Sarah Edwards

Rep Sarah Edwards, Brattleboro, Windham 3-3

We Need to Invest in the Right Future

This Mother’s Day, I am thinking about mothers and families all over our country. The past few years have not been easy. In Vermont, families continue to struggle to make ends meet here. In Washington, DC Congress is trying to put together a budget for next year. I’m watching this process closely because our state counts on funding from the federal government to implement crucial programs. The budget process will affect each and every one of my constituents.

The budget passed by House Republicans will slash programs used disproportionately by women and families. In addition to the Medicare and Medicaid cuts you may have heard about, it cuts funding for programs like food stamps, childcare, Head Start, job training, Pell Grants, and housing and energy assistance. Meanwhile their budget allows defense spending to continue to increase.

Each year, Congress appropriates more than half of discretionary spending to the Department of Defense. Even without deficit reduction pressure, this overspending takes dollars away from needed domestic priorities that strengthen our economy and ensure that America can compete in the world marketplace.
In the past decade we have spent billions on war. Afghanistan is now the longest war in our nation’s history, and we spent nine years in Iraq. Whether measured merely in direct financial cost, or in the broader and more profound cost of lives lost and damaged, we cannot afford to be a nation perpetually at war.

Some supporters of the Pentagon and their contractors tout money to the Pentagon as a jobs program. Sensible national security jobs make sense, and no member of Congress can ignore the effect of policy decisions on jobs. Nonetheless, economists have shown that federal investments in non-military sectors--like education, healthcare and clean energy--create more jobs than military spending. It makes sense to invest federal dollars in sectors that will create productive jobs that will help our economy grow for years to come.

We can make sensible reductions to Pentagon spending and invest in programs that will help build a vibrant economy for generations to come. This Mother’s Day, let’s honor hard-working women around the nation by calling on Congress to pass a budget that supports women and families and puts us back on the path to a sustainable economic recovery.

This also appeared in the May 5 edition of the Brattleboro Reformer.

Out of the Margins, Into the Fray

May 3, 2012; In These Times; Steve Early

The Vermont Progressive Party wields outsized influence on state politics.

In this presidential election year, millions of voters find themselves caught, once again, between a Republican rock and a Democratic hard place. Because of the primacy of the two-party system, only major party candidates have the funding, organization and media visibility to be competitive in most federal, state and local elections. As a result, Greens or other minor party standard bearers are almost never elected to public office. (A hundred years ago, things were different when thousands of Socialists successfully ran for municipal office.)

One state where left-leaning voters do have greater choice today – and their own political voice – is Vermont. Thanks to several decades of persistent organizing, the Vermont Progressive Party (VPP) now boasts seven members in the legislature – two senators (out of 30) and five representatives (out of 150) in the House (some of whom affiliate with the Democratic Party as well). Since Vermonters sent the first “Prog” to Montpelier in 1990, 16 have served a total of 48 legislative terms in the state capitol. Progressives have introduced legislation, served on key committees and played a catalytic role in public policy formation.

Despite the VPP’s recent loss of Burlington City Hall, where a Democrat was just elected mayor for the first time since the late 1970s, the party retains three city council seats (out of 14) in Vermont’s largest municipality. Over the years, more than 29 VPP members have served as part of the Progressive bloc on the council. One newly-elected member is Burlington Department of Public Works commissioner Max Tracy, a 25-year-old former student activist at the University of Vermont, long involved in organizing campus workers. He won in the city’s Old North End section by campaigning for living wage jobs, affordable housing, a sustainable transportation system and support for local farmers and gardeners.

In similar fashion, Progressives running in nonpartisan races in small towns serve on local school committees, select boards and community planning bodies. Plus, they turn out on Town Meeting Day to help pass resolutions in favor of issues like tax reform and overturning the Supreme Court’s pro-corporate decision in Citizens United – both the subject of town meeting action in 70 Vermont communities in March. While never formally aligned with the party himself, Vermont’s socialist U.S. senator, Bernie Sanders, has backed some VPP candidates for state and local office, while VPP activists have, in turn, been his most ardent supporters in past statewide races.

Taking a leaf from Sanders’ singular 30-year career – as Burlington mayor, then Vermont’s lone congressman, and now junior senator, the Progressives have distinguished themselves from their Democratic competitors by focusing, in populist fashion, on economic issues. In areas of the state where working-class voters might otherwise be swayed by cultural conservatism or residual rural Republicanism, the VPP has, like Sanders, won elections by campaigning for labor rights, fair taxes and single-payer healthcare far more consistently than the Democrats. The party’s statement of principles has a distinct tinge of Occupy. “Democracy,” it declares, “requires empowering people not only in government but also in the workplace, schools, and in the overall economy. Society’s wealth should not be concentrated in the hands of a few, and a wealthy minority should not control the conditions under which we live.”

Healthy competition

One measure of the Progressive impact on public policy is the preliminary steps that Vermont took last year to create a first-in-the-nation single-payer healthcare system – though this achievement may still be thwarted, due to business opposition during a complicated multi-year implementation process or any intervening loss of Democratic Party control over the legislature or governor’s office.

