BRATTLEBORO — “We don't have to be singing the same Kumbaya song,” Emilie Kornheiser said. “We just need to know our destinies are wrapped up together.”
A first-time candidate for Windham 2-1, Kornheiser wants to talk to everyone in Windham County, regardless of whether they live in West Brattleboro. In the August primaries, Kornheiser will face incumbent and fellow Democrat Valerie Stuart to represent Brattleboro's District 1.
When it comes to building policy or problem solving, Kornheiser said, community members must be more explicit about their goals and desired outcomes. For Kornheiser, developing programs or policy is less about negotiations or delving into motivations. It's about agreeing on “the ends” or the outcomes.
As an example, Kornheiser related her experience developing HIV prevention programs with the South African government and a private mining company.
The government felt invested in the health of its citizens. The diamond-mining company wanted to avoid spending money on sick workers.
Kornheiser said she avoided changing either party's motivations. She didn't try to get everyone “on the same page” as to why they needed HIV prevention. Instead she helped the government and company locate common goals and benefits - in this case, keeping people healthy.
On the local level, Kornheiser points to Act 46 as a similar situation. In her estimation, people entered the education governance debate for a multitude of reasons. Whether they agree or disagree with merging school districts, Kornheiser believes most people's long-term intentions are good.
But Kornheiser said the whole community has yet to fully clarify their concerns about what they might lose or gain under Act 46. Then maybe people can identify their common goal.
So far, those against merging have had the loudest and most organized voice, she said.
For example, she said, “Yes, Act 46 may change Town Meeting. So then, what do we do to strengthen Town Meeting?”
Or, what does it mean to serve all of Vermont's kids rather than only one's town, Kornheiser said.
A sense of disempowerment and not feeling heard underscore why people abandon the democratic process, Kornheiser said.
A few months into her campaign, Kornheiser has knocked on multiple doors, stood in countless driveways, and taken much longer than anticipated to complete her grocery shopping. She's listening.
Listening to people talk about the divides they see (and don't want) in their lives and their community.
“It's been one long thrill ride,” Kornheiser said.
Kornheiser is determined to knock on every door in District 1. So far, she's talked to self-described “hardcore Second Amendment” supporters, and she's discussed taxes with people who have identified as conservative, and people describing themselves as far-left.
“In each place, people are so excited that I'm standing there listening,” she said.
These conversations made Kornheiser recommit to her campaign slogan: “Committing to Community.”
The slogan has three layers.
In the first layer: People's stories remind Kornheiser why she's running. Serving in the Vermont House feels like the next step in Kornheiser's years of sitting on boards, working in state government, and international experience.
Kornheiser is employed by Youth Services as their director of workforce development. A sampling of her work experience includes supporting community initiatives for the state. She served as a case manager with Early Education Services. Kornheiser also has held multiple positions with international firms.
On the second layer, Kornheiser said she's passionate about persuading the community to commit to its own democracy. Yes, the democratic process crawls at a tedious speed, she said. But it's necessary to get more people involved and more people engaged.
Engagement creates an interesting democracy, she said. One reason Kornheiser entered the House race is her belief that the more candidates voters have to choose from, the more involved they become.
The deepest layer under the “Committing to Community” banner, receives the most nods from the people Kornheiser has spoken with.
“Most of us don't have time to commit to community because we're struggling to make ends meet,” she said.
Floors over nets
“I want to move from Band-Aids to systemic solutions,” she said.
Kornheiser seeks to build a “safety floor” for Vermonters to stand on. Built with good wages, housing that is affordable, a strong health care system, and good education, this floor replaces the “safety net” on which most depend.
People get stuck in nets, Kornheiser continued. But people can stand on floors.
When people have their basic needs met, they have time to commit to community in a multitude of ways, she said.
This legislative session, the word “affordability” has bebopped around the statehouse. Governor Phil Scott promised it throughout his campaign. Members of the Legislature, too, focused on making it easier for Vermonters' to obtain a better quality of life.
“Affordability is a codeword for scarcity,” Kornheiser said.
Lawmakers need to move beyond helping people simply survive, she said, and instead ask what Vermonters need to thrive.
Governor Scott promises to cut costs as a way to make the state more affordable, Kornheiser said. But it's not just about cutting costs. It's also about raising wages, she said.
Scott champions affordability while vetoing the paid family leave and minimum wage bills. This method doesn't work, said Kornheiser.
To folks who argue that legislation such as raising the minimum wage hurts businesses and therefore hurts workers, Kornheiser said, “No.”
People who make less money spend all of it. The money tends to circulate throughout the community. If people had higher wages, it would raise the customer base for most businesses, she said.
Kornheiser also believes that paying workers a wage that keeps them on the margin of economic stability is more expensive than businesses realize.
The human costs of poverty are high and and affect all aspects of the community, she said.
And it's hard to talk about policies in isolation, Kornheiser continued. Evaluating a $15 minimum wage is easier to consider in conjunction with health care or paid family medical leave.
The legislature, when it looks at one big bill, “moves away from the synergistic effects of thinking holistically,” Kornheiser said.
Policy, value, quality of life
“People want to feel their quality of life is improving,” Kornheiser said.
On health care, Kornheiser said the conversation could go many ways. For example, the state has an unfunded health care law, Act 48. The solution might be to fund the existing law. Or, she continued, the state could look to replicating successful programs such as Dr. Dynasaur.
Or, the entire state of Vermont can become one negotiating block for insurance premiums with the federal government, she added.
Kornheiser hears from people annoyed with rising property taxes. She asks, are taxes too high, or is it that they can't see how they benefit from the money they pay? According to Kornheiser, people respond that they don't see the benefit.
For at least two decades, Kornheiser believes the practice of counting on private industry to solve community's problems has “hollowed out” the state.
Looking to the private sector is not “efficient or accountable,” Kornheiser said. She points to health insurance, cellphone coverage, and rural internet coverage as examples of where the system has fallen short.
Vermont loses out in a private-over-public system, she added: The state's low population is at a disadvantage when the private sector tries to find economies of scale.
Kornheiser feels excited to become one voice among many in the Legislature. She thinks of “leader” and “teammate” as one and the same.
Much of her professional time has included committee work, she explained. It taught her to “ask the right questions.”
It's an important skill in the legislature to say, “I hear you and I disagree,” she said.
Lawmakers have good intentions, she said. But many have limited life experience. They haven't lived the “complicated” life of struggle. So they don't realize who will be most affected by their policies.
Kornheiser felt nervous about running at first. She worried that she would have to sell herself.
She's learned that campaigns are about listening to other people.
“I'm not talking about the weather but about what matters,” she said.
After years of working in and around state government, Kornheiser said she has a sense of Montpelier's unspoken rules. For example, thou shalt not run against an incumbent. None of the rules she pushes will be pushed by accident, she said.
People have thanked Kornheiser for standing up in meetings and saying “the thing” they were afraid to say.
“Yup, that's what I do, I say the thing,” Kornheiser said.