Rebecca Holcombe is looking to breach the walls of one of Vermont’s reddest towns.
Over the past 20 years, only twice has a majority of Stowe voters given their support to a Democratic candidate for governor — Howard Dean in 2000 and Sue Minter in 2016 — but Holcombe is campaigning on the issue that has brought victory for Gov. Phil Scott the past two election cycles: affordability and the mass exodus of young people from the state.
However, she and Scott have very different takes on how to address the challenge of being able to simply exist in Vermont.
“When we talk about needing young people to live in Vermont, I say back — affordability isn’t cutting taxes, because when we cut the taxes, we’re actually hurting the people who need your help and support the most,” Holcombe said. “Affordability is taking on and making sure that people have livable wages and that people have health care they can actually afford so that they don’t worry that they’re one bill away from devastation.”
Holcombe’s remarks came during an hourlong meet and greet Tuesday night hosted by Stowe Democrats in the Akeley Building.
Holcombe — who declared her candidacy in July — operates a small inn in the Northeast Kingdom; however, from 2014 to 2018 she was secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Education, where she oversaw numerous education initiatives, from universal pre-K education to dual high school-college enrollment for high school juniors and seniors.
She also oversaw implementation of Act 46, the state law that resulted in voluntary school district mergers such as those in Harwood and Lamoille North, and the forced merger of Stowe with Elmore-Morristown.
Even when facing the crowd of about 20 residents of a town whose school district went to court, trying to block the merger, Holcombe pointed to the success the law has had in some communities.
“It’s written into the law that this won’t work for every community, but … in some cases, the merger ended up saving their small schools,” Holcombe said.
Holcombe will compete with Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Asked why she would make a better candidate in the general election, she did not attack her opponent, instead saying, “David has 25 years of history in the Senate and the House, and you can check out his record. But I will say this: I’m not a career politician.”
From 2011 to 2014, Holcombe was director of Dartmouth College’s teacher education program. However, it was her appointment to secretary of education by Gov. Peter Shumlin that raised her profile in Vermont.
In 2017, after publicly saying he was looking at other candidates, Scott reappointed Holcombe as secretary; a little more than a year later, Holcombe abruptly resigned without explanation, with Scott only saying her departure was due to personal reasons.
Later, Holcombe said she didn’t see eye to eye with the governor on issues of education equity and affordability.
At Wednesday’s event, it was clear that divide remains.
“This is not the Vermont I know, and it’s strangling all of us. It’s why young people won’t live in our state and it’s why they don’t have that bright future we’re hoping for,” said Holcombe, who took issue with Scott’s program that pays people as much as $10,000 to move to Vermont.
“I literally think they have three tools — one, let’s cut taxes; the second is, let’s give someone a tax credit and the third is, let’s pay someone $10,000,” Holcombe said. “We could pay for kids graduating from our career and technical centers to become nurses for what we’re paying people to move here.”
On other topics, she supports a tax-and-regulate system for recreational marijuana and H.688, a bill that would create a legally enforceable system to make Vermont reduce its statewide greenhouse gas emissions.
But, she returned to Scott, saying the state needs a governor who doesn’t continuously talk about how Vermont is a bad place to do business.
“He’s like the restaurant owner who stands in front of his restaurant, complaining about the food inside, and wonders why nobody comes in,” Holcombe said. “We need a governor who believes in Vermont and is going to celebrate Vermont as a good place to do business, to sell us because we are good.”