MIDDLEBURY — There was a time when Peter Shumlin wasn’t sure he would make it out of high school, let alone aspire to the state’s highest office.
Shumlin, the Vermont Senate President Pro Tem, recalled being called into his elementary school principal’s office along with his parents. There, school administrators reported that young Peter wasn’t cutting it, and that perhaps he should be steered toward non-academic pursuits.
Fortunately, though, Shumlin had a teacher who recognized him as being mildly dyslexic and gave him the extra attention he needed. The Putney Democrat would go on to become a successful businessman and begin an ascent of the state’s political ladder that he hopes will culminate in his election as governor on Nov. 2.
“What makes me tick is going back to that experience in grade school, where they said, ‘This kid isn’t going to college; he’s not going to succeed, and we’re going to do the best we can,’” Shumlin, 54, said during a recent interview at the Addison Independent. “What that does is make you fight for people who don’t have a voice, who were discriminated against or who didn’t get a level playing field.”
Shumlin is currently involved on a crowded Democrat contest for governor, a five-person field that during an Aug. 24 primary will be narrowed to one candidate who will face Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie on Nov. 2. The other Democrats in the race are Matt Dunne, Susan Bartlett, Doug Racine and Deb Markowitz.
All of the gubernatorial candidates are emphasizing job creation as a top campaign priority.
“I believe the next governor is going to have to manage multiple challenges to create jobs and get Vermonters back to work,” Shumlin said.
Shumlin cited two life experiences he believe make him well-suited to become the state’s top elected executive: His co-stewardship of Putney Student Travel, a family business founded by his parents; and his leadership as Senate President Pro-tem.
“Meeting a payroll, running a business, has made me fiscally conservative,” said Shumlin, who added the only new tax (or tax increase) he would consider would be on Internet transactions. “I’ll be as tight with taxpayer dollars as I am with mine ... I understand that government can’t spend $1.50 and take in $1.”
He also touted his experience as Senate majority leader in getting legislation brought to the floor and passed. He specifically cited the marriage equality bill and a referendum against extending the Vermont Yankee contract. Each bill passed the Senate by a 26-4 vote.
“I have a record of getting tough things done,” Shumlin said. “I am the longest serving Democratic Senate president in Vermont’s history and I hope I have proven I take on really tough challenges and accomplish them.”
EMPHASIS ON JOBS
The top challenge on Shumlin’s list is revitalizing Vermont’s economy and stimulating job growth.
“There are two groups of Vermonters who keep me up at night, when I think of being sworn in as governor,” Shumlin said. “The first is the hundreds of Vermonters who don’t have a job, haven’t found a job in two or three years and who feel dejected, demoralized and broke. The second group — which is much larger — is made up of Vermonters who have a job, or two, or three or four, but find their incomes are stagnant, their debts are mounting and they can’t keep up.”
Shumlin is proposing a six-point plan he believes will boost economic prosperity and job growth in the state. That plan includes:
• Broadband and cell phone service throughout Vermont by 2013.
• A single-payer health care system that frees employers from bearing primary responsibility for health insurance.
• Reinvention of Vermont’s tax system into one that “grows wealth and grows jobs.” Shumlin referred to a new blue-ribbon tax commission, which includes Bristol resident Bill Sayre, which is reviewing the state’s tax policy and will propose ways to make it work better.
Shumlin believes Vermont’s current tax structure is based around a flagging industrial economy and was not designed to address Internet sales or the growing portability of wealth.
• Greater emphasis on early childhood education.
“That is going to allow women, in particular, to get back into the workforce without making horrid choices about child care they can’t afford,” Shumlin said.
• Making available more financial resources, through a “risk capital pool,” to enable small businesses to grow.
• Re-training Vermont’s workforce to make it a better match with the nation’s evolving job market, which is gravitating toward high-tech and renewable energy industries.
“I believe there are going to be huge economic opportunities, and the question is, does Vermont have the vision to get a piece of that evolution?” Shumlin said. “I believe we have an extraordinary opportunity.”
Extraordinary, Shumlin said, because Vermont is already home to some budding businesses in the renewable energy, biotech and software fields. He believes if the state provides more infrastructure, Vermont — and its quality-of-life calling card — could be seen as prime settling ground for the jobs of the 21st century.
“The point is, with the right leadership, with a governor who has run a business, has met a payroll, has the vision and the track record to get things done, we can put Vermont back to work and get a piece of the action,” Shumlin said.
Along with creating new jobs, Vermont needs to put its farms back in business, according to Shumlin, who is part owner of a small dairy operation in his district.
One of the keys to making dairying more profitable, Shumlin said, is cutting out distributors, processors and other middlemen who take large cuts off of the already severely depressed prices Vermont farmers get for their milk. That means selling directly to companies making premium cheeses and other value-added products with the milk, according to Shumlin.
“Vermont has a bright agricultural future if we invest in the infrastructure to make the end product, and stop shipping our products out to… companies that aren’t going to pay us a fair price,” Shumlin said.
Shumlin has been one of the most outspoken critics of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, a controversial facility that happens to be located squarely within his senatorial district. He maintains the plant — beset by recent tritium leaks and what he said has been shoddy management by its Louisiana-based owner, Entergy — should be decommissioned when its current contract expires in 2012.
He believes Vermont should impose a “high-level nuclear fuel storage tax” — a levy Shumlin said is common in other states — and use those revenues to boost energy efficiency programs in Vermont that could be exported nationwide.
“The next governor is going to have to be very smart about restructuring the tax on Vermont Yankee to reflect the sacrifice that Vermont is making to store high-level nuclear waste in the state that we were told would never be here,” he said.
He acknowledged that closing Vermont Yankee would eventually result in the loss of almost 600 well-paying jobs. But Shumlin said the state will have some time to replace those jobs, as an estimated 275-320 workers will be required to monitor the facility during a mandatory, five-year, cool-down period. That means the job losses won’t be as immediate and complete as a worst-case scenario, according to Shumlin.
Unlike some of his other Democrat rivals in the primary, Shumlin does not believe the Vermont Yankee site can be put to an alternative energy use. He believes it would be doubtful that any entrepreneur would want to wait through the five-year cool-down and a 10-year decommissioning process to reuse the site.
“Are you going to wait 15 years to build your next energy source?” Shumlin said. “No one will tell the truth about that. There is no other plant going on there.”
Shumlin outlined a plan that he said would improve the quality and affordability of public education. It includes having Vermont withdraw from the national No Child Left Behind law, which he said forces teachers to focus more on standardized tests than innovative instruction; promoting distance learning as a way of allowing schools to offer more diverse courses without having to hire more teachers; and offering incentives for school districts to consolidate resources.
He continues to be a fan of Act 68 because of its equity provisions and believes a single-payer health care system would cut costs of teachers’ insurance, usually a substantial portion of the annual budget.
And Vermont, Shumlin said, should adopt a program currently in effect in Maine through which that state gives income tax credits for tuition repayment for students’ college education, as long as they return to their home state to live and work.
“That is a smart investment,” Shumlin said. “It doesn’t cost Vermont a cent; it brings our kids back to do the work that needs to get done here; and it will allow them to retire their college debt and then be entrenched in a job in Vermont where they are likely to stay and raise their families.”
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.