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Former Ed Secretary Holcombe Faces Learning Curve in Bid for Governor

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
TIM NEWCOMB
  • Tim Newcomb

The 2020 campaign got under way Tuesday morning as Rebecca Holcombe announced her Democratic candidacy for governor. Holcombe became education secretary in 2014 under Democratic governor Peter Shumlin and continued to serve under Republican Gov. Phil Scott until April 2018, when she resigned with little notice and no public explanation.

So now the question is, can she win?

In some key respects, Holcombe resembles the last two Democratic gubernatorial nominees, Sue Minter and Christine Hallquist, both beaten easily by Scott. Like Minter, she's a former cabinet secretary. Like Hallquist, she's never run for political office before. Like both, she starts her campaign little-known outside of the Montpelier bubble. She's getting an early start, which should help — though Minter launched her 2016 candidacy almost as early, and she still lost badly.

Holcombe may have stiff competition in the Democratic primary. Attorney General T.J. Donovan is considering a run. He would have huge advantages in name recognition, fundraising potential and connections to party power brokers. Progressive/Democratic Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman is also pondering a candidacy; he would benefit from his deep ties to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and his longtime support for lefty causes. Brenda Siegel of Newfane, who finished third in the 2018 Democratic primary, is mulling a second bid.

Whatever others decide, Holcombe faces big obstacles if she's going to win the nomination and be competitive in the general election. Vermont Democratic Party chair Terje Anderson believes that a bankroll of $3 million to $4 million will be necessary to defeat Scott, who hasn't yet announced a run for reelection. That's a lot of money for someone with no fundraising experience.

Holcombe is a policy wonk, not a campaigner. She'll have to quickly acquire a new skill set. Her experience, and what name recognition she possesses, is all in the education realm. She will have to assemble a persuasive agenda with substantial policy proposals across a range of issues.

Finally, Holcombe will have to learn to deal with the press. She has had prickly relationships with reporters, often refusing to respond to inconvenient inquiries. For example, she never gave a real explanation for her sudden resignation last year. Only now, as she launches her campaign, does her press release offer a rationale: that she believed Scott was "pushing for a statewide voucher program that would take millions from our public schools and funnel it to private schools that mostly serve privileged families."

Scott spokesperson Rebecca Kelley called that statement "fundamentally false," and there is no record of the governor publicly advocating for a statewide voucher program. He does support the current system, which provides private-school tuition aid for students whose home districts don't offer all K-12 grades. In a 2016 debate, Scott hinted at support for a broader voucher program. "I think competition is good," he said, according to VTDigger.org. "I believe that, within reason, parents should have a choice as to where they send their children. I would like to see some expansion of that."

That statement fits a Scott pattern of alluding to provocative ideas but never fully embracing them. If Holcombe plans to make vouchers a point of attack, she'd better have evidence to back it up. And she'd better be prepared for tough questioning on this and other issues.

A Tuesday interview with Seven Days was not promising. Her answers were full of generalities about rolling up her sleeves, building coalitions and working hard. For example, when asked how she would compete with a popular incumbent, she said, "I'm going to win by showing everyday working Vermonters that it's not enough to talk. They actually need action." She sounded like someone who'd been filled to the brim with a consultant's talking points.

None of this should be taken to mean that Holcombe has no chance. She's smart, driven and determined. She has time to make her case.

She'll need it.

Where the Money Flows Freely

TIM NEWCOMB
  • Tim Newcomb

Vermont's 3-year-old waterway cleanup program has received its first performance review. On Monday, State Auditor Doug Hoffer issued a report designed to measure the program's early returns in the Lake Champlain watershed.

The full program is a 20-year, federally mandated effort to reduce phosphorus emissions into lakes Champlain and Memphremagog, as well as the Connecticut River. Over its first three years, the program has spent roughly $100 million, including $66 million for Champlain.

Hoffer's two main findings: The early spending failed to match priorities, and much of the money went to projects that addressed relatively minor sources of phosphorus. Also, the program suffers from a lack of measurable data. That makes it hard to determine return on investment.

"I am absolutely persuaded that [state officials] are working hard on this," said Hoffer. "I'm not convinced the money is being spent in the most effective way possible."

