Norwich Democrat Rebecca Holcombe announces run for Vermont governor

  • Rebecca Holcombe, of Norwich, Vt., attends a meeting in Montpelier, Vt., on Feb. 22, 2017. The former Vermont Education Secretary is running for governor as a Democrat. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe speaks to teachers and staff with the Hartford School District as keynote speaker for the Hartford School District Service Award Presentation on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017, at the Dothan Brook School in Hartford, Vt. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Charles Hatcher

  • Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe and Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Anderson, left, said that since last week's school shooting threat in Fair Haven, Vt., all Vermont schools will undergo additional reviews under a safety and security audit system already in place, during a news conference in the governor's office in Montpelier, Vt., Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

Published: 7/16/2019 12:56:40 PM
Modified: 7/17/2019 1:48:09 PM

NORWICH — Former Vermont Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe is running for governor as a Democrat.

The 52-year-old Norwich resident led the Agency of Education between 2014 and 2018. Initially appointed by then-Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, she also served under Republican Gov. Phil Scott before leaving abruptly due to growing tensions over policy.

Since her departure from the governor’s cabinet, Holcombe has been increasingly public about her frustration with the Republican administration on social media and in op-eds.

In a statement announcing her candidacy Tuesday morning, Holcombe took aim directly at her former boss.

“I joined Gov. Scott’s administration because I took him at his word that he was serious about working to make Vermont more affordable and more equitable,” she said. “I resigned when I realized that was just talk.”

Holcombe also accused Scott of “pushing for a statewide voucher program that would take millions from our public schools and funnel it to private schools that mostly serve privileged families.” The jab is a reference to a proposal, crafted by her successor, Education Secretary Dan French, to consolidate all school districts into one and offer universal public and private school choice. Scott and French have both characterized the proposal as a visioning exercise and not concrete.

This is Holcombe’s first-ever run for office. A former public school teacher and administrator in the Rivendell school district, Holcombe also worked as the director of the teacher education program at Dartmouth College and taught courses in education, politics and policy before working for the state.

She is the first candidate to formally announce her bid for the governorship this cycle, although Democratic Attorney General TJ Donovan; Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Progressive/Democrat; and anti-poverty activist Brenda Siegel all are rumored to be contemplating runs.

A campaign website for Holcombe went live on Tuesday. An in-person kickoff event is tentatively planned for later this summer, a campaign official said.

The former education secretary is well-known and well-respected in the education world. But she is less prominent outside those circles.

“Rebecca has maintained an amazing reputation in the education community,” said Krista Huling, a teacher and the chairwoman of the State Board of Education. “She went around and listened, and by doing that gained a lot of respect.”

The primary election, which will take place in August 2020, is still more than a year away. Holcombe will likely need as much time as possible to introduce herself to voters and establish a political brand, according to political scholars.

“People in Montpelier probably recognize her name. The rest of the state, no,” said Eric Davis, a professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

Much of Holcombe’s tenure at the Agency of Education was absorbed by the multiyear implementation of Act 46, a landmark but controversial education reform law that consolidated single-town school districts into regional entities. The law was a bipartisan effort, seen by many in the public education world as a necessary change in the face of declining enrollments.

But it also was fiercely opposed in certain communities, especially in rural areas of the state who saw the measure as an assault on local control. A lawsuit challenging the law is now before the Vermont Supreme Court.

“I think in areas of the state where Act 46 is not popular she would have challenges. Even among those who vote Democratic,” Davis said.

Holcombe’s campaign announcement makes no mention of Act 46, and instead highlights her work crafting Vermont’s opposition to the federal No Child Left Behind Act — which ushered in the era of standardized testing and accountability for public schools — and creating more opportunities for students to graduate with advanced credits and industry-recognized credentials in well-paying fields.

“When we work together, and look out for one another, we can ensure that every Vermonter has the opportunity to succeed. It shouldn’t matter where you live or what you look like. It shouldn’t matter where you were born. Every Vermonter deserves a chance to get ahead, not just people from wealthy communities,” she said.

If Holcombe does win the Democratic nomination, she likely would face Scott in the general. The popular two-term governor hasn’t announced whether he’ll seek re-election but has signaled he’ll make his intentions clear in the spring. Incumbent governors who aren’t planning to run again usually say so much earlier, Davis said, in order to give their parties as much time as possible to build up a potential successor.

“My view is that, in order to defeat an incumbent governor in Vermont — which has never happened in 50 years — you need a candidate with some political experience with a track record of having won elections in the past,” he said. “Some people would say that’s just conventional wisdom.”

Despite being a political neophyte, Holcombe will have help from a few campaign veterans. EMILY’s List, a national political action committee that helps elect female Democratic candidates who favor abortion rights, has been giving Holcombe advice. The group has not yet endorsed her or donated money to her campaign, but EMILY’s List campaign communications director Benjamin Ray said they may do so in the future.

“We are always excited to see talented women like Rebecca run for office, and this race is instantly in play,” he said

Holcombe is married to James Bandler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who works at ProPublica. They have two children.

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