Democrats seek smooth road to Vermont House with 2 Norwich-area seats

  • Dee Gish (Courtesy photograph)

  • Rebecca Holcombe (Courtesy photograph)

  • Jim Masland Patrick Fallon

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/5/2022 1:18:58 AM
Modified: 8/5/2022 1:18:53 AM

State Rep. Jim Masland has faced primary elections before.

They might seem routine, but in the Windsor-Orange 2 district, which comprises Norwich, Sharon, Strafford and Thetford, the Democratic primary has been the main event since Masland was first elected in 1998. No Republican has served the district since it was drawn in 2000.

This year, Masland faces two challengers, Dee Gish, of Sharon, and Rebecca Holcombe, of Norwich, in the two-seat district. Barring a shocking upset by Bill T. Huff, of Thetford, the lone Republican in the race, the two Democrats who prevail in voting on Aug. 9 will go on to win the general election.

In recent interviews, the three Democratic candidates offered similar views on key issues, including climate change, affordable housing, school funding and health care.

“The difference would be approach,” said Masland, 73. He touted his legislative experience and said he would be “more effective in getting bills out of committee and to a vote.”

For the past decade, Masland has been a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees all taxation and fees for state government.

For example, Ways and Means debated the changes to the school funding formula last year. “It was clear to me that if we implemented it in one fell swoop, Thetford and Norwich would be really adversely affected,” Masland said. He and others called for, and the Legislature adopted, a plan that implemented the new formula over a few years.

“That’s the kind of thing where committee work is very important,” said Masland, who retired about a year ago after 15 years as a site supervisor with Habitat for Humanity. He grew up in Hanover and has lived in Thetford since 1979.

Between his two challengers, Holcombe, who served as Vermont’s secretary of education for a little over four years, has spent more time in those committee rooms, testifying on bills before the Legislature.

Having spent her entire career in education, Holcombe, 56, is making her second run for public office after an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2020. State Rep. Tim Briglin, D-Thetford, who is stepping down after serving four terms in the House, encouraged Holcombe, who has lived in the Upper Valley for most of her adult life, to run for the Windsor-Orange 2 seat.

Gish, 55, is making her first run for public office. After settling in Vermont in 2008, she has served on the Sharon Energy Committee and on the boards of BALE (Building a Local Economy) and The Sharon Academy. She works for the Vermont Land Trust in accounting.

All three candidates are married and have children who are grown or in college.

The prime issue they all hope to address is climate change, which undergirds every issue the state faces.

“It’s been a crisis,” Holcombe said. “It’s like gas on every flaming problem we have right now.”

But it’s also the best opportunity the state has to build its economy, she said. Vermont spends two of every three of its energy dollars out of state, and spending more of that money on energy and weatherization in-state would create jobs, she said.

“I agree, climate change affects all the other issues,” Gish said. It’s going to influence tourism, the ski industry and other economic sectors the state relies on, she added. As a member of her town’s energy committee, Gish has already worked on issues such as weatherization.

For his part, Masland called climate change “all-encompassing.” The state needs to prepare to house so-called climate refugees, he said, referring to people who see Vermont as a destination to avoid the most drastic symptoms of an ailing planet. “We can’t just zone them out.”

This makes Vermont’s already acute need for more housing even more critical. All three candidates said Vermont will need to look to existing downtowns, in communities both large and small.

With better infrastructure in place, such as water and sewer service, even small villages could host more housing, Gish said, adding that there’s a role for smaller-scale projects in smaller communities.

None of the House district’s four towns have such infrastructure, and the appetite for services that would enable more housing growth is unclear.

Holcombe noted that when people talk about the kind of place they want to live, they describe climate-friendly growth, such as walkable neighborhoods with schools and shopping close by.

“We also just need to continue to prioritize investments in housing,” said Holcombe, who currently works for Greenway Institute, a White River Junction-based education startup that seeks to bring more students into engineering.

There will be no shortage of education issues facing Vermont lawmakers in the next session. For example, when Republican Gov. Phil Scott signed the new funding formula, which sends more money to districts with high levels of students in poverty, with disabilities or learning English, he urged the Legislature “to address cost containment and transparency to moderate the tax burden of the education funding system in the coming years.”

Lawmakers also will have to confront the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring states that pay tuition for students to attend private schools to pay for religious schools as well. All three candidates agreed that this is something the Legislature will have to take on, but it’s unclear what that debate will look like.

It’s likely that the question of public funding for private schools will come up, Masland said. Some sectarian schools don’t accept students with disabilities or students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or queer (LGBTQ), Masland noted, something public schools are required to do. It’s possible the state will require schools getting public funding to accept all students, he said.

If the state doesn’t work on this issue, “I have no doubt there will be litigation,” Holcombe said. The state should clarify what form of public education it’s willing to pay for, she added.

“I think there does need to be some action taken to protect marginalized groups so they have equal access to quality education,” Gish said. But what that action might be is unclear. “I think it needs to be carefully looked at,” she said.

Election officials say early ballots should be dropped off at town offices, not mailed. Polling places for Windsor-Orange 2 on Aug. 9: Norwich, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Tracy Hall; Sharon, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sharon Elementary School; Strafford, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Strafford Town House; Thetford, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Town Hall.

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

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