Democrat seeking Vt. lieutenant gov.’s job

MIDDLEBURY — Cassandra Gekas has spent the past few years lobbying state politicians for health care reform as a representative of Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG).
Now the Montpelier Democrat is seeking to become one of those being lobbied in the Vermont Statehouse — as lieutenant governor. Gekas, 30, is challenging incumbent Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott this November.
To say it has been a whirlwind campaign for Gekas would be an understatement. She has followed a myriad of issues in Montpelier, including nutrition policy, the fight against domestic violence and, of course, health care. Gekas has come to know lawmakers and the legislative process well and now wants to become involved as an elected official.
“I started to think bigger than my role at VPIRG,” Gekas said. “I started thinking about running for office in a serious way last January and February.”
As the ensuing months flew by, Gekas became increasingly convinced that it was the lieutenant governor’s office that she should target. But she saw some obstacles to such a run — especially money.
“I am not independently wealthy,” Gekas said, noting the minimum six figures it now customarily takes to run for major statewide office in the Green Mountain State.
“At first I was reluctant to make this move.”
That reluctance dissipated, Gekas said, as she received some eleventh-hour encouragement and support from Democrats and Progressives to run against Scott. She filed her nomination papers, with little time to spare, on the June 14 deadline day.
“It has been wild,” Gekas said.
And not without repercussions. Her decision abruptly ended her employment with VPIRG, where officials criticized Gekas for not providing advance notice of her election plans.
Gekas said the “details of our parting are a private matter,” but concedes, “You can’t be a lobbyist/advocate in the Statehouse and run for political office.
“I am now focused 100 percent on the campaign.”
It is a campaign that will see Gekas do a lot of one-on-one chatting with Vermonters, with whom she believes she can relate as a person on a tight budget facing an uncertain employment future.
“Uncertainty and change is something that thousands of Vermonters are facing,” Gekas said. “I can get what Vermonters are going through every day.”
It should come as no surprise that Gekas is making health care reform the top issue in her campaign. While Vermont is on a firm path toward a single-payer health care system (which she supports), Gekas said lawmakers will have to make some key decisions on the subject next year. And one of the most important decisions, Gekas said, will be how the new health care system’s benefits will be defined and financed.
“I see it as my job to help make sure Vermonters and the Legislature have the courage to move forward (with tough health care decisions) next year,” Gekas said. “Too many Vermonters and businesses are suffering. It’s time for a change.”
Gekas wants to be part of health care discussions next year that acknowledge, and borrow from, health systems already in place in other nations. And the U.S. has already had some success with its Veterans Administration and Medicare health insurance models, according to Gekas.
“We are not reinventing the wheel here,” Gekas said. “This is something every other industrialized country has done.”
Job creation is another issue Gekas will hammer home in her campaign. She is currently working toward a master’s degree in community development and applied economics. She believes the best way to nurture economic development is to make sure Vermont families have the supports they need to be productive in the workforce. Those supports, she said, include affordable child care, job training, loan forgiveness programs and protected pensions.
She said the lieutenant governor’s office should be an “incubator space for policy ideas” during the six months each year when the Legislature is not in session. Gekas does not believe lawmakers engage in enough long-term thinking, in part due to the state’s two-year election cycle.
If elected, Gekas pledged to champion such social causes as equal opportunities for same-sex couples and so-called “Death with Dignity” legislation. Vermont has passed same-sex marriage but has not endorsed a Death with Dignity law that would give terminally ill Vermonters the right to take their own lives if they follow a regulated process.
Gekas acknowledged she is the underdog in the race against Scott. But she believes she can overcome the odds with what she said is a “wide network” of grassroots organizers.
“I feel confident my values, goals and leadership style will be something Vermonters will choose at the polls in November,” Gekas said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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