Christine Hallquist seeks to oust Gov. Scott
MIDDLEBURY — Christine Hallquist enjoys a challenge.
Like taking over the top job at the Vermont Electric Cooperative (VEC) 13 years ago when it was staring into a financial abyss.
Like quitting her job on March 2 to run for governor this November, making her the first transgender gubernatorial candidate in the nation’s history.
The 62-year-old Hyde Park Democrat recently sat down with the Independent to discuss her background, campaign and positions on various issues that she and her fellow candidates will be asked to weigh in on for the next five months leading up to the Nov. 6 General Election. She must first prevail on an Aug. 14 Democratic Primary that includes announced candidates James Ehlers, director of Lake Champlain International, and Ethan Sonneborn, a 13-year-old Bristol resident. Major party candidates have until May 31 to file their paperwork with the Vermont Secretary of State’s office.
Incumbent Gov. Phil Scott is expected to run for re-election, and Hallquist wants to relegate him to one term.
“The way Phil Scott is governing is horrible,” she said. “He has not gotten involved (in the legislative process) until the end, and then it was ‘veto everything.’”
Hallquist, who in 2015 made her decision to come out “as her true self,” has three grown children.
She believes her success in the corporate world as an electrical engineer and a CEO has groomed her to become the state’s next governor.
She arrived in Vermont in 1976 to take a job with Digital Equipment Corp. as an electrical engineer. At age 29, the company named her manager of power systems manufacturing.
A month into her new job, Hallquist recalled an ominous conversation with her boss during which he told her to cut the company’s power costs in half from the prevailing $1.89 per watt, or “he would wipe out the division.”
So she bought a book that chronicled the Toyota manufacturing process, which shed light on what is now known as the “lean” manufacturing process, built on minimizing waste and maximizing productivity. Using that process, Hallquist was more than able to meet her boss’s directive.
Around a decade later, Digital Equipment fell on hard times and Hallquist left to become an independent consultant.
“I wanted to stay here in Vermont,” she explained. This led to her working for myriad companies inside and outside of Vermont, including Miller Brewing, Keebler, Honda of America, and Geiger of Austria’s location in Middlebury.
It was in 1998 that Hallquist received a call from the Vermont Electric Cooperative, (VEC) which delivers power to around 34,000 member-customers in 74 towns in northern Vermont.
“They were just coming out of bankruptcy, and the CEO offered me a job,” she recalled. “He said, ‘Why don’t you come work for our engineering and operations, you’ve got the background.’”
Hallquist saw the offer as an opportunity to get into the electric utilities business, which she saw as the future of energy in a peak-oil world.
She became manager of engineering operations for VEC in 2000, soon after it had cleared bankruptcy hurdles.
The company in 2004 bought Citizens Utilities, which at the time was 50-percent larger than VEC, according to Hallquist.
But VEC again found itself on the edge of bankruptcy in 2005, Hallquist noted. It had the highest electricity rates in the state, the largest number of outages and “lousy service.”
“The state was ready to take our Certificate of Public Good,” Hallquist said.
It was during this time of corporate peril that Hallquist agreed to take the reins of VEC.
“My first address to employees was, ‘I’ve got a business background, but I only give myself a 10-percent chance of success here,’” Hallquist recalled. “But I told them if we all worked together, maybe we could make (a turnaround) happen.”
And it did.
The company succeeded by integrating more technology into its operations, from enhanced computer services, to giving cell phones to line workers so they could respond to outages more quickly and effectively. Hallquist wanted to involve workers at all levels in decision making, while giving them a clear vision of where the company would like to go.
“Your goal as a leader is to drive out fear in the organization,” Hallquist said.
She presided over what she said was a substantial growth in VEC’s portfolio, a boost in its financial standing and resurgence in customer appeal.
By 2010, VEC had reclaimed an A-plus bond rating from Standard & Poors. Outages were cut by two-thirds. State energy officials sought an audience with Hallquist to learn from the company’s turnaround. The 107-employee company recently went through five years without a rate increase.
“We became leaders,” she said.
