Running for governor from isolation, Norwich’s Holcombe hopes victory begins at home

  • As a Democratic candidate for governor, Rebecca Holcombe, of Norwich, Vt., has had to do her campaigning during the coronavirus pandemic from her home via phone and teleconference. She is photographed in downtown Norwich on April 16, 2020. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Geoff Hansen

  • Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe and Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin meet with the Valley News editorial board in West Lebanon, N.H., on Oct. 3, 2014. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News file photograph — Jennifer Hauck

  • As a Democratic candidate for governor, Rebecca Holcombe, of Norwich, Vt., has had to do her campaigning during the coronavirus pandemic from her home via phone and teleconference. She is photographed in downtown Norwich on April 16, 2020. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Geoff Hansen

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/18/2020 9:55:38 PM
Modified: 4/18/2020 10:15:22 PM

NORWICH — Every individual detail of the typical political event — the crowded room, the warm handshakes and embrace of babies, the campaign literature handed out — would be forbidden under the rules of social distancing.

Imagine then the challenge faced by someone making a first run for statewide office who, because of the novel coronavirus, must campaign from home. For Rebecca Holcombe, the former secretary of education in Vermont, this is the task at hand.

In her bid for Vermont governor, where her opponent for the Democratic nomination, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, has twice won statewide races, Holcombe is meeting with people online or talking with them on the phone. The enforced isolation is allowing her interns to do some professional development to prepare for the eventual return of in-person campaigning.

“We’re doing the same virtual work that everyone else is doing,” Holcombe said in a phone interview from her home in Norwich, where she is self-isolating with her husband and their two children, one a sophomore in college, the other a senior at Hanover High School.

“The issues are still there,” Holcombe said. And they’ll be there when the state’s “stay home” order is lifted, she said.

Holcombe, 53, is casting her appeal as a candidate on her management experience. While Zuckerman, who spent six terms in the Vermont House and two in the state Senate and has been lieutenant governor since 2017, has more than two decades of political experience, Holcombe ran the state Agency of Education from 2014 to 2018, and before that she served as a school principal. Building and leading resilient institutions that work for everyone isn’t the same as working in politics, she said.

“Management is very different from advocacy,” Holcombe said, touting her ability to work with people across the aisle.

Appointed by then-Gov. Peter Shumlin, Holcombe was reappointed by Republican Gov. Phil Scott in 2017, but she resigned about a year later. She later cited policy differences as she announced her bid to unseat Scott.

Vermont faces significant problems that call for deft management. It continues to struggle with affordability, as wages have not kept pace with the cost of living. The state needs to find ways to contain health care costs, to reduce costs attributable to climate change and to make schools more equitable, Holcombe said.

Even before COVID-19 walloped the economy, surveys showed that many Vermonters feel they are one unexpected bill away from a crisis, she said. The coronavirus “is just going to exacerbate that.”

“We don’t have an economic engine,” Holcombe said, adding that as governor she would oversee the design of a statewide economic development plan that would emphasize jobs that pay well, that turn the state toward green energy sources and away from fossil fuels and that benefit rural communities.

Government also needs to take a lead role in building infrastructure that enables businesses to be successful, whether it’s in expanding the reach of broadband internet service or making it possible for young working parents to find affordable child care or to take paid medical leave, she said.

“I think we see right now that government has a role to play in helping people get back on their feet,” she said.

Controlling the rising cost of health care also is essential to affordability, she said. The main driver of higher education costs is the annual, often double-digit-percentage increase in the cost of health insurance. Businesses and workers also feel those increases as a drag on profits and wages.

“We need to double down on payment reform,” Holcombe said of the state’s ongoing effort to change the way health care is paid for from a fee-for-service method that rewards providers for the amount of care they provide to one that pays for higher quality and better outcomes and results in lower usage and cost.

Holcombe’s experience in education is likely to be a strength in her campaign. She won plaudits from educators and reformers alike when she declared the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the George W. Bush-era law that mandated yearly assessments, a failure in one of her first acts as education secretary.

She was also an early proponent of school consolidation and was one of the architects of the Rivendell Interstate School District, which brought together students from Vershire; West Fairlee; Fairlee, where Holcombe was a school principal; and Orford.

Act 46, the state’s 2015 school consolidation law, has worked well in places where districts moved early and on their own to merge, said Holcombe, who along with Shumlin pushed for its approval.

“In some of those early mergers, you’re not hearing much from them,” she said.

Some of the districts that were later forced to merge are suing the state.

Most important, she said, was that school districts take an entrepreneurial approach to making the best use of their facilities. Some districts have brought child care providers into their schools, which reduces the cost of child care, extends early learning to children up to age 3 and makes use of empty space in schools to share costs.

In other places, the law hasn’t worked as well, but state officials had been clear that the law wouldn’t work in all places, Holcombe said.

Holcombe has long been an advocate for looking at even the youngest children as learners.

“We need to stop thinking about child care versus education,” she said.

The state also needs to revisit its school funding model, which doesn’t take into account the greater cost of educating students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, she said.

And if the state is going to control costs, it needs to look more closely at districts that pay tuition, particularly for all students K-12, which have rising costs and higher per-pupil costs. She has taken Scott to task over his approach to public schools and vouchers.

“When you operate a (public) school, you have the ability to contain costs,” she said.

The state also allows public tuition money to leave the state in the form of tuition vouchers to public and private schools, a practice that should be up for debate, she said.

“Some of those dollars could be building up schools in Vermont,” she said.

For now, Holcombe will be talking about these and other issues through the internet. It’s unclear whether the enforced seclusion will hurt her campaign.

“It’s a huge barrier,” said Eric L. Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College and a longtime observer of Vermont politics. “In the primary, she’s running against a better-known candidate who has run and won statewide twice.”

Her main challenge is to get her name and face in front of voters, and the stay-at-home order makes that more difficult, he said.

Davis also noted that there is a long history in Vermont of candidates who ran statewide and lost, then came back and won the next time around.

But former Gov. Madeleine Kunin, who has endorsed Holcombe, rejected that thinking.

“Campaigns are very long, too long,” she said in a phone interview.

People tend to tune them out. The end of the stay-home order will result in a shorter, more focused campaign.

“I think by that time, people will pay more attention,” Kunin said.

She also discounted Davis’ second-time-around idea.

“When you’re running, you hate to think that way, because you’re running to win,” she said.

“I think it’s too early to be a trial run,” Kunin added. The campaign “will begin as Vermont eases its way back to normalcy.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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