Where Vermont's lieutenant governor candidates stand on climate, health care and more
A number of political observers think the race for lieutenant governor this year might turn out to be the most competitive of Vermont’s eight statewide contests.
It’s a race that features two candidates who have a lot of Statehouse experience.
The Democratic candidate is David Zuckerman. He’s served in the Vermont House, the Vermont Senate, and was elected to two terms as lieutenant governor in 2016 and 2018. He also ran unsuccessfully for governor two years ago.
The Republican candidate is Joe Benning. He’s served as a state senator from Caledonia County for 12 years. He’s the former minority leader in the Senate, and is currently the chair of the Senate Institutions Committee.
Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with senior political reporter Bob Kinzel to find out what motivates these candidates. Their conversation below has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: So Bob ... What can you tell us about Joe Benning and David Zuckerman?
Bob Kinzel: Well, Mitch, recently, I had a chance to interview both of them, and I wanted to know, why are you running?
Zuckerman told me he wants to provide Vermonters with information to help them be more engaged with the political system at the Statehouse. It's something he says he did when he previously served as lieutenant governor.
"...And really helped them learn how to be more influential in the process and the bills," Zuckerman said. "Sending out a newsletter across the state to well over 10,000 — I think even over 20,000 —Vermonters, to highlight issues that they could call their reps and senators on, I think generated an impact. And I'd like to go back to do that again."
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And Bob, how about Joe Benning? Why does he want to be lieutenant governor?
Mitch, Benning told me that he has enormous respect for the traditions of the Vermont Senate and he wants to help carry on those traditions. He also sees the role of lieutenant governor as a state ambassador.
"...promoting Vermont in every way shape or form, being a diplomat, as well as a mouthpiece for Vermonters, Vermont products," he said. "This position, as far as I can tell, is ideally situated to enable me to do that."
Now Mitch, Benning is also raising what he calls the "stepping stone" issue with Zuckerman. At almost every debate, Benning asked Zuckerman to pledge that he'll run for lieutenant governor again in 2024, if he wins this year. And Benning says he does this because he says Zuckerman wants to use this office to springboard to a higher office in two years.
"But for sure, I don't want to leave it in two years and let things happen to the Senate that I just, I would be very sorry to see happen if somebody else is using it as a revolving door at this point in time," Benning said. "To me, that's very problematic."
And Bob, how does David Zuckerman respond to that charge?
Zuckerman says he has no plans to run for higher office. And in any case, he says it's an unrealistic pledge, because no one can predict the future. And as an example, he says few people saw COVID coming in the winter of 2020. And the effect it could have on the election that year.
"When I announced my run for governor two years ago, nobody knew eight weeks later the world would turn upside down," he said. "For us to predict what's going to happen two years out: Ukraine, you know, Russia invading Ukraine, what's China going to do? What's the global supply chain? What's the economy going to be like? There are way too many variables to say I'm going to absolutely do something or not do something in two years. The world just moves too fast."
And Mitch, I should also mention that Benning has not ruled out a run for higher office in four years if he's elected in November. But he says it's unlikely, because he'll be 69 years old.
Bob, I find it really interesting because the lieutenant governor's position doesn't have a lot of power when it comes to policy decisions, that kind of thing. So voters are actually looking at these two candidates for who they are. And I understand you asked some non-issue-oriented questions of both of them. What did you ask these candidates?
Exactly Mitch. I wanted to ask them some non-traditional questions to get a sense of who they were. The first one was, what did people misunderstand about you?
Here's David Zuckerman.
"And I think I'm pretty transparent," he said. "So I'm probably less misunderstood than many who maybe are in public office, because I wear it on my sleeve. But then I think people also stereotype me, because I have progressive views, that I have no sense of economic reality. But I run a farm."
And now the same question, Mitch for Joe Benning. What do people misunderstand about you?
"It is a frustrating thing," Benning said. "When you hear people saying you don't understand, you're clueless, when the reality is, I'm in anything but, and how to explain that to people without coming across sounding arrogant, is extremely difficult."
"I think people also stereotype me, because I have progressive views, that I have no sense of economic reality. But I run a farm."David Zuckerman
It's a really interesting insight into what motivates and inspires these candidates, to let people know more about them and the things that frustrate them a little bit. Bob, what was the second question in this category that you asked both these lieutenant governor hopefuls?
Mitch, that second question was, what do you not have patience for? Now, something happened with this question that I found really fascinating, because usually political candidates jump right in when they're asked a question, they hardly skip a beat. But in this case, they both paused thought about their answer. Again, the question was, what do you not have patience for?
Here's David Zuckerman's response.
"Hmm, interesting," he said. "What I don't have patience for— I don't have much patience for selfishness. And that exposes itself in a few ways. Sometimes it's, you know, not letting another car in on a busy road."
