Hallquist makes campaign stop in Bennington

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BENNINGTON — Democratic candidate for governor Christine Hallquist made a stop in Vermont on Wednesday evening, promoting a platform that supports rural economic development, universal healthcare, a taxed and regulated marijuana market and a $15 minimum wage.

"I'm a person that pulls people together to do really great things," Hallquist told the roughly 30 people at a meeting of the Bennington chapter of Rights and Democracy, hosted at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Bennington.

Hallquist was chief executive officer of Vermont Electric Co-op, a 107-employee company based in Johnson before she resigned in March to run for governor. She is one of four candidates to formally declare for the Democratic nomination, along with Lake Champlain International Executive Director James Ehlers, Southern Vermont Dance Festival Executive Director Brenda Siegel, and Mount Abraham Union Middle School eighth-grader Ethan Sonneborn.

As CEO, she said, "My passion was to show that the electric grid could solve climate change. When I left on March 2, we were 97 percent carbon-free, we were offering incentives for people to move away from fossil fuels for heating, cooling, and transportation, and we had gone five years without a rate increase, which essentially proved that solving climate change does not need to cost more money."

"I love Vermont," she said. "In my 42-plus years in Vermont I always been a civic servant, I've done everything from school board to town moderator for the past five years, and I do that because I love Vermont. I will also tell you that the events of the past year and a half, starting on Nov. 9, 2016, have caused me to respond to a higher-order calling. I look at what is happening on the national level and I look at what has happened to the state, I feel the state has lost some of its identity. That really caused me to get involved and do what I can do."

Rights and Democracy, which includes chapters across Vermont and New Hampshire, has not yet formally endorsed any candidates for the 2018 elections or primaries. The Bennington group currently has meetings with two other candidates scheduled for the coming weeks: Bennington State's Attorney Candidate Arnie Gottlieb on June 6 and Bennington County Sheriff Candidate Chad Schmidt on June 20. Rights and Democracy describes itself as, "working through the political and electoral process to advance progressive policies that lead to happy, healthy, and just communities for all Vermonters."

If Hallquist wins the Democratic primary on Aug. 14 she will become the country's first transgender gubernatorial candidate to represent a major party on the ballot. "All through my life I had an internal secret," she said. "That internal secret became so difficult to deal with, when I reached my 40s, because my children didn't know the truth about me. That became so compelling to me that I needed to tell that truth, even if I was pretty sure I would lose my career, because this was more important to me. So on Dec. 2, 2015, I transitioned from man to woman and a miracle happened, and the miracle was that Vermont accepted me with open arms. Because of that, I can't do enough in return for Vermont."

In terms of her policy positions and platform, Hallquist said she would focus on rural economic development, including through expanding broadband internet access to everyone in Vermont; continuing to move toward universal healthcare by forming a union with other interested states; moving towards a taxed and regulated marijuana market; invest in programs for displaced workers; address racial disparities in Vermont's criminal justice system; and push for a $15 minimum wage.

"I hope to fire up every voter to say, 'We will not accept anything less than universal health care,'" she said.

Asked how she would fulfill the broadband promise, she said, "For the past 10 years, I've been on the strategies and technical advisory committee for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which oversees the electric distribution to 75 percent of the landmass, which is rural America. So, I've been working on the national level with rural America, and this issue of broadband has been our number one concern.

"What we've observed, it's the same thing that happened in the 30s when rural America didn't have electricity and the cities did. We've developed a model, and we've carried it out in rural years across the country that are one-third the density of Vermont. It's being carried out in 80 cooperatives nationwide. I was going to apply this at the Vermont Electric Co-op, but instead, I'm going to apply it for the state."

"The idea is," she said, "when the electric utility hangs the fiber, they use all of their equipment, their poles, it's just another wire, and they can do it for one-third of the cost of how it's done today... You ask telecom companies, they'll say it's too expensive. You ask your electric utility, it's just another wire." She said that the fiber lines managed by the electric company would be open to use by all broadband providers, increasing competition compared to the current model.

Hallquist was featured in the 2016 documentary "Denial," directed by her son, Derek, which focuses on her environmental work and the challenges of becoming the first American transgender CEO to transition in office.

"As a self-described 'closet environmentalist,'" reads the film's synopsis, "Hallquist is dedicated to addressing the way electricity use in America contributes to climate change. But his mission is balanced with the utility's charge to provide affordable and reliable service. For Hallquist, increasing the efficiency of the grid is the only meaningful route to merging these priorities. He implements one of the country's first `smart' grids, decreasing outages, increasing the capacity for renewable sources and building a national reputation as an energy pioneer. Resistance, however, comes in many forms - traditionalists balk at the renewable intermittency, solar and wind advocates think Hallquist is dragging his feet, and the public fears that `smart' meters on their homes will send private information about their energy use to the government. But as Hallquist struggles to build the kind of transparent company whose honest approach can get stakeholders to accept the realities of how we generate and deliver electricity, he realizes he must apply that same transparency to his personal life and reveals to his son a lifelong secret. Dave Hallquist, who presents as a chainsaw-wielding, hardhat-wearing CEO in a male-dominated industry, is a woman inside."

To learn more about the candidate and her positions, visit her website www.christineforvermont.com. To learn more about Rights and Democracy, visit www.radvt.org.

Derek Carson can be reached at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com, at @DerekCarsonBB on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.

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