Senate leader vies for lieutenant governor job
BRISTOL — Vermont Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe has spent the past four years collecting and reviewing each of 30 state senators’ individual visions for the future of the state, and then coalescing them into legislative priorities he hopes can deliver better health care, more affordable housing and a more effective public education system.
Next year, Ashe, a 43-year-old Burlington Democrat, hopes to infuse more of his own ideas into how the state is run — as Vermont’s next lieutenant governor.
But Ashe will first have to prevail in two upcoming elections, as there are many takers for a spot that incumbent Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman is vacating in order to run for governor. Democrats Ashe, Molly Gray of Burlington, Debbie Ingram of Williston and Brenda Siegel of Newfane will square off in an Aug. 11 primary. Four Republicans will also square off on that day to see who will move on to the Nov. 3 general election: Meg Hansen of Manchester, Jim Hogue of Calais, Scott Milne of Pomfret and Dwayne Tucker of Barre.
Cris Ericson, a Chester Progressive, has also filed for lieutenant governor, as well as for several other elected positions.
Ashe offered to share his campaign views with the Independent during a swing through Addison County last week. The socially-distanced interview took place on a sunny July 3 at a picnic table on the Bristol town green.
“I’ve never been one to map out some sort of political roadmap,” Ashe said of his election plans.
“I’ve been so proud of the legislation we’ve passed and the work we’ve been able to do. But at the same time, that role is increasingly about managing 30 people’s vision for what the state should look like. With each passing year I have subordinated myself more and more to the ‘team.’ Running for lieutenant governor is the opportunity to revisit the vision I have for this state, and to be able to articulate the future for the state as I believe it can make us more successful. That’s why it’s such an attractive position.”
COMING TO VERMONT
Ashe arrived in the Green Mountain State during the mid-1990s, to attend the University of Vermont. He elected to stay here upon his graduation in 1999, and quickly found his way into politics. He found a job in the Burlington office of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. He accompanied Sanders as he crisscrossed the state meeting with constituents. Ashe said that experience affirmed his belief that public resources — when deployed wisely — can substantially improve people’s lives.
Ashe attended the Kennedy School of Government, from which he graduated in 2004. He then won election to the Burlington City Council, serving two terms. Chittenden County elected Ashe as one of its six state senators in 2009. He’s now completing his sixth term in the state’s highest chamber. He was elected Senate president pro tem in 2017.
As leader of the Senate, Ashe has played a key role in shaping state policies. And some of his most notable contributions have been in the area of affordable housing — which is also how he makes his living.
It was in 2005 that Ashe became director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity’s Mobile Home Project, helping improve conditions for the residents of Vermont’s 250 mobile home parks. He later became project manager at Cathedral Square (CS), a nonprofit developer of high-quality affordable housing for seniors and people with disabilities. In his role at CS, he managed projects creating or renovating 396 apartments with combined budgets exceeding $30 million.
Ashe said he’s already familiar with the “granular” tasks of lieutenant governor, having periodically filled in for the incumbent during the past four years. Those basic duties include presiding over the Senate and casting a tie-breaking vote if necessary.
The lieutenant governor also must stand in for the governor when that person is out of state, and assume the top job if the governor can’t serve due to death or other circumstances.
“But the real attraction of the role for me is to be able to identify some key strategic challenges facing the state and make it my mission to see action on those,” Ashe said.
Perhaps the biggest of those challenges, according to Ashe, is to ensure Vermont becomes a great place to live and work for all of its citizens — not just those with enough resources.
“In this Vermont, families can save a little money, they may worry about the cost of college but don’t doubt for a second that their kids will indeed attend one, they can post photos of their vacations on social media to make their friends a little jealous,” Ashe wrote in his campaign kickoff speech. “From an economic point of view, the inhabitants of this first Vermont are relatively secure. Knocked down temporarily by COVID, they’ll have a quicker path back to their feet.”
He noted a fast emerging “second Vermont” in which “thousands of adult full-time minimum-wage workers are condescendingly told that that’s what the market dictates for their efforts, while our society lavishes obscene spoils on others… In this second Vermont the good paying manufacturing jobs that used to be all but guaranteed to people with a high school diploma are gone, not because the Vermonters who had these jobs weren’t loyal and hardworking. They were both those things. They’re gone because of federal trade policies.”
So Ashe has made his campaign about bridging, through new state policies, the economic gulf between those “two Vermonts.”
