- John Walters
Christine Hallquist has made fighting climate change a focal point of her campaign for governor. The former utility executive turned Democratic politician touts her commitment to renewable energy. She points with pride to the almost entirely carbon-free portfolio she built at the Vermont Electric Coop as proof of her dedication and know-how.
During her 13 years as CEO of the co-op, Hallquist was an advocate for renewables — most of the time. But there were occasions when she defended industry interests and emphasized cost and affordability over transformation.
"We butted heads quite a bit over renewable energy," said former state representative Tony Klein, a zealous advocate of renewables who chaired the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee from 2011 to 2016. "I don't know what she really believes. I do know she had to represent her ratepayers."
That's the question facing voters in the August 14 primary: What does Hallquist really believe? This is a matter of concern for some progressive-leaning voters who see a candidate who acknowledges voting for Republican Gov. Phil Scott in 2016 and has little to no track record on other issues.
Another thing: That co-op portfolio isn't as green as it appears. Nearly 80 percent of its power comes from Hydro-Québec's massive dams in the province's far north, which have inflicted widespread ecological damage, and from a 20-year contract Hallquist signed with New Hampshire's Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in 2015. Only 16 percent of VEC's power comes from wind, solar, methane or wood.
"I don't say 'renewable'; I say 'carbon free,'" Hallquist said. "I'm strategic about that."
"Strategic" is one way to put it.
As a prominent energy expert, Hallquist has left a long trail of public writings and statements. Most are supportive of renewable energy, but some lend credence to Klein's skepticism.
Hallquist has argued against further expansion of net metering, the program that incentivizes residential-scale solar arrays. Less than a year ago, VEC opposed building more renewables in most of its service area because of concerns about the capacity of the electric power grid.
In a 2017 story about VEC's resistance, VTDigger.org quoted renewable developer David Blittersdorf as saying, "They're not supportive of a renewable energy future with their actions." (Through a spokesperson, Blittersdorf declined to comment for this story.)
At the same time, VEC was building two big solar arrays in Hinesburg and Grand Isle. Why the seeming contradiction? Hallquist favors renewables, but only where the infrastructure can handle it. However, she hasn't spent much time advocating for grid improvements.
"She should have been saying, 'We need renewable energy, but we need to upgrade the grid,'" Klein recalled. "What she did say was, 'We can't handle any more renewables.' It used to infuriate me."
In the past, Hallquist has promoted natural gas as a necessary complement to weather-dependent solar and wind. Now, she says, improvements in technology have greatly reduced the need for gas. She has promised to sign a "no new fossil fuel infrastructure" pledge put forward by the Upper Valley Affinity Group, which fellow candidate James Ehlers signed last week.
Hallquist positions herself as a problem-solver who's committed to reaching Vermont's goal of 90 percent renewable power by the year 2050 — and to achieving shorter-term targets as well. She endorses a report called Vermont Solar Pathways, a federally funded study that identifies a way to meet 20 percent of Vermont's electricity needs with renewables by the year 2025.
"As governor, I'm going to be a champion for the 90 percent goal. I'm going to make Solar Pathways our comprehensive energy plan," Hallquist said. "We can get there. I have absolute faith that we can."
When asked about political opposition that has effectively halted large-scale wind and has threatened some proposed solar projects, she struck a measured tone. "That is the public policy tension," she said. "What do people really want?"
If Hallquist encountered resistance to in-state renewables, she would settle for continued dependence on Hydro-Québec and importing energy from wind farms in the Midwest. As Hallquist put it, "Do we want to solve climate change, or do we want renewables?" She wants both, but if she had to choose only one, it would be addressing climate change.
As a utility executive, Hallquist had a responsibility to ratepayers and her board. That meant advocating for lower costs and buying nuclear power, among other things. "Your obligation as a leader is to work for the people that you're hired to serve," she said. As governor, she added, she would work for the best interests of all Vermonters — a broader vision, in her telling, that focuses on building a sustainable future.
But one might well wonder how her years in the utility business would color her actions as governor. The politically powerful industry has its own interests to protect, even while it encourages renewable energy. And Hallquist's signature policy initiative, universal broadband, would hand over that entire sector to Vermont's utilities.
Vermont Public Interest Research Group lobbyist Ben Walsh encapsulates the dilemma. Hallquist is "clearly someone who understands the gravity of the climate crisis ... and knows the energy sector like the back of her hand," he said. But, he added, as a utility executive "her track record was mixed, supporting climate policy at times and working to block it at others."
Which leaves Walsh, and others, wondering: "What kind of governor will she be?"
The Dems Power Up
The Vermont Democratic Party has made a bunch of hires, bringing its staff to six permanent full-timers, plus three field organizers who will serve through Election Day.
