Populist Bids for Vt.’s Top Job

  • James Ehlers at a launch event for his campaign to become the Democratic candidate for governor, held at the Socialist Labor Party Hall in Barre, Vt., on May 1, 2018. (VtDigger - Mike Polhamus)

  • James Ehlers speaks at a launch event for his campaign for governor at the Socialist Labor Party Hall in Barre, Vt., on May 1, 2018. (VtDigger - Mike Polhamus) VtDigger — Mike Polhamus

Published: 5/3/2018 11:36:13 PM
Modified: 5/4/2018 12:01:25 AM

Barre, Vt. — Longtime environmental advocate James Ehlers officially announced his candidacy for governor this week at the Old Labor Hall.

The location and the date of Ehlers’ announcement on Tuesday — May 1, also known as International Workers Day — was no coincidence, organizers said.

Michelle Salvador, a 20-year employee of Vermont’s state government, said times are hard for working people and the working class, and the 60 people who attended see Ehlers as a standard-bearer for labor.

The Winooski Democrat, Salvador said, “is the only candidate who has stood up unapologetically for workers.”

“It’s really amazing to be here tonight as a proud union member, in this labor hall with all of its rich history, especially today, on International Workers Day,” Salvador said.

Ehlers’ young daughter, Lilian, was among those who spoke, and she read a passage from Rose Schneiderman, the early-20th-century feminist and socialist.

“What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art,” the younger Ehlers said. “You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”

Jill Charbonneau, the president of Vermont’s AFL-CIO state labor council, told attendees that Ehlers will stand with the tradition of the labor movement in Vermont.

Charbonneau described how Barre residents housed 35 children of striking textile workers from Lawrence, Mass., in 1912. At the same time, “the University of Vermont was sending the ROTC squad down (to Lawrence) to tame those workers, many of whom were women — so we have a rich labor history on both sides of the aisle,” she said.

Ehlers, who typically wears jeans and a bomber jacket, was dressed in a black suit and purple tie for the event. Despite the attire, he delivered a populist message and promised to bring the people’s voice to the Governor’s Office.

“Our campaign is standing up for families without access to health care, who aren’t making ends meet in today’s unforgiving economy, and who have never seen any benefits — and never will — from the Republicans’ failed trickle-down policies and ‘no new taxes’ pledges,” he said.

Ehlers pledged that he would pursue comprehensive cleanup of water pollution, campaign finance reform, paid family leave and universal health care for all Vermonters.

Ehlers said he also opposes the $140 million state-subsidized privately run prison Republican Gov. Phil Scott pitched earlier this year.

“We will say ‘no’ to this current governor’s plan for a giant private prison, and we will say ‘yes’ to investing in criminal justice reform, prevention and education — not a private prison,” Ehlers said.

Ehlers promised to invest in community rail and wastewater infrastructure, act decisively on the issue of climate change, and ensure that Vermonters with disabilities would get the help they need. Ehlers said he’d support fair contracts with workers and would “never waver” in his support for public employees.

“Our time is now,” Ehlers said. “We will claim the Governor’s Office for the people to whom it rightfully belongs: the people of Vermont.”

Ehlers is the former head of Lake Champlain International, a fishing and water quality advocacy group and the former publisher of Vermont Outdoors, a hunting magazine that is now defunct. He has worked as a hunting and fishing guide.

The 49-year-old native of Lake Success in Long Island, N.Y., said he was raised by his grandmother and was the first member of his family to go to college. Ehlers served in the U.S. Navy and is a graduate of Villanova University.

Ehlers faces two other Democrats in the Aug. 14 primary: Christine Hallquist, a former utility executive, and Ethan Sonneborn, a middle school student.

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