.
Olsen said the candidates represented a contrast in the “relevancy of experience.”
In Olsen’s opinion, Goodwin had served on multiple public boards, is a Justice of the Peace, and served on the Windham Regional Commission for 30 years. Dunbar has never held public office, he said.
Olsen added that some crucial questions did not come up in the forum because the candidates’ answers ran too long.
He also said that some of Dunbar’s answers, like the 10 percent of uninsured in Vermont, were “wildly incorrect.”
“It’s important to look carefully at what’s being said, and just because it sounds good doesn’t mean it’s correct,” said Olsen.