Shoreham’s Wilson urges health reform in House bid

SHOREHAM — Barbara Wilson loves tending to her crops at the Solar Berry Farm in Shoreham. And along with harvesting berries these days she’s planting the seeds for what she hopes will be a successful run for the Addison-Rutland seat in the Vermont House that represents the towns of Benson, Orwell, Shoreham and Whiting.
Wilson, 62, grew up on a dairy farm in Portland, Mich. She and her siblings spent many long days tending to the herd and other agricultural chores.
“When you had a small dairy farm, your family was your workforce,” she said with a smile.
Wilson enjoyed agricultural pursuits, but had a mind for figures. She enrolled at Michigan State University, where she would earn a degree in mathematics.
She assumed she would become a teacher, but advances in technology during the 1970s were creating new opportunities for people with solid math skills.
“It was back in the days when the workforce was growing and they needed folks in the computer science world,” she recalled.
Bell System offered Wilson a job analyzing how the big phone company could match its telephone-related services to customer needs. She accepted the job, which meant moving to New Jersey. She moved up the ladder during a 35-year career with Bell, ultimately managing a team that created software to manage the network.
Wilson retired from Bell in 2012, having qualified for her pension at age 55. But the company — which at this point had been acquired by the Swedish corporation Ericsson — continued to value her skills, so she agreed to continue working with Bell on a freelance basis until 2016.
There were no tears shed on her part when she cut ties with Ericsson. The company, according to Wilson, seemed totally consumed with profit margins at the expense of its workers. Layoffs had become a common occurrence.
“They off-shored my remaining team to the Ukraine,” she said.
Meanwhile, Wilson and her spouse, George Gross, had already begun the next chapter in their lives — one that brought Wilson’s career full circle. They moved to Shoreham in 2008. And instead of juggling numbers and solving equations, Wilson returned to farming. Their Solar 
Berry Farm yields the raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and peaches for Wilson’s line of jams and chutneys. She sells her products at farmers markets and specialty food stores.
It began as a solo operation, but surging orders have prompted Wilson to hire a few part-time workers.
Running a business gave Wilson first-hand knowledge of the challenges facing employers and employees, meeting a payroll, health insurance and marketing.
Wilson in 2016 became involved with Rights & Democracy, a non-profit group operating in New Hampshire and Vermont that is rallying people behind such causes as a livable wage, access to affordable health care, racial justice and an “equitable” tax system.
“One of the issues that has affected me personally is health care,” Wilson said, explaining she and her husband are part of a demographic in Vermont that’s having a tough time affording health insurance. They’re not quite old enough to qualify for Medicare, and their income is a bit too high for them to qualify for health care subsidies. So they’re stuck with high insurance policy premiums as they await relief through Medicare (at age 65) or for the state or feds to enact new health care reforms.
“We are fortunate to have a pension and some retirement savings, but I can’t imagine how hard it is for others,” Wilson said.
That’s why Wilson supports universal, publicly funded primary care, an initiative that earned some discussion in the General Assembly this year.
Wilson continues to believe Vermonters should have universal access to doctors’ visits, mental health services and for substance abuse treatment.
“I’m very passionate about the health care issue,” Wilson said.
She took her advocacy to Montpelier last legislative session, providing testimony to the Senate Health & Welfare Committee and House Committee on Health Care.
“It was a wonderful learning experience to see (the legislative process) in operation on a day-to-day basis,” Wilson said of the legislative process. “I saw some really positive things.”
But a comprehensive universal primary care bill failed to advance this past session. So Wilson, a Democrat, has decided to run for the House in an effort to advance that cause, along with other initiatives she believes are important to struggling working families and seniors.
She held her campaign launch party on June 19 at the Shoreham Inn.
“You look at our rural landscape and see the number of folks who are trying to survive and raise a family,” she said. “When you look at health care, child care, being able to have family leave — I personally don’t see how they do it. If we want to keep folks in this state, it’s critical we help by providing some services that are going to enable them to focus on making a living and know their children are safe, know they can go to the doctor when they need to.”
Wilson is hoping to break a historic drought for Democrats running in the Addison-Rutland House district. Republicans held the seat for many years until Rep. Will Stevens of Shoreham won election as an independent in 2006 and served through 2014. His two successors have also been independents: Former Rep. Alyson Eastman of Orwell, and now Rep. Terry Norris of Shoreham. Gov. Phil Scott appointed Norris to the post early last year after having selected Eastman as his deputy secretary of agriculture.
“I thought long and hard about it,” Wilson said of her House bid. “I had folks encourage me to run.”
She believes her background in farming, crunching numbers and running a small business would be an asset in the Statehouse.
“I know how to develop spreadsheets and really question numbers,” Wilson said.
“You have to do your own research to discern if what you’re being told is really true.”
Wilson has ideas on how to attract businesses and workers to the state. Those ideas include providing affordable housing and some basic support services to increase the pool of workers for the business sector.
“I believe what would really help to attract employers would be a partnership with them to ensure we were preparing students to qualify for the positions that they would require, both now and in the future,” she said. “It could be a joint partnership where we work together, even offering unpaid or minimal paid internships that would go toward a student’s required graduation credits. When I was working, I found my best employees by first hiring them as interns. This would also help to keep young folks in Vermont.”
Wilson was an opponent of the Addison Natural Gas Project pipeline, which at one point included a spur to International Paper in Ticonderoga, N.Y. That spur plan, which was scuttled, called for part of the pipeline to go through Wilson’s and Gross’s property. She did spreadsheets analyzing Vermont Gas’s claims about the financial benefits of the pipeline. She believes the company over-promised savings for consumers.
“I’m a stickler for facts,” Wilson said.
If elected, Wilson promised to involve her constituents in her representation of the district. In July she’ll send out an “issues survey” to district residents. She also wants to form some “focus groups” within Addison-Rutland to help her research issues on which she would be voting.
“If I get to do this, I’m going to do it right,” she said of her goal as a lawmaker.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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