And Mitch, here is Joe Benning's unedited answer to the very same question. What do you not have patience for?
"I don't have patience for politicians who vilify the enemy, and whip up the emotions in their base," he said. "That drives me absolutely bonkers. And I see it happening on both sides."
These two candidates really seem to have different philosophies about the appropriate role of government. How would you describe those differences?
Mitch, I think they have a very different point of view over what issues should be dealt with at the national level, which ones are more appropriate to be considered at the state level, and which ones are best left to the free-market system.
Climate change is a great example. Benning says this is clearly an issue that has to be addressed at the national level. And that it makes no sense at all for Vermont to take steps that he says will have no impact on global climate change, and could hurt the state economy.
"And unfortunately, a lot of the rhetoric that I'm hearing from the other side, sounds to me like it's leaving people with the idea that Vermont can simply lead the way, and we're going to reverse climate change," said Benning. "That kind of political maneuvering to me is appalling, because people are just accepting that Vermont can somehow change what's happening with the globe. That's not going to happen."
Now Mitch, Zuckerman agrees that ultimately, this is an issue that needs to be addressed at the national level. But he says Vermont has a responsibility to act and develop policies that can serve as a model for the rest of the country.
"I happen to think that we do have an outsized impact," Zuckerman said. "Other states and other governments have followed our models, because we've done a good job. Can we solve everything? Of course not. But that's what aboutism. You know, we can't solve the whole thing, so we should do nothing. I just don't think that way. I think you do what you can."
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And Mitch, in many ways, the same dynamic is at play with health care. Benning thinks there needs to be some type of national or regional solution, not a state solution. He also acknowledges that the current free-market system has been a failure.
"I'm not shying away from that," Benning said. "As a Republican, I've taken a lot of grief for this conversation. But private enterprise has not been able to produce something that is sustainable for Vermonters, and that remains a concern, but certainly Vermont cannot do it on its own, and Peter Shumlin proved that."
Mitch, on the other hand, Zuckerman doesn't have confidence that Congress will adopt a national approach anytime soon. So he feels the state must act. And he says using a payroll tax to finance a state health care system might actually save people in businesses some money compared to what they're spending now on private health insurance premiums.
"Shumlin pulled the plug because of a payroll tax," Zuckerman said. "I don't think people would really looked at what they were already paying, I think would have been lower for some of those businesses. And, you know, that's just one potential methodology. But the system is broken."
Interesting, Bob, I'm seeing a pattern here for sure. I'm wondering then how these two candidates view the question of raising taxes to help finance a number of social programs. Many differences on this issue as well?
There are huge differences, Mitch. Zuckerman says that most wealthy Vermonters really are not paying their fair share of taxes to support the critical needs of state government. And he says when this happens, middle-class Vermonters end up paying more money in so called regressive user fees.
"Well, they've seen their hunting licenses go up, their camping fees go up, their driver's licenses, their car registrations — because if you don't generate the revenue with a progressive tax income tax, then it is going to fall on working people," said Zuckerman. "So I would look at progressive income taxes with respect to many different issues."
And Bob, what about Joe Benning? What is his general philosophy about raising taxes, especially on the wealthy?
Mitch, Benning says higher taxes will hurt efforts to make Vermont "more affordable," and he sees taxing the wealthy as a simplistic solution to a much more complicated problem.
"You have a state that can only commit X number of dollars to a given cause," Benning said. "And when you say, 'I'm going to raise taxes on the richest in this state,' a lot of people say, 'Yeah, that's great. It's not going to affect me. And we'll get the service that we want.' The problem is you haven't gotten to the bottom of the question. How much money are you actually talking about that can be raised from that cohort?"
"I don't have patience for politicians who vilify the enemy, and whip up the emotions in their base. That drives me absolutely bonkers. And I see it happening on both sides."Joe Benning
Well, that's interesting. How do these two candidates then view the proper role of the state in providing social services for the people who really need them?
Well Mitch, for much of his professional life, Joe Benning has been a trial attorney. And he says in that role, he's had a number of clients who he feels have become much too dependent on the state for essential services.
"It is very disheartening when I know I'm working with people that are more than happy to have government house them, to have food stamps available to eat with," Benning said. "That's very troubling, after three generations, to watch how we have essentially deprived people of the motivation to try to fend for themselves."
But Mitch, David Zuckerman says there are many other factors that need to be considered when looking at this issue.
"It also happens to be a situation where folks of different genders and different races have been left behind," Zuckerman said. "So it's pretty privileged as a white male, to say, you know, 'individualism, libertarianism, go for it.' But when you look at the results of that, it's a pretty inequitable society."
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