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4 Democrats Vie for House Seats

Candidates Espouse Subtly Different Positions on Key Vt. Issues

Jill Michaels of Strafford, left, yeilds the floor to Irv Thomae of Norwich, second from right, after trying to interject during the Norwich Democratic Committee's candidates panel at Tracy Hall in Norwich, Vt. Thursday, August 7, 2014. Michaels, Thomae, Jim Masland of Thetford, second from left, and Tim Briglin of Thetford, right, candidates for two open Windsor-Orange District 2 seats in the Vermont House.
(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Jill Michaels of Strafford, left, yeilds the floor to Irv Thomae of Norwich, second from right, after trying to interject during the Norwich Democratic Committee's candidates panel at Tracy Hall in Norwich, Vt. Thursday, August 7, 2014. Michaels, Thomae, Jim Masland of Thetford, second from left, and Tim Briglin of Thetford, right, candidates for two open Windsor-Orange District 2 seats in the Vermont House. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

Norwich — State Rep. Kathy Hoyt’s decision not to run for one of the two Vermont House seats representing Norwich, Sharon, Strafford and Thetford has created an unusual situation in the reliably Democratic district: Come primary day on Aug. 26, voters will be able to choose from four candidates.

But despite the abnormal number of contenders for the 2-seat Windsor-Orange 2 District, there isn’t a significantly wide range in ideology.

“With the four of us, you can slide a thin piece of paper between us,” said Tim Briglin, of Thetford, during a question-and-answer session at a meeting of the Norwich Democratic Committee last week.

Yet there are differences, however subtle they may be.

Briglin, 48, is a founding partner of the investment firm Tuckerman Capital, just the most recent stop in a career focused on finance. He has also worked at Morgan Stanley, Green Mountain Partners and Marine Midlands Bank and is on the board of Mascoma Savings Bank.

Although a newcomer to elective politics, Briglin does have some experience in policymaking. In 2013, Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed him to a health care advisory council tasked with finding ways to fund the new single-payer health system that has been a primary focus of Shumlin’s two terms in office. In the same year, Shumlin also appointed Briglin to the Vermont Economic Progress Council . In the 1990s, Briglin was an adviser on economic policy to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

His website lists Margaret Cheney, who represented the district, and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., as supporters.

Another newcomer to elective office is Jill Michaels, of South Strafford. With a decades-long career in economic development behind her, Michaels, 68, heads Community Investments, a firm that helps New England businesses, nonprofits and municipalities with funding and economic planning. She is also president and CEO of the Vermont Environmental Consortium, which promotes the state’s environmental business sector.

Although this is her first foray into elected politics, she was appointed a delegate to the National Democratic Convention in 2012 as a result of her work with Strafford’s Democratic Committee, which she now chairs.

Michaels has also secured some prominent support, including Matt Dunne, a former state senator and gubernatorial candidate, and Jack Candon, a Democratic activist, former Norwich selectman and former Vermont House member.

Michaels notes one factor that clearly distinguishes her from the other three candidates: The seat Hoyt will vacate has been occupied by a woman for 24 years, which Michaels said made her the obvious choice.

“This is Kathy Hoyt’s seat, this is Margaret Cheney’s seat, this is Ann Seibert’s seat,” Michaels remembers saying to Candon while making the decision to run.

What distinguishes Thetford resident Jim Masland, 65, is that he’s an incumbent who has served in the Vermont House for eight terms. Masland sits on the influential Ways and Means Committee, has a master’s degree in engineering from Stanford University and runs his own construction company.

If re-elected, Masland hopes to focus on income tax reform. To give the state more flexibility and slightly higher revenue, Masland favors taxing adjusted gross income, a figure that would not include several federal deductions currently used when Vermonters calculate their state income tax, including charitable donations, mortgage payments and contributions to individual retirement accounts.

In his spare time, Masland spends most Saturdays working as a site supervisor for Habitat for Humanity. Through the charitable organization, he has collaborated with the Tuck School of Business, King Arthur Flour and various community and church groups.

The one candidate from Norwich, the district’s most populous town, is Irv Thomae, 73. He is the chairman of ECFiber, a community-owned telecommunications network serving the Upper Valley — a position that affects a number of the policy positions Thomae espouses.

More than 20 years ago, Thomae told his family, “One of these days, when I grow up, I’d like to be in the Legislature.”

“Of course, what I meant was: ‘When I retire,’ ” he said.

Thomae ran for the Vermont House eight years ago, losing to Cheney, who resigned from the Legislature in 2013 when she was appointed to the Public Service Board.

Cheney was replaced by Hoyt, another Democrat from Norwich. Illness prevented Hoyt from running for a full term.

From the early 1990s to the mid-2000s, Thomae served on the Norwich Finance Committee while it was still an elective body. He worked as an engineer and a software developer, both at Dartmouth College and on his own, before retiring in 2006.

Paying for Universal Health Care

A priority for the next Legislature will be figuring out how to pay for Green Mountain Care, the universal health care system that has been the centerpiece of the Shumlin administration and which the Legislature has approved conceptually.

Briglin wasn’t certain how that would happen, but “I can prognosticate,” he said. Medicare finances itself through payroll deductions, and so could Green Mountain Care, he suggested.

