MIDDLEBURY — Deb Markowitz has had some pretty easy sailing in electoral waters since she ran successfully for Vermont Secretary of State back in 1998.
The Montpelier Democrat knows she won’t have it as easy during this election cycle, when she faces four fellow Democrats in an Aug. 24 primary before, she hopes, challenging Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie on Nov. 2.
But Markowitz is certainly not lacking in resources or confidence.
“We need someone who can win, and that’s me,” Markowitz said in an interview with the Independent this week.
Markowitz, 48, is rounding out her 12th year as Vermont’s secretary of state. She ran for that job, as a political neophyte, after being displeased by the level of service offered by the office under then-incumbent Jim Milne.
Markowitz pointed to her fund-raising success and recent polling numbers as evidence of her ability to win the Aug. 24 primary and provide credible opposition to Dubie. She faces competition from fellow Democrats Peter Shumlin, Doug Racine, Susan Bartlett and Matt Dunne.
According to campaign finance reports filed last week, Dubie had raised far more than anyone in the race, with $943,960, of which he had spent $455,116.
Markowitz was the top fund-raiser among the five Democrats, having raised $523,946 and spent $337,189. Shumlin had raised $418,490 and spent $200,492; Dunne had raised $267,860 and spent $129,100; and Bartlett had raised $70,919 and spent $58,802.
The bulk of Markowitz’s resources to date have been spent on campaign staff — nine full-time employees, including field organizers and offices in Burlington, Brattleboro and Montpelier.
“This is a professional campaign,” she said.
Markowitz stressed that more than 85 percent of her cash had been raised in-state, from around 1,800 sources in 177 different towns. She believes this shows widespread grassroots support for her campaign, which Markowitz believes will translate into votes. And she said it is important for Democrats to reclaim Vermont’s top executive position to turn back a tide of what she believes has been ineffective leadership on such issues as job creation and broadband Internet expansion in the state.
“I think it is important that we beat Brian Dubie,” said Markowitz. “I think we cannot afford more of the same, and that’s what we will get with Brian Dubie.
“I’m running for governor because I believe we have to do things differently in Montpelier if we are going to move ahead as a state,” Markowitz added. “That means being a whole lot less political and a while lot more practical.”
Markowitz alluded to the results of three recent polls indicating that she is the only one among the five Democrat gubernatorial candidates who is “truly competitive” with Dubie.
“That’s because of all the folks in the race, I am the only one who’s won (a statewide race) six times,” Markowitz said. “I have actually won every single town in Vermont, even when I’ve had a Republican opponent and a Progressive opponent.”
She attributes her support, in part, to what she said has been her pattern of the past 12 years of helping businesses, individuals and voters receive services and guidance through the Secretary of State’s office.
“That matters,” she said of the phone calls and inquiries that she and her staff have fielded and addressed. “People trust me; they know I care about them. They know I will make a difference in their lives.”
Markowitz’s blueprint for making a difference is contained in “Jumpstart Vermont,” a 26-page action plan that describes her priorities on how to stimulate the state’s economy, craft a balanced budget and “keep Vermont the best place to live, work and raise a family.”
She said Jumpstart Vermont does not include a lot of expensive ideas or false promises, but rather a common-sense approach in dealing with many of the problems the state is facing.
“I am not promising the moon; I am promising to move us forward,” Markowitz said.
She outlined several ideas for improving the state economy. One of her emphases would be focusing first on strengthening existing Vermont businesses, rather than what she claims has been the Douglas administration’s emphasis on recruiting large companies to relocate to Vermont.
“We’ve just spent eight years trying to poach the next Husky of IBM from another state,” Markowitz said. “That has been our economic development strategy here, and it is rarely successful. Meanwhile, we have had a lot of businesses closing their doors, because no one has been paying attention to them.”
In her ongoing tour of the state, Markowitz said business leaders have voiced two primary needs: access to capital, and having the right infrastructure.
Markowitz noted that Vermont invests $4 billion in taxpayer funds in various financial institutions. But many of those institutions have tightened the reins on lending, leaving many businesses struggling for resources to upgrade or expand, according to Markowitz. She said she would inform the lending institutions in which Vermont has invested taxpayer money to begin lending money again to responsibly run businesses in the state or the state would invest its fund elsewhere.
