by Doug McClure
CRAFTSBURY – On Sunday, September 13, Democratic lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Molly Gray hosted a forum with two of the Northeast Kingdom’s Democratic legislative contingent, Senators Bobby Star and John Rodgers, both of the Essex-Orleans District, and Democratic candidate Katherine Sims who is vying for the Orleans-Caledonia seat left open by Sam Young, who will not seek re-election this year. The forum was the first of eight such planned events. Gray’s challenger for lieutenant governor, Republican Scott Milne, was invited but did not appear, according to the campaign.
Sims is one of four candidates competing for two Orleans-Caledonia seats. Republican incumbent Vicki Strong is up for re-election this year. To fill out the general election slate, Democrat newcomers John Elwell of Craftsbury Common, and Republican Craftsbury Town Moderator Jeanine Young are competing, as is Republican-turned-independent Frank Huard. Strong and Sims won their respective primaries.
Starr is up for re-election, and Rodgers is running as an independent rather than a Democrat in 2020 due to a missed filing. Also competing for the two seats are Democrat Ron Horton from Jay, and Republicans Jonathan Morin of Holland and Russ Ingalls of Newport, who won the primary vote.
The forum was for many their first introduction to Gray, a political newcomer who works as an assistant attorney general and, according to her website, teaches night classes at Vermont Law School. Gray’s family is from Newbury, “descendants of Irish immigrants who came to Vermont for a better life in the 1800s,” where she was “born and raised on a farm,” according to her profile. She attended UVM on an athletic scholarship and competed in Division I cross-country skiing. After graduation she helped elect Representative Peter Welch to Congress and moved to Washington to serve as a Congressional aide. She spent three years at the International Committee of the Red Cross working on humanitarian issues and led field missions to Haiti, Uganda, and the Western Balkans, among other places. Gray then returned to Vermont and graduated from Vermont Law School.
Senator Bobby Starr
The first speaker was Senator Starr, who began by addressing the question “What planet did you come from?”
“I come from where real Vermonters come from. We do things properly and politely,” he said.
Senator Starr is widely known in the Kingdom, having served as a representative from 1978-2004 before being elected in 2005 to his current senate seat. He said he feels “good about where and how voted on the issues” throughout his years of service. Senator Starr said he is chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and is also on the Senate Committee on Appropriations. According to the State of Vermont, he participates in the Legislative Study Committee on Wetlands and the Vermont Milk Board. He described the committees as “important committees that mean a lot to the people I represent.” He spoke only briefly, closing out his speech with a polite dig at his colleagues in the House of Representatives. While the Vermont General Assembly has just 30 senators, 150 people make up its House of Representatives, which makes physical distancing requirements due to COVID-19 a bigger challenge.
“They’re in the House [of Representatives]. I don’t even know if they know where they’re going to meet, maybe out on the front lawn? In a big tent?” he asked.
Senator John Rodgers
Clad in a white T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Rodgers for Vermont,” Senator John Rodgers spoke next. He began with a self-deprecating remark about his face mask. “My son and I went to the supply store this morning to get some supplies, and I left my good masks in the other truck,” he said. “I had to make this one out of something, so it’s not very fashionable.” Like Senator Starr, Senator Rodgers is well-known due to his years of legislative service, first in the Vermont House from 2003-2011 and in the Vermont Senate since 2013. He spoke of his commitment to lake water quality, stating that one of the first things he accomplished after being elected to the Vermont House in 2003 “was to get funding for signage for all the Vermont waterways that had aquatic nuisance species.” Senator Rodgers said he owns a camp on Shadow Lake and was concerned that boats from nearby Crystal Lake were unknowingly bringing milfoil with them. “I saw this as the huge threat as it is,” he said, “and since that time I’ve written several pieces of legislation dealing with aquatic nuisance species. I’m trying to cut down on the transportation [of species] and trying to educate people more.” Shadow Lake is apparently now free of milfoil, said Rodgers, with the caveat that its unique status might change if people become careless. “It took us over five years to get the milfoil in control, and we are extremely happy. I think we’re only the second lake in the state that eradicated [milfoil], or we think we’ve eradicated it [because] we haven’t found any.”
Senator Rodgers continued listing his pro-environment track record, pointing to his successful defeat of proposed COVID-19 legislation that would have allowed municipalities in the Designated Downtown program to bypass Act 250 and “dump raw sewage into our lakes.” He said development should not take place until towns “can prove that they are reducing the amount of raw sewage.”
Candidate for Representative, Katherine Sims
Sims started by noting the “strange election cycle where opportunities to connect with voters have been so limited,” and thanked the roughly two dozen attendees for “taking your time on what has remained a beautiful day to come here and talk about the issues that matter to Vermont.” Sims is not as widely known as Senators Starr or Rodgers and took the opportunity to introduce herself. She said she lives in Craftsbury with her husband and two sons.
“While I moved up here for a job, what I found was so much more than I ever could imagine,” she said. “I found real community. I love living in a place where, when I go to the General Store, everyone knows my name. And when I got stuck in a snowbank last winter, a random stranger drove by and pulled me out. I love that my family gets to enjoy outdoor recreation in all of Vermont’s seasons — all five of them,” she joked. She explained her decision to run for office stemmed from her belief that “our rural towns are the heart of Vermont, and yet too often state policies leave our rural communities behind.” She added that “too many [people] in our districts struggle to access housing, high-speed internet, childcare, healthcare,” and the path to recovery for small businesses affected by COVID-19 was “uncertain.”
Sims spoke of the “recent challenge to Northern Vermont University” and said the school’s near-death experience earlier this year is evidence that “access to affordable higher education in our communities is threatened.”
