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Vermont Constitution At The Heart of Ehlers' Political Philosophy

At his campaign launch in Barre in May, Democrat James Ehlers touted his policy agenda as the most progressive of the candidates seeking the governor's seat in 2018.
Peter Hirschfeld
At his campaign launch in Barre in May, Democrat James Ehlers touted his policy agenda as the most progressive of the candidates seeking the governor's seat in 2018.

Not many statewide candidates turn to the Vermont Constitution as the foundation for their political philosophy but Democratic gubernatorial hopeful James Ehlers does.

In campaign appearances and interviews, Ehlers often refers to Chapter One, Article Seven of the state constitution to describe what he believes is the proper role of government.

That provision of the Constitution says, in part: "That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community, and not for the advantage of any single man, family, or set of men, who are a part only of that community."

This is how Ehlers interprets it:

"The government is here to represent us, not the interests of the business elite class, the corporate class,” said Ehlers. “So for me this is about dignity and that the government's responsibility is to protect the rights of all."    

"The government is here to represent us, not the interests of the business elite class, the corporate class."—Democratic gubernatorial hopeful James Ehlers

When it comes to health care, Ehlers thinks government has a critical role to play - that's why he supports a single payer, government-financed system. It's one that would ensure all Vermonters have access to health care.

"When the market fails as it clearly has, the market has been given a chance, there are people not receiving health care, not getting access then that's the place, a legitimate place  for government to step in,” said Ehlers.  

More from Vermont EditionDemocrat James Ehlers On Why He's Seeking The Governor's Office [June 13]

Ehlers is 49-years-old, has four children, and lives in Winooski.

For the past 20 years, he's been the executive director of Lake Champlain International and he's been an outspoken advocate for water quality issues.

Ehlers is calling for a long term revenue source to help clean up Lake Champlain and the state's other lakes and streams.

This year, he supported a Senate bill that placed a tax on all land parcels in the state to raise money for the Clean Water Fund.

"I would support investments in the things that are absolutely critical for literally life on this planet, clean water,” said Ehlers. “People are getting sick, people's economic opportunities are being destroyed." 

While Ehlers generally supports the role of state government to find solutions, his views on gun control are more nuanced.

Of the four candidates on the Democratic ballot, he's the only one who doesn't support a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons.

He also believes it was a mistake for lawmakers to ban the use of large capacity magazines and he doesn't think enough was done to forge a compromise that all sides could live with.

"If I were governor we wouldn't have had that bill,” said Ehlers. “I would have signed it and then I would have pointed out all the additional work that would be necessary." 

Ehlers has the support of several Democratic lawmakers who have served on the House Natural Resources committee.

Charlotte Rep. Mike Yantachka is impressed with Ehlers' commitment to the environment.

"I found him to be very knowledgeable and thoughtful and a great advocate for environmental issues,” said Yantachka. “You know he's come out in favor of the kind of progressive legislation that I believe in."     

Ehlers has also shared his views on social media and some of his controversial tweets over the years have resurfaced during this campaign.

In 2010, he described teachers as being overpaid, and in 2015, he made statements that cast doubt on his full support for a woman's right to choose to have an abortion.

He apologized in the second case by saying, "Nowhere do I state that I am against a woman's right to choose.  I sincerely understand and appreciate that there's a difference between intent and impact. There are times that I expressed my views in a way that led to an unfortunate impact."

Williston Rep. Jim McCullough thinks the apology shows an important side of Ehlers' character.

"If you have gone down the wrong road you can always turn around and it takes a person of integrity and confidence in their compass to do such a thing," said McCullough.  

In a recent VPR-Vermont PBS poll, more than 70 percent of respondents said they had never heard of Ehlers.

Former Middlebury College political science professor Eric Davis thinks this poses problems for the Ehlers campaign.

"Do people know who he is ?” asked Davis. “Before people can form a judgment about whether anyone is a desirable candidate for governor they first have to know who the person is, and second, does he have the financial resources to get the word out about his campaign."

Ehlers is hoping that a strong, grass roots "get out the vote" campaign will be the key to his winning the Democratic nomination next Tuesday.

Vermont's 2018 Primary election will take place on Tuesday, August 14th. The Vermont Secretary of State's website has election related information regarding voter registration, where your polling place is and more.

Find VPR's candidate interviews and profileshere.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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