By John Briggs
Democrat Steve Howard and Republican Phil Scott, who want to become lieutenant governor, have both concluded that voters will be drawn this year to the Mr. Smith-model politician.
On his website, Scott, a Washington County senator, proclaims he is a "common man" who has created "uncommon results."
Howard, for his part, is "one of us."
Scott's hands are calloused, he said, from hard work.
"I work for a living," he said. "I'm not afraid to do that."
Observing that Rutland is a conservative place, Howard allowed he's pretty straightforward, of necessity, and he promised he will be a full-time lieutenant governor.
The two men are fighting not for a role in Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," a film about an idealistic member of Congress, but for a prize some in politics might call meager. The office pays $63,689.60 a year and has fewer duties than a school-crossing guard. The lieutenant governor presides over the Senate and stands in when the governor is absent.
Also running are Peter Garritano, a Shelburne independent; Marjorie Power, a Progressive from Montpelier; and Boots Wardinski, a Liberty Unionist from Newbury.
"There's some latitude there," Scott, 52, said of the duties of the office, calling it a tremendous opportunity to lead.
"The opportunities are vast," he said. "We're facing an incredible challenge. Part of the reason I'm running is that I think I have the skills and experience to move us in a positive direction."
Howard, 39, a state representative from Rutland, isn't settling for second in enthusiasm. He plans to transform what he says has been a sleepy, ceremonial office into a grassroots center of action and organizing.
That center, staffed by interns of all ages, would help restore the balance between citizen legislators and lobbyists in Montpelier and reach out to constituents, Howard said.
Part of that reach-out effort would be to change the direction of state government, which, Howard said, under the leadership of Gov. Jim Douglas and Brian Dubie caused the loss of 10,000 jobs.
He will "be a fighter for Vermont's middle class," Howard said, "to restore their economic position in our state. I want to fight for small businesses on Main Street, for dairy farmers."
Scott, while acknowledging the economic challenge, says Vermont has generally fared better than most of the country in the recession. He also disputes that Republican leadership at the national and state level created the bad economy.
"We're in a world economic decline," he said. "We're suffering nationally."
As for local policies -- "we've all had a part in that," Scott said. "I've served in the Legislature for the past 10 years. Steve Howard has served."
While neither Howard nor Scott grew up in a log cabin or hewed rail fences, they did the 20th-century equivalents. They mowed grass, shoveled snow, worked in a grocery store (Howard), pumped gas and painted houses (Scott) and learned from parents that success emerges from hard work.
Both emphasize they are guys who might be watching the same game as ordinary Vermonters, going to the same store, dreaming the same dreams.
"I would come home from school and go to work," Howard said, recalling it was drummed into him as a child that "you work for everything you have, and you're going to get an education."
Scott, who describes himself as a welder, a fabricator, a carpenter, a plumber, an electrician who does what is required as a co-owner of the DuBois Construction Co. in Middlesex, says he learned self-reliance from his father, a truck driver who lost both legs in the D-Day invasion and who died when Scott was 11.
"He took care of himself," Scott said.
The two men emerged from their childhood with different perspectives. Howard was campaigning door-to-door at age 13 for Madeleine Kunin, was involved in student government in high school and was elected to the Legislature at age 21 while still in college. From an early age, he saw the political realm as transformative -- the place to make changes for the better. After his first six-year stint in the Legislature, he began working as a lobbyist for the Coalition Against Bigger Trucks, trying to keep what he calls train-trucks off highways.
He also worked, his website says, as a fundraiser for progressive women running for office throughout New England.
Scott said he got involved in government as a grumbler against what "they" -- those in government -- were doing to the average person. He said he had run into a regulatory blockade while trying to put up a building for his motorcycle business in Morrisville.
He said he concluded he should get involved and quickly found that what had seemed black and white from the outside was more complicated than that. He became a "they."
"I did learn fairly quickly. It's good to be a bit naive. You don't know what you can't accomplish," he said.
"I feel as though we, as a state and nation, have lost our way somewhat," he said, suggesting his basic outlook. "We don't know how to take care of ourselves any more. I think we've outpaced ourselves. I think we'll be forced to look back and learn how we did things in the past." He said he has no clear sense of how he's doing in the race and finds the race wearying at times. "I'm going to places I've never heard of, and I'm a native," he said.
Howard, for his part, doesn't concede he can be outworked. He promises to visit each town in Vermont each year he is lieutenant governor, plus knock on "at least 10,000 doors a year and have a town meeting in every county."
And as for campaigning -- "I'm having a blast," he said. "You learn so much by going to people where they live. I'm doing a lot of door-knocking. The people I fight for aren't at fancy meetings. They don't go to ribbon-cuttings. My people are the ones who have two or three jobs."
As of Sept. 15, Scott had raised $97,424 and spent $97,728. Howard had raised $80,960 and spent $54,530.