MIDDLEBURY — Tom Hughes recently got a taste of public service as a member of the UD-3 School Board.
He now wants to graduate to a seat in the Vermont House.
Hughes, 58, is among five candidates vying for Middlebury’s two seats in the Vermont House of Representatives. He is joined by fellow independent and Middlebury College student Calvin McEathron, along with three Democrats: incumbent Rep. Betty Nuovo, former Planning Commission member Amy Sheldon, and former Better Middlebury Partnership President Donna Donahue. The three Democrats will compete in an Aug. 26 primary to determine which two advance to the November general election.
It was while minoring in government as a Castleton State College student that Hughes developed an interest in the nuances of governance. He is now at a point in his life where he has the time to serve in the Legislature.
“Public service is a sacred trust between voters and the person who represents them and who is casting votes (on their behalf),” Hughes said during an interview on Tuesday.
Hughes has worked for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation since 1980. He currently manages the Crown Point State Historic site just across Lake Champlain. He and his wife have lived in Middlebury for the past nine years. They have two grown children.
Hughes in 2013 completed a three-year term representing Middlebury on the UD-3 board. He is a member of the Middlebury Community Players.
Though he describes his political views as “center, or slightly right of center,” Hughes made the decision to run as an independent rather than as a Republican. He did this acknowledging Middlebury’s electoral demographics (heavily Democratic) and out of a desire to not become beholden to a major party when it comes time to vote on issues. Hughes added he and other Vermonters have been growing weary of seeing so many uncontested elections on the ballot in recent years.
“I think it’s refreshing when a new public servant can arrive with an open mind and slowly, carefully consider everything they hear,” Hughes said.
He sees his candidacy as part of what he hopes will become a trend of balancing party representation in Montpelier. Democrats currently hold overwhelming majorities in both the Vermont House and Senate.
“What Montpelier needs is for the (political) needle to inch back a little more to the center,” Hughes said.
As an independent, Hughes would see his role as “cooperating with all parties” without being subject to party pressure to vote one way or another on a given issue.
He believes health care will continue to be an issue that will command a lot of the Legislature’s time during the next biennium. Hughes said he wants to keep an open mind about Vermont’s ongoing transition to a single-payer health care system, but added he is not yet sold on such a move. He voiced frustration that state officials have yet to share specific costs of a single-payer system and how that system would be financed.
“So far there have been big promises, but nothing but question marks,” Hughes said. “I’m a skeptic (of single-payer).”
But if the state does not ultimately move to single-payer, it will still have to do something to contain health care costs, according to Hughes.
“The cost of health care is rising faster than just about any other segment of the economy,” he said.
Also rising swiftly are the costs of public education, Hughes noted, a phenomenon that is occurring in spite of declining student numbers in most regions of the state.
Hughes believes that school districts could save money through consolidating their governance structures or merging, but he would not support legislation that would force schools to take such action.
“I understand why so many school districts are reluctant to give up local control,” Hughes said. “(Communities) want their own schools and don’t want to pay the state to make decisions on the education of the students in their neighborhoods.”
Hughes does not have an alternative to Act 68, the state’s education funding law, though he believes school districts should continue to cut costs wherever they can.
“I want to listen to other ideas and get behind any idea that strikes the right balance,” Hughes said. “You can’t replace Act 68 until you have a replacement.”
Energy is another issue that Hughes believes will draw attention in the Statehouse next year. He believes it is wise for the state and its citizens to begin converting to renewables, but he does not support large-scale wind projects on ridgelines and believes the Legislature was shortsighted in pushing for the closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
“I think the Legislature made the future difficult for Vermont Yankee, and that was an important mistake,” Hughes said of the Vernon facility that it phasing out operations. “The Legislature’s approach to VY was antagonistic and anti-business. Nuclear power is not a villain. Other states manage to work with the federal government in promoting safety at nuclear power plants without discouraging them out of business.”
Remaining on the topic of energy, Hughes said he is a supporter of Vermont Gas’s efforts to lay natural gas pipelines to Middlebury, the International Paper mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y., and to Rutland.
“So far, I think it’s a good idea, and long overdue for Rutland,” Hughes said of the pipeline plans, which have drawn substantial opposition at various public hearings convened by the Public Service Board in Addison County.
“Affordable energy is going to mean jobs,” Hughes added.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]