Three-way contest for two seats to be decided Tuesday
Three candidates are vying for two seats representing Williston in the Vermont House of Representatives. The Observer asked each of them — Democrat incumbent Jim McCullough, Democrat first-time candidate Erin Brady and Republican first-time candidate Tony O’Rourke — a series of questions about their candidacy and the issues that face the town and the state.
Election Day is Tuesday; voting by mail is already underway. Polls will be open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Vermont National Guard Armory, 7846 Williston Rd. for those who have not voted early.
Q: Describe your history in Williston and your connection to the community.
BRADY: My husband and I picked Williston as our family’s hometown 15 years ago because of the strong sense of community, excellent schools and unparalleled access to the outdoors.
Strong schools provide a critical foundation for every child, they increase property value and they create a sense of community. Before COVID, I enjoyed being an active volunteer in the Williston schools and a tee-ball coach. Every time we take our boys for a ride on the bike path, a hike at Catamount or go fishing on Lake Iroquois, I’m reminded of how lucky we are here.
I have been an elected member of the Champlain Valley School Board for the past four years. I advocated for universal free meals through the COVID-19 crisis and flying the Black Lives Matter flag at our schools as a first step toward addressing racial injustice in our community. I am a working mom in my 15th year teaching social studies at Colchester High School. I was honored to be named Vermont’s Gilder Lehram History Teacher of the Year in 2019.
I also coordinate professional development at Colchester and train teachers-to-be as an adjunct instructor at Saint Michael’s College. I wear many hats and am grateful to the support of wonderful neighbors and friends here in Williston that help make that possible.
O’ROURKE: Our family has enjoyed making Williston our home since 2002. Here, we have raised our five children while working in the private sector. In those 18 years, I have started, built and sold two small businesses that created jobs while also serving the community. I am a firm believer and practitioner of supporting our local economy and community through a collaboration of personal, private, public and non-profit efforts.
I have proudly supported many causes including the Williston and Vermont food banks, Camp-Ta-Kum-Ta, Cancer Patient Support Foundation, Ronald McDonald House and the March of Dimes. I have served on our neighborhood board, been a CVU Grad Challenge mentor and panel member, and supporter of youth sports and programs.
My only other foray into politics was a run for Williston Selectboard in 2015. I view politics as an opportunity to serve the community, not to forward a specific political party. I am running to represent people of all demographics that are seeking a safe, clean and affordable place to live and work. I hope to earn a seat at the table to be your representative.
MCCULLOUGH: My Williston roots date to the 1700s through the Fays (grandmother Abbie Fay). My great grandparents (Smith and Clarissa Wright) acquired the home farm in 1873 where Lucy and I farmed and still live.
My community service started as a Boy Scout in 1956; Scout Master (youngest in the state), late 60s; followed by stints on the Planning Commission, Conservation Commission (seminal) and as Green Mountain Transit Commissioner. Additionally, I served Williston on many Town Plan revisions, as a CVU Budget Buddy and many other assignments.
Lucy and I started and ran many small businesses in Williston, starting when I was in high school. We raised sheep and were a certified tree farm, earning the Vermont State Tree Farmer of the year award in 1989. We started Catamount Family Center in 1978 and gave the business to a not-for-profit in 2005. We conserved 376 acres of our family farm in 2019. It is now known as the Catamount Community Forest and owned by the Town of Williston.
Q: How would you assess state government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic in terms of balancing business, employee and educational needs with public health concerns?
BRADY: As a front-line worker who helped implement the hybrid education model in my classroom and as a parent of Williston students, I’m proud of the pandemic response our schools, our community and our state have undertaken.
The fastest way to return to normal and rebuild stronger is to implement measures that stop the spread of the virus. The New York Times and the Washington Post recently noted our success stems from “… having a high degree of social trust.”
Vermont, with leadership from Gov. Scott, has done a great job preventing the virus from becoming a partisan issue.
But with tens of thousands of Vermonters out of work, our state’s tourism and hospitality industry on the brink, and our day-to-day lives being disrupted, we’ve made tremendous sacrifices that need to be addressed by the legislature next year.
