ST. ALBANS — If elected lieutenant governor, Democrat Molly Gray says she will focus on the state’s demographic challenges and making Vermont an easier place to live for families.
“For many years, I think there has been a generation trying to make it work here in Vermont,” she said, with families struggling to pay for basic needs such as housing and childcare.
Vermont needs to keep younger Vermonters here and bring back those who have left, in her view.
“We have a generation that’s absolutely stifled or crippled by student loan debt,” she said. “A generation that just can’t make it happen here, just can’t make it work.”
While providing more affordable childcare and family leave may make it easier to have children, there is evidence that many adults in their twenties and thirties are choosing to forego having children for other reasons such as concerns about what the world will look like for those children. When asked, Gray acknowledged that. “It’s challenging time to think about the future when we know we haven’t done enough about climate change,” she said.
There is also a global pandemic, “massive divisiveness,” and, in her view, a society living through the consequences of inequities of all kinds.
“This a moment when we have to step back and think of what are our greatest priorities,” Gray said. “What is the Vermont that we want for each other and the Vermont we want for the future?”
Gray sees four priorities for the state: broadband for all Vermonters, affordable childcare, investing in the state college system, and agriculture and food security.
“It fundamentally comes to aligning our budget with our greatest needs, that means we have to know and recognize what our greatest needs are,” Gray said.
“We would be outraged in 2020 if 70,000 homes and businesses didn’t have access to electricity,” Gray said, referring to those without broadband access. Broadband “is the pathway to online learning, which we know is critical in this pandemic, to remote work, telemedicine, economic opportunity and basic information around public safety and health.
“We’re not going to come out of COVID-19 stronger or solve our demographic challenges without urgent action to close the broadband gap in Vermont.”
Addressing the state’s broadband needs won’t be possible without federal funding, she said. If those funds aren’t sufficient, “maybe this year we invest in the infrastructure that is broadband rather than bridges and highways.”
“Childcare is one of the greatest investments we can make for our working families and our communities,” Gray said. Parents can’t return to work without it, she noted.
But, Gray added, “access to safe, affordable, quality childcare is also critical to helping solve our demographic challenges. It’s an area where we can make strategic investments now.”
She would both expand who is eligible for childcare assistance and expand the reimbursement paid to providers. The state should also make certain childcare workers have access to health insurance and a livable wage. They are, she said, “our most essential workers.”
Gray also noted that Vermont has the highest high school graduation rate in the country, but 41 percent of graduates do not go on to additional training.
“We have massive recruitment and retention challenges in the very jobs we need for our communities to be whole.,” she said, such as educators, electricians, health care providers, and first responders. “According to the McClure Foundation there are 62 different high paying jobs where we need workers right now.”
“We failed to properly invest in [the Community College of Vermont] and our state colleges, and we’re seeing the outcomes of that lack of investment,” Gray said. “Our greatest opportunity is to create a pipeline from our classrooms to our communities that helps our rural communities thrive and our next generation have a bright economic future in Vermont.”
Gray said she was the first candidate to call for utilizing the $30 million in the higher education trust fund to support urgent needs of state colleges. She wants to see the creation of a task force with a 60-day mandate to come up with an actionable plan to align the state colleges with the state’s greatest workforce needs.
Such a plan could include making the Community COllege of Vermont (CCV) more affordable, she said, noting that 80 percent of funding for CCV comes from tuition.
Loan forgiveness for those who “go into the jobs we need now for our communities to survive,” should also be an option, she suggested.
At the same time, “we don’t want education to be solely about workforce development,” Gray said. Students also need to learn to be “innovative and adaptable to an ever-evolving world and economy.”
“If we’re going to be resilient in the future, not only in a global pandemic, but also in the face of climate change, we have to invest in and support our farmers,” Gray said. “Our farmers are the stewards of our land. They’re at the heart of our economy and they are the cornerstone of a more resilient Vermont.”
Gray said she supports strengthening farm to table, farm to school, and other efforts to grow a resilient agricultural economy for Vermont.
With the current crisis, there is an opportunity to think everything anew, Gray said when asked about the challenges of getting local foods into the food assistance system, such as processing and storage capacity, adding that if restaurant owners and others came together, they could figure out how to address food insecurity with the bounty of food produced by the state.
The state should continue to promote Vermont’s agricultural identity and strengthen that part of our economy.
“I think it’s an opportunity to reinvigorate the lieutenant governor’s office, and be a reliable committed partner for the governor, the legislature and our rural communities,” Gray said when asked about why she’s seeking the office. “I will dedicate the office to helping solve our demographic challenges and building a stronger Vermont as we recover from COVID-19.”
“We need someone who will elevate the voices of our rural communities,” she said. “Ultimately, if we continue to promote the same leadership, we will see the same outcomes.
“Some of the challenges of COVID-19 are not new. We’ve left Vermonters behind on broadband, childcare, paid family and medical leave...”
“We have the opportunity to elect someone with a fresh perspective and diverse background to help address our greatest challenges,” Gray said.
Gray is currently on administrative leave from the attorney general’s office where she works in the criminal division on investigations into abuse of vulnerable adults, physical and sexual abuse of children, and use of force by police.
Asked about previous efforts to decrease the state’s prison population through restorative justice and supporting people coming out of prison to reduce recidivism, Gray said the focus should be on prevention, investing in equal access to opportunity and good paying jobs.
Eighty percent of those who return to prison after getting out do so because they violate terms of their release by not having housing or a job. “We are making it incredibly hard to find a job, incredibly hard to find housing and then saying to Vermonters you failed and we’re sending you back to prison.”
Gray also called for “recognizing where we’ve asked our law enforcement to be mental health care providers,” and where we need to shift resources into health and human services.
When it comes to the opiate crisis, “we have a population that is suffering from an addiction not of their own making. We allowed highly addictive opiates to permeate our health care system,” she said.
Gray favors holding pharmaceutical companies accountable while also destigmatizing addiction.
As for housing, Gray said housing needs are different outside of Chittenden County. In Chittenden County, there simply isn’t enough housing and it isn’t affordable. but in other parts of the state there may be housing that is inaccessible, needs weatherization or is too costly. “If we do not invest in housing, we’re going to pay for it later,” she said.
On climate change, Gray supports investments in weatherization, solar and other renewable energy “that create an energy independent future for Vermont.”
“Climate action has to start with our leadership through funding and supporting initiatives like the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA). The GWSA creates accountability and recognizes the needs for the state to help Vermonters protect themselves from the impact of climate change,” she said.
Asked why she chose to run for statewide office rather than, for example, a legislative seat, Gray said, “The issues that Vermont’s facing right now… are statewide issues.”
“I’ve worked statewide as an attorney general and have a pretty good understanding of the diverse needs of our state,” she said.
Prior to joining the attorney general’s office Gray worked on international human rights issues, including leading the first field mission into Baghdad to investigate private contractors for abuse. She’s been part of human rights investigations in multiple countries around the world.
“We need to put people before politics. We have to put people at the forefront… of our decision making and that’s what I’ve been doing throughout my life and career,” said Gray.
“This is our moment to create some of the greatest opportunities out of the our greatest challenges,” said Gray. “I’m full of a lot of hope and optimism for the future, coupled with a lot of readiness to get a lot of good work done.”