ORWELL — Many political candidates find themselves competing in multiple elections before finally winning a seat in the Vermont House. Some never quite muster enough votes to get in.
Then there’s Alyson Eastman, a first-time candidate who finds herself with no competitors in her bid for the Addison-Rutland seat representing Benson, Orwell, Shoreham and Whiting. Barring a successful write-in challenge, Eastman, an Orwell independent, will take the place of Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, when the Legislature reconvenes next January.
While Eastman has an apparently easy road to election, she is taking the job very seriously.
Eastman, 37, is owner/president of Orwell-based Lake Home Business Services Inc., which specializes in the completion of immigration paperwork for foreign workers taking part in the H2A seasonal work visa program. Eastman’s firm also assists a variety of businesses with accounting, payroll and other management services. It is from this vantage point that Eastman has been able to see firsthand the challenges that farmers face in securing seasonal workers and the difficulties bureaucratic red tape causes small businesses on a regular basis.
“I have been able to put my finger on the pulse of these businesses and help them save money,” Eastman said.
She believes that experience, as well as her regular dealings with farmers, will make her an asset to the agricultural and economic development debates that have been ongoing in the Statehouse. And she has already gotten a glimpse of politics on the big stage — at the Capitol building in Washington D.C., where she testified last year on immigration reform before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
“Through my job, I have been forced to get into politics,” said Eastman, who added that around 60 percent of her business is related to H2A matters. “I also worked a lot (on agricultural issues) with Will Stevens at the state level.”
One of those issues related to the Internal Revenue Services decision in 2010 to start taxing H2A workers. But Vermont officials didn’t find out about the change until 2012, Eastman noted, leaving affected workers with large, retroactive tax assessments.
“When you added what they owed in income taxes, it was as much as they make in one year,” Eastman said.
Eastman asked Stevens what the state of Vermont might do to soften the financial pain on H2A workers.
“We were able to get a bill passed to forgive that back tax,” Eastman said.
Eastman said she came to admire Stevens’ qualities as a lawmaker — particularly his ability to listen to different points of view and the attention he paid to constituent concerns.
“He was up there for the people,” Eastman said, a philosophy that she plans to emulate. “Hopefully, the people will understand that I am running for them, and if they have concerns, I hope I can raise those concerns and send them in the right direction.”
Alyson and Michael Eastman have twin, 10-year-old sons. She has been a member of the Orwell School Board for more than four years, a role in which she deals with education quality and financing issues. Eastman acknowledged the Legislature is likely to spend a lot of time next session looking at various education issues, including bills seeking to contain school taxes and possibly consolidate school operations to reflect dwindling enrollment.
The state’s education funding law should be re-examined, according to Eastman, as many Vermont communities are seeing their school taxes increase annually at rates higher than inflation. As it stands, Eastman noted school boards have little room to cut budgets. As an example, she noted 72 percent of the Orwell school budget is related to personnel costs that are negotiated.
“It’s hard to commit to cutting out of that (remaining) 28 percent,” Eastman said.
Eastman is not a fan of school consolidation and added she wants to see a plan that proves cost savings from streamlining school governance.
“A lot of taxpayers are passionate about their schools and don’t want to see them close,” Eastman said. “Vermont has a very attractive education system. I didn’t say it was cheap, but it is attractive.”
She acknowledged that a big driver in the school budgets continues to be health care costs. Eastman noted the state is trying to transition toward as single-payer health care system, which she called a “good goal.” But she added she wants to learn more about single payer and its financial implications on Vermonters before fully backing such a system.
“It will be interesting to see how it plays out,” she said of the health care issue.
While she will be entering a political realm, Eastman confesses to disliking politics. She believes her independent status will set her apart from the political skirmishes that can come with major party status and allow her to negotiate on equal terms with both Democrats and Republicans.
“I didn’t have to think long and hard about running as an independent, because that’s truly who I am,” said Eastman, who is surprised at this point to have no competition for the Addison-Rutland House seat. “I know it will be more difficult going in as an independent, but life is not always easy.”
Eastman noted that many current Vermont lawmakers are retirees, a reflection of the amount of time it takes to do the job right. Eastman is pleased to bring her perspective of a working family person to Montpelier.
“Between growing up on a farm, sitting on a school board and doing my daily job, I have been involved in politics from many different angles,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]