By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman was still an undergraduate student at the University of Vermont in 1995 when he made his first bid for a seat in the Chittenden 3-4 Vermont House district.
He fell around 60 votes short at the time, but broke through two years later.
And now he hopes to continue his political ascent, to the governor’s office.
Zuckerman, a 48-year-old Hinesburg Democrat, has long been involved in state politics.
Inspired by then-U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Zuckerman joined the House in 1997, serving six terms (until 2010). He then won election to the state Senate in 2012, representing Chittenden County.
Zuckerman ran successfully for lieutenant governor in 2016, and is now intent on winning the state’s top administrative post, currently held by Republican Phil Scott. But Zuckerman must first run the gauntlet of a Democratic primary on Aug. 11, where he’ll compete against former Vermont Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe of Norwich, Phil “Carcajou” Corbo of Wallingford, and Patrick Winburn of Bennington.
Some area residents might remember Zuckerman from his days as a farmhand at the Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham in the 1990s. He’s made agriculture his primary vocation since leaving UVM, and as owner/founder of Hinesburg’s Full Moon Farm since 1999. He resides there with his wife Rachel and their daughter.
During a 70-minute meeting at the Independent on Monday, Zuckerman shared his views on issues ranging from COVID-19 to affordable housing. He knows he’s in a tough primary race on Aug. 11, and, if he should win that contest, that Vermont voters have seldom jettisoned an incumbent governor seeking re-election.
Still, Zuckerman is upbeat about his chances in both contests and feels fortunate to be a known quantity on Vermont’s political stage. He said he doesn’t envy first- or second-time candidates in this COVID-19 climate of social distancing, masks and quarantines. Campaigning is about traveling, pressing flesh, chicken dinners in church basements and standing outside of supermarkets in hopes of swaying undecided voters, he said, something he has done for the past 15 years.
Zuckerman acknowledged that he could have stayed in his comfort zone and run for a third term as lieutenant governor. He said he heard the political pundits predict this wasn’t the year to challenge Scott, who has drawn high marks for his stewardship of the state during the coronavirus pandemic.
But Zuckerman believes Scott has largely been a “reactive” leader and that the state was at a crucial crossroads that required a more proactive governor.
“(Scott) hasn’t really acted with any vision as governor,” he said. “Vermonters are struggling. The climate and our rural economy have been suffering.”
Zuckerman pointed out that Vermonters are facing several crises related to COVID-19 — including two-income households trying to juggle work and childcare, affordable housing and facing home foreclosures if their jobs don’t come back — in addition to student debt, Vermont’s high cost of higher education and climate change. With those issues pressing Vermonters hard, plus the state’s continuing problem with an aging demographic and younger people leaving, “coasting,” he said, “is not an option.”
Zuckerman argued he’s shown a history of “pushing” on weighty issues — like climate change and affordable housing — “before the political world was ready… And I think this is one of those times, where ‘steady as she goes’ gets you through when things are good, but it doesn’t work when you’re in times of crisis.”
Rural poverty and global warming, according to Zuckerman, were crises before COVID-19 made inroads in Vermont last March.
“I thought, ‘better to take those issues on and possibly win — or possibly lose — but shift the conversation from where it’s been,” he said.
Zuckerman touched on the following subjects during his interview with the Independent.
Seeing the state transition from fossil fuels to renewables has long been one of Zuckerman’s priorities. The Legislature has set a goal for the state to meet 90% of its overall energy needs from renewable sources by 2050.
“I definitely think we can make more progress than we’ve been making,” Zuckerman said.
He acknowledged the big challenge of reducing carbon emissions through Vermont’s transportation system. The state’s population, for the most part, is widely dispersed, which doesn’t lend itself well to carpooling or public transportation, he admitted.
“We are one of the highest mileage driving states in the country — close to 15,000 miles per year per capita. That’s much higher than the national average,” Zuckerman said. “We drive huge distances to get to work.”
Instead, he believes Vermont’s path to reducing transportation-related carbon emissions lies in broadband. Greater connectivity, he reasoned, will allow more Vermonters to do their jobs from home instead of commuting to urban hubs. At the same time, he said an improved telecommunications network will make Vermont an even more attractive landing spot for those out-of-staters who want to move to Vermont but currently don’t because the existing connectivity isn’t as good as it needs to be in many parts of the state.
“People right now are saying, ‘get me out of the city,’” Zuckerman said, referring to COVID-19 impacts and noting the opportunity for Vermont if the administration and Legislature make it a priority.
