MANCHESTER — All three candidates for the two Bennington-4 House seats believe they have the right experience for the job, and that includes first-time candidate Brian Keefe, of Manchester, the lone Republican in the contest.
Keefe is challenging incumbent Democrats Steve Berry, of Manchester, and five-term lawmaker Cynthia Browning of Arlington.
"This is my first time," said Keefe, 58. "I'm a newbie."
Regardless, he said, "I think I am ready to hit the ground running,"
He bases that on his 15 years working for the late U.S. Sen. James Jeffords, in both the Republican lawmaker's Washington and Vermont offices.
Keefe also has worked with the Legislature as vice president of government affairs with Central Vermont Public Service Corp., before the utility's merger with Green Mountain Power. He said he gained experience testifying before legislative committees and meeting with individual lawmakers.
He also served on the Manchester Planning Commission for 11 years, the majority of the time as chairman, and he served as a chairman of the Manchester 2020 initiative.
Berry, 66, of Manchester, said his experience and focus are not those most political leaders share. A minister who has worked extensively with human service organizations, the candidate said his is "a different slant on what our focus should be. I think that's what I bring to the Statehouse."
That focus is on poverty, economic justice, access to health care, opioid addiction treatment over incarceration, the environment and educational opportunities, Berry said, listing poverty a root cause of many other societal issues.
"It is not so much a wealth issue," he said of poverty, "it is a justice issue. I am someone who really took Martin Luther King seriously. I think the [Johnson administration's] War on Poverty was the smartest war we ever fought."
As a member of the House, Browning has built a reputation of not always voting with the Democratic majority on key issues, especially during the Shumlin administration, when she broke party ranks on health insurance issues, Act 46, spending bills and others.
"I voted against Act 46," Browning said, referring to legislation aimed at fostering more consolidation among the state's school districts, but she sees potential for successful mergers if the act is reformed.
Her objections, she said, include that the school districts in this area are too unalike in format to allow easy combinations, while many in Chittenden County are similar and close to one another and can benefit from the Act 46 tax incentives for residents of districts that consolidate.
Browning also is concerned that the State Board of Education could, under Act 46, force consolidations. "This is an unelected state board that can force districts to merge. I think that's wrong, but I don't think we need to repeal [Act 46]. I just don't think one size fits all."
Keefe said he learned how to work with legislators and officials with the aim of getting things done by observing the approach of Jeffords, who famously worked across the aisle in Congress and finally declared himself an independent during a period of partisan strife.
Based on comments he's heard, the economy and a shortage of good employment opportunities in Vermont are the major voter concern, Keefe said. "Kids go off to college and they don't come back, because they don't see opportunity," he said. "Part of that is normal, but I would like to see more of them come back."
Many of his friends in business locally and others he has met while campaigning are concerned that "their cost of living keeps going up," Keefe said, and the perception is that "the state doesn't help, and in some cases makes it more difficult" for businesses.
He advocated a review of regulations and requirements for those in business and added, "I think we should also take a break on raising taxes. We have done that for about six years in a row now."
Act 46 is another voter concern, Keefe said. He believes the law's provisions aimed at encouraging, and in the future possibly forcing consolidation among Vermont school districts, has guidelines better suited to some districts in Chittenden County than those in Bennington County.
Like Browning, Keefe said local districts tend to have more diverse educational formats — such as whether they allow school choice — making it more difficult for them to consolidate with other districts and meet the state's requirements for uniformity in merged districts.
"It takes us longer to figure this out," he said, "and if you don't do it, the state could do it for you. People are concerned."
Act 46 "was written as a one-size-fits-all policy," Keefe said, "but our state is not configured that way, and neither do students learn that way."
On the environment, the state's "priorities are all focused on Lake Champlain," he said of efforts to improve water quality in the lake, while he said less attention is paid to resources like the Battenkill.
Berry, 66, who was first elected to the House in 2014, said his focus may be on the needs of citizens, especially those who are struggling, but that doesn't mean his approach is impractical. "My priority is to save the state money by wisely addressing problems and focusing on their prevention," he said.
He listed among relevant issues, poverty, drug addiction, imprisonment, mental illness, obesity, tobacco use and adverse childhood experiences.
"The problem of poverty is the problem that is the result of living in an unequal society, where health and violence and most of our problems are more common at the bottom of the social ladder," he said. "Change that and our society is lifted."
Berry cited his work as a minister in Manchester and other areas of the country and extensive work with human service organizations, like Building Bright Futures and Habitat for Humanity, for giving him perspective on the needs of citizens for whom the economy has not significantly improved since the Great Recession.
On the economy, he called for tax reform to make the state less reliant on property taxes and for a livable wage for all workers, which he said would boost the economy over time.
"We have to have a longer range plan, not a short term plan" focused on cutting spending, he said.
"You hear all this gloom and doom about Vermont, but that is just not accurate," he said. "It has a great quality of life," which attracts people from across the country. A higher minimum wage and other reforms, he said, would make the state even more attractive to young families.
Berry also advocates guaranteeing access to high-quality affordable health care and was active in supporting GMO labeling legislation and a bill calling for a constitutional amendment to reverse the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that removed many restrictions on campaign spending by corporations and organizations.
"The main issue for me is people living in poverty," Berry said of the House race. "You are not going to hear that from the other candidates."
Browning, 63, said economic and health insurance issues are also in the forefront of voters' minds.
She hasn't taken a stand on the proposed All-Payer Health Care plan and will await a pending consultant's report on the plan.
"I'm a little bit suspicious about it," she said, contending that the Shumlin administration has typically "been ideological," rather than analytical, in assessing health insurance proposals.
An all-payer system, which would change the way health care providers are reimbursed for services, also "adds a whole new layer of bureaucracy," Browning said, and would hand "another unelected board, [the Green Mountain Care Board], tremendous power."
On Vermont's economy, Browning said "it has a lot of strengths, but it's fragile," and there are "no magic bullets" out there that would immediately boost the economy.
Instead, "we have to have policies that will help all businesses," she said, as opposed to targeting assistance to major employers or sectors, which she said has recently been the case.
Tax reforms are needed, she said, advocating "going through and reforming all taxes," including property, sales and income tax structures. "We need a simpler system so everyone can tell it's fair," Browning said.
She would eliminate many tax deductions, which she said would allow an overall lowering of tax rates. A higher rate for wealthy Vermonters is ineffective, she said, in that those residents can hire tax specialists to find deductions and typically wind up paying a lower rate.
Browning said "state investments in telecommunications, transportation, work force training, and water and sewer infrastructure can stimulate economic activity," adding, "Fundamental tax reform that can provide lower and more stable tax rates for all businesses and workers is essential."
On the environment, Browning said more funding is needed to address PFOA contamination found in water supplies in Bennington County and to protect local natural resources, "not just Lake Champlain," which she contends has received most of the state's attention in that area of the budget.
Spending on environmental protection and infrastructure projects, such as sewer and water systems, also would create employment and boost the local economy, she said.
"I think this is a good race," Browning said. "The people have a choice. We are different, so they have a choice. That's what it's all about."
Jim Therrien covers Southern Vermont news for the Bennington Banner and VtDigger.org. He can be reached at 802-447-7567, ext. 114.