In his House bid, Birong seeks support for small businesses
VERGENNES — The table appears set for 3 Squares Café owner-operator Matt Birong of Vergennes to join the Vermont Legislature.
Barring a write-in campaign or a minor party candidate entering the race later this summer, Birong and incumbent Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, will run unopposed on Nov. 6 for Addison-3’s two Vermont House seats representing Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes and Waltham.
It would be the first time ever that two Democrats held both seats in what has traditionally been a Republican stronghold.
Incumbent Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh, is not running for re-election.
Birong, 41, a lifelong Vermonter, is pleased to have been granted a direct path to the House, where he wants to become a voice for his constituents — including those like him who run small businesses.
“Vermonters deserve solutions, and I am ready to get to work,” Birong said through a recent statement confirming his candidacy. “I’m stepping into this race to make change that supports a healthy economy and thriving local communities. I believe that by investing in infrastructure, addressing local environmental challenges, and improving our tax structure, we will begin to move in the right direction.”
Birong took some time out from his 3 Squares Café duties late last week to talk about his background, reasons for seeking office, and what he hopes to accomplish in Montpelier during the next two years.
“I’ve always been interested in politics; I’ve always watched from the sidelines and from the couch,” Birong said with a smile.
But that changed around five years ago, when Birong decided to get involved — first, with the Main Street Alliance of Vermont (MSA), a business association that advocates for small enterprises and the communities in which they’re based. Birong initially helped the organization by passing out surveys to other small business owners along Vergennes’ Main Street.
He joined the MSA’s lobbying effort for “paid sick days” legislation at the Statehouse. Birong provided input to Democratic leadership to tailor the bill to small businesses, many of which survive on a thin margin.
According to the new law, workers qualify for three days of paid sick leave after one year of employment. That bumps up to five day after two years.
“Everyone agreed it was the right thing to do for employees,” Birong said.
His direct exposure to the political process whetted his appetite for more.
Birong joined the MSA board, which began exploring family leave policy. He also was a strong advocate for the Green Mountain Secure Retirement plan. Signed into law in 2017, the new plan provides a retirement savings option for businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
He got a taste of statewide and national politics in 2016, first as a Vergennes delegate at the Vermont Democratic Convention, then as a state delegate for Bernie Sanders at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Birong called that experience an “incredible honor.”
Since 2016, he’s continued to work with MSA advocating for such issues as equal pay, family leave, and clarifying and simplifying state permitting processes for small businesses. He believes progress on these issues will be key if the state is to retain its younger citizens and provide them with job opportunities. A vast majority of enterprises in the state employ fewer than 100 workers.
It’s in Vermont’s best interest to support and grow its smaller, homegrown businesses, according to Birong. He noted 3 Squares Café has some longtime employees who’d like to lay down roots in the area. It’s also a dream shared by many natives who have left.
“A lot of my friends want to move back to Vermont and they’d like to live a comfortable life,” Birong said. “But they’re struggling to find those middle-income jobs.”
The current state economy is too dependent on the retail, food service and tourism sectors, Birong believes.
“We need to cultivate and nurture the entrepreneurial spirit we have in this state, instead of looking outside of our borders to bring people in who might divert resources, job training money and access to capital,” he said.
BIGGER TAX BASE
Birong is bullish on Addison County — and Vermont in general — in terms of the potential to increase the tax base. He noted the county’s close proximity to the entrepreneurial hub of Chittenden County. The railroad and road infrastructure linking the two counties could make Addison County a logical extension of Burlington-area business growth.
“We need to find ways to facilitate logical growth,” Birong said.
Other issues important to Birong include workforce development, devising a “livable wage” standard and making progress on the federally mandated cleanup of Vermont’s waterways.
He’d like to see more business partnerships with tech centers to expose high school students to more lucrative fields — such as engineering — that are looking for workers. He also wants to see lower in-state tuition rates for Vermont’s college system.
Birong looks forward to participating in a renewed call for reforming the way public education is funded in the state, and addressing people’s concerns about high property taxes.
“Property taxes are already too high,” he said. “I don’t want to see residential and non-residential taxes go up.”
And like a lot of Vermonters, Birong wants to see lower health insurance costs.
“My monthly premium for just my wife and I is $400 more a month more than my first mortgage,” Birong said. “We have to take a look at shifting away from a for-profit health care system.”
He supports the concept of universal primary care, adding that a larger transition to a universal health care system would have to come from the federal level.
Birong’s wife, Danelle, is a broker with the Real Estate Company of Vermont. Together, they have supported such local nonprofits as the Vergennes Opera House, the Bixby Memorial Library and the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes.
He vowed to campaign as if he had an opponent. And he wants to hear Addison-3 residents’ top concerns leading into the next biennium.
“If you’re not listening, you’re in a bubble,” Birong said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]
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