Inside Vermont state government, the duties of lieutenant governor are largely ceremonial. Outside the Statehouse, the job is more ambassadorial.
Molly Gray, a farmer-turned-criminal prosecutor who is running for the office, sees opportunities in having perhaps the second-largest soapbox in state government.
“We’re going to reinvigorate and demystify the lieutenant governor’s office and make it a statewide platform that gives Vermonters a voice as we face our greatest challenges,” said Gray, a Democrat, during an interview at the newspaper’s offices.
As an ambassador for Vermont, one could probably do worse than a farmer’s daughter whose dad was an Olympic skier.
But she has plenty of competition for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, including state senators Tim Ashe and Debbie Ingram and activist Brenda Siegel. At least three Republican candidates have also filed.
Vermont’s primary election on Aug. 11 will narrow the field to one candidate per party. The general election is Nov. 3.
Growing up Vermont
Gray, 35, grew up in Newbury, on the family farm that her parents still run. She would help pick vegetables and sell them at the family farmstand.
She went to the University of Vermont on an athletic scholarship, racing for the school’s Nordic team —she takes after her father, Bob, a cross-country skier who competed in the 1968 and 1972 Olympic games.
After UVM, she worked to get then-Rep. Peter Welch elected to Congress, and moved to Washington to work as a congressional aide. Then, she spent three years with the International Committee of the Red Cross in places like Haiti, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Now, she’s a Vermont assistant attorney general under TJ Donovan, working in the criminal division.
With all of that globetrotting, Gray is rooted in Vermont, and spends much of her time talking about that sweet spot between rural life and improving things so that new people — or those who left — will come to Vermont to enjoy it.
She noted a Seven Days story about Williamstown Rep. Rodney Graham, who’s selling his dairy cows, marking the first time there hasn’t been a dairy farmer in the Legislature. It’s been a decline that started slowly in the latter years of the 20th century and has accelerated to the point that there are fewer than 700 operating dairy farms left in the state.
“I want to be really careful about how I talk about farming in Vermont, because I do believe that dairy is such a rich part of our history,” she said. “But the future of Vermont agriculture is diversified, and I don’t think right now we are promoting and talking about how we are a leader, as a state, on growing food, and in the food movement.”
Gray was at the annual winter conference of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, held Feb. 15-17 in Burlington. She said more than a thousand farmers were there, most of them young, “who are growing all sorts of food for their communities.”
“You couldn’t find a hotel room in Burlington,” she said.
The state has good soil and good farming practices, but Gray said leaders can’t talk about agriculture without talking about things like economic security and climate change. If she were elected lieutenant governor, she’d be replacing another farmer, David Zuckerman, the vegetable farmer now running for governor.
Gray’s platform is three-legged — kind of like a milking stool, but she’s heard that one before and probably will again as the campaign goes along.
“One,” she said, “revitalizing our rural communities. Two, making sure Vermont is the best place to raise and support families. And, three, taking care of the land for the future generations.”
Gray says it’s crucial to preserve Vermont’s character and make the state attractive to a younger generation looking for higher-paying jobs and a better IT sector.
“Who are we as a state, now?” she wonders. “What are our greatest assets? How are we going to preserve them, and how we going to leverage them to bring a generation back to Vermont and keep a generation here?”
An entire generational swath of Vermonters who left might be coming back to the state anyway, as their parents get old. Gray said that, with 20 percent of the population over age 60 — a percentage that she said is slated to double in the next decade — the state is going to have to figure out its role in accommodating all of those senior citizens.
She thinks there’s economic opportunity in the state ramping up its support for elder care as well as paid family leave.
“When we talk about paid family leave and elder care, why are we not thinking about it in terms of, this is who we are, this is our brand?” she said. “We’re going to create pathways for you to come home to be closer to mom and dad.”
Much has been made of the Vermont brand, or at least some sort of rural iconography, whether it’s something that appeals to back-to-the-landers or second-home owners. What Gray wants to see is more plumbers, electricians, teachers, lawyers, doctors and nurses, whether that means moving to the state with those skills intact or facilitating those types of jobs being homegrown.
But the cost of living in Vermont keeps some of those professions from growing — in Orange County, where Gray is from, you can’t find a local lawyer to help you with a real estate transaction, she said.
And, she said, the lack of primary care providers in many communities around the state is helping to drive up health care costs — she said 75 percent of health care providers are specialists, and only 25 are in primary care.
One of the hurdles to moving to a state with higher costs of living is massive student debt. Whether that means being able to graduate from a Vermont college debt-free or having the state provide employers incentives to pay off a new employee’s student loan instead of a pension.
She refers to this as “a pipeline from classroom to community.”
When asked how the state goes about paying for things like subsidizing student loans and paid family leave, Gray flipped the question — what happens if we don’t?
People are going to get older, regardless. And they’re going to need someone to take care of them, someone who may need to take time off from work, or put a career on hiatus. There goes the income. There goes paying for student loans.
Gray said someone’s going to have to pay for that, whether it’s state elder care assistance or giving the younger generation some assistance if they need to take time off of work to care for an older relative.
“We’re creating more vulnerability by taking care of the most vulnerable, and who pays for that? The state,” she said. “You’re creating unemployment. So, it’s either we’re going to help people through these situations and figure out a plan for caring for our most vulnerable and pay for it through a temporary leave package or we’re going to pay for it in unemployment.”