Former Ed Secretary Rebecca Holcombe to Run for Governor of Vermont | Off Message

Former Ed Secretary Rebecca Holcombe to Run for Governor of Vermont


  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Rebecca Holcombe
Updated at 2:47 p.m.

For the first 15 months of Republican Gov. Phil Scott's administration, Rebecca Holcombe served as his secretary of education. Now she's hoping to oust him from Vermont's top job.

The 52-year-old Norwich resident announced Tuesday morning that she'll seek the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2020. That makes her the first declared candidate in the field.

“I’m running for governor because I think it’s time to take the state in a new direction, and I have tremendous experience as an educator, as a teacher, a principal, a secretary,” she said in an interview with Seven Days. “And I want to put it to work for every Vermonter in every corner of the state — not just the areas that are already doing well.”

Holcombe pondered a run for governor in 2018 but ultimately sat out that race. Last month, she told Seven Days she was in "the exploratory phase" of a 2020 campaign. Other potential entrants could include Democratic Attorney General T.J. Donovan, Progressive/Democratic Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman and 2018 Democratic candidate Brenda Siegel.

Scott, 60, said last month that he would not announce whether he would seek a third two-year term until the end of the next legislative session, which is likely to conclude in May 2020.

Holcombe, who has not previously run for public office, was appointed secretary of education by Democratic governor Peter Shumlin in September 2013 and took office in January 2014. When Scott chose to retain her in February 2017, the new GOP governor hailed her "fierce commitment to improving Vermont's education system," and she said it was "a privilege and an honor" to serve in his administration.

Those feelings had evidently changed by March 2018, when Scott announced that Holcombe had resigned for "personal" reasons. The outgoing secretary declined repeated interview requests at the time and said only, in a letter to colleagues, "It is time to move on." The next month, Seven Days reported that she had, in fact, resigned due to policy disagreements with the governor.
“I joined the Scott administration because I really did take him at his word that he was serious about making Vermont more affordable and more equitable,” Holcombe said Tuesday. “And I resigned when I realized his actions weren’t matched by his words. But I didn’t do it to sit on the sidelines.”

Asked why, then, she refused to publicly air her grievances with the governor at the time, she said, “You know … here I am now. And when I say I’m not sitting on the sidelines, that’s why I’m running for governor right now, because I feel like I can have a robust debate and put some of these ideas back on the table.”

Holcombe suggested that one reason she left was Scott’s determination to “eliminat[e] local control of our schools” and replace it with “a statewide voucher plan that would pull millions out of our public schools … and give that money to private schools that mostly benefit privileged Vermonters.” She added, “That’s not who I am. I don’t think that’s fair. And, you know, I had to leave.”

Holcombe appeared to be referring to a draft policy memo completed nine months after her departure by her successor, Education Secretary Dan French. It envisioned breaking down the state’s school districts into one and affording public and private school choice to all students. As soon as that document became public in January, Scott distanced himself from it.

“I don’t think we’re ready for anything like that at this point,” he told Vermont Public Radio at the time.

According to Scott spokesperson Rebecca Kelley, the governor has never advocated a statewide voucher system. “That statement is fundamentally false,” she said.

Kelley otherwise declined to comment on Holcombe’s entry into the race. “The Governor is only 7 months into his term and remains solely focused on his goal to improve the lives of Vermonters by growing the economy, making Vermont more affordable and protecting the most vulnerable, so we won’t be weighing in on candidates,” she said.
Gov. Phil Scott - FILE: JOSH KUCKENS
  • File: Josh Kuckens
  • Gov. Phil Scott
According to the polling firm Morning Consult, Scott is among the most popular governors in the country, with 59 percent of Vermonters viewing him favorably and only 28 percent viewing him unfavorably. In his 2016 run for governor, he defeated Democratic former transportation secretary Sue Minter by 8.8 percentage points. Two years later, he beat business leader Christine Hallquist, also a Democrat, by 14.9 points.

Asked how she would overcome those tough odds, Holcombe said, “I’m gonna win by showing everyday working Vermonters that it’s not enough to talk.” She added, “I think Vermonters want a governor who’s gonna roll up their sleeves and engage.”
Holcombe declined to outline specific policy priorities, saying only that she would focus on making health care more affordable, strengthening public schools and addressing climate change. Asked for details, she said, “We got a long opportunity here and I’m just starting.”

The candidate did call herself “a big supporter of paid family leave,” highlighting it as an issue that differentiated her from Scott. She expressed confidence that the Democratic legislature, which failed to pass such legislation this year, would “get the job done [next] January.”

She appeared less interested in raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, another priority of legislative Democrats. Asked several times whether she supported doing so, Holcombe finally answered, “Yes, yes, and there are also other ways to increase wages in addition to that that we ought to be looking at.” She said those included investing in job training.

One issue that could present a political problem for Holcombe is Act 46, the controversial school district consolidation measure signed into law by Shumlin during her tenure as education secretary. Community members in some rural areas have sought to repeal, delay and overturn the law, upset that it could result in the closing of their schools.

“Like the majority of Vermonters, I supported the mission of Act 46, which was to make our education system more equitable and more efficient,” Holcombe said. But, she added, “I don’t think any piece of legislation is perfect.” She declined to cite specific disagreements she had with the law as passed.

The daughter of international development workers for the United Nations, Holcombe spent her formative years in Afghanistan and Pakistan, she told Seven Days and Kids VT in 2013. She attended Milton Academy, a private boarding school in Massachusetts, and Brown University. She later earned an MBA from Simmons School of Management and a doctorate from Harvard's Graduate School of Education.

Holcombe taught at a Hanover, N.H., middle school and became principal of a Fairlee elementary school at age 29. She later led the Teacher Education Program at Dartmouth College. After leaving the Scott administration, Holcombe worked for Boston College's Lynch School of Education and Human Development. She is married to James Bandler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for ProPublica, and has two children.

John Walters contributed reporting.