Gray began by re-emphasizing COVID-19 safety precautions. As with all public gatherings, the event required a sign-in sheet for contact tracing in the event of a COVID outbreak. Gray said she had last been in Craftsbury in 2006, ski racing for UVM. “It’s great to be back,” she said, “it’s obviously been a bit of time.”
She covered a wide range of topics followed by a Q-and-A, and described the current cultural moment as punctuated by “justifiable social unrest, not only nationally but here in Vermont.” She said Vermont’s economy was being “challenged and pulled and poked in every way imaginable.” State demographics continue to present a challenge, Gray said, adding, “We see more deaths than births in a majority of Vermont counties.”
Gray described Governor Scott’s plan to lure out-of-staters to Vermont with a $10,000 payment as the wrong approach.
“We shouldn’t be paying people $10,000 to move to Vermont,” she said. “We need to invest in this Vermont that we want.”
Of the “three strategic areas” of focus she cited, broadband drew the biggest audience response. “I think [broadband] is one of the best investments we can make right now for Vermont,” Gray said. “It’s access to telemedicine, it’s access to online learning, it’s access to remote work, it’s access to economic opportunity for our communities.”
Some in the audience likened broadband to electrification in the 1930s. Elon Musk’s efforts with satellite internet through Starlink were mentioned, as were other potential private partners.
“If you imagine 70,000 homes without water or heat, we’d be [saying] ‘outrageous.’ And the internet’s sort of like the modern-day equivalent of electricity.” Gray said, characterizing it as an “equity issue.” She suggested it was time “to invest a little bit more in broadband and a little bit less on roads.” Senator Starr said it was key to find “the best bang for our buck” and move forward with it. “You can’t expect people to come and live here and work from home with crappy internet,” he said.
Gray said her focus was on “making Vermont the best place to raise and support families,” including investing in childcare. She spoke of “putting our communities [and] people before politics,” and added that “from our greatest challenges come our greatest opportunities.”
UVM Applied Economics Development professor and former “farm kid from Stannard” Travis Reynolds moderated the forum and asked Gray the majority of questions. He pressed her for specifics on childcare, a system whose weaknesses he felt had been exposed by the pandemic.
Gray responded that childcare was “probably one of the best economic opportunities we have right now in the state.” She said childcare is a major issue for parents in light of school shutdowns and partial re-openings. Gray described childcare as “the best economic investment” and stated that “universal access to childcare and equity” can have a lasting impact on a child’s future. She explained that in reviewing legal histories of defendants she had prosecuted as assistant attorney general, she observed a link between childhood neglect and later troubles with law enforcement.
“Investing in childcare is also investing in prevention. We know that,” she said.
She segued from a discussion of childcare to her ideas for tackling Vermont’s demographic crisis. She said there was promising economic development potential in paid family leave, adding “it’s the right thing to do, and it’s going to create a Vermont that’s more economically viable, inclusive, and sustainable for the future.”
Reynolds asked about recent shifts in demographics, including “COVID refugees coming from big cities… hiding out in Vermont,” and the “actual refugee population, international migrants” that had settled in Vermont in the past year. “What is your strategy?” he asked Gray. “What are your priorities?”
Gray replied it would be “interesting to see what the population shift is in the state over the next year,” and there has been “a lot of investment, a lot of growth” in Chittenden County. The same could not be said for Orange County, Caledonia, Essex County, Orleans or southern Vermont, which did not show significant growth, she said. She pointed to broadband as a major factor. “Who wants to move to a community where there’s no internet during a global pandemic?” she asked. “If you have children, or you’re thinking about remote work, or just basic access to safety and health information.” She said broadband access is “one area where we can make a strategic investment to draw people to our state.” She added that Vermont offered “one of the best K-12 education systems” but “once our graduates get through high school, 41% on average do not go on to any additional training.” Compounding the issue, she said, was a lack of government-funded financial support to state colleges, which resulted in fewer qualified people to fill higher-level jobs.
Inclusivity was another concern raised by Gray. “We see a city like Rutland which tried to encourage more Syrian refugees to move to the community, but then the mayor was not re-elected just because of that,” she said. “We know Vermont is the whitest state in the country, but we also have an environment that’s not always welcoming, that’s not always inclusive.” Gray described inclusivity as another “strategic investment” to be made in Vermont’s future.
Reynolds pressed Gray for details on where the money would come from to build the future she envisioned. Gray cited the currently booming real estate market, and reports of “houses being sold sight-unseen across the state.” She suggested that with so many houses being sold, “why not capture a small amount of that real-estate transaction, possibly 1%, and have that go into an investment in childcare or affordable housing?” She admitted that Realtors “don’t entirely like this idea,” adding, “I think we need to create a Vermont that is extremely inclusive, but also figure out how do we ensure we can access housing, child care, and we can have good-paying jobs?”
When the moderator opened questions from the audience, a recent graduate from Hazen Union School with plans to attend college in Boston asked Gray “are there any women in government you look up to, or are particularly inspiring for you?” Gray said Governor Madeleine Kunin, “Vermont’s first and only female governor,” has “been a mentor.” Gray also mentioned Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D) as “an incredible woman” and an example for young women looking to get involved.
Gray spoke of how she envisioned her role if elected to office. “If we continue to have the same people at the table, you may continue to see the same outcomes,” she said. “That’s not to fault our policymakers.” She explained that listening to the voices of “those who are most greatly impacted by our decision-making” would result in “better outcomes.” Gray said as Lieutenant Governor it would be her responsibility to ask “‘who is not here?’ when we’re talking about discrimination in housing, ‘who is not here?’ when we’re talking about discrimination that’s existed with to access to education, employment,” and bring those voices to the table.