This is the first in a series of profiles of candidates seeking statewide office.
The lieutenant governor of Vermont's duties and responsibilities include presiding over the state Senate; standing in for the governor when he or she is out of the state; and becoming acting governor should he or she become incapacitated.
Officially, that's it.
Yet, the most evenly matched and compelling race of the primary season has arguably been the Democratic race for the seat being vacated by Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, who's running for governor in the Aug. 11 primary. The race matches activist and non-profit founder Brenda Siegel of Newfane, State Sen. Debbie Ingram of Williston, assistant attorney general Molly Gray of Burlington, and state Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe of Burlington.
Each has compelling stories to tell. Siegel is an activist and single parent who founded a dance festival to help Southern Vermont recover from Tropical Storm Irene. Ashe worked for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and developed affordable housing in Burlington. Ingram is an ordained minister who lived and worked in Bangladesh and preached at Westminster Abbey. Gray grew up on a farm in Newbury and was an aide to U.S. Rep. Peter Welch in Washington.
Here, then, is a closer look at the four candidates for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, arranged in alphabetical order.
As Senate president, Ashe has a significant say in state policy. So why pursue a largely figurehead elected position?
Because, he explained, the office gives him the chance to express his own political vision.
As pro tem, Ashe explained, his role is representing the interests and goals of 30 state senators. "With each year that passes though, my own particular vision for the state of Vermont takes an increasing backseat," he said.
"So I believe the lieutenant governor's office has an opportunity to articulate a vision," he said. "And in some ways, it's right between the governor, who has to manage the day to day at the state, and the legislature, which gets tied up in some of the more granular issues. And you're out there able to speak passionately and forcefully about particular issues, and then try to harness energy to get things done."
The Global Warming Solutions Act, which passed through the state Senate this year and awaits a final House vote this month, is likely to be a flash point in the general election, as some are wary of its provisions for an appointed climate council and its mandate for a 25 percent reduction on emissions by 2025. But Ashe believes aggressive targets are what's needed to prompt significant action.
"Because it's aggressive, it leads us all to say, how would we do it in the most beneficial way? So to me, it actually presents a lot of interesting opportunities moving forward," Ashe said. "In my opinion, especially in light of all the unemployment and economic challenges, now would be a great time for a substantial bond for building weatherization."
Ashe is also a supporter of the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a multistate agreement that would set fees for gas and diesel distributors for each ton of carbon emissions, and cap allowable emissions. Vermont's participation is on the back burner until fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The revenues generated by that can be turned around and invested locally in Vermont, in ways that help people reduce their transportation emissions profile in ways that could be really transformative," Ashe said.
On higher education, while the Legislature has been criticized for underfunding the Vermont State College System, Ashe points out he was among leaders who put a quick halt to plans to close Northern Vermont University's Lyndon and Johnson campuses and the Vermont Tech campus in Randolph.
"We have put up a substantial amount of money to get us through this year and give confidence to students that they're making a smart choice by staying in the public higher education system," Ashe said.
As for the future? "I believe that the future of the three campuses does have to look different than it's been," he said. "I do think that there is capacity to have higher education offerings of all of the three campuses."
Vermont's existing job opportunities and quality of life "has to be part of the equation," he said. "But in my opinion, the first best opportunity we have is the people who already live here who need more support or direction to fulfill their potential. And state colleges play an absolutely critical role in helping achieve that."
Why does Ashe think he's the best candidate?
"At this moment in time, I think it's really critical that we have a tested leader who has helped state get through the COVID-19 crisis to, one who has the ability to work with the governor from day one ... and who has the knowledge to work with the legislature to advance all the policies that we generally share, to make the state of a healthier place," Ashe said.
He said his time listening to Vermonters as Senate president has prepared him to hit the ground running.
"As a candidate, I don't walk around pandering and making promises. Because I do know how serious the problems are and I'm ready to step into moment after day after the election. I will be getting ready to work with whoever the governor is. "
A political newcomer, Gray has quickly established herself in the race, in part due to a strong fundraising effort. But money is not the only factor in Gray's quick rise. Her extended Vermont family tree gave her a foothold in multiple communities. She had already started person-to-person campaign work before the pandemic. And she credits her life experience as a Vermonter for helping her understand voters' needs.
