Rep. Dave Sharpe plans to run for House speaker

BRISTOL — Rep. Dave Sharpe has confirmed to the Addison Independent that he will be a candidate for speaker of the Vermont House, should he be re-elected to his Addison-4 seat this November.
The Bristol Democrat, a 14-year veteran legislator and current chairman of the House Education Committee, is hoping to succeed incumbent Speaker Shap Smith. Smith is stepping down from his House seat and will run for lieutenant governor.
News about Sharpe’s designs on the speakership adds to what has already been a very busy couple of weeks on the statewide political scene, some of it courtesy of Addison County lawmakers.
As reported last week in the Independent, Addison County Democratic state Sens. Claire Ayer and Christopher Bray of Addison and New Haven, respectively, plan to run for Senate President Pro Tem. (A story about Bray’s political plans appears on Page 1A.)
And Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton and former House Majority leader, told the Independent last week that he would not seek re-election in the Addison-2 House district after 14 years.
During an interview on Monday, Sharpe said he wants to run for House speaker in part to help his party fill the breach created by the announced retirements of Smith and several other veteran Democratic lawmakers.
“We’re seeing a tremendous turnover in leadership, and that means somebody has to step up,” Sharpe said.
He also sees the speakership as a platform through which to shepherd legislation to address many of the state’s perennial priorities, including reforming health care, making gains in renewable energy, improving the quality and affordability of education, and cleaning the state’s waterways.
Sharpe is already experienced in dealing with state finances and education. He served for more than a decade on the House Ways and Means Committee, a panel that deals with Vermont’s tax laws and revenue picture. Sharpe is also a member of the state’s Joint Fiscal Committee.
Soon after the 2014 elections, Smith appointed Sharpe chairman of House Education, a committee that — among other things — drafted and promoted Act 46, a new law that seeks to unify the school governance structure and budgeting practices within the state’s almost 60 supervisory unions. Voters in all four supervisory unions in Addison County have either approved unification plans under Act 46, or will hold referenda later this year.
Meanwhile, Orwell residents on June 21 will go to the polls for a second time to vote on their town’s potential participation with five Rutland County towns in a Slate Valley Unified Union School District, which was organized under Act 46.
Sharpe believes his past professional and civic work has helped prepare him for the role of House speaker.
“All of my life, I have considered myself a leader in a certain sort of way,” he said, alluding to his past ownership and operation of Hill Automotive for 18 years, then (beginning in 1991) as an automotive technology teacher at regional technical centers in Middlebury and then in Essex Junction. He was an early practitioner during the 1980s of best practices in pollution control for vehicles at his garage. As a teacher, he always promoted the importance of pollution control features for vehicles, he said.
Sharpe also served as chairman of the Bristol selectboard.
While in the Legislature, Sharpe said he took on some leadership responsibilities within House Ways and Means (as its ranking member), and has set the agenda for the House Education Committee as its chairman.
“We passed Act 46 out of our committee unanimously,” Sharpe said, pointing to that vote as an example of the collaborative, bipartisan climate he has tried to foster during his chairmanship.
More work needs to be done to improve the quality of public education in Vermont during this era of declining enrollment and rising expenses, Sharpe believes.
“We make it very difficult for schools because of the reporting requirements and the funding mechanism we have,” Sharpe said. “I think we can change those things and give some flexibility and allow best practices in our school districts.”
Federal law gives each local school district the authority to decide how to run its special education programming, and at what cost, according to Sharpe.
“As long as we have these tiny school districts strewn throughout the state and you have two or three additional kids come into the district who weren’t budgeted for, it makes it extremely difficult to run a special education program within tiny school districts,” Sharpe said.
While education has been Sharpe’s primary focus, he knows that as quarterback of the House, he’d have to march his legislative team down field on many other issues.
“My other passions are the environment, energy and health care,” Sharpe said.
He called Vermont Health Connect — the state’s fledgling health insurance exchange — a “disaster,” epitomized by a website that has been fraught with technical problems.
“I continue to hear serious concerns about how the exchange is working and how the health care system functions,” Sharpe said of a recurring refrain from constituents. He said the current state of the exchange has forced Vermonters to ask their lawmakers and social service agency officials about how they can access affordable health insurance.
“It’s a health care system that’s supposed to be transparent, easy and functional, but it’s not,” Sharpe said.
“In many ways, Vermont was in better shape before the (federal) Affordable Care Act came along,” he added.
Sharpe believes the state is on the right path in terms of cleaning up Lake Champlain, and he’d like to be at the helm of the House to continue to make sure environmental legislation is high up on the Legislature’s agenda.
The Democratic caucus will meet late this year to decide a nominee for the speakership. Sharpe hopes to be that nominee. At this early stage, Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, D-Bradford, is among a handful of Democrats to have also expressed interest in becoming the next House speaker. Copeland-Hanzas is the current House majority leader.
Sharpe will spend the next few months very informally discussing his political aspirations with House colleagues. His lobbying would become more intensive if he were returned to office in November. To that end, Sharpe first faces a Democratic primary contest in the two-seat Addison-4 House district this August. The top two Democratic vote-getters from among Sharpe, Lincoln’s Mari Cordes and Monkton’s Stephen Pilcher will then go on to the General Election to face incumbent Rep. Fred Baser, R-Bristol, and Republican Valerie Mullin of Monkton.
It should be noted that this Thursday, May 26, is the filing deadline for candidates for Vermont House, Senate and statewide positions. So the list of competitors in Addison-4 (and in other districts) could still grow.
Sharpe hopes to be part of a changing demographic in the House during the next biennium.
“It’s great to have new young people come in with new ideas to reinvigorate the Legislature,” Sharpe said. “I’m looking forward to that. It’s also good to have a little bit of history and leadership left behind. Those of us veterans who return I think have an added responsibility to come forward to provide leadership in one way or another.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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