On Monday, Vermont Daily Chronicle emailed the same questionnaire to candidates in most contested statewide races in next Tuesday’s Democratic and Republican primary. Below are one candidate’s answers to these questions: “If elected, how would you:
Reduce the cost of living?
Promote widespread, affordable home ownership?
Protect the public from crime?
Promote successful schools?
Protect a clean environment?
Protect civil liberties?
In any other way promote the welfare of your constituents?
Joe Benning, Republican candidate for Lt. Governor
Biography: I have been a resident of the Town of Lyndon since 1975. Graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Lyndon State College and a Juris Doctorate Degree from Vermont Law School. I’ve been a trial lawyer for almost forty years and currently have a solo practice in Lyndonville. Married to wife Deb since 1983. She is a second grade school teacher at Lyndon Town School. We have two grown children: Emily and Justin. I’ve spent the last ten years as Lyndon Town Moderator, been a member of Lyndonville Rotary Club (none year as past president) since 1988, spent twenty years on the Lyndonville Stars & Stripes Committee, chaired the Lyndon State College Foundation, served ten years as Lyndon Town Republican chair, have served two terms on the Lyndon Town School Board, one term as a Trustee at Lyndon Institute (cut short upon my assignment to the Senate Education Committee), and was elected to the Vermont Senate in 2010 (defeating an incumbent Democrat). I was appointed by then Governor Jim Douglas to the Vermont Human Rights Commission and served as chair prior to my election to the Senate. In the Senate I served four years as Minority Leader, currently chair the Senate Institutions Committee and the Senate Ethics Committee. I’ve served on the standing committees of Judiciary (former vice chair), Education, Government Operations and Natural Resources & Energy. I’ve chaired the Ad Hoc committees of Judicial Rules, Capital Complex Security, and the Sexual Harassment Panel. I’ve served on the Ad Hoc committees of Joint Rules, Senate Rules, Joint Legislative Management and the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules (LCAR).
Reduce the cost of living? – It is important to state initially that the position I am running for (Lt. Governor) does not enable one to draft legislation, argue for that legislation in committee or on the Senate floor, or vote for it unless the Senate has a tie. In that case the Lt. Governor can cast the tie-breaking vote. In other words, from a legislating perspective I cannot reduce the cost of living.
However, the podium that comes with the office is the perfect place to raise awareness of Vermont’s continued affordability crisis. It also comes with a physical office that can serve as the location for meetings between those who can provide high-paying jobs and the legislators who can help draft legislation to make that happen. Knowing all the legislative players, I would become the conduit between those who have the power to make change and those who have the ideas that can bring cost of living reductions into play. I also have a track record of writing op-ed pieces covering various topics (a process that would continue), including ideas about the high cost of living, and the Lt. Governor’s position would enhance my ability to do that with better authority.
Promote widespread, affordable home ownership? – The first thing I would do would be to use the office podium to advise first-time homebuyers to expand their search. There remain pockets of affordable housing in this state but one has to learn how to find it. By way of example, my daughter just bought her first home in Wolcott, which is one town over from her paramedic job in Hardwick. It was a reasonably priced home and she searched various lenders to see who offered the best rates. On the other hand, my son is a machinist in Norwich, a bedroom community for Dartmouth Hitchcock employees, and it is impossible for him to find a reasonably priced home and/or a cooperating lender in that area. He remains at home, commuting about 150 miles round trip a day. I’m working with him to understand that he could shorten his commute time down if he purchased a home in a more rural, off the beaten track town. My point is, as Lt. Governor I could use the position as a promoter of populating some of our more rural towns, many of which could use an influx of new blood to improve overall quality of life.
The legislature has just allocated several million dollars towards the effort to build affordable housing. This is a process that the Lt. Governor should be monitoring. The jury is still out as to whether this was a wise use of federal money and whether it will bring about the desired result of “widespread, affordable home ownership.” If it is successful, we will have to encourage more such investment, and as said previously the position of Lt. Governor offers a platform for promoting programs that are proven to work. That same platform also offers the ability to urge movement in a different direction if the current game plan is not successful. Having worked with all the players (both in the Scott Administration and the legislature), I would anticipate bringing the movers and shakers into my office to brainstorm on ideas.
Protect the public from crime? Of course, it is the police who technically have this as their job description, not the Lt. Governor. Therefore the best the Lt. Governor can do is protect the police. There is a movement afoot to “defund the police” and remove an individual officer’s “qualified immunity,” both of which tend to inhibit the ability of police to do the job we expect them to do. I’ve been a vocal opponent of both. Serving on the Judiciary committee, I argued quite consistently against removing qualified immunity. The thrust of my argument was: 1. there was no evidence we actually had a problem, and 2. we were receiving very loud testimony from law enforcement that removing QI would further jeopardize recruitment efforts. I’m happy to report that my efforts helped water the bill down to just a study. The Lt. Governor’s physical office is ideally positioned to have constant communication with lawmakers. I would use it to engage in conversation reminding them that those who protect us need us to protect them.
