Policy Wonk Nicole Mace Lands in a Swirling Political Storm | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Policy Wonk Nicole Mace Lands in a Swirling Political Storm


Published August 9, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated August 22, 2017 at 11:01 p.m.

Nicole Mace - STEFAN HARD
  • Stefan Hard
  • Nicole Mace

When Nicole Mace was 3 years old, according to family lore, her mother found her at a neighbor's house discussing the Iran hostage crisis with a friend's parents.

In eighth grade, she submitted a science fair project on how depletion of the ozone layer affected plant life. Her father questioned her assumptions about the issue's scientific significance. She didn't give in.

"My parents were always good at giving me opportunities to present a case, to engage in adult conversation and challenge me," said Mace, who turns 40 on Friday. "I think I always had opinions."

That ability to stand her ground in debate came in handy this year. As executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, Mace landed at the center of the most controversial issue faced by the state legislature this session. With her knack for articulating difficult arguments, Mace played chief defender of a plan to shift Vermont teachers to a statewide health insurance contract to save taxpayers money.

In the process, the young lawyer found herself at odds with close friends, mentors and former political allies. Mace, who considers herself a solid Democrat, came under attack from the teachers' union and its supporters. She was accused of locking arms with Republican Gov. Phil Scott to advance Wisconsin-style, union-busting tactics.

"It was really hard for me to have conversations with people I consider friends," she said. "It's no fun thinking you are a reviled person."

Lesson learned: Politics is brutal. But public policy? She didn't lose her thirst for that.

Mace, who sports a nose piercing, hoop earrings and a hip hairdo, is a self-described nerd willing to banter about virtually any issue — education, affordable housing, zoning, you name it — at the drop of a hat.

"I think public policy matters," Mace said. "I'm interested in policy conversations that are informed by information and data, that are pragmatic and deliver the greatest benefits."

The divorced mother of a 6-year-old daughter, Mace has plenty on her plate. In addition to her day job, she gets a hefty dose of public policy as a Winooski city councilor. She is the sort of person who considers it rewarding to spend Monday evenings immersed in debate about building setbacks.

There was a time when Mace thought she would parlay her interest in public policy into a political career. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 2009, she envisioned a future run for statewide office.

In 2014, friends encouraged her to enroll in the inaugural class of Emerge Vermont, a program that prepares young Democratic women to campaign for office. Fresh off those lessons, the Pennsylvania native ran for city council in her adopted hometown in 2015.

Looking at the roster of Winooski council candidates, she found only white men seeking to represent a diverse community known for its immigrant population. The only woman, deputy mayor Sally Tipson, was leaving the council. "To have an all-male, all-white city council just doesn't seem right," Mace said.

Now in her second two-year term, Mace said she finds the council focused on policy and refreshingly devoid of politics. She's established a reputation for asking insightful questions that hold city officials accountable, according to Winooski Mayor Seth Leonard.

"She shows up well prepared," Leonard said. "She'll put her hands on the table and say, 'I want to make sure we have thought about this.'"

Mace described protecting the city from gentrification as the issue most important to her. That was on display in June, as the council prepared to vote on new zoning regulations. Mace had pored through a thick packet of information and found nothing to ensure that Winooski maintained sufficient affordable housing, a topic the council had discussed earlier.

"I flipped," she said.

A video recording of the June 17 meeting shows Mace raising her hand and asserting that the council wanted to ensure the continued availability of affordable housing in the city. Fellow councilors nodded in agreement. The council went on to create a housing commission and, separately, Mace said she is looking forward to the results of a gentrification study.

"Flipped"? Not so much, said Leonard.

"I have yet to see what I would call Nicole 'flipping,'" the mayor joked.

Her colleagues agreed, saying that Mace has a talent for quickly absorbing information and articulating her point — without losing her cool.

"She's direct and succinct," said Katherine "Deac" Decarreau, a former Winooski city manager. "You never doubt what she means."

"Nicole is one of the smartest people I know," said Steve Dale, who preceded her as VSBA executive director. "She's extremely articulate."

At the Statehouse this year, those attributes helped land her in a difficult position. It fell to Mace, who became VSBA executive director in September 2015, to explain and defend the proposed changes to teacher health insurance, a plan that quickly became a political lightning rod.

