Bray pushes farm issues in campaign
NEW HAVEN — State Rep. Christopher Bray, D-New Haven, has been traveling around the state as a candidate for lieutenant governor and has seen a lot of things that make him happy — the Green Mountains, productive farms and active schools, to mention a few things.
But there one thing in particular that brings a smile to his face.
“There is nothing that makes me happier than to see someone with a good job,” Bray said in a recent interview with the Addison Independent.
If things fall his way during the upcoming elections, he hopes to keep himself and other Vermonters smiling for the next two years and beyond.
Bray, 54, will face Steve Howard of Rutland City in an Aug. 24 Democratic primary. The winner of that race will go on to face the winner of the GOP primary — either Mark Snelling of Starksboro or Phil Scott of Berlin — in the Nov. 2 general election.
Bray graduated from the University of Vermont (BA, Zoology, 1977; MA, English, 1991), where he also taught for four years in the English Department. Bray founded Common Ground Communications, which provides writing, editing, design and production services to a variety of clients and publishing houses. He lives with his family on an 82-acre farm in New Haven.
Thus far, Bray has raised around $30,000 for his campaign and acknowledges he will “need to do that several times more” in what is expected to be a very competitive race.
“Day by day, the contributions are coming in,” said Bray, who has been campaigning throughout the state since announcing his candidacy this past January. He noted he has been endorsed by 30 Vermont House and Senate members, along with former Vermont Gov. Phil Hoff.
As a four-year veteran of the House agriculture committee, it comes as no surprise that Bray has emphasized bolstering Vermont farming and forestry as part of his campaign message. But his overarching theme has been “sustainable economic development,” of which agriculture is part of the equation.
“Vermont is at an economic crossroads; we face a changing world and a new economy,” Bray said. “The choices we make in the next election will determine if we embrace new ideas for economic development and succeed, or cling to outdated ways of doing business and continue to struggle.”
Bray has been working on several initiatives to promote small- to medium-size business development in Vermont. One of his proposals is a “Vermonter to Vermonter loan program,” consisting of a fund in which citizens could invest for a modest, guaranteed yield. Those funds would be made available — through existing loan channels, like banks and credit unions — to entrepreneurs needing to raise capital for promising businesses.
“You wouldn’t be in it to make money, per say, and you would know the money in that fund was being loaned out to grow existing businesses and develop new ones,” Bray said, equating the Vermonter to Vermonter loan program to war bonds.
“By the end of World War II, Vermonters had purchased $269 million in U.S. War Bonds,” Bray said. “If you adjust that figure for inflation and population growth, that’s equivalent — if we were similarly enthusiastic about participating in this fund — to a $4.2 billion fund, which would go a long way to funding our own projects in the state.”
Bray believes Vermont can also boost its economy through the development of renewable energy. He noted that Vermont farms are already at the forefront of manure-to-electricity technology. There are additional opportunities to derive energy through algae farms and to grow switch grass and other bio-fuels for alternative heat/power sources, according to Bray.
“We have these great forest and farm assets that can help us with biomass and methane,” said Bray, who sponsored a bill in 2008 that created the “Biomass Energy Development Group.” That group’s charge was to determine how Vermont can enhance its biomass industry, while at the same time maintain healthy forests in the Green Mountain State.
“It’s important that we keep on investing in these things and take more control of our own economy,” Bray said.
Increasing local food production is another area in which Vermont could create jobs while cultivating a more reliable, safer source of food. With that in mind, Bray championed “Farm to Plate” legislation, which among other things, calls for Vermont to produce at least 13 percent of its own food — compared to the current 3 percent — by the year 2020.
Ratcheting up local food production by 10 percent would add roughly $500 million to the state’s economy, in terms of related jobs and added revenues, according to Bray.
“We end up being more self-reliant, in terms of our own economy,” he said. “We can grow it without being dependant on the whims of Wall Street or agribusinesses like Monsanto.”
And like businesses, Bray believes the state of Vermont should do more long-range planning when it comes to budgeting. Lawmakers this past session had to sort out a $154 million deficit for fiscal year 2011. While Bray said it would have been tough to anticipate the severity of the recent recession, he believes Vermont officials could be more proactive, rather than reactive, in budgeting.