Promote successful schools? I’ll begin this answer by stating I was educated in a Catholic school system at both the elementary and high school levels. I know the importance of having parents directly involved in their children’s education and the need to have qualified teachers who produce students capable of competing in a global marketplace. Whether it be a private school, an independent school or a public school, everyone has to put their oars in the water and pull in the same direction. While I too am frustrated by students who are failing to reach the point we need them to be, I am not the type who points fingers at any one element for blame. This problem needs systemic change.
We have to start promoting teachers better. My mother was a teacher, my sister-in-law heads the science department at Lake Region High School, and my wife is a teacher. I’ve been a school board member and LI Trustee, and served almost forty years as an attorney who has spent a considerable portion of his career representing both parents and children involved with DCF (previously Social & Rehabilitative Services). I’ve been an adjunct professor of law at Lyndon State College and tutored inmates learning how to read. In my twelve years in the legislature I have been invited into many schools for many hours and have had a pretty good look at what is going on from the inside. A central concern is the number of teachers who are very disheartened. Many of them have left the profession and the recruitment of new teachers is being impacted by negative political rhetoric. That rhetoric is coming from politicians who have spent little time, if any, in a classroom over the past ten years. Between opiate addicted parents, helicopter parents, and a state social system that is wholly inadequate to those issues, the fact is that many of our teachers have been forced to take on the role of teacher, social worker and parent. The vast majority of teachers took on that profession because they love children and want to see them succeed. They are flabbergasted to hear politicians suggesting they are indoctrinating children into communist tendencies, or injecting them with hormone blockers. They do not want to be their students’ parents and they certainly don’t want to be social workers. They continue to spend their own money to equip both their classrooms and their students with items they shouldn’t have to pay for. They continue to be frustrated by parents who never show up for parent/teacher conferences, other parents who unfairly criticize based on knee-jerk reactions picked up on Facebook, children who’s terrible behavior is never corrected at home, social workers who fail provide needed assistance, and politicians who use their platforms to excoriate them at every turn. As Lt. Governor, I’d use the office to let teachers know that yes, we do have expectations, but we will also have their backs. That’s a point I’d also drive home on a daily basis with the legislators walking by my office.
Protect our clean environment? As I’ve said previously, the position of Lt. Governor does not permit creation of legislation. But it does enable one to become Vermont’s chief promotor. We have clean air and clean water. Maintaining them requires monitoring. If problems arise, the Lt. Governor’s podium offers an excellent place to draw attention to those problems and the need to fix them. But where those fixes are necessary, I would also use that platform to argue that we should use the proper tools and not overreach or present false expectations. For instance, while I believe it is necessary to address climate change and move towards renewable energy, it is wrong to bankrupt our citizens with mandates that cannot achieve the desired result. (Yes, I’m speaking about the Global Warming Solutions Act.) It is also important that we don’t use the wrong tools for the job, which is why I have been a vocal opponent of industrial wind farms that destroy pristine wildlife habitat and our best carbon sinks.
Protect civil liberties? After almost forty years as a trial lawyer, concentrating heavily on criminal law, I believe I have a pretty good track record of fighting for civil liberties. The Lt. Governor’s position offers an advanced platform for promoting these rights. As the only state-wide and federal candidate on this year’s ballot, which includes both parties and all said offices, I am the only one officially endorsed by the National Rifle Association. I’m the only candidate for any office who’s name appears at the head of a Vermont Supreme Court case in an action that sought to prevent overreach by the State into my right to be left alone. As Lt. Governor, I will continue to make the arguments that I’ve made in numerous court rooms and the Senate chamber: that it is not the size and power of our Government that makes this country great; it is rather the freedom of her people.
Promote the general welfare of your constituents? The pulpit of Lt. Governor and the prestige associated with the position increases the likelihood that people will listen more closely to what I’ve argued through the years. It also offers the freedom to move about, investigating Vermonters and their problems on their turf, and searching for potential solutions wherever on the globe they are found to exist. It remains my duty to adhere to the constitutional glue that binds us together as a society, and to remind folks that we have an obligation to ourselves to remain true to that document. I look to the people to promote their general welfare, and look at the position of Lt. Governor as a reminder to government that it is government’s responsibility to allow them to do that. I’d use that pulpit to promote Vermont, her people, her economy and her “green hills and silver waters” in any way I can. Vermont has an incredible brand. I’d see it as my job to declare that however and wherever I can.