In coordination with a strong grassroots movement, both Sanders and the VPP continued to make single-payer a central political issue, keeping the pressure on local Democrats. Current Gov. Peter Shumlin’s previous bid for statewide office – a run for lieutenant governor in 2002 – ended in defeat when Progressive Anthony Pollina, a strong single-payer advocate and now a state senator, received 25 percent of the vote.

Determined to avoid that fate again, Shumlin, a millionaire businessman and former Senate president, tacked left on healthcare reform in the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial primary and the general election. He narrowly won the five-way primary and then, with no Prog in the race, defeated Republican Brian Dubie by a 2-percent margin after getting much-needed help from Sanders with last-minute working-class voter turnout. With a Democratic-Progressive majority in both houses of the legislature, Shumlin followed through on his campaign pledge to introduce a single-payer plan and make its passage a top priority of his administration last year.

“We have a homeopathic role in the Vermont body politic,” says Ellen David-Friedman, a former organizer for the Vermont-National Education Association (NEA) and longtime Progressive Party activist. “We’ve managed to create enough of an electoral pole outside of the Democrats to constantly pull them to the left on policy issues, by dispensing an alternative brand of medicine that’s become increasingly popular.”

To maintain its “major party” status under Vermont law, the VPP must field a candidate every two years who garners at least 5 percent of the statewide vote. Progressives rarely perform better in statewide races than Martha Abbott, a tax accountant from Underhill, who received 12 percent in her 2008 campaign for state auditor. To boost its win rate, the party has lately focused on recruiting and supporting viable contenders for legislative seats. “Our strategy of both challenging and working with Democrats … makes us somewhat unique,” says Abbott, who was re-elected VPP chair at a lively party conference in Montpelier in November 2011.

Small is beautiful

With a population of 626,000 people, Vermont has electoral constituencies small enough for people with progressive ideas to canvass door-to-door, meet nearly every voter and drum up enough campaign contributions to be competitive. House member Chris Pearson, who specializes in tax and budget issues for the VPP, represents one of the state’s larger multi-seat districts; he only had to raise $12,000 for his last election campaign.

Some VPP legislative candidates have, like Pollina, campaigned with the “D/P” label – a form of de facto cross endorsement achieved after running successfully in a Democratic primary. (Six of the seven Progs in the state legislature are D/Ps.) Where possible, other Progressives have also sought Sanders-like accommodations with Democrats in races where a strong general election showing by two left-of-center candidates would guarantee Republican victory. Several VPP legislators, including state Rep. Susan Hatch Davis, actually represent districts where their main competition comes from GOP nominees; local Democrats are, in effect, the “third party.”

The VPP’s politically savvy and flexible approach has helped it struggle against what Executive Director Morgan Daybell calls “the negative perception of third parties in general.” In contrast, local Greens and what’s left of the Liberty Union Party in Vermont – Bernie Sanders’ original political home in the 1970s – have not suffered the fate of most left-wing parties elsewhere (i.e. being presentable but marginal at best, ideologically pure, or just plain eccentric, with little to show, organizationally, for any single-digit share of the vote they garner).

The Progressive Caucus at work

On a recent visit to Montpelier I found Pollina making his presence felt under the gilded dome of the state capitol building. A longtime advocate for farmers, tax justice and campaign finance reform, Pollina joined Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P) in the state Senate two years ago. In the current legislative session, Pollina has been promoting the idea of a state bank, a bill requiring Vermont to “hire and buy local” (when contracting for state services) and a budget-related survey of poverty and income inequality.

Elsewhere in the same building, Rep. Pearson huddled with Reps. Mollie Burke and Sarah Edwards at the weekly meeting where VPP members of the House gather to share information and coordinate legislative strategy. Burke and Edwards are both from the Brattleboro area and are engaged with environmental and public health issues related to decommissioning the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in their corner of the state.

On this particular mid-March day, Vermont unions, strongly supported by the VPP, were working to overcome Democratic reluctance to grant collective bargaining rights to publicly-funded “early childhood educators” who provide home day care. Hoping to win further organizational endorsements, donations and support – from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the Vermont-NEA and Vermont State Employees Association (VSEA) unions, along with the AFL-CIO – the VPP has strongly supported the AFT’s child-care organizing campaign. Progressives have also defended VSEA members against public criticism by Gov. Shumlin during a dispute about state worker contract enforcement last year.

In White River Junction and other communities, Windsor County Party Chair Liz Blum and several elected local VPP officials are now working with the Vermont Workers Center and local Occupy activists to fight contraction of the U.S. Postal Service, which would eliminate several hundred union jobs and adversely affect mail delivery in the state.

As Blum explains, these “cuts would be devastating for elderly, rural and low-income Vermonters who depend on the reliability and affordability of the mail, and for whom the post office functions as a social link. It’s often the place where people interact with neighbors, petition for ballot measures and swap news, the kind of space that’s made small-town Vermont so famously democratic.” Such nonelectoral activity on behalf of a key labor and community cause barely registers on the radar screen of Vermont Democrats.

