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On Your Markowitz

Deb Markowitz has made a career of assisting Vermonters. Will they return the favor and make her governor?


Published July 14, 2010 at 9:04 a.m.

To announce her “clean energy jobs plan” last week, Deb Markowitz summoned the media to a Winooski factory that manufactures solar-powered hot-water heaters. When only two reporters showed up, the CEO of Sunward Solar called a dozen sweaty workers off the factory floor into an air-conditioned showroom to be an audience for the secretary of state who hopes to be Vermont’s next governor.

Markowitz was characteristically perky before the makeshift crowd as she outlined her plan to grant tax breaks to Vermonters who install renewable energy systems in their homes or businesses. Then she opened the floor to questions. A husky man in a red tank top who goes by the name “Bobo” stepped forward.

“Deb, when you win, your first act can be to give old Bobo here a pardon so I can help vote you in for your second term,” he said, as the room erupted in laughter.

It was a perfect opening for Markowitz. As Vermont’s chief elections officer, she had relevant information to share with the man.

“You can vote, even from prison,” Markowitz announced enthusiastically. With a grin, she explained with rapid-fire efficiency, “In Vermont we allow felons to vote. So you should register to vote and make me governor. I make no promises about a pardon, though.”

The exchange allowed Markowitz, 48, to showcase what she says is her biggest strength in the governor’s race — and why three polls put Markowitz in first place among the four challengers within her party, and one shows her beating Republican candidate Brian Dubie in a postprimary matchup.

“I’ve spent 20 years helping people in every single community in Vermont,” she says. “They call me, I answer their questions.”

Markowitz has been secretary of state for 12 years. Before that, she spent eight years as a staff attorney at the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. In both jobs, she has been a go-to person for town clerks and local officials wrestling with tricky legal questions — everything from Can we close a crumbling bridge that serves only one house? to Does the law require euthanizing a dog that bit a local kid? That could explain why the fast-talking Markowitz has a habit of jumping in to answer questions before you’ve even finished asking them.

“People know my name because I’ve helped them,” she says. “That’s what they’re looking for in their governor: somebody who understands their communities, understands their needs.”

Markowitz got into the governor’s race early — before Republican Governor Jim Douglas declared he wouldn’t seek a fifth term — and has laid the groundwork for a serious campaign. She secured an endorsement from EMILY’s List, the national group that funnels campaign cash to promising female candidates. And her campaign has nine full-time staffers, the most of any Democratic candidate, including some very experienced political hands. As of the last campaign expenditure report, she had raised more money than any other Democratic candidate in the race.

“It’s clear that Markowitz’s base is strong,” concludes a “special report” on the left-leaning Green Mountain Daily blog that appeared on June 29. “Whatever erosion she may have experienced earlier in the year, when the other campaigns kicked their operations up, had anecdotally stabilized … She is still in a commanding position.”

Markowitz’s weakness is hard to detect, but it’s there: Detractors see her as a policy lightweight compared to her rivals. State senators Doug Racine, Susan Bartlett and Peter Shumlin, and former state senator and Google executive Matt Dunne, have collectively spent decades at the Statehouse dealing with myriad policy issues.

“Objectively, you’d have to say her résumé is not heavy on substance,” says John Franco, a Burlington-based lawyer who’s sued Markowitz twice over campaign-related dustups. “She’s never been on a school board, never been on a select board and never been in the legislature. She’s done a good job as secretary of state, but it doesn’t really involve policy issues.”

Even one of Markowitz’s high-profile supporters, former Governor Madeleine Kunin, says Markowitz faces challenges the others don’t because of her background.

“She’s had to be briefed on some issues that she didn’t deal with as secretary of state,” Kunin says diplomatically. “But I don’t think she’s daunted by that. She’s a quick study, and I think her perspective is healthy.”

Perhaps in response to that perception, Markowitz recently rolled out a 26-page policy plan called “Jumpstart Vermont” — her road map for getting Vermonters back to work, and for fixing health care, public schools and a host of other issues.

Markowitz wants to use Vermont’s $4 billion treasury as “leverage” to pressure big banks to lend to Vermonters. When investing state funds, her plan specifies that preference should be given to financial firms that agree to lend certain amounts locally.