Gray said her goal for the office is "to build bridges between our communities across Vermont and to Montpelier ... in order to address our demographic challenges and help build stronger out of COVID-19."
That, she said, starts with finally extending broadband access to every Vermonter — one among several areas where the pandemic has exposed significant inequality, demanding what she refers to as "strategic investments."
Broadband's importance in education, working from home, telemedicine and providing news and information makes this upgrade essential, she said.
"One fourth of Vermont geographically, or roughly 70,000 homes and businesses, still cannot access adequate internet in 2020," Gray said. "We would be outraged if 70,000 homes didn't have access to electricity or other basic utilities."
The broadband cap illustrates the need to "align our budget with greatest needs and values as a state," Gray said, citing access to affordable childcare, investment in workforce development and paid family and medical leave as gaps the pandemic has exposed.
"If we're going to keep a generation here, bring a generation back, or welcome a new generation to Vermont, we have to invest in the needs of Vermonters," she said.
The state's vulnerabilities will be tested and exposed by climate change if those investments aren't made, Gray said. "If we're going to trust scientists and medical professionals in a global pandemic we need to do the same during the ongoing climate crisis," she said.
With that in mind, Gray said she fully supports the Global Warming Solutions Act "and efforts right now to make Vermont more energy independent, food secure, climate resilient and prepared for the future. We have to take care of the land and environment that is taking care of us. Also have to hold accountable polluters in our state who have compromised the health an safety of our communities."
That includes medical monitoring for those impacted by PFOA contamination in Bennington, she said.
Another area where Gray sees a budget disconnect is in the state's funding of the Vermont State Colleges System. Gray said she'd work to improve funding and build a strategy to connect the classroom to careers that are growing and paying good wages.
"Vermont has the highest high school graduation rate in the country, yet 41 percent of graduates do not go on to additional training or higher education. We know, however, that we have massive recruiting and retention challenges in the professions we need for our communities to thrive."
On systemic racism, Gray said the state must commit to addressing and rooting it out wherever it occurs. That includes the criminal justice system, the corrections system, and policing, she said.
The state can hold itself accountable, she said, by assuring police access to body cameras, doubling down on data collection, and adopting the California standard for use of force.
"Most importantly, this is our opportunity to reallocate funding to social services, including our department of mental health, and to focus on prevention and equal access to opportunity and equity."
Why vote for Gray?
"I've lived and worked across our state. I understand the needs of our rural communities and I want to be the lieutenant governor who helps solve our demographic challenges while bringing fresh perspective and new energy to the position as we grow stronger out of COVID-19, she said. "Simply put: It's time to put people before politics and our communities and families at the center as we look to a bright future for Vermont."
Ingram came to Vermont with a family tradition of public service.
"My dad was a mayor of our little town," she said of her upbringing near Savannah, Ga. "I was taught that pubic service was something you did for your community. He was a dyed-in-the-wool FDR Democrat and from him I learned that workers and farmers and laborers were the backbone of society."
Ingram also came here in search of a place she and her partner could live authentically. When Vermont passed its first-in-the-nation civil union law, the couple decided to get married here. A vacation around the state followed and "we fell in love with Vermont," Ingram said. A move followed two years later.
Ingram's sense of service came with her, and she was appointed executive director of Vermont Interfaith Action in 2007. She served on the Williston Planning Commission and Williston Select Board before being elected to the state Senate in 2016.
Racial equity and social justice have been priorities for Ingram since she was elected to the senate. She pushed yearly for a bill changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day in Vermont, which passed in 2019. She's co-chair of the Legislature's Social Equity Caucus and a member of the state Senate Education and the Health and Welfare committees.
Her platform for the lieutenant governor's office includes support for affordable housing and healthcare, economic dignity, and promoting racial and social justice.
"I think we can get closer to universal health care," she said. "We can look closely at universal primary care trying to shift the culture of fee for service to a member per month payment."
A COVID-19 recovery should not rely on austerity measures, Ingram said.
