Foes face off in Windham-Bennington race
MONTPELIER >> In the 2014 general election, then-state Rep. John Moran lost just one town in the Windham-Bennington House District.
But that town — Dover — happens to be where Laura Sibilia resides. Sibilia, an independent, used her strong hometown support to oust Moran, a Wardsboro Democrat who had served four consecutive terms.
Two years later, they are facing off again in the Nov. 8 general election. And the way they frame their candidacies says a lot about their approach to state politics: Moran is an unabashed progressive focused on workers' rights, while Sibilia is a political centrist with economic development credentials.
"I am trying to represent the true constituents that we have in my valley," Moran said. "The people who work, the people who make the economy happen. The people who are underpaid and who are being mistreated at times."
Sibilia responded by recalling her own, past struggles with declining tips and wages. "That was not because my employer was greedy or did not care for me or the well-being of my family," Sibilia said. "It's because our economy was declining. This is what led me to make the career choices that I have made."
The Windham-Bennington District covers the towns of Dover, Wardsboro and Whitingham in Windham County and Readsboro, Searsburg and Stamford in Bennington County. All told, there are a little over 5,000 residents in the district, with a majority clustered on the Windham County side.
Also included in the district is the unincorporated town of Somerset, which had a population of three people in the 2010 census.
In 2014, Sibilia beat Moran by just 39 votes. Another independent candidate, Philip Gilpin, finished a distant third.
Sibilia takes the independent label seriously. She views herself as a moderate who is "more fiscally conservative, more socially liberal," and she worries that party labels can paint a candidate with a broad brush.
"I do think that it's really important for issues to be thought about, assessed and decided on a case-by-case basis," Sibilia said. "In this country, things have gotten so partisan, and people are so disrespectful ... I'm not really interested in that at all."
She is interested in economic development, given that her regular job is with Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. and Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies. Sibilia also is a former director of Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce.
In her first term, Sibilia served on the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee.
Moran, while serving in the state House from 2007-2014, was a member of the General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee. That committee's list of duties includes labor relations — a top priority for Moran, who is the former co-chairman of the Working Vermonters Legislative Caucus.
Moran said the prominence of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in the 2016 presidential race was one of his inspirations for getting back into state politics. Moran briefly considered a run for governor before deciding to try and reclaim the Windham-Bennington seat.
"If there was ever an opportunity for progressive legislation to pass, it's now," Moran said.
In recent interviews, Moran and Sibilia clashed on two key topics that highlight their differences — Act 46 and economic priorities.
Sibilia voted for Act 46, the 2015 education law that pushes for larger, consolidated school districts statewide. She says those votes were the most difficult of her first term.
"I do not think it is perfect legislation," she said, while arguing that "we're too far into it" to consider a repeal.
She does not believe Act 46 can accomplish one of its purported goals – tax relief. But Sibilia does see the law as a vehicle for improving educational equality, which she believes "needed to be addressed because (inequality) was so great in some of our schools, and particularly in our high schools."
Sibilia is a Dover School Board member, and she started a Small Schools Caucus in her first legislative term. But she also believes that "Act 46 works to solve inequity by saying, we need (school) boards to consider larger groups of students."
Sibilia is not in favor of stripping consolidation directives from the law. Rather, she says the state should offer more help to districts that are struggling with those mandates.
"I think we're going to have to look at, what is the evidence of (local) effort, and what additional assistance is needed?" she said.
Moran, a former Wardsboro School Board member, labels Act 46 a "bait and switch" that is creating more problems than it solves. "They did nothing about property taxes, and they focused on governance," he said.
Vermont does not have too many school boards, Moran argues. As a legislator, Moran would work to "take all the mandates out of the law" — meaning school districts no longer would be required to pursue consolidation.
The Legislature's focus, Moran believes, should be on a complete overhaul of the state's education-funding system. He said residents ought to fund the state's education system via a "progressive income tax," not with property taxes.
The candidates' disagreements run deeper in regards to the economy.
Moran wants "economic justice" for Vermont's workforce, and he defines that in part by universal health care and a $15 minimum wage. He believes there are political, economic and moral reasons to further boost the state's minimum wage, which now stands at $9.60 per hour and is scheduled to rise to $10.50 per hour in 2018.
On the moral front, Moran isn't afraid to call out the ski business that dominates his part of Vermont. "How can we justify a tourism industry that doesn't provide the people who provide the labor a livable income?" he asked.
Sibilia says she doesn't oppose a $15 minimum wage, but she would rather see it happen nationally.
"I am opposed to Vermont doing the heavy lifting for the nation over and over again on national labor issues, at the expense of focusing on the rural economic issues which are actually having a far greater impact on Vermonters' lives," she said.
Those issues include a need for a better workforce training and housing, Sibilia said, along with better marketing of the state as a place to live and work. Sibilia was involved in the 2015 creation of the Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone, which includes Windham and Bennington counties.
Sibilia also points to a need for better cellular and broadband access. During the 2016 session, she spearheaded a legislative effort to call out VTel Wireless for not making more progress on its promised wireless-broadband network.
"We're either going to figure (connectivity) out, or we're going to knowingly abandon our rural areas," she said. "Because I'm not going to stop talking about this."
Mike Faher reports for the Reformer, VTDigger, and The Commons. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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