Editorial: There is no easy choice for the next governor of Vermont

Vermont now has five capable candidates who have announced their intentions to run for governor: Sue Minter, Shap Smith and Matt Dunne for the Democratic Party’s nomination, and Bruce Lisman and Phil Scott for the Republican Party. As well as being well-rounded, each candidate has their own particular skill set or background that could tip the scales in their favor.
House Speaker Shap Smith has experience managing the political process, knows policy better than anyone else and knows what levers need to be pulled to get things done; Matt Dunne, while also serving in the legislature for years, brings an outside business perspective to the table in his role with Google as well as understanding how to position Vermont to benefit from the new economy better than any other candidate; Minter would bring her legislative and administrative experience to the task of running the state — a job that requires attention to detail and managerial oversight; Scott is the original good guy and he has experience running a small business; Lisman brought himself up the bootstraps, made a fortune and says he could right Vermont’s listing ship.
But is that enough?
In this era of political dissatisfaction with the status quo, just what are voters looking for in their next leader?
What are you looking for?
At the national level, the public frustration has reached a point that the go-to answer seems to be to dynamite what we have and start new. The system is broken and it’s rigged, voters are saying; maybe a Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders are the candidates who will unseat the powers that be and give the nation a fresh start. At the very least, voters want to hear them out.
Do Vermonters feel the same about Montpelier?
Our hunch is that to a lesser extent, that’s true, and particularly on economic issues. Since Gov. Dick Snelling’ second term in the early 1990s, the mantra for governors has been to create a business-friendly environment and get the economy moving again. Gov. Howard Dean made the pledge, so did Gov. Douglas and Gov. Shumlin. Twenty years later economic issues are still at the heart of the upcoming campaign: everyone agrees we need more jobs and better paying ones. Making Vermont more affordable falls in the same dark well, as does curbing Vermont’s appetite for more taxes.
And, yet, the problems remain. Why? Is the system broken in Montpelier as well? Is the legislative construct so unwieldy that cost-effective programs to address the state’s major economic problems (affordable housing, an education system that produces skilled workers that fit the job market, lower taxes, more job creation) are nearly impossible to implement?
Or are the problems so fundamental that any solution takes years to address and what’s needed are leaders who articulate solutions, set goals, and inspire us to reach those goals over the longer term?
In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy ignited the nation’s imagination with his goal to put a man on the moon, and he touched the nation’s soul with his appeal to Americans “to ask not what the country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
What is the equivalent message today? What is it that inspires Vermonters to be the best we can be, and that sets us apart so that others might want to move here and be a part of what we offer?
Shumlin has certainly tried to set lofty goals and inspire us to tackle our problems directly. Among other things, to counter the rapid rise in health care costs, he launched Vermont on a path to healthcare reform with the hope of a single-payer system; he identified opiate addiction as the scourge it is, and tackled it head-on; he articulated the threat of global warming and put in place monetary incentives to jumpstart the renewable energy sector; he has launched school reform measures (universal pre-school, and reorganizing education governance at the state and local levels) in an effort to reach better outcomes; he launched a new effort to clean up Lake Champlain and our state’s waters; and he’s implemented several measures to boost job growth.
Five years later, his record on those major is a mixed bag. He’s moved the needle on health care and education reform; put opiate addiction on the stage (though perhaps not in the best light); jumpstarted a robust renewable energy sector but helped create a public backlash against it because of poorly conceived siting rules; and while making steps forward in economic development, the state still struggles with an aging demographic that sees as much or more youth flight than growth.
Putting aside the hundreds of other initiatives the governor and Legislature have addressed in these past five years, on these issues does it add up to success or failure, and is the yardstick we’re using long enough to measure?
As voters we should ponder what it is we want in our next governor and how realistic are those expectations. We should ask who could provide the hope and optimism necessary to spark our imaginations. Who will be able to instill in us the will to make the changes necessary to make our futures brighter? And who will be able to articulate the most pertinent challenges facing the state and then manage a solution to get the job done? It’s not an easy task, nor an easy choice.
Angelo S. Lynn

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