ST. ALBANS — Christine Hallquist is a proven leader – that is the essence of her message as she campaigns as the Democratic nominee for governor.
The former CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative has never before held elected office, aside from Town Meeting Day moderator. Her work at VEC has been enough to earn the endorsement of former St. Albans City Mayor Liz Gamache, who worked with Hallquist at VEC for seven years.
Throughout her interview with the Messenger, Hallquist emphasized the importance of leadership that provides vision and encourages collaboration. Solutions to the state’s challenges, in her view, can only come from such an approach.
Education is a prime example, and one where Hallquist was critical of Gov. Phil Scott. Asked how she would address school costs that are rising faster than inflation, Hallquist said the solutions should come from local communities.
“Each town, if given the challenge, will respond appropriately and the solutions will come from the bottom up, not the top down,” said Hallquist. “All these solutions will come out and they’ll be successful.”
Scott’s approach, she said, has been “divisive.” “Arbitrary metrics and beating up on teachers and school boards is not an effective way to accomplish goals. You want people to be committed, and you want to be collaborative,” she said.
Discussions of workforce reduction are to be avoided in her view. “The worst thing you can do is say ‘we’re going to cut the workforce,’ because that drives fear into the organization,” said Hallquist.
“You either lead by aspiration and hope or division and fear,” she concluded.
It was one of the state’s – and world’s – biggest challenges that inspired her to run, said Hallquist. Addressing climate change “was my passion in life,” she said.
VEC had made significant progress on that goal, with a portfolio that was nearly all renewables and efforts underway to encourage members to convert to electric cars and heating systems, according to Hallquist.
Vermont has a plan to get to 90 percent renewable energy by 2050, which Hallquist said is doable: “The devil’s in the details. It’s all physics.”
She was happy when Scott signed on to the Paris climate change accord, “but then he didn’t do anything,” said Hallquist.
Hallquist wants to focus on implementing Vermont’s plan quickly. “We export $2 billion a year to fossil fuel companies,” she said. “That $2 billion can create a lot of jobs, a lot innovation.”
She doesn’t care if voters don’t believe scientists on climate change because even without belief, “It’s a great business plan.”
Asked about transportation, the sector where the country lags in shifting to clean energy sources, Hallquist said the answer is electricity. Both transportation and heating need to be electric in her view. Burning one gallon of gas generates 20 pounds of carbon pollution, she noted, making the answer “stop using gas.”
Some of the money the state is receiving from the Volkswagen settlement will be used to purchase electric buses. Hallquist supports the move, but when asked about how to address the need for public transportation in rural areas, suggested an “Uber-type app for travelers.”
“Spurring the innovation to solve these problems, that’s a leader’s job,” she said.
One of the biggest problems facing Franklin County and the state is the state of the dairy industry, where four years of low milk prices are impacting farmers, their communities, and the businesses that serve them. When asked about dairy, Hallquist said she would support low interest loans and grants to help farmers diversify and create value-added products. She pointed to Hardwick, where farms have created shared facilities for making value added products, as an example.
Maple syrup provides an example of a specialty, Vermont-branded product, with strong brand in her view. “Maple’s selling in Japan,” she said.
How or if farmers change what they’re growing or raising would be up to the individual farmer, but Hallquist said the state could “help them have the opportunity.”
Another potentially Vermont-branded product – marijuana.
As of July 1, it will be legal in Vermont to grow and possess small quantities of marijuana, but not to sell it. It’s an untenable situation in Hallquist’s view.
“We have to move to tax and regulate as quickly as possible,” she said. Currently, Vermonters have to choose between growing their own or purchasing marijuana illegally, and some will continue to purchase, she said.
A legal market would not only generate revenue, it would create opportunities for farmers, said Hallquist, suggesting that, as with other Vermont farm products, purchasers want to know “what farm this is grown on.”
Tobacco use, she noted, is at an all-time low nationally. “That’s what tax, regulate and educate can do for you,” said Hallquist.
Raising the minimum wage is also a priority for Hallquist, who is also friendly to unions. If the minimum wage had been adjusted for inflation since its creation in the late 1960s, it would be $22 per hour, said Hallquist.
“We’ve kind of bashed the unions and reduced the power of unions,” said Hallquist, specifically citing President Ronald Reagan’s firing of unionized air traffic controllers in 1981.
Since then, “we’ve systematically created a separation of wealth,” said Hallquist. Wages are now less than half of what they should be, and as a result the state has to subsidize housing.
“I can’t ethically live with where we are now,” said Hallquist. “We’ve got to shift the pendulum back.”
The root cause of inequality is the decline in wages for most workers, in her view. “Exorbitant CEO pay at the expense of employees, that is just wrong,” said Hallquist.
While CEO at VEC, she was well paid, Hallquist said, but so were those who worked for her. Sixteen of the 20 highest paid employees were union members and the highest paid unionized worker made just $20,000 less than she did.
Hallquist, whose campaign staff is unionized, believes “contracts make great neighbors.”
Contracts provide a framework for addressing issues that arise and insure people are treated fairly and equally, she suggested. It avoids, for example, gender inequality in pay by setting the pay for a given position and experience level.
When it comes to Vermont’s waterways, Hallquist points out that it isn’t just Lake Champlain that is suffering from pollution. “Ninety-four percent of the waterways are contaminated in Vermont,” she said.
To pay for the clean-up, Hallquist cited Vermont State Treasurer Beth Pearce’s plan, which calls for an investment of $25 million per year. “Where are we going to come up with the money? We’ll figure that out as a group,” said Hallquist.
Funding is an area where she’ll work collaboratively with the legislature, she said.
One possible source is a reduction in Vermont’s prison population. Hallquist cited a plan from the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union which would free up $70 million by reducing the prison population and bringing home prisoners currently held in other states.
That was also the goal of former Gov. Peter Shumlin. When this was pointed out, Hallquist said, “The governor’s not going to get this done alone. I want Vermonters to not take ‘no’ for an answer.”
She cited universal health care as an area where Vermonters shouldn’t accept ‘no,’ but should instead elect officials who will continue to work on the issue. Hallquist herself is interested in collaborating with larger states who are also hoping to create state-level universal health care programs.
In her case, Hallquist took over VEC when the state was threatening to shutter the co-operative, and it had both the highest rates and the most outages in the state. Now the company has an A+ rating from Standard and Poor’s and was named one of the most innovative utilities in the country by the U.S. Dept. of Energy in 2010.
At that time, Hallquist’s first name was David. She transitioned to Christine in December 2015 and began living openly as a woman. Her transition makes her candidacy an historic one.
Being the first transgender person to run as a major party candidate for governor has drawn national attention. “Statewide, it’s not an issue,” she said. “I think Vermonters are beyond all that.”
Gamache said she is “eager for people to get to know Christine.”
Hallquist won her support with “her proven experience as a leader and relationship builder,” said Gamache, who hopes Hallquist will bring a fresh perspective and focus on collaboration to Montpelier.
She is, said Gamache, someone with “courage and grit.”