The new program will require roughly $2 billion from the state next year, but what Vermonters don’t understand is that this spending is not new, Briglin said, since they are already paying the same total sum through various means, including private insurance, payroll deductions and employer contributions. Briglin said the decision about how to pay for the program is simply a matter of deciding where the state should go to raise the revenue already being spent on health care.

Masland agreed that a payroll tax was necessary, but also expected that “splinter taxes,” spread out over a wide constituency, would be needed to make a tax increase work politically.

He and the other candidates balked at calling the new system “single-payer” care. The reality, Masland said, is much more complicated: The program will have multiple sources of revenue and numerous existing payers will continue to be used to provide funding.

But “the objective — universal, publicly funded, high-quality health care — is good to go,” he said.

Thomae echoed the other candidates in predicting that the funding would include a payroll tax, but wasn’t sure exactly how it would be implemented.

“I don’t have detailed ideas,” he said, but added that he expected reduced costs for businesses and school districts, which have been carrying the costs for their employees.

In terms of the economy, Thomae takes a more holistic view. He said he believes the Upper Valley’s spotty broadband access is driving away young people and entrepreneurs who otherwise would stimulate the region’s economy, and perhaps provide a base to fund Green Mountain Care.

Michaels acknowledged the talk floating around of a payroll tax, both on employers and employees, but questioned whether it would serve everyone.

“Obviously that leaves quiet what happens to people who are not employed,” she said.

She also referenced parts of the legislation that call for the elimination of waste and redundancy, a promise she would prefer to see play out before predicting how much or what kind of funding Green Mountain Care would need.

And in her mind, insurance companies are part of the problem.

“I think that insurance companies get in the way and that an optimal situation would be just money in, money out,” without any middleman, she said. On the other hand, she didn’t see that particular change happening anytime soon.

School Consolidation

As is the case in much of Vermont, residents of the four towns are debating the merits of school district consolidation after a bill to regionalize Vermont’s school districts was stalled in the Senate this spring. The bill, which would have made consolidation voluntary at first and then mandatory beginning in 2018, squeaked through the House but was effectively tabled in the Senate.

Masland is facing criticism, as well as political competition, stemming from his vote for the bill. Strafford Selectman John Freitag has announced his candidacy for the district seat as an independent and made opposition to consolidation the focus of his campaign.

Masland has said that he plans to draft another version of the bill, which he said would allow economically disparate school districts to share resources.

Schools in Morrisville and Stowe, neighboring towns in north-central Vermont, were an example of communities that would benefit from such an approach, Masland said at last week’s meeting.

Stowe, home to a ski resort and a significant tourism industry, can afford to offer a varied curriculum to its students and include many types of classes that nearby Morrisville cannot. If the two towns were part of the same district, they could share teachers and other educational resources, he said.

Masland said the bill he voted for was flawed — it would have taken too much power from local school boards — but also said legislators who don’t vote for bills usually aren’t invited to revise them later. Because the bill was defeated in the Senate, he never had the chance to correct its approach to local school boards, he said.

When asked whether regionalization should be mandatory for school districts, Masland said while bigger administrative units are needed, participation from local authorities ought to be a part of it, he said.

Michaels, whose first job was as a community organizer, said last week the basic flaw in the bill was that its drafters didn’t start by seeking public opinion.

In fact, she said, she is still listening to the opinions of her potential constituents and isn’t ready to comment on whether school consolidation should go forward.

“It definitely shouldn’t be mandatory — that’s as far as I’ll go,” she said.

Briglin called the kind of engagement that Michaels suggested “critical,” though he noted that Vermont Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe had already been holding forums across the state.

“My issue with (the bill) is not that it leads to consolidation, it’s that it removes the power of our local school boards to affect that decision,” he said. “From the education quality perspective, from the cost perspective, it makes sense.”

While Briglin said he would leave it up to small towns whether to consolidate, he thought many would do so anyway, especially in communities with tiny schools.

“If you have six kids in a graduating class, it’s tough to offer foreign languages,” he said.

While Thomae said he doesn’t want to close schools, he said he thinks consolidating administrative districts would be sensible.

“I don’t see a problem with mandating more integration of administrative functions,” he said, but added that he wouldn’t disband or merge local school boards.

Thomae also said schools could lower costs and share resources by improving broadband access, which would allow them to conduct classes by Skype, for example.

“Moving electrons costs a lot less than moving children, and moving pulses of light costs even less than that,” he said.

And as the only candidate from Windsor County, Thomae wanted to remind his neighbors that while Norwich’s cross-river school district puts them in a better position than most, they can’t ignore the problem.

When Hoyt announced in June that she would not run again for her seat, she said she would wait to see whether there was a Norwich resident in the race before making any endorsements.

On Monday, Hoyt said she preferred to watch the process play out.

“No matter what happens, we will end up having someone who will represent us well,” she said.

The representative, who will end her term on Jan. 7, also mentioned that her health had already begun to improve.

“If only the deadline hadn’t been so soon,” she said.

The candidates will meet for another public forum in Norwich on Tuesday, at 7 p.m., in Tracy Hall.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

Correction

Tim Briglin was a partner at Green Mountain Partners and currently serves on the board of Mascoma Savings Bank, among other professional activities. Irv Thomae is the chairman of ECFiber, not its CEO. An earlier version of this story gave incorrect information regarding Briglin and Thomae and their respective institutions.