By Andy Bromage
Steve Howard likes to boast about how, as a kid, he stocked shelves and bagged groceries at his family's general store in Rutland. When he was in college, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor waited tables to help pay for tuition. Today, the 39-year-old says he is still saddled with so much student debt, he can't afford to buy health insurance.
His Republican rival, state Sen. Phil Scott, plays up the fact that he's a stock-car driver at Barre's Thunder Road SpeedBowl and once worked as a laborer for the construction company he now co-owns. Scott's campaign tagline -- "Common Man, Uncommon Results" -- drives home his regular-guy bona fides.
You can't miss the message of this year's lieutenant governor's race: We're working Vermonters, just like you. During a recent debate at the Tunbridge World's Fair, the term "middle class" was used no fewer than 14 times, mostly by Howard.
Both hopefuls claim they're running to improve the lives of ordinary Vermonters, but they differ sharply on how best to accomplish that. Howard wants to end "corporate welfare" and tax "loopholes" for the wealthy and invest in struggling small businesses that need state assistance. He supports single-payer health care and big investments in energy-efficiency programs.
Scott wants to cut taxes across the board and counts himself in the tiny minority that voted against shutting down the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. He warned of "economic disasters" if energy prices skyrocket.
For all the talk about fixing problems, though, there isn't a whole lot the lieutenant governor can actually do. The part-time job is largely ceremonial, with a $167,212 budget, a single staffer and an annual salary of $60,507. Job duties include presiding over and breaking ties in the state Senate. During his eight years as lieutenant governor in the Democrat-dominated Senate, Brian Dubie only got to vote three times.
The lieutenant governor stands in for the governor in case of absence, incapacitation or death, but he or she isn't the governor's running mate -- it's a separately elected office. The post is widely misunderstood, according to Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
"I think most people think it's like the vice presidency, where it's part of the administration," Davis says, "and it's really not."
Can the post lead to higher office? Sure, says Davis, offering Howard Dean and Madeleine Kunin as examples. Dubie is currently giving it his best shot.
Historically, Vermont's lieutenant governors have used their high-profile post to advocate for some niche public-policy issue. Dubie focused on trade issues, introducing Vermont products to potential partners, from Québec to Cuba.
Howard wants to use the lieutenant governor's post as a launching pad to build a grassroots "movement" to give Vermonters the "power they need to make the changes they want." Modeling himself on U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Howard pledges, if elected, to visit every town in Vermont once a year, hold town meetings in every county and knock on 10,000 doors to stay in touch with the needs of average Vermonters.
Scott believes Vermont and America have become too dependent on others and wants to advance policies that promote self-reliance in food, energy and manufacturing.
Three lesser-known candidates are also running, each with his or her own agenda. Progressive Marjorie Power, a 68-year-old retired state lawyer from Montpelier, wants a single-payer health care system and publicly funded elections. Independent Peter Garritano, a 54-year-old car wholesaler from Shelburne, is part of the secessionist slate that wants Vermont to "liberate" itself from the U.S. And Liberty Union candidate Boots Wardinski, the 67-year-old landscaper and horse logger from Newbury, represents the Socialist platform.
Of all the candidates, Howard is the youngest and most fiery. He was 21 when he first got elected to the state House of Representatives; the campaign qualified as an "internship" while he was earning a degree in political science at Boston College. Three years later, Howard became chairman of the state Democratic Party. An openly gay man, Howard was profiled in a 1997 Advocate magazine feature titled "The Best and Brightest Under 30." Among his goals, Howard listed becoming Vermont's first openly gay secretary of state, then its governor and, finally, president of the United States.
After three terms as a rep, Howard left electoral office to start a consultancy, organizing for groups such as the Global AIDS Initiative, NARAL Pro-Choice Vermont and the Coalition Against Bigger Trucks. He returned to the House in 2004 and spent three terms as a member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.
A dozen years in the Statehouse is time enough to get to know Montpelier. Nonetheless, Howard is casting himself as the outsider in the lieutenant governor's race.
"The insiders have a lovefest with my opponent," Howard says of Scott. "They would like this to become a beauty contest, and they'd like to crown him Mr. Montpelier."
Howard says he's running to reverse the state policies of the last eight years, which he says have cost Vermont 10,000 private- sector jobs and state services for the needy. He blames Scott for those ills, along with Dubie, Gov. Jim Douglas and President George W. Bush.
Howard's motto amounts to "no more corporate welfare, no more tax breaks for the wealthy, and get rid of waste in the health care system." But he insists he isn't anti-rich.
"Some of my best friends are wealthy," he says. "I just don't think they need help from state government. It's really about Whose side are you on?"