Here’s how he proposes to do it:
• “Reorienting” the state’s economic development strategy around a more socially responsible business ethic.
“Our state economic development programs are still modeled after chasing the one big business that wants to locate (in New England), and making states fight against one another.”
He believes the lieutenant governor could spearhead an effort to use the state’s economic development money more broadly to attract a diverse range of business and assist in the growth of enterprises that are already here.”
• Tackling poverty “head-on.”
“In my opinion, if we don’t reinvigorate the fight on poverty, every one of our other structural challenges is prolonged and made worse,” Ashe said.
He lamented the fact that schools during the past 30 years have had to take on increasing social work and nutrition responsibilities in order to help families that are struggling.
“It used to be they were teaching reading, writing and math,” Ashe said. “Now you’re dealing with all of society’s challenges. And it’s all being piled onto school budgets, which makes people anxious.”
Poverty, according to Ashe, is also hitting many high school graduates who ended up shifting from one low paying job to the next, rather than going on to higher education or being able to land a good paying job.
“They don’t have these basic job skills, so we have all of these positions that sit unfilled while you have all these people drifting out there,” he said.
The answer, he believes, is attacking poverty in a more “focused, aggressive way. And the lieutenant governor’s office can make that a primary emphasis.”
And he believes the solutions to poverty might differ from county to county, depending on demographics, natural resources and entrepreneurial trends.
• Fighting climate change in a way that “saves people money and enlists behavior change from people who don’t primarily think of themselves as environmentalists.”
In essence, Ashe believes that the state can’t pursue environmental policies that are only attainable to people with resources to buy electric cars and the best solar energy systems.
Ashe is also advocating for a “statewide building efficiency bond,” through which commercial and residential buildings would be made weather-tight. Such a bond could provide jobs for hundreds of workers and result in energy savings that could pay back debt on the bond, he said.
• Broader affordable housing policies. The Legislature, according to Ashe, has had a tendency to carve its affordable housing resources into “so many little pieces that we can’t really produce the kind of transformation in a community that is necessary.”
Ashe vowed to pursue a “14-county economic development strategy” that would in part use affordable housing — and “workforce homes” — as a way of revitalizing downtowns. He noted many young Vermonters want to live in more urban environments, where there are things to do. Locating more housing in these areas would also boost Main Street businesses, he said.
“And it uses all the best aspects of environmental placement,” he said, noting that downtown housing doesn’t contribute to sprawl.
• Assisting dairy farmers. Ashe believes that at the same time Vermont’s Congressional delegation fights for higher milk prices, the state must help farmers diversify their products and explore other potential revenue streams, such as agri-tourism.
“Value-added products is the future for us, and making sure we do everything we can to build up markets outside of Vermont for those products,” Ashe said.
“Vermont has limited power to change the price of milk,” he added. “That has been a problem many years in the making. Frankly, our agriculture agency’s position has been to ‘cross your fingers and hope the price goes up.’”
Ashe stressed the state must continue to work “in partnership with our dairy farmers on environmental projects that have been required of them in recent years.”
COVID-19 SETS THE PACE
He cautioned, however, that the state’s recovery from COVID-19 will dictate the pace at which lawmakers will be able to get work done on other challenges during the next biennium. The pandemic has decimated state revenues, as many Vermonters have been laid off or furloughed during the pandemic. Stores and lodges have had to close, or are seeing far fewer customers due to COVID-related travel restrictions.
Ensuring the state’s economic recovery from the pandemic will be job one, and that’s a sentiment that seems to be shared by lawmakers of all political stripes.
“None of us has experienced anything in our adult lives quite like what COVID has done,” Ashe said, but added, “I think we’ve banded together to put Vermont in a very good position, as we start to rebuild the economy.”
Ashe said one of his priorities as Senate president has been to work with House leadership and other state officials to salt away revenue surpluses.
“The public does a collective yawn when we build up reserves,” he said. “But we build them up precisely for when something like we’re now going through, happens.”
He placed the current budget gap for next fiscal year at roughly $330 million. Around $100 million of that is education-related, more than $200 million is associated with the general fund, and the rest is transportation-related, according to Ashe.
“I think half the current budget gap can be safely met by using reserves,” he said.
Ashe hopes his experience helping navigate the state through a pandemic will earn him a lot of votes during the upcoming elections.
“This is not a starter-job moment, in my opinion,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.