Vermont State Labor Council Secretary-Treasurer Traven Leyshon, who also serves on the VPP’s state coordinating committee, says, “Local labor leaders are now willing to support Progressive candidates over Democrats – when they’re credible – because of such pro-labor stances.” In some cases, he said, rank-and-filers have had to overrule the safer, more conservative candidate endorsements favored by their own union lobbyists and political directors.

This small insurgency from below, in Vermont’s public sector-oriented labor movement, mirrors the VPP’s own trajectory in state politics. In a fashion that one hopes will not be the exception, Progressives have moved from the margins to Montpelier, from also-ran status to an influential role in state and local government. If there were more Left partying like that in other states, at least one of the two major parties might feel greater pressure to behave better.

From Vermont to Belize

April 11, 2012; The Commons; Olga Peters

BRATTLEBORO—Rep. Sarah Edwards’ cell-phone signal crackles as she walks from the House floor through the Statehouse hallways.

The Brattleboro Progressive/Democrat talks about nuclear power, Belize, listening to voters, and her decision to not seek re-election to a sixth term in the Legislature.

After 10 years in Montpelier, Edwards will leave the Legislature to devote all her time to the Lighthouse Reef Conservation Institute (LRCI), her family’s foundation.

Edwards will manage the nonprofit side of the foundation, based on Long Caye, one of five islands in the Lighthouse Atoll off Belize’s coast. Long Caye came into Edwards’ family via her father (a rocket scientist and a sailor) in the late 1960s.

She aims to evolve LRCI into a world-class research and education consortium that works with universities.

The foundation advocates strict ecological guidelines for the entire Long Caye and reef to protect the area from environmental harm. Edwards says that she hopes in time to create “the Lighthouse model of resiliency and sustainability.”

The foundation, although independent, is under the umbrella of the Ocean Foundation, which helps with management aspects like taxes and grants.

Preserving an environment

Edwards, who began her legislative career in 2003, served two years on the House Committee on Government Operations and eight on the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, said scientists found two new species of fish near the reef last year.

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Lawmaker To Visit New Mexico Waste Site

 April 2, 2012; VPR

Brattleboro Progressive Rep. Sarah Edwards will travel today to a Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New Mexico.

Edwards is a member of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, and says she wants to learn all she can about radioactive waste because some if it is being stored at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon, which is near her district.

The trip is being organized by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Edwards says she's been told local officials in New Mexico have welcomed the waste site, where the material is buried deep underground in salt deposits.

Vermont Energy Independence Day

I was proud to be lead sponsor on House Resoultion 310 Deisgnating March 21 as Vermont Energy Independence Day. Following are the comments I offered on the floor:

Mr Speaker,

You have just heard a resolution honoring Vermont Energy Independence Day. Right here and now, through streaming, we are honoring well over 100 hard working Town Energy committees as well as many, many other citizens from around the state.

As we hear over and over again, the debate about global climate change is no longer about if; it is about how fast we can adapt. Today our honorees are letting us know what they are doing to reduce energy consumption, cut their carbon footprint and transition to renewables. They will be sharing their stories by using their video cameras and smart phones to describe everyday and extraordinary actions that are helping to move our state toward energy independence.

Vermont Energy Independence Day, Vermont’s first crowd-sourced documentary film, is a media project designed to capture the voice of Vermont as we transition to a sustainable energy future. The project is facilitated and produced by Bright Blue EcoMedia, the nonprofit media company that produced the Emmy-award winning “Bloom” film series. The effort is being supported by many groups who understand how important it is share stories and celebrate what we all are doing to transition to a new energy future, including the Vermont Natural Resources Council, Vermont Public Interest Research Group, Renewable Energy Vermont, Vermont Energy Education Partnership, 350 Vermont, Vermont Green and the Vermont Energy and Climate Action Network.

This recognition of grassroots efforts on energy aligns well with our ongoing work here in the Legislature. For years now, and even today, we have been passing legislation that helps us on our way to reducing our carbon foot print and to spur sound local economic development. It is a great day.  Our planet thanks you.  Mr. Speaker, please offer a warm welcome to all those participating in Energy Independence Day from all around the state of Vermont.

Renewable Portfolio Standard

This week the House Natural Resources and Energy committee voted out (10-1) a forward-looking energy bill (H.468) that will help Vermont reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, thereby reducing the state’s contribution to global climate change.

H.468 puts us further along the path of energy independence by increasing the number of standard offer projects from a 50MW total set in 2009 and adding 100MW over the next 10 years.  This encourages small-scale renewable electricity projects (up to 2.2MW) by providing long-term stable pricing.  Developers are able to get the predictability they need to get financing for their projects.

We also set a goal that Vermont reach 75% renewables by 2032.  A renewable portfolio standard (RPS) will require that 35% of renewables that have come on line since 2004 retain their renewable attributes.  Up until now, utilities could sell the attributes, known as renewable energy credits (REC), to out of state utilities with an RPS.  Now that Vermont has instituted an RPS, our utilities will be required to retain the REC’s for 35% of the renewable electric portfolio.

The bill now heads over to the Senate.

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