ADDISON — A newcomer to statewide politics announced on Monday he would seek one of the two Addison-3 seats in the Vermont House of Representatives, but the novice candidate is no stranger to public service in his hometown of Addison or the greater Vergennes community.
John Spencer, 66, a Democrat, now leads two panels in his native town, the Addison Development Review Board and the Addison Town Hall Restoration Committee.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he served as the chairman of the Addison Central School and Addison Northwest Supervisory Union boards. Addison-3 consists of the same towns as ANwSU — Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Waltham and Vergennes.
That period when Spencer served on the ANwSU board was marked by the arrest of a former ANwSU superintendent and two teacher strikes, and Spencer believes it prepared him to handle the difficult issues he would face in Montpelier if elected in November.
“I hand my hands full back then. I remember the last strike. I remember TV cameras stuck in my face and people calling me at 1 o’clock in the morning mad because their kids are not going to school,” Spencer said. “It was a contentious time, but I learned a lot. It’s like being indoctrinated in fire. I enjoyed a lot of it. None of us enjoyed the hassle part of it, but I enjoyed the negotiating part and the part of trying to solve problems.”
Spencer, whose family settled in Addison in 1791, was raised on the family farm.
“My daughter was asking me how do you know how to do all this stuff,” he said. “Well, you grow up on a dairy farm and you had to learn to do a lot of things.”
Spencer studied agriculture at the University of Rhode Island and has made his career marketing products to farmers. For two decades he ran his own farm implement business, and for the past two decades he has worked for larger companies, spending 13 years selling DeLaval milking machines and the past five years selling chemical products for EXL Labs Inc. of Minnesota, with New England and New York as his territory.
“I just think I have a good grounded connection to the district, both through the agriculture stuff and the fact I’ve been here so many years,” Spencer said. “I think I can help people.”
Spencer stepped away from public service after he and wife, Jane Spencer, now the Bixby Library’s executive director, had their two daughters, but then returned several years ago after his children graduated from college.
More recently, members of the local and county Democratic Party urged him to consider following his parents’ footsteps, both of whom were members of the Vermont House.
“This opportunity came along, and people have been asking me about it. And I’d gotten into politics a little bit, town government, anyway,” Spencer said. “So I started getting that taste again a little bit. It’s time for me to step forward.”
He chose to announce early at least in part so that he could march in Monday’s Vergennes Memorial Day parade, the state’s largest, and gain valuable voter exposure. He will be marching with, among others, incumbent Addison-3 Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, who said on Tuesday she welcomed Spencer’s entry into the race.
“I see John as a very strong candidate and am very much looking forward to working with him throughout this campaign season,” Lanpher said. “I think he has a very strong chance of joining me in Montpelier. I couldn’t be happier he is joining me in this.”
Both Lanpher and Spencer said other Democrats remain interested in running for the two Addison-3 seats. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh, is the other incumbent after being appointed to fill the term of the late Greg Clark, the Vergennes Republican who was killed in a car accident at the end of November 2012.
Spencer said he doesn’t consider himself to be opposing Van Wyck or any possible Democratic primary opponents.
“I’m not running against anybody,” Spencer said. “It’s more presenting myself, and if the citizens want me, they’ll choose me.”
Spencer said no pressing issues are prompting him to run, but he did share thoughts on some, including school consolidation, a question ANwSU has twice considered and that lawmakers wrestled with this past session.
“I’m not pro or against consolidation. I think consolidation should be done wisely, not to be done just for consolidation’s sake, but actually consolidate to improve education and make it more affordable for the taxpayers of Vermont. But education comes first,” he said. “Education is the key to our country.”
On the affordability of education, Spencer suggested property taxes alone are not enough to foot the bill.
“I strongly am of the opinion that property taxes should really be on the ability to pay. A resident of the state shouldn’t be penalized because their property values keep on going up because of things going on around them, and they can’t stay in their own home,” he said. “You’ve got to have a strong ability-to-pay segment to any kind of taxes. It’s got to be more broad-based than that.”
Spencer does think thoughtful consolidation might offer some savings, as could more Internet instruction and efforts to increase teacher-to-student ratios in schools.
“I think education is going to change in the state of Vermont. I think it’s going to have to change in a way that is reasonable for the taxpayers, but is also good for education and the kids,” he said.
Like others, Spencer would like to see lawmakers focus on growing the Vermont economy to create opportunities for its young people.
“It’s really important for us to find and develop businesses and industries so that Vermont children can stay here,” he said. “I don’t have any solutions to the problem, but I think it’s a dialogue that should be started and really concentrated on.”
Spencer supports lawmakers’ efforts to raise the minimum wage, which he said should be more like “a livable wage” than it is now.
“I’m totally supportive of a higher minimum wage,” he said. “I don’t believe it’s going to make less jobs. I know that’s what a lot of people think. Yes, we might have to pay more for our hamburgers … but if you want that service, you’ve got to enable those people to be able to live.”
But more than issues, Spencer stressed fairness, listening and a desire to represent the majority of people, who he said are not interested in partisan politics.
“There are a lot of people in the middle,” he said. “I believe in the bell curve. Those people in the middle need to be more represented.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]