The state has done a good job supporting Willistonians who have lost their jobs, providing grants to businesses that lost revenue, creating alternative childcare programs and providing hazard pay. But these are temporary programs and more must be done.
The crisis has exposed several fundamental flaws: lack of high-quality, affordable childcare; lack of paid family and medical leave; and the need to raise the wages of essential workers. If elected, I’ll be laser focused on these issues.
O’ROURKE: Vermont has a history of rising to the challenge during the most trying times. The response to COVID-19 serves as an example of this. Led by Gov. Scott, we saw a synergy between the private and public sector to balance public safety and our economic security. We were one of the first states to move to remote learning to keep our students, educators and families safe. While this move created many challenges, it provided a sense of continuity, which I believe was the correct decision. Our state is being recognized nationally as an example of proper response and precaution to COVID-19.
This challenge is far from over and we must continue to balance public safety and allowing businesses to operate on a wider basis, especially the hospitality industry. This is not only a source of employment and tax revenue, it includes farms, family-owned stores and shops, restaurants and inns that have served our communities for generations. It also includes musicians, florists, event planners and other small businesses that support the wedding and tourism industries. We need to make sure they have access to support so they can remain a vital and vibrant part of the Vermont landscape.
MCCULLOUGH: I give an A-plus to state government’s response to the pandemic regarding balancing business’ and employee’s health, indeed the entire state’s health. I feel we should have done more for education. We should have dedicated more money to school districts to affect necessary pandemic-related changes. We should have been more prescriptive on school scheduling and protocols.
Q: Have federal pandemic stimulus funds in the CARES Act been effectively distributed in Vermont, and what do you think will be the most pressing pandemic-related needs in 2021?
BRADY: Our state’s congressional delegation delivered $1.2 billion in aid to Vermont. My husband, Ted, serves as deputy secretary of the Agency of Commerce in Gov. Scott’s administration, and helped administer more than $200 million to businesses and non-profits and those at risk of foreclosure or eviction.
I was pleased to see funding go to keep childcare providers afloat, reopen our colleges and schools, reimburse towns, provide hazard pay to healthcare workers and first responders, help farmers recover, build more affordable housing, and even indirectly provide a lifeline to our state college system — including Vermont Tech right here in Williston. I have watched our state leaders work tirelessly to make difficult decisions and prioritize public health.
Early in the pandemic, I heard an interview with Neel Kashkari (current president of the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis; he ran the bailout of the banks and car companies in 2008 for the U.S. Treasury) and his advice for fighting a crisis like the one we’re facing has stuck with me: “Whatever you think you should do, do more. Whenever you think you should do it, do it sooner.”
I’m hopeful that Congress and the newly elected president will provide Vermont with additional funding. I will fight for relief for Vermonters, especially women, who have been disproportionately displaced from the workforce by the pandemic. I’ll focus on grants and stimulus to businesses, especially those in the hospitality sector. I’ll advocate for extending unemployment benefits, increasing childcare support to allow families to go back to work and funding for municipalities like Williston to prevent cuts to services or increased taxes.
O’ROURKE: The CARES Act provided much-needed relief to many who were suddenly unemployed and facing the struggles that accompany the income loss. In Vermont, I agreed with Gov. Scott’s efforts to release a larger portion of the available federal funding immediately while members of our legislature were hesitant to support this in June. I was pleased to see another $76 million of grant money being approved for release just last week by Gov. Scott.
We need to support our economy, especially our small businesses, or we will face an even greater tax burden for years to come. This is in addition to the mental health crisis that I see as the biggest challenge in our state and nation. COVID-19 only served to make this crisis worse through the negative economic and psychological impact it imposed on society. This is not a problem that will remedy itself and we all need to be vested in providing access and assistance to those in need of support.
I am confident that we can rebuild our economy in a safe and sustainable manner through a collaborative approach. I commit to being a bipartisan representative acting in the best interest of my constituents.
