By KATHRYN FLAGG
BRISTOL — After serving as a local civic leader for years, lifelong Bristol resident John “Peeker” Heffernan, 46, has turned his eye on statewide politics for the first time.
The current selectman and fire chief is throwing his cap into the ring in the race for a seat in the Vermont House of Representatives, running as a Republican against Addison-4 Representative District incumbents Michael Fisher and David Sharpe, both Democrats.
Heffernan came to the decision to run just weeks ago, he said, after weighing the advice of close friends, family members and neighbors.
“There are a number of people whose opinion I value, and I’ve spoken with them,” said Heffernan. “The first question is, ‘Do you feel that I can do this job and do it adequately?’ And I haven’t had anybody tell me that they don’t think that I should do it, that they don’t think that I can get a handle on how it works and do a good job.”
Heffernan is no stranger to civic leadership. He’s served on the Bristol selectboard since 2001. Before joining the selectboard he sat on the town’s equipment committee, and he’s also headed up the Bristol Recreation Club as president. And, after 18 years as a volunteer firefighter with the Bristol fire department, he was elected the department’s fire chief in January.
His term as selectman is up this year — but regardless of the outcome of the state race, he hopes to continue to play a role in local politics.
“No matter what happens I’ll still be looking to represent the people of Bristol on the selectboard,” said Heffernan.
His experience on the selectboard has been a positive one, he said.
“I didn’t have an agenda when I got on, and I still don’t,” said Heffernan. “I got on to try to make a difference for Bristol.”
That same philosophy applies to his candidacy for state office.
“Basically it’s the same in this endeavor,” said Heffernan. “I don’t have an agenda.”
His biggest interest in state-level politics is in the “infrastructure,” he said — a fitting response for a self-proclaimed “dirt guy.” (Heffernan is the president and co-owner, along with his brother Steven, of Heffernan Excavating Incorporated, a business he’s helped head since 1986.)
“All the things that concerned me in Bristol I’m sure will concern me on a larger scale,” he said. “I realize once you move up a notch, you no longer have just Bristol’s roads and buildings and bridges. You have the whole state.”
He’s particularly concerned with road repairs and highway funding, which he feels needs more attention at the state level.
“I don’t know why they choose to repair the roads that they choose to repair,” he said. “I don’t know how they go about it.”
On hot-button topics like heating oil costs and state energy contracts, Heffernan admitted that he does not have strong feelings — though he is concerned about the challenges facing Vermonters as oil prices continue to rise.
“I’m very nervous about what some of the people on fixed incomes are going to do,” he said. “I hate to think that there are older people out there who are going to have to choose between heat and food, and unfortunately that’s what it’s going to come down to.
‘Something needs to be done,” he continued, “but I’m not sure just what.”
His response was similar when asked about his thoughts on the Vermont Yankee and HydroQuebec contracts, which the state will weigh in coming years.
“I guess I would have to be shown that there was a viable alternative before I said, ‘No, we don’t want to renew your contract,’” he said about Vermont Yankee, the controversial nuclear power plant in Vernon, Vt., which is slated to close in 2012 but is currently angling for a license extension of 20 years.
Heffernan said that, if elected, he would face a “steep learning curve” — but he was confident that his Bristol civic experience and his “people person” mentality would see him through any bumpy transition.
Still, he was levelheaded and calm about the election process, and said he was unsure as to whether or not he’d campaign extensively.
“I’m excited, but I’m not going to lose any sleep one way or another. I look forward to serving my community if they want me to, and if they don’t, so be it,” he said.
“I am who I am, I do what I do and if you like it, that’s good,” said Heffernan. “If you don’t, I’m okay with that, too.”