“Broadband is an issue that’s about the climate, it’s about economic development, it’s about equal education,” he added.
Governors for the past two decades have touted expansion of high-speed internet and cell phone coverage to all corners of the state. It still hasn’t happened, and money is a big reason why.
As governor, Zuckerman would get the money to support faster expansion of broadband, along with four other state priorities, by using half of the Trump tax cuts for the wealthiest 5% of Vermonters — amounting to $100 million over each of the next three years. Specifically, he wants $20 million each for more housing in village centers, broadband upgrades, weatherization of working class and senior homes, renewable energy initiatives, and other state priorities aimed at making Vermont a more affordable place to live. (The wealthiest 5% could keep the other half of the windfall from Trump’s tax cuts, he said, in a concession he called more than fair.)
Zuckerman believes the $20 million increments could leverage even more public and private dollars — particularly for broadband and housing investment.
And he noted weatherization jobs, and solar installations, pay a livable wage and are open to Vermonters without college degrees.
“With this governor, we’ve actually lost 500 solar jobs in the past couple of years,” Zuckerman claimed, noting the administration’s lack of support for continuing state legislation that had help jumpstart the industry over the past several years.
“Urban people are now seriously rethinking where they want to be (because of the pandemic), and we have these rural campuses that I think could be very appealing to urban and suburban college students,” Zuckerman said. “If we do a better job with quarantining for two weeks upon arrival… with safe campuses that are pretty isolated from the big city populations, we could get a lot more out-of-state students.”
And more out-of-state tuitions would mean lower — or at least more stable — fees for in-state students, according to Zuckerman.
He believes a robust state college system will be key in training students for what he believes will be an increasing demand for teachers and health care workers.
Zuckerman is also an advocate for blending human services and child care into community schools, in a manner that would help children become healthier and ready to hit the ground running when they start classes.
“The earlier we have positive influence on some of these circumstances, the better the outcomes,” Zuckerman said. “We need to be rethinking and retooling the silos of government.”
Zuckerman chastised Scott for proposing in May that state government cut spending by 8% during the first quarter of fiscal year 2021, including a cut of 2,000 teachers, to reflect the big drop in revenues driven by the coronavirus. Zuckerman, meanwhile, is optimistic Congress will pass the Heroes Act, or some other version of a pandemic relief package and that the state could use that money in more innovative ways.
Even if more federal money is not appropriated for the states, Zuckerman said that instead of cuts, he believes the state should consider floating a bond to cover some of its operating expenses in the short-term.
“It seems to me when you’re going to have a one- or two-year drastic hole (in revenues), you don’t nail people to the wall with higher taxes,” Zuckerman said. “You spread that out.”
“We’re about to ask our educators to do more,” Zuckerman said of a makeover of teaching practices (remote and in-school learning) when students return to school this fall. “I don’t think it’s the time to cut education.”
That said, he acknowledged that at this point, he’s still not sure whether schools should reopen.
“I’m emotionally in favor of it, but I’m very hesitant from a practical perspective to say, ‘absolutely,’” Zuckerman said. “We have to bring far more educators and folks who work in those classrooms into the conversation to figure out how this is going to work.
“You don’t get the best ideas from just a handful of people.”
“We need to really look at regenerative agriculture, and taking carbon out of the air,” Zuckerman said. “There’s no technological silver bullet to changing the amount of carbon that’s in our atmosphere.”
“Regenerative agriculture” calls for farming and grazing practices that — among other benefits — reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity. This, in turn, draws down carbon and improves water quality.
He argues such practices will not only draw down carbon, they’ll make topsoil more resilient to intense rains that are leading to agricultural runoff, which in turn leads to water pollution.
“So regenerative agriculture starts to address multiple issues at the same time,” he said.
Zuckerman has long been an advocate for a single-payer, universal healthcare system. He said the COVID-19 crisis has forced society to acknowledge it’s in everyone’s best interest to have a good healthcare system, in order to reduce the chances of spreading the disease.
While he said this might not be the best time for overhauling the healthcare system, he’s buoyed by the fact that some businesses are starting to band together to offer their employees universal primary care.
“The idea of a universal primary care system, I think, has more realistic potential than universal healthcare in this moment in time,” Zuckerman said.
More detailed information about Zuckerman’s stand on these issues and others can be found at his website, zuckermanforvt.com.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.