The new permanent hires are finance director Maggie Lenz and communications director R. Christopher Di Mezzo. Three others will be field organizers on salary through the campaign season, and the party intends to add a fourth.
VDP executive director Josh Massey, a recent hire himself, said the party is now "back at full capacity," with the same staffing it enjoyed from 2012 to 2016.
Meanwhile, at Vermont Republican Party headquarters, executive director Jack Moulton heads a paid staff of ... himself. The VTGOP will be hiring two additional employees for the campaign, but otherwise Moulton will be depending on unpaid labor.
"We've devised a system of field coordinators, a team of volunteers who have signed up for their counties," Moulton said. Those volunteers include party chair Deb Billado, who will handle three counties, and Moulton himself, who will coordinate two.
Why the stark difference in staffing? Money, of course. After a financial nosedive in 2017 that led to at least one delayed payroll, the Democrats have rebounded. The Republicans continue to struggle.
A bit of background before jumping into the numbers. Federal law requires that state parties maintain separate state and federal accounts. Most of the money flows through the federal account. Corporate contributions aren't allowed under federal law, but they are permitted in Vermont, so the corporate cash goes to the state party funds.
The VDP federal committee has raised $359,000 since January 1 and ended June with a healthy $143,000 in cash on hand. The VTGOP federal fund raised $105,000 in the first six months of the year and ended with a mere $7,300 in the bank.
Same story in the state funds. From mid-July 2017 to mid-July 2018, the VDP raised $152,000, while the VTGOP raised only $78,000.
Where is all the Democratic money coming from? The federal committee has benefited from the largesse of the national party, well-heeled politicos and individuals. Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) senatorial campaign committee, Friends of Bernie Sanders, has given $101,000 to the Dems' federal kitty this year. The Democratic National Committee has donated a total of $66,000, the Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund (a Washington, D.C., political action committee) gave $40,000 and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch's (D-Vt.) campaign donated $10,000.
Individuals giving $10,000 each included Burton Snowboards founder Jake Carpenter; Green Mountain Coffee Roasters founder Robert Stiller and his wife, Christine; and Indiana residents Deborah Simon and Cynthia Simon Skjodt, heirs to the fortune of their father, Mel Simon, who was a shopping mall developer.
The VDP raked in a lot of cash from Burlington-area developers, including $15,000 from corporations co-owned by Don Sinex, the man behind CityPlace Burlington; another $15,000 from two entities under the Pomerleau Real Estate umbrella; and $5,000 from Main Street Landing.
The VTGOP, meanwhile, leaned heavily on a handful of deep-pocketed loyalists. Lenore Broughton, who came to political prominence in 2012 when she spent a million dollars on her own conservative super PAC, Vermonters First, gave $10,000 each to the VTGOP's state and federal funds. Tom Breuer, a conservative mega-donor who owns homes in Massachusetts and Stowe, gave $17,500 to the state fund and another $2,500 to the federal fund — and his software company, Valetude, gave another $10,000 to the state fund.
The VTGOP federal fund also received $15,000 from members of the Pizzagalli family of contractors/developers and $5,000 apiece from Jack McMullen, former candidate for U.S. Senate and attorney general; Mitchell Fleischer, head of an insurance and investment firm; Dawn Terrill, former party finance chair and member of Republican governor Jim Douglas' cabinet; and former Barre mayor Thom Lauzon.
The VTGOP's state campaign fund received $10,000 from True North Reports, the conservative news and opinion website; and another $10,000 from Koivut LLC, a privately held firm based in Cornwall. There were many donors in the $1,000 to $3,000 range, primarily out-of-state corporations.
True North managing editor Bruce Parker failed to respond to a request for comment on why a self-described news organization would make a sizable gift to a political party, and how the bare-bones operation came up with an extra 10 Gs.
Despite the generosity of a few, Vermont Republicans are simply not competitive with the Democrats in resources and organization. Will this translate into Democratic gains in November? It may not have much impact on the statewide races, where individual candidates run their own operations. But the Democrats are fully equipped to defend their legislative majorities and win enough new seats in the House to overturn gubernatorial vetoes.
VTDigger.org has said farewell to its longest-tenured reporter. Elizabeth Hewitt's final day was last Friday, after nearly four years at Digger, including a stint as its Washington, D.C., correspondent.
"I'm moving to New York City," Hewitt explained. "I have family there, and my partner is starting a new job there shortly." She'll work as a freelance writer for now, and one of her clients will be Digger itself.
Change is the only constant at Digger, and next steps are already under way. Hewitt will be replaced on the news roster and in Washington. "We have made an offer to a candidate in D.C., and we hope to fill [the position] right away," Digger's founder and chief editor, Anne Galloway, reported via email.