Caleb Elder joins Addison-4 House race
STARKSBORO — Caleb Elder has been a leader in his community on renewable energy and education issues.
Now he wants to offers his ideas on those and a variety of other subjects as a member of the Vermont House representing the Addison-4 district.
The Starksboro Democrat had been considering a run for the past four years, and now believes the time is right. He joins a field that already includes fellow Democrats Paul Forlenza and Mari Cordes of Lincoln, as well as incumbent (and top vote-getter in 2016) Rep. Fred Baser, R-Bristol.
Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, announced at Town Meeting that, after 16 years, he would not be running for re-election.
A primary runoff will be needed to whittle the Addison-4 Democrat competitors down to two. The two-seat district represents Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton and Starksboro.
“I’ve followed Vermont politics since I was in high school,” Elder said. “I always have been interested in our citizen Legislature.”
While every state legislature can experience some political skirmishes, Elder has always believed Vermont’s part-time lawmakers have averted the gridlock and dysfunction that has characterized national politics.
“It’s been remarkably responsive to the people of the state,” Elder said of the Vermont Legislature. “They are looking at what the real obstacles are in people’s lives and how we can address that collaboratively.”
Elder, 36, has been working in the renewable energy field for a decade. The Mount Abraham Union High School graduate went on to attend Middlebury College, where he earned a degree in environmental studies in 2004. His college advisor was none other than his dad, Prof. John Elder.
He took a job as a sales account manager with AllEarth Renewables, a Williston-based company specializing in green energy projects. Elder recently joined Bristol-based construction company Smith & McClain, in charge of sales and marketing for its solar division.
He has always been passionate about environmental and renewable energy issues, and has helped find solar solutions for scores of area homeowners, schools, nonprofits and businesses.
It’s a personal and professional interest that Elder has also shared with his community. He served, until earlier this year, as Starksboro’s energy coordinator. It was a position that saw him gather information, grant money and advise his community about potential renewable energy projects on school and municipal property.
Starksboro has been very active in the solar movement, Elder noted. Robinson Elementary in 2010 became the first graded school in the state to generate 100 percent of its energy needs through solar. The community has also invested in some solar trackers.
Elder lamented the 50-percent drop last year in solar permit applications, driven in large part by new net metering rules adopted by the state. He’d like to see the state revisit those rules to allow for a resurgence in applications, and is a big supporter of methane (Cow Power) projects on farms.
He’s has gathered an impressive civic resumé during the past seven years. He currently serves on both the Starksboro and Mount Abraham Unified School District school boards. He was a member of Addison Northeast’s Act 46 Study Committee that laid the groundwork for a successful governance and budgeting merger for the five-town school district.
Elder was — and still is — a supporter of Act 46. The big step of merger school governance garnered a lot of public feedback from five-town residents. He believes residents learned a lot about their schools during the process and are committed to making the new governance system work.
“How can those unique elementary school cultures be not only preserved, but help inform the larger district and have that engagement translate to Mount Abraham Union High School as well?” Elder asked rhetorically, meaning it as a challenge to resolve.
He described himself as “very liberal” on social issues, but more of a centrist when it comes to state spending. Elder has been active with his political party, serving as a member of the Vermont Democratic Party State Committee from 2012 to 2017. He has also been involved with the Addison County Democratic Committee since 2011 and has chaired the Starksboro Democratic Committee since 2015.
When he’s not at work or at a school board meeting, you’ll likely find him with his spouse, Mikaela Keepin, or performing bluegrass music. He’s an accomplished violinist and sits in with several local musical groups.
During the coming months, Elder will bike the roads of his district, knocking on doors and attending special events to convey his positions on a variety of issues. He offered a glimpse of those positions during a recent interview with the Addison Independent.
“We have excellent schools in Vermont, but we’re challenged by population change,” Elder said. “We’ve seen a 30-percent decrease (in student enrollment statewide) since I graduated from Mount Abe. That is a huge driver when it comes to school budgets.”
If elected, Elder would emphasize workforce training and what he called “well paying career paths” in a public school system he believes should prepare students for pre-K through college.
Elder is a big fan of the Patricia Hannaford Career Center and its mission of getting students to think about — and train for — a vocation at an early age. For example, he noted that thanks to the PHCC’s co-enrollment program with Vermont Technical College, students can earn professional licensing and early credits for degrees in such fields as nursing.
“I’m suggesting we make students more aware of these options,” Elder said.
He believes public schools must position themselves to better compete with private schools for the shrinking student pool.
“More students might come if a clear path to a career is put forward,” he said.
To that end, he wants the state to offer its high school graduates more affordable options for continuing education at Vermont State Colleges. Elder supports current legislative efforts to pass an education funding bill that reduces the burden on property tax payers, and he wants more school-business collaborations to give students a better idea of the skills and knowledge they’ll need to succeed in the workforce.
“We want our young graduates to have a clear path to a good job locally and to be able to raise their kids in our school districts,” Elder said.
Vermont should continue to work toward adopting a universal health care system, according to Elder. But he realizes such a dramatic shift will take more time, study and a sizable up-front investment. So in the meantime, Elder wants to see the state offer universal access to primary care. Making doctors’ office visits more affordable would encourage consumers to more actively seek preventative health screenings and thus lead to a healthier population and less costly medical interventions.
“It makes total sense to me,” Elder said.
He suggested Vermont could get an early look at the potential of universal primary care by having such a benefit cobbled into labor contracts for state employees and teachers. The program could be expanded to the general population if it proves successful, he added.
“(Universal health care) becomes more of a value the bigger the risk pool you have,” Elder said.
He noted Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, is primary sponsor of bill S.53, which proposes to establish a universal, publicly financed primary care system for all Vermonters beginning net year. Elder supports that initiative.
It’s clear the state, and nation, need to do more to contain the rising costs of health care premiums, he said, adding that insurance companies like Blue Cross-Blue Shield and MVP must be included in the health care reform discussion.
“To protect the status quo with respect to health care doesn’t make sense right now,” Elder said.
Elder has followed the new calls for gun control in wake of recent school shootings in other states. He said a “good place to start” would be to place limits on the capacity of firearm magazines and expanding background checks on prospective gun purchasers.
He believes lawmakers must be flexible and willing to compromise, if they are to have success.
“We need to have a legislative process that is willing to make changes,” Elder said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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