"I am dead set against that. That's exactly the opposite of what we should be looking at," she said. "We have healthy reserves and we should look at prudent use of those. I think we should look at bonding — we have a good credit rating. Finally we should look at the wealthiest Vermonters — they benefited so much from the federal tax cut. We should make our income rate more progressive at top end."
Ingram also sees herself as a role model for LBGTQ+ people in the state.
"I've been through some difficult times myself," she said, from the death of her father when she was 16 to the difficulty of coming out as gay when discrimination and cruel stereotypes were common. "I know what it's like to go through tough times and come out stronger. I can be a real role model and help others to do that."
Those tough times included an arrest in October of 2017 for driving under the influence of alcohol. Ingram apologized publicly, and has since spoken about how that experience led her to pursue a 12-step treatment program and diligent sobriety.
Why does Ingram believe she'd be a good lieutenant governor?
"I think my skill set and background are a good match for it," she said. "I see it as opportunity to go around the state, listen to everyday Vermonters, understand how issues impacting them, and listen to what kind of solutions they recommend.
"In my work that's what I always found to be important — listening to everyday people."
Two years ago, in a run for the Democratic nomination for governor, Siegel was new to the process, and reeling from the death of her nephew from a heroin overdose.
This time, Siegel, a single mom and the founder of the Southern Vermont Dance Festival, has added staff who worked on Bernie Sanders' presidential bid. Her message has resonated with grassroots activists who have lined up to endorse her bid, including Rights & Democracy, People's Action, Sunrise Movement Middlebury and state Rep. Kevin Christie, D-Hartford. Friday, she added two high-profile endorsements — former state Rep. Kiah Morris and former gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist.
Siegel sees the lieutenant governor's seat as a chance "to really go into each and every community and work with people who are often marginalized and forgotten and help them."
There's also opportunity "to build a groundswell to move certain issues we've not seen move as quickly as we'd like," she said, including paid family medical leave, a livable wage, health care access, and issues around opioid addiction.
"Those things don't change if our legislators are not hearing from people whom they impact the most," Siegel said. "We need to build that path forward for those marginalized and forgotten to have a seat at the table with equal voice and equal power."
The state's increase in the minimum wage was a good start, but it's not enough, Siegel said. What's needed, she said, is a living wage — a good deal more than the $15 per hour that lawmakers proposed before settling for $12.55 by 2022.
"We've seen during this pandemic is that the people we rely on the most for our food for mere survival are people we say don't deserve to be paid a livable wage," Siegel said.
On healthcare, Siegel said the state could fund a single-payer system, move to Medicare for All, or collaborate with other states.
If voters understood the amount of money they would save in the long run, there would be more support for such reforms, Siegel said.
And that led her to discuss strategic investments — money spent now that would pay off later.
"When we're constantly looking at the economy on short terms we get exactly the results we get today. We need to look at it 10 years, 20 years down the road," she said.
"In poverty when you can't make a strategic investment, ultimately that costs you more money," she said. "If we're not willing to borrow and use some bonds, ultimately the long-term expense for us is going to be huge. It makes the cracks in our system even bigger ... that's more money on hotels in winter, more folks upset struggling and in the street, more people who can't afford food, and more kids don't have what they need in school."
On systemic racism and social justice issues, Siegel said the Legislature has a lot more work to do.
"When we do make these moves, we are not heroes, we are not saviors, we are beginning — and just at the very beginning — of repairing a harm we have caused," Seigel said. She would also like to see the transition of resources from the current law enforcement system to underfunded services such as mental health, social services and education.
"We need to think of public safety as community issue," Siegel said.
"We need to be making partnerships with impacted communities if we want to have real change. We can't say `Oh no no no, I know what you need.' We need to step back and reflect how we've perpetuated this racist system. And then look at each and every bill that passes and ask ourselves, who does it harm and who does it hurt?"
Why vote for Siegel?
"Vermonters want to hear about issues. They want to see themselves as a voice that maters in changing our state," she said. "I have a lifetime of experience doing the on the ground work we need to do each and every day to make sure we're moving these issues forward."