MCCULLOUGH: The legislature was very effective in its distribution of the CARES Act money, even as we understood many were still shorted, based on tremendous needs. Parsing out of the funds was a very difficult task, exacerbated by uncertain and changing federal regulations.
The Scott Administration’s distribution of the CARES Act funds has been slow and clumsy in some cases. The Department of Labor’s unemployment funds distribution performance was particularly ugly. Unfortunately, Gov. Scott had pulled Vermont out of a multistate unemployment insurance modernization project several years ago. The Department of Labor had stone-age equipment and protocols to deal with the issue.
In 2021, pandemic needs will likely be a replay of 2020 with many indications of a COVID resurgence. I am hoping that lessons learned will be applied in 2021.
Q: What are the biggest issues facing Williston and how would you work to address them?
BRADY: Williston is not immune to national challenges like the existential threats of climate change and the systemic impact of economic inequality. As Williston’s Farmer Mike Isham told me just last week during a tour of his farm with former Gov. Howard Dean and Lt. Gov. candidate Molly Gray, climate change threatens his family’s business.
Maple sugaring is threatened by global warming and crops are regularly damaged by severe weather. Vermont must continue to grow the climate economy. Businesses like Williston’s All Earth Renewables provide a model. Williston’s growth over the past two decades demonstrates our need to balance growth with climate considerations. I welcome the town’s shift to carefully managed growth and focus on walkable communities in Williston’s growth center. I’m pleased to see large investments in preserving our natural spaces like Catamount and Mud Pond.
One of the most important factors in a child’s health and future economic security is the zip code in which they were raised. I will work to ensure every zip code in Vermont offers the same promise as Williston, and I’ll work to support economic policies that favor all Vermonters. Many of us in Williston benefit from privilege, but there are families in our community struggling to make ends meet and we need to do more for those most in need.
O’ROURKE: Williston is a unique town in comparison to many other towns, villages and cities in Vermont. We are a vibrant mix of businesses, homes and undeveloped land, all of which make this an attractive place to call home. The challenge is to provide a balanced approach to our future.
With growth comes stress and strain on our infrastructure, our public safety, our schools and our environment. Local grassroots groups like the Citizens for Responsible Growth are a wonderful example of how to seek a sustainable outcome in relation to development.
The involvement of citizens is critical. I have attended selectboard meetings when there were less than 10 people in attendance. As a candidate, I have met with members of public safety, our town office administrators, local business owners, developers and concerned citizens. We are a growing town and what our future looks likes depends on the efforts that we make today.
We can achieve responsible growth while maintaining the character that makes Williston a unique and desirable place to reside, work and recreate. We must also continue to make Williston, and the rest of Vermont, a more affordable place to live.
MCCULLOUGH: Many of Williston’s issues are municipal, not legislative ones. That said, Williston needs to address required road and ditch reconstruction commitments made to the Vermont Department of Conservation. If needed, I will help facilitate the construction scheduling and Municipal Road Grants Program funds to fulfill this requirement. This is a serious water quality issue responsibility.
Williston continues to be short shifted by the Vermont Tax Department on aid to education funding when tax appeals are found in an appellant’s favor. Towns are currently required to pay based on the original assessment, not the newly adjusted one. I will continue to press for this change.
Williston has an affordable housing issue. I have worked and continue to be committed to address this statewide.
Q: What other issues would you focus on if elected to the legislature?
BRADY: One of the important lessons I’ve learned from my years as a public school teacher is the cumulative effect of inequitable opportunities and experiences on young people and their families, so I would be particularly focused on issues that impact working families.
I support a $15 minimum wage. So many complex issues, including racial injustice, cannot be solved unless we address income inequality. I believe that all Vermonters should have universal, high-quality healthcare and until we arrive at a national solution, we should continue to improve our system here in Vermont.
I will continue to be a strong advocate for children and families. While we have a very well funded K-12 system and should continue to find efficiencies, we need to make investments in the “bookends” of our system. Research shows that every dollar invested in birth to 5 yields a $3 return. We have a severe shortage of high-quality childcare in Vermont and yet early childhood professionals are underpaid and undervalued.