“We’re only going to play with financial institutions that invest in Vermont businesses, and start to force them to lend again,” Markowitz said.
In terms of infrastructure, Markowitz said businesses are desperate for the state to extend high-speed Internet access and cell phone coverage throughout Vermont. But she noted that, because of Vermont’s relatively small population and rural character, private telecommunication companies are currently reluctant to invest in such infrastructure. Markowitz is proposing a public-private investment, with the public portion covered through bonding, in the same manner the state bonds for roads and bridges.
“No part of the state is going to succeed if they don’t have high-speed Internet, and if Comcast and FairPoint could make a buck doing it, they would have done it,” Markowitz said.
“It is time for a state commitment.”
Other business/economy priorities cited by Markowitz include offering businesses a $500 tax credit for taking an employee off unemployment; identifying and nurturing promising business sectors (such as Vermont’s blossoming high-tech and bio-tech enterprises) in which to direct more resources; and doing a better job marketing Vermont as a place in which to do business. She suggested promotional messages on lifts at ski resorts as a simple means of encouraging visiting entrepreneurs to look into expanding their businesses in Vermont.
“We are going to succeed in the state by talking about the things that make us a great place to do business, and then tackle head-on some of these challenges,” Markowitz said.
Among the state’s challenges, according to Markowitz, will be putting together an energy plan to transition away from nuclear energy from Vermont Yankee and toward more forms of green energy. The state’s portfolio should include natural gas, which she said “is cheap right now.” She also supports “reforming the regulatory process so that renewables can be developed in a reasonable timeframe while respecting the right of neighbors to have a role.”
Markowitz believes that Vermont Yankee’s contract should not be extended beyond the current decommissioning year of 2012.
Public education is another area in which Vermont must consider some substantial changes, according to Markowitz. She supports, among other things, reviewing Act 68 to see if it still should be revised or replaced; consolidating Vermont’s supervisory unions as a means of savings administrative costs while promoting more regional sharing of resources/personnel among schools; investing more in early education to get kids off to a better start learning; extending the school day and academic year; fostering more partnerships between schools, businesses and colleges/universities; making higher education more affordable through loans, tax credits and scholarship programs; and instituting a mandate that students remain in high school until they graduate or turn 18, whichever comes first.
Markowitz said neighboring New Hampshire already has been successful with its “18 or graduate” policy.
“What I propose to do is end the ‘drop-out,’” Markowitz said. “Right now, we allow students to drop out when they are 16. One out of five of our kids don’t graduate — that’s a lot of people who aren’t going to be productive in our workforce. With our declining population, we cannot afford that.”
She said schools need to instead “rise to the occasion” to craft creative programs that can reach adolescents who might be better served outside the conventional classroom with mentorships, apprenticeships and alternative education.
On health care, Markowitz would like to see the state get clearance from the federal government to set up a self-insurance system to extend what she believes would be affordable coverage to every Vermonter who needs it. She also supports efforts to import less-costly prescription drugs from Canada and wants to see a standardized billing system used among Vermont hospitals as a way of cutting administrative overhead.
If elected, Markowitz vowed to work closely with the state’s Congressional delegation to get dairy farmers a better pricing system for their milk. She said she’d work to keep the Current Use Program strong; encourage local food consumption in Vermont schools and in the community at large; and support the development of more production facilities — including mobile slaughterhouses — to allow farms to better process their goods and get them to the marketplace.
If all proceeds according to her campaign plans, Markowitz hopes to follow in the footsteps of one of her political idols — former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin. Markowitz was a University of Vermont student during the early 1980s and waitressing at Pauline’s Restaurant in Burlington when she first met Kunin, a fellow Democrat. Markowitz recalled getting a prophetic ride home from the airport from Kunin on an occasion during those early days.
“She made me promise that if I ever had the opportunity (to run for office) that I would take advantage of it and not be afraid,” Markowitz said.
Markowitz now hopes to live up to that promise.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.