“If you’re in government, you’re like a steward of this public trust, and I think you have an obligation to look ahead and try to do good, long-term planning,” Bray said. “We have the equivalent of someone on the bow of this (state government) supertanker and they are looking right down, just in front of the ship so they can call out … as they run things over. We don’t look ahead, so we end up very reactive, not proactive.”
Bray would like to see the state look up to 20 years ahead in its budget planning. In the meantime, Bray is not receptive to the idea of increasing taxes.
“I still see opportunities for us to be more efficient,” he said.
The Vermont Senate voted against re-licensing the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant after its current authorization expires in 2012. Bray said he would have preferred the Legislature had considered a “short-term renewal” of Vermont Yankee’s license — perhaps five or seven years — to ensure the owner (Entergy) live up to their responsibility and had the wherewithal to decommission the facility.
A short-term renewal now seems unlikely, Bray noted.
“Things unraveled with the leaks and the lies,” he said, alluding to leaks of radioactive water at the plant and some inaccurate statements made by the plant owners to state officials and federal regulators.
Bray said the state has made great progress in extending health insurance to its population. But he believes that ultimately, Vermont should deliver a single-payer option — perhaps the opportunity for everyone to buy into Medicare.
“I hope we can get, as we did five years ago, a waiver from the feds and they’ll say, ‘We can see you’re doing good experimental work, and we’re going to let you use federal money more flexibly than some other folks and figure out how to spend it well in the state of Vermont.”
Bray’s view on school spending and the importance of maintaining a strong, public school system is mixed. While suggesting the state can hold the line on spending by streamlining school administration, he does not think the right approach is to slash more state funding or to close community schools by mandating consolidation of smaller schools. He suggested the different supervisory unions could pool their purchasing power for supplies and services and that schools could make do with fewer superintendents and administrative expenses.
“Before we start pushing harder to close schools, I’d love to see us push harder on running the back-office operations more efficiently, and consolidate there,” he said.
“One of the most interesting baselines for this discussion to me is the chart that shows education spending as a percentage of our state’s gross domestic product — and it’s flat. It has almost been flat for 20-something years, pre- and post-Act 60/68. So to me, some of the talk about education spending is that it’s created the impression of a ‘fact’ that it is too expensive, merely by repeating it. You can look at data that says, ‘No, we’ve actually controlled those costs well, and especially over the past two years, where loads of towns kept their spending flat, and some even reduced their spending.”
Bray also noted that Vermont has a great asset in its public school system and that it is ranked in the top handful of schools in the country in terms of national testing and outcomes.
“The state has one of the best school systems in the nation,” he said, “do we want to give up on that? I don’t think so … because it affords better jobs.” The goal, he said, was to work on making school systems the most efficient they can be on the administrative level, and then focus on improving outcomes and training students for work in the 21st century.
Throughout his four years in the House, Bray has been known as an articulate and determined supporter of agriculture and a thoughtful legislator who has been quite successful promoting and passing bills — passing seven of eight that he brought to the floor this past session. A scholar of the legislative process, Bray is also a political moderate who prefers to work out compromises than get into partisan battles.
“I am really not attracted to partisanship and rancor,” he said. “It is not a good fit for me as a person.”
He told a story about spending a week with his father, a physician, before he passed away recently, and recalled three lessons which he had “always heard growing up.”
“The first thing was, ‘You’re in the world to make it a better place. You need to act and get involved.’
“The second thing that my father always said was, ‘Patients heal themselves, not doctors.’ Having a positive attitude and participating is how you really make things happen. The Obama version of that is: ‘We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.’ No one is going to fix Vermont’s economy for us; we’re the patients, and we need to have a positive attitude, we need to get involved. Be in the Legislature, think about doing good stuff and work toward good things, and good things will actually happen.
“The third thing was, ‘Be kind.’”
That may not be a winning formula in today’s political contests, Bray said, but it’s how he’s waging his campaign and it’s how he would serve as lieutenant governor if elected.
John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.