For instance, between 2016 and 2018, 35 percent of program funds were spent on wastewater treatment — even though wastewater accounts for only 4 percent of the phosphorus flowing into Lake Champlain. (Hoffer's report acknowledged that improved wastewater treatment has many other benefits, from sanitation to economic development.)

Meanwhile, spending on agriculture remediation accounted for 24 percent of total expenditures, while farms contribute a massive 54 percent of the lake's phosphorus load.

"The audit didn't recognize that some of our funding sources were constrained," said Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore. In its first three years, the program relied heavily on the state's capital fund, which can only be used for construction costs of building projects approved by the legislature.

Moore pointed out that the program is getting a new start thanks to Act 76, a law enacted last month that establishes a management structure, dedicated funding from a portion of the rooms and meals tax, and priorities based on phosphorus mitigation.

"It's ironic that the report comes out as [the law] takes effect," said Jon Groveman, policy and water program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council. "The bill remedies a lot of the problems outlined in the report."

Still, Hoffer reveals how the lack of a true funding source and administrative structure led to a lot of unwise investments. The wastewater treatment improvements, Hoffer noted, were "done because they could ... But the law says the money should be spent as efficiently as possible."

In the program's first three years, Gov. Scott and the legislature were happy to rely heavily on capital funds, which allowed them to avoid picking a permanent funding source that would have likely involved a tax increase. It's clear from Hoffer's report that deferral had consequences in misdirected spending.

Hoffer also raised concerns about the lack of ways to reliably measure phosphorus reductions. Without valid data, how can the state make informed decisions on spending priorities?

"It's all based on modeling," Groveman said. "The Agency of Natural Resources sets load reduction for each project based on modeling, not actual measurement."

Moore isn't concerned. "We have an increasingly robust data set," she said. "We have confidence in modeling results."

That confidence had better be well-placed, since the clean water program will spend more than $2 billion over two decades. Act 76 requires a full audit of the program by January 2021, but Hoffer plans to continue his own occasional reviews. "There's a lot of money moving around," he noted. "So many silos, so many agencies involved."

That's often a prescription for wasteful spending and mission creep. Every government entity has its own interests and priorities. With the money flowing freely, it'll take diligence by state officials and environmental watchdogs to ensure that the clean water program doesn't become a boondoggle. Its first three years were not a promising start.

Kumbaya, Anyone?

More than two dozen Democratic lawmakers had a quiet get-together last month to improve communication between the House and Senate. It was the first effort to heal wounds inflicted by the disastrous end of the 2019 session, when the chambers' leadership, despite their supermajorities, failed to reach agreement on their two top priorities: a paid family leave program and an increase in the minimum wage.

Rep. Kathleen James (D-Manchester) and Sen. Debbie Ingram (D-Chittenden) organized the meeting, which included discussions, a few songs and a potluck lunch.

"I was frustrated after the session ended abruptly," Ingram said. "I wanted to bring members of my own party together."

Then she got a call from James. "I knew Debbie through Emerge Vermont," James said, referring to the training program for female Democratic candidates. "I called her and said I'd really like to build some bridges."

They settled on June 25 at Christ Episcopal Church in Montpelier and invited all of their Democratic colleagues. Six senators and 20 representatives attended, including three of the top four House and Senate leaders; Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) had a previous commitment.

"It was very intentionally not a rehash of adjournment, not a policy discussion," said James. "We talked about why we ran for office, our ideals and goals."

First-term Sen. Ruth Hardy (D-Addison) saw a need for bridge building. "People have asked me what surprises me about the Statehouse," she said. "One surprise is that there is sometimes tension between the House and Senate. There are different cultures in the two bodies, well established long before my time."

Many of the attendees were relatively new lawmakers who don't carry the institutional baggage of their elders. "We're interested in breaking down the walls a little bit," said Hardy.

Doubtless, those who prefer the walls sturdy and impenetrable chose not to attend. "Yeah, but there's nothing I can do about that," said James. "We hope to do it again and that more people will come."

This seems like a decent first step in building relationships. But the crux of this year's problem was twofold: structural differences between the two chambers and a mismatch in leadership styles. None of that was addressed.

Democrats may indeed return in January and quickly pass paid leave and minimum wage. But if they do, the incentive will have more to do with the embarrassment of their 2019 failure than a nice potluck lunch.

Correction, July 19, 2019: The original version of this column misstated the types of projects eligible for funding through Vermont's capital bill.

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