On the other end of the system, I know all too well how difficult it is for graduating high school seniors to access and afford post-secondary education and training. We need to do more to retain our graduates and help them reach their full potential. I am proud of my endorsements from the VT NEA and the AFT, Vermont’s healthcare and higher education unions, because they represent important policy priorities.
O’ROURKE: As a “political outsider,” my focus will be to address the issues that residents of Williston have voiced as their largest concerns. At the top of this list is cost of living.
Over the course of the last several months, I have spoken with hundreds of Williston residents from all demographics. Folks of retirement age are worried about surviving on fixed incomes in one of 13 states that tax Social Security. Their everyday expenses are compounded by ever-rising taxes. As a result, we continue to see the relocation of many seniors that have called Vermont home their entire life. This is truly heartbreaking. We are seeing a similar exodus among our younger residents, whether it’s to seek employment or a place to purchase an affordable first home.
In addition, Vermont is not an attractive place to conduct business. By increasing our business base, we can apply this revenue instead of treating our citizen taxpayers like an ATM machine. I will question every dollar of expenditure and fight to stop the expansion of taxation and fees. Programs are not government funded, they are taxpayer funded, and we need to make sure we are receiving a return on our investments.
MCCULLOUGH: Identify and implement an equitable and sufficient funding source for phosphorus total maximum daily load (TMDL) water quality in Lake Champlain and throughout the state as mandated by the federal EPA. Gov. Scott has been playing a shell game with funds that depend significantly on borrowed money to convince the feds that we are in compliance. This policy will come back “to bite us.”
The Vermont economy needs help in a very systemic manner. Vermonters need paid sick leave, paid family leave and sustainable wages. Gov. Scott has vetoed these initiatives. I believe businesses and the economy will flourish with these policies as many new bright young families come to Vermont to enjoy these rights while raising business productivity. By the way, those of us already here are suffering and need these initiatives as well!
We need to continue to progress on eliminating institutional and systemic racism, even as we recognize our personal responsibilities to do the same.
Q: Is there anything else you would like voters to know about you?
BRADY: I want to thank those voters who have already voted for me, my campaign volunteers who helped me make almost 2,000 phone calls, the many families who have placed a sign on their lawns and joined me to wave on street corners, and the more than two dozen Willistonians who have voiced support for me in the Observer and Front Porch Forum. I hope those who plan to vote in the coming days join the majority of the Williston Selectboard, my fellow Williston representatives to the CVSD board, our current House delegation in the legislature and many others in supporting my candidacy.
During this campaign I have clearly outlined my beliefs on the issues and I believe substance matters. I want Williston to know where I stand and will readily answer policy questions, because the work of a legislator requires policy decisions.
I feel strongly about women’s reproductive rights (which will be on the agenda next year under Proposal 5), the need to address racial injustice, increased gun safety measures and robust policies that make Vermont a more affordable and better place for all families.
I am open to civil dialogue with anyone. I want to represent all of Williston and will commit to always answer an email, take a phone call or stop and have a conversation on an issue important to the people of Williston.
O’ROURKE: I would like the voters to know that I am running to represent you, not a political agenda. I am confident that we can, and must, balance our efforts to create a sustainable economy, environment and educational system for generations to come. We must be willing to work hard and be responsible for our personal conduct and accountable for the consequences of inaction.
I believe that the lessons taught around the dinner table are the most valuable of all. If this year has taught us anything, it is that the path of life is filled with uncertainties and we must be prepared to address challenges that we have never faced before. If we work hard, are empathetic and demand that our elected officials work on behalf of everyone, especially the most at risk and in need, we will not only survive, we will thrive.
I hope to earn the opportunity to play a role as your representative and I sincerely appreciate your consideration.
Fun facts: My first car was a Chevy El Camino. My favorite foods are pizza and paella. My favorite movie is “Tommy Boy.” My favorite bands are The Who, Thin Lizzy, Bob Seger and Iron Maiden.
MCCULLOUGH: I am doing a good job! Please vote for me.