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Underdog and the anti-establishment candidate

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In the Republican primary race for Vermont’s lone U.S. Congressional seat, state Sen. Mark Shepard, R-Bennington, is happy to be tilting against windmills as the underdog candidate and the anti-establishment candidate.

“Being the non-establishment candidate is not a bad place to be,� Shepard said in a Monday interview with the Addison Independent. “Establishment candidates don’t stir the pot and they don’t ruffle feathers. I’m not doing this to be part of a club.�

That style of populist bravado potentially has appeal in a region enamored with the independent ethos that has long characterized the Green Mountain State. And Shepard’s background fits his rhetoric. He’s a fifth or sixth generation Vermonter, born and raised on a small dairy farm, learned his hard-work ethic from his growing up a farmer’s son, and his moral values were home grown as well. He graduated from Hartford High School in 1978 with little interest in a college education, but having learned how to wire a house with his dad at a young age, he had an affinity for electrical sciences and got his journeyman electrician’s license in 1982. He stumbled into higher electronics, then took an interest in computers and ended up graduating from the University of Florida in 1986 with a electrical engineering degree and received a Master of Engineering degree following work at MIT and RPI. (See story, Page 1A.) In short, Shepard has a populist pedigree, but has leveraged his natural talent and home education into a lucrative electrical engineering business, which he formed several years ago and runs as an independent business. He’s married with four kids.

All this makes Shepard’s story far more interesting than most Vermonters would know at this early stage in the campaign, but will soon begin to discover as Shepard makes the rounds and Vermont’s press corps starts to cover Shepard’s race against Martha Rainville in the Republican primary.

While Shepard’s story is compelling, his politics are less easy to grasp. He’s an ardent opponent of big government and believes the marketplace is the best driver of societal goals. He was one of two state senators to vote against the Catamount Health care plan recently passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Jim Douglas, saying that the marketplace would be a better engine of change if only there were more competition in the state for health insurance. He would promote such competition by allowing consumers to buy insurance across state lines and by promoting health savings accounts. That there is no cooperative agreement among states to allow that to happen doesn’t faze Shepard. Making the marketplace work for health care is a goal he would work toward, whether realistic or not.

On taxation, Shepard splits the Republican causes. He supports Bush tax cuts and wouldn’t reverse them, but doesn’t think more tax cuts that would create larger deficits is a good idea. He said spending needs to be trimmed, but wouldn’t say which programs would be cut.

He also is compelled by the implementation of a national consumption (sales) tax in lieu of the federal income tax. Think of the savings in just doing away with the IRS, he muses, and of all the money saved by not having to hire tax accountants.

In his market-driven utopia, Shepard also suggests that rather than toss away billions of dollars in waste, fraud and lucrative contracts to political friends in the construction business — as has been done in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — that a better approach would be to create tax-free building zones in New Orleans and let the marketplace rebuild itself. Such thinking definitely has holes big enough to drive a Mack truck through, but then again what President Bush, Congress and Louisiana politicians have concocted hasn’t been very successful either.

Shepard’s fresh approach to the issues makes his campaign interesting, at the very least. Whether he stands a chance against the well-financed campaign of Rainville, the GOP’s anointed darling, is yet to be seen. But we suspect Shepard will find a few converts along the way with his brand of common-sense populism and a style that is unafraid to stir the pot and rankle some feathers. Add his honest approach to politics, and an old-style campaign that is refreshing and endearing, and you have the makings of a bona fide candidate. Whatever you’ve heard about Shepard’s candidacy on the periphery of political news, his characterization as a candidate not of the middle has been greatly exaggerated. He has a few issues on which he’s rowing his own boat, but on many others he’s a mainstreamer trying to bring some sense to entrenched party policies and politics that cause problems with no hope for answers.

He may still be tilting at windmills, but it’s a better story than the plot might first suggest.

Angelo S. Lynn

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