She also proposes raising the high school dropout age to 18 in hopes of improving the graduation rate and academic performance.

Markowitz talks about young people a lot — often making reference to her own children. But the subject got her into hot water during an April debate at Barre’s Old Labor Hall. An audience member asked how the candidates would keep young Vermonters from leaving the state, and Markowitz began by saying that they need good-paying jobs and better access to high-speed Internet. Then she veered off script.

As if she were addressing that particular demographic, she riffed, “Now really, young people. You’re moving to Burlington. You’re not moving to Barre, necessarily. You’re not finding a boyfriend or girlfriend there,” meaning Barre. “That’s OK.”

The audience let out a collective groan. Even the debate moderator, former WCAX news anchor Marselis Parsons, seemed taken aback. “Stop, stop,” he said. “This is being held in Barre, for Pete’s sake.”

Another such gaffe, in the primary homestretch, might be the only thing capable of upsetting Markowitz’s front-runner momentum.

Born in 1961 in Tarrytown, N.Y., Markowitz grew up the middle of three children. Her father was a lawyer and her mother was a stay-at-home mom and folk singer who taught guitar, but was a speech pathologist by training.

Markowitz wasn’t much interested in politics as a kid, but says she has vague recollections of her mother sobbing when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, an event that made a big impression on her.

She attended public high school and graduated from the University of Vermont in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. She developed a fondness for science-fiction novels and remains an avid reader today. Her favorites include Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and Mary Doria Russell’s Children of God.

“I’ve always loved science fiction and I actually think it’s because I love philosophy,” she says. “[Science fiction] lets you look at these moral issues, or these big cosmological issues, outside of the context of right here and now.”

It was during her UVM years that Markowitz met her political heroine, Madeleine Kunin, Vermont’s first female governor. Markowitz worked as a waitress at Pauline’s Café in South Burlington and Kunin was a regular customer. Markowitz talks a lot about their relationship on the campaign trail. As the story goes, Kunin recognized Markowitz at the Burlington airport and offered her a lift back into town. During the ride, Markowitz said she was thinking of getting into politics by working “behind the scenes.” Kunin’s response has stuck with Markowitz to this day.

“She said, ‘Deb, women have been doing the work behind the scenes for generations,’” Markowitz recalls. “’But it’s only when we’re willing to risk defeat that we’ll ever get to the head of the table. And it’s only at the head of the table that we’ll ever be able to make a real difference for women and families.’”

In 1982, Markowitz met the man who would become her husband, Paul, then a graduate student at UVM, on a trip to New York City for an antinuke rally. They learned they had the same last name — Markowitz — but were of no relation; Paul’s lineage comes from Latvia, while Deb’s traces back to Ukraine or Hungary. The couple married and now live in Montpelier with their three children: Aviva, 20; Sandra, 17; and Ari, 15.

In 1987, Markowitz earned a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center and moved back to Vermont to clerk for Vermont Supreme Court Justice Louis Peck, a staunch conservative.

From there, she was hired as a staff attorney in the Burlington offices of Langrock Sperry & Wool. Her clients ranged from criminal defendants to the developers of Williston’s Maple Tree Place.

Markowitz left the firm after two years to have her first child and landed a part-time job at the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, where she established their municipal law center.

“That’s when I fell in love with Vermont’s communities and the people who love them,” Markowitz says.

That same sentiment inspired her to run for office in 1998 — something she had never done. Paul, a consultant on energy issues, had just returned from a stint abroad and wanted to stay at home with the kids. It was Markowitz’s turn to work full time.

“I inquired about whether the secretary of state was hiring and discovered there were deeper problems with that office,” she says. “Phones weren’t being answered, businesses were losing deals because they couldn’t get paperwork they needed. And there was a three-year backlog of licensing cases.”

So she decided to run for secretary of state herself and beat the two-term incumbent, Republican Jim Milne, by two percentage points.

Today, the phones do get answered — often by Markowitz herself. Don Mayer, CEO of Small Dog Electronics, says Markowitz earned his support for her views on how to fix the economy, but also for the simple reason that she is accessible to the public.

