Campaign Q&A: Lieutenant governor candidates
Q: It’s April of 2014, and the sitting governor passes away before he was to sign into law a controversial bill with which you disagree vehemently. After being sworn in to serve out the remainder of the term, would you sign the bill? Or use your executive power to prevent it from becoming law?
Phil Scott: If I were ever to find myself in this unfortunate position, I would take a page from the Howard Dean playbook and respect the process. I think it would be important during that time of crisis to establish a sense of consistency. So, to answer the question, I might not sign the bill, but I would not use my executive power to veto it, either. (If the governor does nothing with a bill that crosses his or her desk, the bill becomes law.)
Cassandra Gekas: As an elected official, there are times when you must weigh your personal values against the recommendations of your colleagues or what is politically popular. In Vermont, where the governor and lieutenant governor are elected separately, this can be particularly difficult when the two leaders do not have a shared vision for the future of our state.
Should I be called upon to serve as governor in the event of a tragedy, the well-being of Vermonters, our institutions, and our economy would be my top priority. To be a strong and effective leader to the people of our great state, my individual values and experience must play a role in my decision-making process. However, it is important to remember that the governor does not operate in a vacuum and no legislation lands on his/her desk without the careful consideration of the Legislature. This is the essence of our democracy and process for which I have deep respect.
As governor, I would carefully consider the rationale behind the legislation, along with the recommendations of the key individuals involved with its design. If the bill merely represents a different approach to solving a key challenge that Vermonters face, but is in line with our vision and values as a state, I would likely not interfere with its passage. However, if the bill compromised the individual rights or liberties of Vermonters, I would be forced to vote with my conscience. I am reminded of the courageous votes in support of marriage equality for which some legislators lost their seats, or the tie-breaking vote that Lt. Gov. Madeleine Kunin cast in support of Planned Parenthood funding. There are moments in history when a governor must stand on the side of justice, even if it is politically unpopular. I have the courage and commitment to hold my ground when necessary, but the wisdom and humility to understand when it is time to let go and trust the process. These are the qualities of good leadership that I carry with me each day and will embody in my service as lieutenant governor.
Q: Who had the biggest impact on your political career? What did you learn from them? And how do those lessons show in your work today?
Gekas: The two leaders who have been the biggest source of inspiration to me and my commitment to public service are the late Bobby Kennedy and Sen. Bernie Sanders. These two individuals devoted their lives to public service and spoke truth to power, albeit in very different ways. Their unwavering commitment to justice and the health and prosperity of the American people is rare in politics today. I strive to carry the essence of their commitment and courage in the work I do each day, whether it’s behind the scenes or as a very public elected official.
The leader who has influenced my career path the most in Vermont is House Speaker Shap Smith. I have had the pleasure of seeing him in action in the Statehouse and working closely with him on health care reform. We do not always see eye to eye, but I have a deep respect for his careful and deliberate style of leadership. I admire the ways in which he balances competing priorities, unites House members around critical issues, and gets the job done with the utmost integrity and respect for the legislative process.
As a leader, I strive to embody the courage and bold vision of leaders like Sen. Bernie Sanders and the pragmatic, balanced approach of House Speaker Shap Smith. I’ve set a high bar for myself, but I believe it’s a winning combination in the office of lieutenant governor and for Vermonters as a whole.
Scott: My good friend, Sen. Dick Mazza, has probably been the most influential figure in my political career. I served with him during the 10 years I was in the Vermont Senate, and we worked closely together on the Transportation and Institutions Committees. Sen. Mazza set a strong example for me of the importance of respect, common sense and independent thinking. Although he’s a Democrat, he never follows his party blindly. He supports those he respects, regardless of their party affiliation. He also treats others with respect (again, regardless of party), and he approaches every issue with an open mind and a willingness to listen and learn. Because of the strong relationships he’s cultivated with others, he’s able to get things done through conversation and consensus, rather than by playing political games or by ruling his committee with an iron fist.
Today, Sen. Mazza and I have a strong friendship. Although we agree on some issues, we disagree on others, so through our conversations, we each gain an appreciation for the other perspective. This open-mindedness has, I think, earned both of us the respect of our colleagues. One of the things I’m proudest of is the fact that legislators of all parties have started to look to me as a mediator, adviser and “sounding board,” the same way that they look to Sen. Mazza. I think this is a valuable role for the Legislature as a whole and for the state of Vermont; by working together, we can achieve consensus and move policies forward.
Q: On the issue of abortion rights, do you support parental notification for minors? Why?
Scott: I do support parental notification in cases where a child requests an abortion. As the father of two daughters now in their 20s, I know I would have wanted the opportunity to counsel them, had they found themselves in this difficult situation at a young age. I also realize that not all young women have good relationships with their parents.
But I feel confident that any well-written parental notification law, such as the one I supported in 2003, would include exemptions and protections for these situations, particularly for cases of abuse or incest. On the issue of abortion rights generally, I consider myself “pro-choice,” not “pro-abortion,” and I think that some restrictions simply make common sense. The law requires children to receive parental permission for a wide variety of decisions affecting their bodies, including tattooing and tanning. To not require the same level of oversight and counseling for an abortion doesn’t make sense to me.
Gekas: Women have fought long and hard for control over their bodies and their reproductive health care decisions. In 2012, we are again in the midst of a concerted attack on women’s reproductive rights across the country. Laws aimed at restricting a woman’s right to choose, like parental notification, fetal homicide proposals, or bans on “partial birth abortion” are part of a coordinated effort to roll back the protections of Roe v. Wade and shift control of women’s health to the states. I cannot and will not support any efforts to turn back the clock.
