Democratic gubernatorial candidate looks for points of unity
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist, seen here during a campaign visit in downtown Brattleboro in August, is trying to unseat incumbent Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate looks for points of unity

Hallquist presses broadband, affordability, and new efforts to make the state’s resources grow

BRATTLEBORO — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist hoped to squeak through the August primary with a win. The former CEO of the Burlington Electric Cooperative won her party's race with a hefty majority.

With less than a week until the Nov. 6 general election, she has been visiting communities large and small, including spending a packed day in Brattleboro on Oct. 12, when The Commons caught up with her.

“My love of Vermont is deep,” said Hallquist, who has received attention from the national press as the first transgender candidate in the nation to win a major-party nomination for a state governor's seat.

She recognizes what Vermont does well in her opinion, such as education. “We've got amazing people with amazing views,” said Hallquist, who tells the national press that Vermonters don't care about her gender.

Still, she said that on the night of the primary, she realized “just how impactful” her gender identity could be.

The spotlight has come with negatives - like death threats, said Hallquist.

But on the plus side, she credits the raft of media coverage about the race and her historic primary win with opening doors for her to build relationships with governors in other states.

Hallquist wants to leverage these relationships to create a coalition of states to support programs such as Medicare for all, a united front that could also push back against “some of the hostile things coming out of D.C.,” she said.

Some of the states interested in joining this effort include California, Massachusetts, Colorado, and Oregon, she said.

Connecting the state

Hallquist believes that if the state connects every home with fiber-optic cable and works on rebuilding the downtowns, then “people will flock to this state.”

The reason people are not driving up Interstate 91 in droves is because of the lack of internet, she said.

Hallquist noted that some of the demographic shifts in rural states such as Vermont mirror those of the 1930s. At that time, the cities had electricity and rural areas did not.

“This is a pretty straightforward problem from my perspective,” Hallquist said.

She explained that her vision of connecting Vermont to the internet developed over the 10 years that she worked on an advisory committee to an utility organization that serves rural America.

According to Hallquist, if an electric utility uses its infrastructure and technicians to hang fiber-optic cables, it cuts the cost of installation by half, compared to telecommunications firms working on the project directly.

Using the utility for the job would also let the government tap into loans for the work that could be repaid over a 30-year loan period, compared to the 15-year payback schedule available to most telecommunication companies.

In the end, she said, these two factors cut the cost by more than 75 percent.

Most of the voters she speaks with have the same concerns, Hallquist said. Two-thirds of Vermonters live in rural communities.

“It's the future, our jobs. Can our children find work here? I don't understand why there's a big political divide when most Vermonters have the same concerns,” she asked.

What defines affordability?

Hallquist's opponent, incumbent Republican Governor Phil Scott, has said that he wants to make Vermont more affordable.

Some of the governor's actions have focused on reducing taxes and fees, and Scott has also gone toe-to-toe with lawmakers over education spending.

Legislators, however, such as Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, and Senate President Pro-Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, have criticized Scott's definition of affordability as being too narrow.

How does Hallquist define affordability?

She said affordability is at the heart of why she's disappointed with Scott, who got her vote in the 2016 election.

“Of course, obviously I'm disappointed,” she said. “We have two different views of Vermont.”

While the governor talks about making the state less expensive for citizens, Hallquist charges that his actions don't align.

“He vetoed a bill to raise the minimum wage. He vetoed a family-leave bill. He vetoed a toxins-in-toys bill. And he vetoed a bill that would have made polluters pay,” she said.

“He is not thinking of those at the bottom 20 percent of the income ladder,” said Hallquist, who pointed out that if the minimum wage had been adjusted for inflation since the late 1960s, it would be around $22 per hour today.

Today's minimum wage in Vermont is $10.50 per hour.

She characterized the reluctance to address a livable wage as a systematic attack on the working class, noting that the bottom 80 percent of the wage earners in this country haven't seen real wage growth since the early 1980s.

“I know how to do cost control,” she said. “Cost control does not help you with affordability.”

When she became the CEO of the Vermont Electric Cooperative, the company's rates had been almost level for five years. The average rate increase had been 0.8 percent for 10 years.

“You do that through cost control,” she said. “But a good business person knows you've got to grow your resources.”

Or, she added, a company can “cost-control yourself right out of business.”

Hallquist is credited with bringing the cooperative back from bankruptcy and possible shutdown by the state.

“You need a leader who will put more food on the table so we're not fighting for the scraps,” said Hallquist, who wants to measure a tax by how it affects the bottom 80 percent of people on the income ladder.

“Because we've got all this rhetoric about all these jobs that have been created,” she said. “The bottom 80 percent still hasn't seen real wage growth this year.”

First on the agenda: the tough stuff

If elected, Hallquist has plans for her first day on the job.

She would ask lawmakers to bring back some of the bills Governor Scott had vetoed in the last legislative session.

“Raise the minimum wage, provide family leave, and bring those 'toxic bills' back for me to sign,” she said.

Education and its contribution to rising property taxes remains a hot topic for many voters, and Hallquist made two points on the cost of local schools.

First, the rhetoric that Vermont spends too much on its education “is completely false,” she said.

Hallquist said normally there is a connection between population density and the amount spent on schools. The more rural a state, the more it spends on education, she explained.

Under that logic, Vermont should spend the most per capita on education of any state in the country. According to Hallquist, nationally, Vermont ranks fifth for its school spending despite its being one of the most rural states.

According to 2016 census data, Maine and Vermont top the “most rural list.” More than 60 percent of their populations live in rural areas.

“So we're doing something right,” she said. “And that's not a copout; of course, we need to learn how to do things better.”

Collaboration vs. command-and-control

Hallquist took the opportunity to contrast her leadership style against Scott's.

A self-described “collaborative leader,” Hallquist believes that Scott's “command-and-control model” is “antiquated.”

“Command and control works great during power outages,” she said. “The rest of the time, you ought to be trying to engage people.”

In her view, engaging employees creates better results.

“Good results doesn't come from management,” she said. “They come from the people doing the work.”

She described Scott as “barking out orders” from Montpelier to the local schools and developing “arbitrary metrics.”

She believes his model is a failed one. “I've talked to the teachers, and they're ready to dig in,” she said.

In Hallquist's opinion, the state can take measures to change how schools operate. For example, standardized testing, in her view, increases costs without improving a school's curriculum.

She also suggested using schools as a location for community services such as mental health, pediatric care, or day care.

Her first step in making all that happen: personally work with teachers to develop a set of best practices.

She also wants to support schools that have developed alternative governance plans under Act 46, the state education-reform law that gives the Agency of Education wide latitude in forcing towns and school districts to regionalize.

Pulling together

Hallquist noted she has a long history of leadership. When she took over the Vermont Electric Cooperative, the state was ready to put the utility out of business.

She pulled employees into a meeting.

“I said, look, personally I have a lot of business experience, but I only give myself a 10 percent chance of success. But if we pull together, we could do some amazing things,” Hallquist recalled.

She also told the employees that she and they were in this company together. She put everyone under the same union contract, including herself. For example, whatever percentage pay increase that the employees received, she received the same, and not a penny more.

Five years later, Hallquist said, the utility was considered one of the best in the business by several yardsticks, from innovation to its service. The cooperative had cut its outages in half.

Most professionals will say that's impossible, she continued.

“But nothing is impossible when we're pulling together,” she said.

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