“There’s been a couple times I’ve had to call the secretary of state’s office and been amazed that it was actually Deb Markowitz who answered the phone and not some staffer,” Mayer says.

The secretary of state’s office has diverse authority. Markowitz and her deputies oversee elections, public records, business registration, lobbyist activity and an Office of Professional Regulation that licenses more than 44 occupations and professions — from tattoo studios to crematories.

Markowitz boasts of transforming the office from a “bureaucratic backwater” to a “public-service powerhouse” by making it more responsive and efficient. One of her favorite examples might be called “the microfiche story.” When the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration came under her office in 2008, Markowitz found employees there microfiching records, such as employee time cards, that had been created as digital files and printed out for scanning. She ordered the practice to end in favor of digitizing, a move toward efficiency that cost seven state workers their jobs.

State archivist Greg Sanford confirms that version of events and also credits Markowitz with breaking a 25-year logjam that allowed a new state-records facility to finally be built. The archives building in Middlesex was dedicated on June 10.

Markowitz has fashioned herself as a champion for government transparency and forward-thinking elections policy, but opinions are mixed on how effective she’s been. Paul Burns, the head of Vermont Public Interest Research Group, praises Markowitz for expending “political capital” advocating for election-day voter registration — a progressive cause that’s unpopular among some of the town clerks responsible for administering it. She has also been out front supporting campaign-finance-reform bills, Burns says, which have twice been vetoed by Douglas.

Markowitz also has been instrumental in getting women to run for elected office. With Kunin, she established the Vermont Women’s Leadership Initiative, which conducts seminars that offer practical advice to female candidates. She helped set up, and now runs, the Safe at Home program, which lets victims of domestic violence use a state office as their official address so batterers can’t find them. Markowitz says she recognized the need for such protections after a Vermont woman was shot by an abusive partner who used public records to track her down.

But Markowitz has caught her share of criticism, too. Common Cause Vermont has gone on record saying it’s “deeply troubled by our state’s poor online disclosure of campaign-finance information,” a function of the secretary’s office. In a 2008 survey by the Campaign Disclosure Project, Common Cause’s Rachel Hanish notes, Vermont earned an “F” and ranked 43rd in the nation for campaign transparency because, among other things, donors aren’t required to report their occupation or employer.

In 2008, the U.S. Justice Department sued Markowitz and the state of Vermont for failing to report the number of absentee ballots cast by overseas voters and military personnel for the 2004 and 2006 elections. The Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress following the 2000 Florida recount debacle, mandated that every state count and report the number of overseas and military voters within 90 days of a federal election. Vermont’s data from 2004, however, show the state failed to report even the number of regular absentee ballots, much less the overseas and military ones, according to Justice officials. Ultimately, the Justice Department dropped the case when Vermont agreed to provide 2008 data by early 2009.

In another instance, Markowitz’s office issued a controversial opinion during the 2008 governor’s race warning independent candidate Anthony Pollina he would be breaking campaign-finance law if he didn’t return donations in excess of $1000. Markowitz reasoned that because Pollina faced no primary opponent, he wasn’t entitled to $1000 per donor for both the primary and general elections.

Five contributors who had donated more than $1000, including Ben & Jerry’s cofounder Jerry Greenfield, challenged that ruling in a federal lawsuit. After reviewing the matter, federal judge William K. Sessions III concluded the state’s reading of the law made “no sense.” Sessions found “no persuasive reason” why Pollina should be limited to $1000 per donor when his rivals could collect double that amount.

Pollina says, “Deb was certainly overeager in attacking us.” The resulting negative media coverage was a blow to his campaign, he says.

Markowitz has so far experienced no such setbacks. She sounds genuinely confident a little more than a month before the primary. Perhaps that’s because she has good statewide name recognition, lots of cash and an experienced campaign team focused on turning out her grassroots supporters on August 24. Markowitz is still grinning when she asserts, “I think I’m the winning candidate because I bring the right skill set to the table: I’ve made a budget and managed a budget, had to make cuts and had to let people go…” At least one candidate for Vermont governor can promise downsizing with a smile.