BRATTLEBORO -- In his first term in the Legislature, state Rep. Tristan Toleno was deeply involved with agricultural issues as a member of the House Committee on Agriculture and Forest Products.
But Toleno also found himself in the middle of an important debate about the future of Vermont's educational system, and that's one reason he wants to return to Montpelier for another term as a Democratic representative from Brattleboro.
"The education issues that we're looking at are the canary in the coal mine for a bigger economic development and demographic problem," Toleno said. "And that (issue) is the future of small communities in Vermont, and their sustainability.
Toleno's primary-election season was much different in 2012, when he was competing with Kate O'Connor for the Democratic House nomination in Brattleboro District 3. Both were newcomers to a legislative race, as then-incumbent Rep. Sarah Edwards had decided to not seek another term.
Toleno beat O'Connor in the August 2012 primary and then went on to best a Liberty Union candidate in the November general election, winning his first, two-year House term.
This year, Toleno is the district's sole candidate on the primary ballot. And he believes that more experience in the Legislature will make him a more effective lawmaker.
"The best way to have an impact on some of those big issues in the state is by serving several terms as long as voters will continue to support me," Toleno said.
Toleno has many of those connections in the local community: He runs a Brattleboro catering business and also is an adjunct professor at Marlboro College Graduate School. In his first term, he was able to balance those duties with his work in the state's part-time Legislature.
"I was pretty confident almost immediately upon getting up there (in January 2013) that I had made the right decision to run," Toleno said. "The only thing that would have held me back from (running again) was life circumstances getting in the way."
Toleno's service on the House Agriculture Committee came just as the Legislature was crafting and, in the 2014 session, approving a landmark bill that mandates labeling of food containing genetically modified ingredients.
The new law, as expected, has prompted a lawsuit from the food industry. But Toleno believes lawmakers did the right thing.
"I think that was a big deal for Vermonters. They really wanted that," he said of the GMO bill.
Toleno also stressed the importance of continued funding for the state's Working Lands initiative, which provides grants for agriculture and forestry-related businesses. This year, that funding is part of the state's budget rather than a special appropriation, "which is really a good way of showing we're making a long-term commitment," Toleno said.
As a longer-term project, Toleno is interested in examining the rules and regulations that govern agriculture and development in Vermont with an eye toward the future.
"We can protect what we need to protect, but we also need to allow agriculture to innovate and expand so that it's actually sustainable," he said. "It will involve multiple agencies and jurisdictions, but it's something we have to work on."
There also is much work ahead for Vermont's lawmakers on the education front. In 2014, a controversial bill that would have eventually mandated consolidation of many small school districts narrowly passed the House but went no further.
Toleno said he could not support the bill, mainly because he was not convinced that larger districts would lead directly to more equity and more opportunities for all Vermont students.
"I am concerned about the underlying inequities in the system. Supporters of the House bill put some really important issues on the table ... and I agree that there is a real need to address those concerns," Toleno said. "But I didn't agree about the way we tried to solve it."
The issues of declining enrollment and a lack of educational opportunities are, Toleno believes, tied to larger issues such as a stagnant economy and a declining population that also is aging.
The question, Toleno said, is how to attract young families to live, work and educate their children here.
"I want us to be thinking of our education problem in the context of creating really vibrant rural communities," he said.
He includes the more-urbanized town of Brattleboro in that equation.
"Our economic-development future is going to be really critical for our future and for that of the surrounding towns," Toleno said. "We are an economic hub."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.