John Klar is among five candidates running in the Aug. 11 Republican primary for governor, including incumbent Gov. Phil Scott. Klar is a political newcomer, but he’s a frequent commentator for conservative publications. He’s also an attorney and farmer, and a former pastor.
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with John Klar, and their interview below has been condensed and edited for clarity. VPR is seeking interviews with all of the candidates for governor.
Henry Epp: Vermont is in the midst of dual crises: the public health crisis of COVID-19, and the economic fallout from the COVID-19 shutdown. So why should Vermonters turn to a new leader at this time?
John Klar: Well, I would say that this highlights exactly why Vermonters need a new state leader. Gov. Scott for four years has demonstrated a lack of an ability to consolidate resources to promote economic growth for us. And paying $10,000 to out-of-staters is just about all that's really been offered. This year, he proposed Keno gambling.
I and my team have been working since last April to propose an extensive economic package. As far as I'm aware, we're the only candidates who are.
(Editor's note: many gubernatorial candidates have outlined specific economic policy proposals.)
The progressives are talking about expanding government. And on our website, at Klar2020.com, we have details on the 2020 Vermont Farming Manifesto. We have specific proposals. So the governor is focusing totally on COVID. And I'm a Vermont farmer and we have to fashion a plan for Vermonters to go forward after COVID.
Well, let's look a little closer at the COVID-19 issue. Earlier this spring, you wrote a commentary in which you called Gov. Scott's a stay at home order unconstitutional. But relative to other states, Vermont has seen fairly low rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths. So given that, what do you think of Gov. Scott's response to the pandemic and his overall leadership during these pretty extraordinary few months?
Well, as to COVID, I don't envy his job. And connection doesn't prove causation. Just because we have lower cases doesn't mean we would have had higher cases. We're very rural. And the governor's pattern has been to restrict Vermonters in their activities, while leaving the borders open to out-of-staters. We know that's where the disease comes from. The real pattern we see nationally is urban vs. rural. So I think that might be claiming a little too much credit, that he saved all of our lives.
But regardless of that - because, as I say, I respect it's a difficult job for any governor - what I wrote about the constitutionality is, just because people like what he does, doesn't mean that it's constitutional. And there are some things that have been done here that just exceed the governor's power, and he as much as acknowledged it with the Black Lives Matter protests when he said they wouldn't be enforcing his orders. The government should recognize the Constitution even in times of pandemics.
Well, so we're seeing rises in coronavirus cases in other states, other parts of the country right now. And there's, of course, the possibility that cases could rise again here in Vermont. If you're elected, what will you do differently than the Scott administration in the continued response to the coronavirus?
Well, I'm not sure that it would be that different, in the sense that Vermont has now essentially shut down many of its businesses, some of them forever. And if we were to do that and reduce all cases in Vermont down to zero, the moment we reopen with tens of thousands of visitors, we could have another spike. And I, like this governor, at that point might say that we need to go back to restrictions again, but more effectively, they're done as advisories, rather than huge rafts of regulation that aren't enforceable.
So let's break that down a little bit. So you're saying that if coronavirus cases were to come up again, you would be supportive of continued shutdowns of businesses, even though you've called some of the orders unconstitutional?
Yes. And so, I don't want anybody to die. One thing I called for early, about a week before the governor, was a restriction on out-of-state travel, particularly by New Yorkers. If the epicenter of the disease was in Bennington, I would've said, 'please, people in Bennington stay there.' And I issued it as an appeal. Sometimes you get a lot further with sugar than vinegar, and government needs to recognize its limitations.
I want to turn to another topic. A poll conducted by VPR and Vermont PBS earlier this year showed a split over the state's response to climate change. Of the respondents, 39% of thought that state officials were doing enough to combat climate change, while another 39% thought they were not. Do you feel like Vermont is doing enough to tackle climate change?
Well, yes and no. And I'd like to change the context. So, I'm very much a student of a writer named Wendell Berry, who, since the 1960s, has been warning Americans about what we're doing to our environment. Now suddenly, it shifted to 'carbon dioxide is our main culprit,' and I don't get involved in the global warming dispute because the science is mixed.
(Editor's note: a wide majority of climate scientists agree that the climate is warming due to human activity. )
If we want to really change the environment, here's a conservative value: We shut off our lights at night. We turn down our heat and wear a sweater. We ask our young people to stop buying 12 different electronic devices, because when we measure what is being used, we also need to measure all of those devices and where they go in the waste stream. We've got young people who use more energy than older people do, who've been weaponized against older people, like somehow we deliberately left them an economic or an environmental disaster.
Well, I mean, the level of carbon dioxide is rising, which is causing climate change and global warming, this is a well-established scientific fact. I mean, isn't that leaving younger generations a world that is worse off than what older generations experienced?
There are several layers there. For one thing, to fault older generations for not having solved the problem of which they were unaware is pretty unfair. What I'm saying is, that regardless of whether or not the globe is warming, it is polluting. This should bring everybody together, left and right. We should acknowledge chemicals, cancer rates increasing. And if we were to cut our consumption, then we would reduce carbon gases at the same time. So it's just a win-win.
Finally, Democrats and Progressives have wide majorities in the state legislature. How would you pass any part of your agenda, which includes repealing Act 46, changing Act 50, rolling back abortion rights. How would you pass any of that if Democrats maintain control of the House and Senate in November?
Well, I submit to the Vermont voters that having a one party system is worse than a two party system. And we can see it now. There's been a lot of disrespect to conservative voices. Do they want their pensions paid? The Progressives aren't doing it. Now the pensions are a huge crisis, and COVID is revealing this.
So, the things that we want to do, and the policies we've identified, we did specifically because we want to appeal to all Vermonters on the things that will unite them, rather than further inflame a red-blue divide. We're talking about fiscal conservatism, a better response to the opioid crisis and dealing with Act 46 and the school system, because Act 46 clearly didn't do what it purported to do. It's increased costs and decreased local control. Farms close, bureaucracy grows. Schools close, bureaucracy grows. We have to reverse that.
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Vermont’s primary election is on Aug. 11, so VPR is reaching out to candidates in contested races for governor, lieutenant governor and the U.S. House to find out why they're seeking to serve, and where they stand on the issues of the day. Find our full coverage here.