While I understand the desire of a concerned parents to communicate with their daughter about her health and life decisions, I do not believe that it is the role of government to dictate this relationship. Abortion is a personal health issue, and should be available to individuals with as little legislative impediment as possible. Current law is designed to protect the privacy and safety of women seeking reproductive health services and they serve our state well.
There are times when a minor’s pregnancy may result from sexual abuse within the family, or when involving a parent may threaten a young woman’s personal safety. In such cases, parental notification would re-victimize the minor, and potentially allow an abusive family member to coerce the minor into a decision they do not wish to make. Even without the element of abuse in such a situation, parental notification dilutes the ability of young women to make fundamental health care decisions independently, on an issue which is politically polarizing even within families.
No one, not even a parent, should be able to force a woman to carry a child against her will. And we should not create a scenario in which a minor is forced to cross state lines in secret to seek legal reproductive health services.
Q: As lieutenant governor, on what policy initiatives would you focus your energy?
Gekas: I have been deeply involved in Vermont’s health care reform process and will continue to do so as your lieutenant governor. Our state is spending over $5 billion a year on a health care system that is failing a quarter of our people. Like most Vermonters, I believe it is time to move toward a universal, publicly financed health care system that is fair, affordable, and reliable.
But the decisions we are facing on benefit packages and financing are tough. This is the point at which every major health care reform effort attempted has fallen short, because change is scary and there are millions of dollars in profits at stake. Moving forward in the face of entrenched opposition will take a great deal of courage. Channeling that courage, getting the costs of health care off the backs of small business, and protecting the health of Vermont families will be my biggest priority as lieutenant governor.
As lieutenant governor, I do not believe that my work ends with the legislative session in May. I am committed to working as hard as I can, year round, to serve the people of our state. I believe that building a stronger economy for Vermont means growing jobs from the ground up, protecting our working families and investing in our future. As lieutenant governor, my first priority in June of 2013 will be to work with state leaders to ensure that affordable child care and early childhood education are available to every Vermonter. These are issues of fundamental importance for our social and economic future.
By making sure that working families are supported in this state, we can put Vermonters back to work and grow our economy. An investment in early childhood education is an investment in Vermont’s future, the returns of which include a skilled workforce, reduced crime, greater economic prosperity, independence of our residents, and a stronger, safer community.
Scott: This coming session, I would like to focus on growing Vermont’s economy. When I talk to Vermonters, the theme I hear consistently is affordability. For many families, the concern is no longer “How do I pay my mortgage?” but rather “How do I pay my property taxes?” So many Vermont families are living on the edge of affordability. Census numbers prove that young people are leaving to find better opportunities elsewhere; nearly 30 percent of Vermonters aged 25 to 44 have left in the last 10 years. This age range includes Vermonters of childbearing age, so unless we stop this exodus, it will affect us for generations. We’re already seeing its impact, with school enrollments declining.
On the flip side, when I talk to legislators, the theme I hear most often, and a question I often ask myself, is “How are we going to pay for all of the services in state government?” Government services are facing huge pressures. Although school enrollments are declining, it still costs the same amount of money to keep the school open. Because of the economic downturn, more people are calling on unemployment benefits and social services. But state revenues aren’t keeping up.
The answer isn’t to raise taxes in order to pay for increasing social services. All this does is push more Vermonters closer to the edge. Instead, I believe if we focus on growing the economy, by streamlining regulations for businesses and putting policies in place to encourage business owners and young families to settle and stay in Vermont, we can create more opportunities and reduce the demand on state services. By growing the economy, we will encourage new businesses to grow in Vermont, and we will get the added, and essential, benefit of shoring up our existing struggling businesses.
Q: How would you use an office with relatively limited constitutional powers to advance those policies?
Scott: Although the official job description for the lieutenant governor is indeed limited, I think we all agree that the job is what you make of it. During the last two years in the lieutenant governor’s office, I have called on my legislative experience and leveraged the strong relationships that I’ve developed with members of all parties to get things done. I believe I can continue in this vein to achieve consensus in the Statehouse that the theme and over-arching goal of this coming legislative session should be “growing Vermont’s economy.” If our leadership, committee chairs, and members of the administration can agree to work toward this goal, we can focus our scarce legislative time on proposals that help get us there.
Whether it’s streamlining the environmental permitting process, to doing more outreach on business programs such as EB-5, to giving consideration to tax credits that might encourage young families to stay in Vermont — these are just some examples of legislation that we might prioritize.
Gekas: Though the lieutenant governor does have relatively limited constitutional powers, the holder of this office possesses significant agency in advancing policy in Vermont. For one, the lieutenant governor presides over the Senate, and though he/she does not independently set the agenda for what bills are reviewed and voted upon at what time, the lieutenant governor is in a position to track the movement of new legislation and ensure that important bills are not swept aside, and that they receive their fair shake on the Senate floor. Additionally, as one of the three members of the Committee on Committees, the lieutenant governor exercises some influence on the makeup of the committees tasked with tackling the various challenges that the state faces. Also, should any key legislation encounter a tie vote in the Senate, the lieutenant governor has the constitutional power to cast the tie-breaking vote.
Though this might seem like a relatively unlikely occurrence considering the current Democratic majority, one need only think back to Madeleine Kunin’s years as lieutenant governor, when she broke the tie vote concerning Planned Parenthood funding, to see that this is a responsibility of great import. Beyond the specific constitutional duties of the office and the work undertaken during the legislative session, I would seek to use the office of lieutenant governor throughout the year as a thinking space for policy road maps that would benefit the state. Those six months outside of the session would be spent building consensus between key officials and community members, and seeking out models for policy solutions to improve the efficiency of the work done in the Statehouse.