Energy provided by VEC is now 96-percent carbon-free, according to Hallquist, and it has made that environmental commitment without putting financial pressure on its poorest customers.
“We served 18 of the 25 poorest communities in the state up in the Northeast Kingdom,” Hallquist said. “What I learned was, you can’t address climate change without addressing economic issues. There are people living on the margin, and they’re not thinking about climate change; they’re thinking about ‘how do I get to tomorrow and feed my kids?’”
And Hallquist wants the state’s children to stick around, instead of leaving for greener economic pastures as they are currently doing. To turn around the trend, the state must create a better foundation for nurturing small and emerging businesses, according to Hallquist. And that will mean providing better cell phone coverage and connecting every home and business to fiber for high-speed Internet access, she said.
“We’re not going to get young people and entrepreneurs to Vermont if we can’t get them connected,” Hallquist said.
How would she do it? Through a collaboration between electric utilities and telecommunications providers.
“If the electric utility hangs the fiber in the electric space using their equipment and their workers, you could do it for one-third to half the cost,” said Hallquist, who placed the current cost of hanging fiber at $25,000 per mile. “If the electric utility does it with their equipment and their space, they can do it for $10,000 per mile. It’s just another wire.”
Lawmakers spent much time this past session considering gun safety legislation in the wake of school shootings in other states and an averted tragedy at Fair Haven Union High School. Hallquist lauded Scott for signing legislation last month that will limit the capacity of ammunition magazines sold in Vermont to 10 rounds and confiscation of firearms from those deemed dangerous to themselves or others. The governor also endorsed new laws requiring mandatory background checks prior to firearm sales, a ban on bump stocks, and a boost (from age 16 to 21) in most cases in the legal age required to buy a gun — though there’s an exemption for younger people who take the hunter safety course.
Ultimately, Hallquist doesn’t believe Scott went far enough.
“I think we need to ban assault weapons,” she said, adding, “I’m for common sense gun control.”
DAIRY FARMS ON THE BRINK
Hallquist acknowledged the latest spate of low milk prices that are forcing more Vermont dairy farms to go out of business. Supply is outpacing demand right now, she noted.
“We’re producing 30 percent more milk in Vermont than we did in the late 1960s,” Hallquist noted.
She believes some dairy farmers should be supported in transitioning to different agricultural ventures.
“It’s about moving to a value-added crop you can make a finished product out of, and ship to the world,” Hallquist said. “We do that with maple syrup, so we have a model that works. So it’s a matter of offering farmers the opportunity to be able to go into different businesses that still rely on the land and (involve) the same skills and practices they have.”
The sun has set on the days when it made sense for Vermont to recruit big manufacturing businesses, according to Hallquist. So state leaders must think more strategically.
The right economic development strategy is growing the kinds of businesses that already exist in Vermont, according to Hallquist.
“We’re going to bring in the graphic artists, the software developers — those people who can work in rural Vermont who don’t require a lot of infrastructure and who will spend their money at the local stores and restaurants,” Hallquist said.
Vermont shouldn’t dangle a lot of financial carrots in front of big businesses, she added.
“As a leader in the state, we aren’t going to be offering tax incentives to bring companies into the state, because we don’t have the money to do it,” Hallquist said.
Hallquist, since the early 1990s, has favored establishing a universal, single-payer health care system in Vermont.
Such a system, she believes, would be more efficient, less costly and a boon to business owners who would no longer have to pay a portion of their workers’ health insurance premiums.
“We need to take health care out of the cost to the employer,” Hallquist said.
Reduced health care costs would allow employers to better afford a $15-per-hour minimum wage, she reasoned.
Hallquist conceded Vermont, with its small population, can’t afford to establish a single-payer health care system on its own.
“I would form a union with other like-minded states — and there are many — to achieve the goal,” she said.
Hallquist believes Vermont should regulate and authorize the sale of marijuana, with tax revenues used to assist people with opioid addiction issues. She said the drug is already widely used and should be placed on a similar footing with already regulated tobacco and alcohol, and that people should know where their marijuana is being grown.
She’s looking forward to meeting a lot of people on the campaign trail. More information about Hallquist can be found at christineforvermont.com.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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