Scott, 52, grew up in Barre and worked summers as a laborer for DuBois Construction Inc. -- the business he now co-owns. He's spent the last decade representing Washington County in the state Senate, where he has earned a reputation as a bipartisan lawmaker. He chairs the Institutions Committee, which decides how to spend tens of millions of dollars in capital bonds.
At Thunder Road, Scott is known as the "Flying Senator" and has become a fan favorite for his clean yet competitive driving style. Notably, he's the winningest driver in the track's history, with more victories under his belt -- 22 in all -- than any driver in Thunder Road history, says track managing partner Tom Curley.
Scott's campaign plays off the stock-car persona. On his website, which has a checkered-flag motif, he's pictured in his racing suit. He even bought a fiberglass cow for Burlington's Church Street and fashioned it into a race car. Kids can sit in the cow-car's back and turn the steering wheel.
Scott bristles at Howard's claim that he is working against middle-class interests.
"Look at the calluses on my hands, the dirt under my fingernails," Scott says. "I fight for the middle class every day. Those are my people."
Laid back and even tempered, Scott thinks less government is often better government. He voted to let Vermont poultry farmers sell uninspected chicken meat directly to restaurants, as long as it was clearly labeled as such. He opposes laws mandating seatbelts for adults in cars and helmets for motorcyclists, though he says, personally, he'd never go without either.
"I've got this independent, libertarian streak to me," he says.
Both Scott and Howard are brandishing endorsements as proof of their middle-class credentials. Howard has won the backing of the Vermont Troopers' Association, the Professional Fire Fighters of Vermont, the Vermont AFL-CIO, the Vermont NEA and the Vermont State Employees Association. Scott's website lists endorsements from the National Rifle Association, Associated General Contractors of Vermont and at least one prominent Democrat: Sen. Dick Mazza of Colchester.
Middlebury's Eric Davis describes both Howard and Scott as "up-by-their-own bootstraps people." The similarities end there, though. The two have very different views on whether to relicense Vermont Yankee nuclear plant for another 20 years. Scott was one of four senators who voted against shutting the nuke plant down in February; he favored letting the Vermont Public Service Board, rather than the legislature, decide the issue.
Today, Scott says he's "not sure" whether the plant should remain operating for another 20 years. He's worried about the "vast amount of power that we're going to lose when Vermont Yankee is shut down," but makes it clear: "If Vermont Yankee isn't safe, shut it down."
Howard is firmly anti-Vermont Yankee. He believes the nuke plant's radioactive leaks and the recent misstatements by company executives to lawmakers leave the state with no choice but to close the plant as scheduled in 2012.
"If you look at the BP disaster in the Gulf, you see what could potentially happen to Vermont and to all of our jobs that are dependent on our brand, on a clean environment, if something goes wrong there," Howard says. "I think Vermonters know it won't be the shareholders or the [highly paid] CEO of Entergy Louisiana who will pay the price if something goes wrong."
Tax policy has divided the candidates, too. Howard has attacked Scott for supporting the so-called "domestic production deduction," a federal tax credit that lets manufacturers deduct a portion of their production expenses on their state tax returns. Howard says the tax credit is bad on two fronts: Multistate companies can claim the deduction for out-of-state costs; and the credit does little to help struggling businesses, because only profitable ones have income to offset. He faults Scott for voting to increase the credit to 9 percent last year, even as lawmakers were slashing services for the needy.
Scott argues that Howard is "blowing it out of proportion." Increasing the deduction to 9 percent is costing Vermont an additional $1.7 million in foregone revenue -- not a huge sum, in Scott's estimation. He says homegrown companies such as Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Cabot Creamery have requested it.
"Those businesses that are trying to be profitable in the state of Vermont are ones that we should not forget about," Scott says. "This is just a small little step to give a sense that Vermont is open for business."
On taxing capital gains, the two candidates are split, as well. Howard wants to close "loopholes" that he perceives as giving money to wealthy Vermonters who "don't need the help."
Scott sees capital-gains taxes as another barrier to growing jobs. Speaking from experience, Scott says small-business owners spend a lifetime plowing their profits back into a company "for the privilege of giving up a huge portion of it in capital gains when you go to sell it, or transfer it to your kids or whatever.
"We're taking more than our fair share in this state," Scott says.
Howard and Scott have sparred in two debates so far and have several more scheduled, including an October 4 appearance on Channel 17 with the three lesser-known candidates.
Davis says the race is too close to call but points out that Scott finished strong in the Republican primary, beating businessman Mark Snelling by 13 points.
"Scott closed very fast. He pulled that primary out in the last 19 days," Davis says.
Scott closes fast on the racetrack, too. In the final laps of the Labor Day Classic at Thunder Road, he battled back from ninth place to clinch second in a field of 30 cars. As he passed the waving checkered flag, a rainbow appeared over the hills of Washington County.
Was it a good omen for Howard or Scott? We'll find out on November 2.