As the year started, she thought the biggest education issue was going to be a few tweaks to Act 46, the state's two-year-old school district consolidation law. Then Scott delivered a budget address in which he proposed to save $50 million by freezing all school budgets and requiring teachers to pay at least 20 percent of their health coverage.

Mace's first response, she said, was that the governor's plan shouldn't, and wouldn't, pass the Democratic legislature. Her next thought was that some sort of education funding cuts would surely result — and that the VSBA should be ready.

Her organization's board of directors, working with the Vermont Superintendents Association, decided to support a proposal to return to taxpayers some of the savings from new, less-expensive teacher health insurance plans. The best way to ensure that happened, the board decided, was to enact a single statewide teacher health contract, removing health insurance from teachers' locally negotiated benefits packages.

Mace pitched the plan in February to legislative leaders and the governor and she said there was interest. Months passed, however, without action. Democratic legislative leaders were unwilling to embrace an idea that the Vermont-National Education Association teachers' union adamantly opposed.

In late April, Scott finally saw the plan as his best option to push for cuts in education funding. Mace and Geo Honigford, the VSBA board president, stood alongside the governor at a press conference as he endorsed the proposal.

When the media started asking questions, including how much school districts spend on health coverage, Scott quickly deferred to Mace. "Two hundred twenty million," she replied without hesitation. Three times she stepped to the microphone to rattle off facts about the proposal and its impact, gesturing energetically with her hands.

But Democratic lawmakers never signed on to the plan. "The politics turned out to be far more explosive," Mace said. "I didn't think it was going to be a showdown between the Republican governor and Democratic legislature."

Lacking agreement — and without the VSBA at the table — lawmakers and the governor ended up simply cutting $13 million in school spending, leaving boards to figure out where to find the savings.

Mace conceded that the VSBA might have been better off had it never offered the health savings idea at all. But because of her efforts, the issue remains on the agenda. Later this month, a commission is scheduled to convene to more thoroughly explore whether a statewide health contract would be beneficial. Mace's organization will be at the table.

As the VSBA's representative in the Statehouse, though, Mace has taken the brunt of criticism for the plan. Opponents described it as an attack on collective bargaining rights, which call for workers to negotiate directly with their employer.

"The buck stops with the executive director," said Jack Bryar, a school board member from Grafton who strongly disagreed with the VSBA's health care proposal.

Martha Allen, president of the Vermont-NEA, accused Mace of betraying her Democratic roots. "She's really basically put a target on us under the guise of saving taxpayers money," Allen said. "Her behavior is contradictory to what Emerge stands for."

Honigford defended his executive director. "It was not Nicole Mace doing it," he said. "It was the board saying, 'This needs to be done' and Nicole carrying it out."

Mace said she willingly went to bat for the statewide health contract proposal. Teacher contract negotiations have stayed the same for decades, she said, even as teachers' jobs have changed.

"If we're not open to thinking about how business gets done, I don't think we're serving Vermonters," Mace said.

Still, she added, the criticism was hard to take. Mace started her career as a paraeducator at Essex High School, clerked at the Vermont-NEA after law school and said she is committed to the pursuit of education equality.

The VSBA's stance put her at odds not only with former colleagues, but also with close friends. Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint (D-Windham) was an Emerge Vermont classmate. The two women bonded over a shared enthusiasm for education policy. But Balint adamantly contends that a statewide teacher health contract would be an assault on educators' labor rights.

"We had a few tense conversations in the Statehouse," Balint said. "It was acknowledged on both our parts [that] it wasn't going to be comfortable for either of us to have lunch or a drink together."

Both said they expect their friendship to survive. Less likely to survive, however, are the statewide political ambitions Mace once had.

"You see what happens when people stick their neck out," she said. "Things can get nasty and personal, and that can be a real detriment for people to run for public office."

Mace, instead, is focused on her work at VSBA. She spoke fondly of traveling the state during the last two years, talking to school board members about Act 46 — a technical and controversial subject.

"I can sort of nerd out on the policy issues," Mace said.

She's excited about creating a video to explain Vermont's complex education funding formula. And, of course, she expects to take part in continued discussions about teacher health insurance.

For now, that's enough. "I think I could be a politician," she said. "I'm not sure I want to."

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