Can role of lt. governor be more relevant?
State Rep. Kesha Ram, D-Burlington, right, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, stands with state Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, at a reception at the Dianich Gallery in Brattleboro on Nov. 16.

Can role of lt. governor be more relevant?

Burlington Democrat Kesha Ram highlights education, affordable housing, and broadband during regional campaign kickoff

BRATTLEBORO — As someone who launched her first legislative campaign before she graduated from college, state Rep. Kesha Ram says she's used to being underestimated.

“I think what my opponents and others didn't know about me at that time was that I am an incredibly hard worker,” said Ram, a Burlington Democrat now serving her fourth term in the House even though she has not yet reached age 30.

Ram says she is bringing that same work ethic to the 2016 race for lieutenant governor.

Though the primary election is more than eight months away, Ram's zigzagging itinerary this week included Granby on Sunday, Brattleboro on Monday, and then - after returning to Burlington on Tuesday - scheduled stops in Wilmington and Bennington on Wednesday.

“If I can have authentic conversations and go out and build relationships with people early [in the race], that is so helpful,” Ram said at a Brattleboro coffeeshop Monday, a few hours before her official regional campaign kickoff here. “Having been a legislator in Chittenden County, it's incredibly important to get out around the state.”

Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott is among those pursuing the governor's office in next year's election, and his departure has left the race for the state's second-in-command office wide open.

Republican Randy Brock of Swanton, a former state senator and auditor and a 2012 gubernatorial candidate, is seeking the Republican nomination. Dr. Louis Meyers, a Rutland physician, has said he will run as an independent.

A crowd has gathered on the Democratic side, where four candidates have said they want to run: Ram, who works in Burlington city government in addition to her legislative responsibilities; Brandon Riker, a Marlboro resident and political newcomer; Garrett Graff, former editor of Politico; and state Sen. David Zuckerman, D/P-Chittenden.

The race still is taking shape, and a state election official has questioned Graff's eligibility to run for the office based on his recent residency outside the state.

Solving the state's biggest problems

Ram says she has jumped into the campaign based on the belief that she can be a “connector in chief” who uses the statewide office to bring Vermonters together to deal with the state's biggest challenges.

Among the challenges Ram mentioned at Monday's event, held in the Hooker-Dunham Building in downtown Brattleboro, is the need to further expand affordable early-learning opportunities.

As a former preschool teacher, Ram said she “really learned what it's like to be between a child and eviction or hunger - something that's going to keep [children] from being able to get a head start on their early education.”

She advocates pursuing tools such as public-private partnerships and social-impact bonds to find more funding for early education.

“When we invest in early childhood education, we reduce crime. We support the next generation to take good-paying jobs, and that's what [repays] our investment,” Ram said.

Ram also is lobbying for more affordable, accessible higher education, saying Vermont lags most other states in the number of high school graduates who go on to college.

She wants to reinvest in a Reach Up program that encourages post-secondary education, and she wants further emphasis on dual enrollment and early college programs that already are showing success in Vermont.

Taking a cue from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, she's also advocating no-cost higher education via tuition-free community college or associate's degree studies - though she did not say exactly how that might be funded.

“I don't see why there's any reason we can't [start] giving our Vermont kids two years of free college in the next few years,” Ram said.

Affordable homeownership is another priority for Ram, who said she has spearheaded efforts to expand assistance for first-time homebuyers during her tenure in the Legislature.

Ram, who decries a “cycle of low wages and high rent,” said she has heard often about affordability issues during the early days of her lieutenant governor campaign.

“Vermonters are being asked to pay a Vermont premium on their cost of living while they take a Vermont discount on their wages, and it's just really unsustainable,” Ram said.

The fourth priority Ram discussed Monday was broadband access, a sore spot for those who - despite the state's progress on this front over the past several years - still have no reliable, high-speed Internet service.

“I'm not going sit here and claim that I can force FairPoint or whoever to do that 'last-mile' broadband, but there's no reason that, within the next few years, we shouldn't be able to get high-speed broadband to all of our schools and all of our village centers,” she said.

Doing more with the office

While the lieutenant governor's duties officially are defined as filling in when the governor is out of state, presiding over the Senate and casting a tie-breaking vote in that legislative body, Ram and her supporters think she can do much more with the office.

“Really, I think the lieutenant governor has the ability to focus on investments that are really important to the majority of Vermonters,” she said.

About a dozen people attended Ram's Brattleboro kickoff Monday, and three were Windham County legislators.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Putney, said she has not yet endorsed a lieutenant governor candidate. But Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro - while not listed among Ram's official endorsements - declared that “Kesha has continued to impress me, and I'm a strong supporter.”

Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, said he backs Ram's campaign because she “brings a really wonderful blend of energy and intelligence but also an ability to listen and compromise.”

“She's capable of taking a very high-level view of what's important to the state,” Toleno said, adding that the lieutenant governor's office “becomes a platform for articulating a vision of where the state needs to go.”

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