By KATHRYN FLAGG
MIDDLEBURY — Democrat Tom Costello aims to topple incumbent Republican Brian Dubie in this year’s race for lieutenant governor with a platform that calls for economic assistance for Vermont seniors, a vigorous debate about the future of the Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor and a focus on positive ways to attract business to the state.
The 63-year-old Brattleboro lawyer and veteran state representative is up against Dubie, who has served three terms as the state’s lieutenant governor, after winning out against Nate Freeman of Northfield in of the two contested statewide primaries last month.
“Our present administration is not dealing specifically and effectively with these problems which are solvable,” said Costello, who jumped into the race in June after learning that Dubie was running unopposed.
Costello was born and raised in Rutland, and graduated from Mount St. Joseph’s High School in 1963. He attended St. Michael’s College in Colchester, and after graduating enlisted as a first lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. He served in Vietnam, where he received a Bronze Star with a Combat V for valor and a Purple Heart.
After returning from Vietnam, Costello earned a degree from Boston University Law School in 1974, and moved back to Rutland, where he practiced law until 1980. During that time, Costello began his political career in 1976 as a Rutland City representative in the Vermont House. He served until 1980, when he moved to Brattleboro, where he later started his own law firm, Costello Law Offices.
Costello represented Brattleboro for an additional three terms in the legislature from 1994 to 2000. He was the chair of the judiciary committee from 1994 until 1998, and also served on a special legislative committee investigating Vermont State Police practices.
With lawmakers expected to decide during their 2009 session whether the state’s lone nuclear reactor should be given a 20-year license extension, Costello said that the debate about Vermont Yankee is the biggest problem facing the state right now.
He’s most concerned at the safety and reliability of the plant. Costello said he doesn’t know the right answer to the debate, but said that his experience as the chair of the judiciary committee has prepared him to tackle this issue head-on.
“The job there was to bring people together to find solutions,” he said. “We dealt with Act 60, we dealt with civil unions, we dealt with the flag amendment in the constitution, drunk driving, Enron, all kinds of complex things.”
His experience as a legislator, he said, was one of bringing together smart individuals to sit down, discuss these issues and “find a solution.”
Costello raised concerns that the state’s Public Service Board has failed to plan for alternatives, if the legislature chooses to shut down the reactor.
“If in the best judgment of the legislature it should not be relicensed, then we’re in a situation now where there’s no alternative because of the planning of the public service board,” he said, pointing to the final draft of the state’s 2009 Comprehensive Energy Plan.
“We shouldn’t be in that position,” he said.
Costello expressed his worry for Vermonters struggling to make ends meet — and his frustration at what he said was inaction on the part of current leaders.
“We’ve got people who aren’t going to be able to get through the winter,” he said. “Instead of whining about it and talking about it, we’ve got to have a program. I’ve got a plan.”
Costello has proposed a Vermont Senior Lien Option (VSLO), a modification of similar programs he said are already in place in 24 states. He came up with the plan after an old family friend contributed just $10 to his campaign. At first, Costello was affronted — “I’m like his son,” he said. “Ten bucks!” — but he quickly realized the man and his wife, who were living on a fixed income, were having a hard time getting by.
“He doesn’t have the money to pay the fuel, the food, the gas, the prescription drugs and the taxes,” Costello said. “Can’t get by. Doesn’t have enough.”
Costello’s plan would allow Vermonters of a qualifying age and income to elect not to pay their property taxes — the one cost that Costello said the state can deal with at the moment. The state would pay that person’s taxes to the town, with money from bonding made on a loan secured by the real estate. That lien would earn interest, and be paid when the individual died or moved out.
“There’s no money floating around,” he said. “If we’re going to take care of these people we’ve got to stay within the box.”
Costello argues that the state’s economic development is dependent on selling the opportunities the state can offer to businesses.
“We should promote the Vermont brand — our workforce, our schools, our quality of life, and opportunity for entrepreneurs,” he said. “If we did that, instead of spending all our time whining about taxes and regulations, then entrepreneurs would come here, and ours would flourish.”
He dismissed the current administration’s claims that lower taxes would attract more business to the state, arguing instead that businesses want a strong workforce and a good environment in which to work.
“It’s the little engine that could,” he said. He pointed to companies like Hubbardton Forge in Castleton, NRG in Hinesburg and Burton Snowboards in Burlington as examples of companies that have tapped into a young, locally educated workforce to succeed. “It’s the little engine that can.”
Costello said that he’d also like to see the state put money into rail development, particularly in the western part of the state.
He’s targeted four projects — a switching station in Rutland, the Middlebury spur, the tunnel into Burlington and improvements of the track — that he said could be tackled using the Gateway Rail Improvement Project (GRIP), a nonprofit engaged in raising money to match federal earmarks currently on the table.
Improving transportation links to the south of the state, he said, would bring vitality to places like Rutland.
“That is a viable, feasible thing,” he said. “It ain’t going to be easy … but it’s doable.”
IN STEP WITH VERMONT
Costello’s hopeful about the race — he’s predicted that he could be the first Democrat to carry Rutland County, where he was born and raised, and he said he’ll come out of the south with heavy support. Little by little, he said, he feels he’s closing the gap with Dubie, and he’s confident that more name recognition in the run-up to the Nov. 4 election will only help his cause.
“I’ve been talking about the state of Vermont and what we ought to be doing,” Costello said. “This isn’t a kid’s game. People are serious, people are hurting, people need help.”
Costello has contended that Dubie’s values are at odds with those of most Vermonters.
“Dubie is anti-choice, anti-family, anti-civil unions, and he’s been hiding that,” he said. “People don’t know that. He’s one heartbeat away from being governor, and he’s out of step with the state of Vermont.”
His opponent in this race, he also said, lacks the leadership necessary to help state leaders come to a consensus on tough issues.
“My experience is … to work together in an aggressive way, but to work together and find a solution,” he said. “That to me is what leadership in this small state of Vermont is all about. … There’s no reason why we can’t make these things happen. That’s been my experience.”