Democratic Gubernatorial Primary Race 2020: Rebecca Holcombe
Former Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe is running in the Democratic primary for governor, facing three other candidates. Holcombe was the state’s education secretary for four years, before resigning abruptly in 2018 over policy disagreements with Gov. Scott. She’s also served as a teacher and principal.
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Rebecca Holcombe, and their interview below has been condensed and edited for clarity. VPR is seeking interviews with all of the candidates for governor.
Holcombe brought up a VPR-Vermont PBS poll from earlier this year, which showed that 40% of Vermonters would have trouble paying a surprise $1,000 expense. She said that's one issue Vermont was failing to address before the crisis of COVID-19.
Rebecca Holcombe: When I talk to Vermonters, what I hear is that we've done a good job responding to this crisis. And responding to a crisis is like running around in a rainstorm, shoving pots and pans under the holes in your roof and catching the water. But what we need is a governor who understands we need a new roof and a new foundation. And we'll get to work on making sure that Vermont is the great place we want to raise our families.
Henry Epp: Well, so there is a decent chance, though, that if you were elected in November and took over next January, that Vermont could still be in the midst of dealing with the crisis of COVID-19. So what would you do differently than the Scott administration in the continued response to the coronavirus?
We all know that until there is some form of vaccine available to protect people, we will not be returning to normal in Vermont. So we need to be planning for how we are resilient and how we come through the next couple of years in ways that make us stronger.
One of the things I'd be doing right now is really working hard to make sure that our Department of Public Health has the capacity and the resources it needs to respond aggressively and proactively and quickly in every corner of the state.
And we also know that this tradeoff that people keep talking about between health and the economy is a false one, because if people aren't healthy and the virus is spreading, people are going to be compelled to shut down again. So we have to take care of both of these priorities and make sure that we are positioned to do everything we can to keep Vermonters healthy as we figure out how to weather the next couple of years.
Let's stay on the economy. You mentioned earlier the VPR-Vermont PBS poll that showed that 40% of Vermonters would not be able to cover a surprise $1,000 expense. And our reporting has since shown that women and people of color have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, both in health outcomes and economically. So as governor, what would you do to address those economic and health inequalities here in the state?
Well, there are several things. The first thing I would do is pull together all the stakeholders in the child care sector to figure out how to have an enduring and stable solution to making sure that every Vermonter who needs affordable, high-quality child care can have access to it, but also to make sure that the people who work in our child care, in our early care and learning programs, are adequately compensated and have access to things like paid family leave, which we know are essential both to their own health and well-being, and health and well-being of their families. But frankly, also important to the critical health of all of us.
Sticking with the economy, in your financial disclosure form, you reported just over $400,000 dollars in income in your household between yourself and your husband in 2019. And that's the highest of any candidate running for governor. And it's far above Vermont's median household income, which is $60,000 dollars. So given that, why are you qualified to advocate for the interests of lower-income Vermonters?
I think you've brought up in that, if you read the disclosure and the commentary around it, one of the things I pointed out that is that my disclosure form is a case study in how we need to rethink how we talk about taxation. And it's a national issue. It's also a local issue. We know that we talk a lot about income inequality. But I would say that wealth inequality is even worse. And we need to figure out how to make sure that people are contributing and paying their way when they can.
The difference that you talked about was the difference between earned income and unearned income. And, you know, you've also probably noticed that I donated over half of that. And part of that is, I'm happy to pay more taxes if it's going to go to create a fair chance for my neighbors so that they can participate in our economy and live well and be well in our communities. We need systematic tax reform that addresses some of these issues, and I'll support that.
So would you be supportive of increasing taxes on things like dividends and stock transactions where people can make income in the way that you and others have?
I think we need to address the fact ... if you think about income, when we spend it, we're buying for necessities and we put it in savings. People who have very low wages, have no money left over to put in savings. And so what I support as governor is not one single solution, because there is no one single solution that's going to solve our problem of wealth inequality, especially just at the state level.
So I support progressive taxation. It needs to be done comprehensively, because we've also talked about ways to make our education funding more progressive as well. So, yes, and this is a complicated issue. There is no one solution that's going to solve this problem.
I want to talk a little bit more about your time as education secretary. You were not very explicit about your decision to resign from Scott's cabinet at the time that you made that choice, or about the specific disagreements that you had with him on education policy. Can you explain a little bit more about that right now? Why you chose to resign and what those disagreements were?
Well Henry, as you know, I've worked in public education my whole life. And one of the things that you do as a public district administrator is, you work with boards that are very politically diverse. I think most of my school board chairs have been Republican. And you work with them to figure out how to put your community's hopes and aspirations together in a budget that you can all stand behind.
That experience is what was formative for me in terms of how I approached leading at the state level. It was a notion that when you work at the state, you represent all Vermonters, including people who have different views from you, and you have to work with them. And that's the spirit that let me apply to consider serving under Gov. Scott.
And I believe that he had the right stated goals. And that's why I chose to continue to try to work with him. And when it became clear that we had pretty significant differences in how that would happen, and, you know, for me personally, especially in the current context, trying to overdo or undo budgets after voters have approved on them, it felt it wasn't right, and that he had a right to have a cabinet member that he was interested in hearing from.
So was it essentially a disagreement over how budgets were being structured or how the administration was approaching that? Is that where the tension was?
There are a number of reasons. That was one of them.
Okay. Can you can you elaborate any of the other reasons?
Well, I think the you know, the other reason that, you know, again, when we talked about the context of the Fair Haven incident, for example. I mean, I think their response has been to harden schools and to put school resource officers into every school.
You know, as somebody who's worked in education and seen some of the data on disproportionality of policing in school and disproportionate outcomes, particularly for kids of color, associated with policing and hardening of schools, I just felt that there were other significant investments that needed to be made that had a more direct impact on health and safety of children. That would have been a wiser investment of those dollars.
I mean, there are other others, too. You know, I think every governor is entitled to — he was elected. I wasn't. If I couldn't support his agenda, it was time for me to step down.
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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.