In Vermont’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, the challenge voters face is two-fold: determining which candidate can best fulfill one’s own political priorities and goals, and determining which candidate has the best chance of beating Republican Brian Dubie.
Among the five Democratic candidates there is a wealth of talent and vision, combined with the ability to lead. After hours of interviews and personal discussions with each candidate, it’s heartening to share that each candidate is intelligent, knowledgeable and articulate; each has thoughtful policy positions and the desire to lead the state to better times; and each would bring their unique strengths to the office and serve the state well.
And that’s the voters’ dilemma.
With five strong candidates in this primary, the first challenge for voters who are still undecided is to determine which factors (besides your gut reaction) will help elect the candidate best able to win the general election and lead the state through these challenging times?
First, understand your personal priorities and what traits you think the state needs most in a leader. One way to consider this is to ask what challenges are most important to tackle in the next 6-10 years (the likely term of the next governor)? And of those challenges, which issues are you most concerned about: education, economic growth, climate change and alternative energy, environmental concerns and Vermont’s brand as a clean state, tax rates, job opportunities, or others?
Understand that most of these issues are interrelated. Any governor will weigh in and all of these issues, but each candidate also has his or her own sense of state priorities and will move those issues front and center. Determine the top two or three priorities of each candidate and see how they line up with your own thinking.
Then ask a few specific questions of yourself when considering the candidates:
• How important is legislative experience?
If it’s at the top of your list, former Lt. Gov. Doug Racine has it in spades. He’s been in the Senate for the better part of two decades, has served as lieutenant governor for 10 years under Gov. Howard Dean, and has helped run his family business — a South Burlington auto dealership, an industry that has gone through tough times in this recession. He understands government, leadership and the challenges facing businesses. Senate Pro Temp Peter Shumlin has ample legislative experience as well, plus he runs and has run several successful businesses. In the Legislature, his motto is that he gets the tough things done and his record bears that out. Matt Dunne served in the Senate in his early years and ran for lieutenant governor against Dubie in 2006. He knows of statewide campaigns and of legislative service, and previously he made his mark in public service as the director of AmeriCorps under President Bill Clinton, and since has done big things as an entrepreneur and now as manager of Google’s Community Affairs. Sen. Susan Bartlett knows the budget better than almost anyone else and certainly knows the ways of the Legislature, while Deb Markowitz is the only candidate to claim executive experience in government as secretary of state for the past dozen years.
If legislative experience is a critical factor for you, Racine and Shumlin have the edge, with Dunne and Bartlett and Markowitz trailing.
• How important is business experience and the candidates’ connection to that community?
Again, Shumlin and Racine have run their own businesses; Dunne is a successful entrepreneur in high tech, a pro in the nonprofit community-organizing world, and a rising star at Google; Bartlett has owned and run The Bartlett Pair Farm, a small farming (organic vegetables, chickens, pigs and lambs) and bakery operation for many years, and then got a master’s degree in special education and has worked in that field since. Before becoming secretary of state in 1998 (a job which requires managing a large bureaucracy), Markowitz served as an attorney with Langrock, Wool and Sperry and later served as the first executive director of the Municipal Law Center run by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. In terms of management skills and motivating others, Racine, Shumlin and Dunne have worked to make their small businesses grow and become successful, Dunne has directed a large national agency and now serves in a significant capacity within Google (all of which demand managerial and motivational skills), while Markowitz has the experience of changing a bureaucratic culture to better serve the state.
• When considering what President George H.W. Bush so notably called “the vision thing,” consider first how many of those big ideas the state can afford? Is it realistic to extend broadband to every last mile? Or, in this economy, can we afford a single-payer health care system? Can we pump more money into early childhood education, or reduce our corrections budget by implementing better rehab programs for non-violent offenders? Can we afford more extensive marketing or building a better railroad along the western corridor? How best can we help alternative energy start-ups or other niche markets develop?
Then ask of each of those, can we afford not to?
The crux of the issue here is not just who has creative and bold ideas (most do), but also who has the ability to carry them out. Of the five candidates, Matt Dunne and Peter Shumlin have offered a vision of dynamic change coupled with an energetic and forceful style of leadership, while Racine offers a less pie-in-the-sky approach with practical but solid goals. Racine makes a point of keeping things real and not promising things the state doesn’t have the means to achieve, and he’s justly critical of his colleagues promising too much without a realistic plan to pay for it. Meanwhile, Markowitz’s Vision for Vermont is a detailed document that relies as much on making government work better as initiating change.
• In energy use and development of new markets, Matt Dunne has the edge in his understanding of the issue, its global impact and the opportunities that growth sector offers the state. Shumlin runs a close second. Similarly, Dunne seems to have an edge with his inside track in the telecommunications world and the jobs that could be created in that sector; though Shumlin, Racine and Markowitz all talk eloquently about their visions and creative ideas on these two issues as well.
• In education, Shumlin’s and Racine’s passion about expanding early education and developing alternative education programs around the state gives a focus to Markowitiz’s call for no-dropouts until students are 18. Shumlin has a personal connection to the issue while Racine has served on statewide boards as a volunteer to help as well as to gain perspective. All the candidates are passionate about expanding educational opportunities — a welcome change from the Douglas-Dubie administration — and would be successful in changing the tenor of that ongoing debate.
• On health care, most of the candidates favor a single-payer system of one sort or the other.
• Finally, determining which candidate has the best chance of beating Republican Brian Dubie is an important factor. Markowitz has the early money lead with Shumlin coming on strong; Markowitz also has the early lead in full-time staff and visible organization. Others claim active and loyal volunteers, supporting organizations and associations, savvy media and social media campaigns, and experience with statewide elections.
Our read is this: the campaign is mercurial at this point. No one has broken away from the pack. Pick what character traits matter most to you in a candidate and what issues are paramount and go with the candidate that best fits that vision. Above all, determine now to vote. Your involvement will help pick the candidate with the most solid statewide support and that will be vital in the general election.
Next week we’ll start with our primary endorsements.
Angelo S. Lynn