"Fringe Friday" is Seven Days' weekly web series about the independent and minor party candidates running for governor, U.S. House and U.S. Senate. Each Friday we'll profile a different candidate seeking higher office in the Green Mountain State, many of whom are pitching more radical ideas for bettering the lives of average Vermonters.
For our second installment, we interviewed Liberty Union gubernatorial candidate Ben Mitchell (pictured), an avowed socialist who's making his third appearance in a statewide election. While "fringe" might seem disparaging, we don't mean it that way. Vermont has a strong tradition of putting independent and third party candidates on the ballot, giving voters the option to choose from a wide menu of ideologies. Still, these candidates rarely garner more than 1 percent of the vote, perhaps due to their less-traditional ideas, or poor organization or even lack of media exposure. As such, they remain on the fringes of the state's political system.
Candidate: Ben Mitchell
Party: Liberty Union
Office Sought: Governor
Education: Norwich University (bachelor of arts, 1995); Goddard College (master of fine arts, 1998)
Occupation: English teacher at Kindle Farm School in Newfane, Vt.
Family: Mitchell grew up in Boston, Mass. and moved to Vermont when he was in high school. His father Mark Mitchell is an architect and Democratic state rep from Barnard who has endorsed state Sen. Peter Shumlin (D-Putney) for governor. His mother, Sarah Mitchell, is a retired school teacher. Ben Mitchell is married to Kathleen Mitchell, a substitute teacher and organic farmer, and they have two kids: Nicholas, 10; and Lucy, 6.
Previous Campaigns: 2008, Lieutenant Governor (Liberty Union); 2006, State Senate (Liberty Union); 2004, U.S. Senate (Liberty Union)
Platform: Mitchell wants to socialize three major industries in Vermont: banking, health care and energy. He sums up his agenda using the following slogans:
"Free the Poor" — Create a state-owned credit union to provide financing to small business.
"Free the Sick" — Triple the number of students admitted to Vermont medical schools and pay their full tuition, in exchange for five years of work after their residency.
"Socialized Energy" — Take Vermont Yankee by eminent domain and put solar panels and wind turbines on every building.
"Free the Pot Heads" — Pardon every inmate imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses and make Vermont "the Amsterdam of the U.S."
"Build a Sustainable Local Economy" — Make state government buy locally-made goods.
"Money Out of Elections" — Mandate publicly-funded elections and instant runoff voting.
I caught up with Mitchell at the Polka Dot diner in White River Junction this week, where he explained the fine points of socialism while a slice of peanut butter pie slowly melted in front of him. To see his video pitch, scroll down to the bottom.
Seven Days: How did you become a socialist?
Ben Mitchell: My grandmother, Ingabor Lorense, was the postmaster of Marlboro, Vt., and at some point she was turned in to the House Un-American Activities Committee as a communist and she refused to name names and refused to cooperate. So she lost her job working for the post office. They forced her to actually move to the Putney School, which then led to the breakup of her marriage and my mother ended up moving to Hanover to live with her cousins, who lived at the Hanover Inn. So my family history has this dark spot. Because we had progressive, socialist values, my grandmother's life was pretty much destroyed.
SD: What does socialism mean to you?
BM: Socialism, as I define it, is where the people of the state and their representative government have control of certain industries or businesses. For example, in New Hampshire when you go to buy a bottle of vodka, you go to the state liquor store. The state controls that industry so they have socialized liquor stores there. What that does is provide a source of revenue to the state, so they can have lower sales taxes and they also have a higher level of regulation. ...The larger point of running as a socialist is to put a stake in the ground, far to the left of the current discussion.
SD: How do you pay for triple the number of doctors to go through medical school? That's a huge expense, isn't it?
BM: Right now, as a culture we're paying twice as much as any other industrialized county for health care, and we're not covering anyone. ...The expense of educating doctors is a lot less than carrying the expense of these for-profit insurance companies, which are marking everything up 1000 percent and doing everything they can to drive up prices.
SD: So would state-run health care facilities exist alongside private or nonprofit-run health care facilities?
BM: Well, I think they'd have to at first. If we just tried to take all the hospitals through eminent domain, the federal government would roll in here with tanks and take over the state.
SD: What's your plan to socialize energy?
BM: The problem with having a profit-motive in energy is that the issue is always, How can we centralize control of energy production and then make a profit off of it? Whereas, our aim would be to decentralize energy production. Every building, every property, should have some bank of solar panels and wind mills. If you live on top of a mountain, you should have some windmills up there, so everyone is contributing to the grid. That's an expensive thing, and of course the question is, How do you pay for that? ...Also, my plan would be to have the state take over all the dams.
SD: How much power could we get from all those dams?
BM: Frankly I don't know. The reality is that we're moving past oil. Easy oil is gone. The whole point of nuclear is to centralize power but it doesn't happen without all these subsidies. So creating a system so that everyone is contributing to the grid is a long-term solution that will work. The feasibility of it isn't really my problem because I'm just putting that stake over on the left hand side.
SD: Is Barack Obama a socialist?
BM: I don't hear anything that he says that sounds socialist at all. He's talking about some regulations and some reforms but he is a free marketeer in everything that he does. The Democrats believe in the free-market system. They read Ayn Rand and think, Yes, this is the best system.
SD: The next governor will inherit something like a $150 million budget deficit. What do you do about that?
BM: I would immediately pardon all non-violent drug offenders. And so no judge could even convict anyone for a non-violent drug offense because they would be immediately pardoned by the governor. That would ostensibly turn Vermont into the Amsterdam of the United States.
SD: Is that a good thing?
BM: I think it is because it provides a cash crop for the farms. We eliminate all those people in prison.
SD: So, would you legalize all drugs? Everything from heroin on down?
SD: A lot of people would argue a drug like marijuana can be used recreationally, whereas a heavy-duty opiate like heroin is highly addictive and destroys lives.
BM: Alcohol does that, too.
SD: Sure, but alcohol can be used recreationally. How many recreational, non-addicted heroin users do you know?
BM: It's 100 percent addictive. I agree. But the thing is right now, the heroin user is a in a state of underground status. So he or she has to lie, cheat and steal in order to satisfy that addiction. By bringing it out into the light, they could talk to a doctor, get a prescription and then the doctor could say, Look, I'm really concerned about this. Do you want to look at some treatment alternatives. We need to help you with this. Whereas being incarcerated, you might kick it in prison but what you learn in prison is going to be totally un-useful in terms of putting your life back together.
SD: What made you decide to run for governor?
BM: [Peter] Diamondstone asked me to. The big criticism of Liberty Union and some of these alternative parties is that we're taking votes away from Democrats. And I don't believe that is the case. Anyone who would vote Liberty Union probably isn't going to vote for a Democrat.
SD: Do you consider Bernie Sanders a socialist?
BM: When he was with Liberty Union he was. He pushes for things that are geared toward helping working people more than other people in the United States Senate, but he's not a socialist. He's pretty much indoctrinated into the Democratic playbook.
SD: Are you running to "put that stake in the ground" more than running to win?
BM: I'm not running to win. I call it "sitting around for office."
SD: What's the last book you read?
BM: "Emma" by Jane Austen.
SD: What do you do for fun?
BM: I'm in a rock band, Green Zone. I play guitar and I sing. We play at the Putney Inn every second Friday of the month. It's a trio — a flower-power trio we call ourselves. That seems to be what most places can afford right now. If the economy gets better, then we'll be a seven-piece with horns.
Previous Fringe Friday profiles:
Week 1: Emily Peyton, Independent candidate for governor