BRISTOL — Bristol selectman and Republican John “Peeker” Heffernan is again throwing his hat into the ring for one of two Addison-4 Vermont House seats, running on a platform devoted to maintaining Vermont’s aging infrastructure, avoiding tax increases for Vermonters, and encouraging bipartisan cooperation.
In what this year is a crowded field, Heffernan, 48, joins Starksboro resident Dan Nugent and Bristol resident Fred Baser on the Republican side in challenging Democratic incumbents Mike Fisher of Lincoln and Dave Sharpe of Bristol. Sharpe and Fisher are running for their sixth terms in the House. (More candidate profiles will follow in later issues of the Addison County Independent.)
Heffernan, Nugent and Baser will compete in a three-way primary on Aug. 24 to determine which two will face Sharpe and Fisher in the Nov. 2 general election. In Bristol, the vote will take place at the American Legion on Airport Drive instead of the usual Holley Hall because of construction.
Heffernan is hoping his candidacy will appeal to voters in Starksboro, Bristol, Lincoln and Monkton interested in a “common sense” approach to politics.
“Any decision I make, I try to use common sense,” Heffernan said. “That goes for my own business, as well as for town business.”
A lifelong Bristol resident, Heffernan is the co-owner of Heffernan’s Excavating, which he runs with his brother, Steven. He’s in his third year serving as chief of the town’s volunteer fire department and his eighth as a town selectman.
Heffernan’s bid for the House seat is his second: In an experience Heffernan now chalks up to testing the political waters, he ran for the seat in 2008 and finished third behind Fisher and Sharpe.
He thinks he came up short in that race in large part because he did not campaign for the position widely. In his hometown of Bristol he edged out Fisher for a second-place finish, but fell behind in Lincoln, Starksboro and Monkton.
This time, Heffernan said, he’ll spend more time going door-to-door and making sure he’ll have name recognition when it comes time for voters to cast their ballots.
Heffernan is on friendly terms with both incumbents, and acknowledged that fiscal concerns made theirs a hard job in the House for the last two years. After sharing his good wishes with Fisher and Sharpe after the previous election, Heffernan joked, “I didn’t know where to congratulate them or tell them I was sorry.”
The current fiscal environment is one of the largest challenges Heffernan foresees for whoever is elected to the House. He said that there aren’t any easy answers to the state’s widening budget gaps, but expressed doubt that increasing taxes will be the right way for Vermont to balance its ledgers. With people out of work, he said, increasing taxes might only serve to discourage spending, thus slowing state sales tax collection.
Among his goals, if elected, would be ironing out the state’s permitting process for new construction and state building projects — a problem that’s been made clear to him by his work on the Bristol selectboard. In that capacity, he’s watched progress stall on a bridge project on Route 116 south for years because the permitting process is slow and convoluted.
“There’s value for all of us (in a project like that), and we’ll put people to work,” Heffernan said.
He’s also concerned about the state’s deteriorating infrastructure.
“We’ve got aging roads, aging bridges, aging buildings,” Heffernan said. “It costs way more to replace than it does to maintain.”
Similarly, he thinks it’s time for the Legislature to take a hard look at school funding.
“I think we need to find a different way to finance our schools,” Heffernan said. “We can’t continue to do so through the property tax, because pretty soon people won’t be able to afford to live here.”
Heffernan said his longtime experience with civic leadership has laid the foundation for work in state-level politics. He’s proud of the volunteer work his company has done on projects like the Bristol Recreation Field, the skate park at the Hub Teen Center, and improvements to the Mount Abraham Union High School football field. He said his work on the selectboard has also been a lesson in learning to compromise.
“I like to think that working with the town I’m able to listen to both sides of an issue, and find an acceptable solution,” Heffernan said.
As an example, he pointed out that he worked with incumbent Sharpe on the selectboard.
“He and I don’t always agree,” Heffernan said, “but often we could come up with a solution that we could both live with. From watching the media, at times that seems like that’s what our state Legislature lacks.”
He hopes he could bring that spirit of compromise to the House. He was discouraged two years ago when, at a candidates’ forum before the 2008 election, Democratic and Republican candidates and voters alike seemed to fall into “black and white” camps. He doesn’t want to see choices made based on party lines rather than informed decisions.
“If you have a good idea … I should be able to get behind that idea (regardless of your party),” Heffernan said. “(Party politics) are not what people want. People want what’s good for the state, what’s good for the community, and not what’s good for my party or your party.”
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at firstname.lastname@example.org.