House hopefuls detail positions10/23/08

Duffy seeks first-ever elected office

Oct. 23, 2008

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Brennan Duffy has seen firsthand the challenges facing Vermont’s economy. Now he hopes to use that experience in the state Legislature.

Duffy, who is director of recruitment for the Vermont Department of Economic Development, is one of four candidates seeking the two seats representing Williston in the Vermont House. The other candidates are Republican Shelley Palmer and Democrats Terry Macaig and Jim McCullough.

It is Duffy’s first run for elected office. He said he was motivated by the problems he sees in his job of attracting employers to Vermont.

A self-described moderate Republican, Duffy’s views echo those of Gov. Jim Douglas. He wants to create a more welcoming business climate, supports stricter penalties for sex offenders and believes the state government should consider cuts to deal with the economic downturn and budget shortfalls.

“In these tough economic times that we are facing right now, I think we really do need to tighten our belts across the board and prioritize projects and programs that are of key importance,” he said.

But Duffy then softened that stance, adding the cuts should be carefully targeted so programs that serve the state’s most vulnerable residents or those that produce revenue are spared.

Duffy, 36, was born in Bethesda, Md. but moved to Vermont when he was just 1. He grew up in Hinesburg and attended Champlain Valley Union High School.

He majored in political science at the University of Vermont and later received a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Rhode Island.

Duffy lived in California for several years, working as an insurance salesman and in other jobs. After moving back to Vermont, he and his father, Leonard, founded a company called Over the Edge Products LLC. The company’s flagship product is a cookbook holder that hooks over the edge of kitchen cabinets.

Duffy and his wife, Brooke, have a 2-year-old daughter. They have lived in Williston since 2002.

Given his background, Duffy not surprisingly sees economic development as the key issue facing Vermont. He said the first thing the Legislature should do next session is address the economy.

“I really think growing Vermont’s economy right now is the most important to the state, both short and long term,” he said. “Trying to create better jobs in the state, trying to keep our employers here in the state and trying to make Vermont more business friendly so that we can attract new companies and so we can help our companies grow.”

On the much-debated topic of penalties for sex offenders, Duffy supports the mandatory minimum sentences proposed by Douglas and other Republicans.

“I don’t know if 25 years is the magic number or not,” he said. “But I certainly support a very stiff mandatory sentence. Especially if there was a repeat offender situation.”

On problems with the aging Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, Duffy said the facility should continue to operate as long as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission deems it safe. If so, he said the plant should not be decommissioned in 2012.

“Our employers like IBM rely on that energy, so we need to do everything we can to keep a source of clean, reliable energy in the state,” he said.

Duffy thinks limits on school spending are needed, although he is unsure on specifics.

“I think we really need to take a hard look at the education system as a whole in the state of Vermont,” he said. “With enrollment declining, there has to at least be a hard look at containing costs.”

Duffy said one way to reduce education expenses is to consolidate school districts, but acknowledged that proposal may be unpopular. He also suggested teacher contracts are too generous given the sagging economy.

“I have utmost respect for teachers, but I think at some point they have to be, like the rest of us as private citizens, dependent on the economic climate we are in,” he said.

Duffy said he is a “fan of limited government” and so wishes the state would return some control over budgets to local school boards. But on the other hand he likes the new, state-mandated two-vote rule that requires separate votes for school budgets that increase more than a preset amount.

On transportation, Duffy wants the state to spend wisely and fix the roads and bridges in poorest shape.

“I would first prioritize the infrastructure needs we have,” he said. “What are the most pressing? If we have bridges that are falling into rivers that would probably be important.”

Duffy is unsure if issuing long-term bonds is the solution to the overwhelming number of overdue road and bridge repairs.

“I do think by perhaps being a little more frugal there is a way to get by with the money we have now,” he said, adding that spending a little on ongoing maintenance now could produce big savings in the future.

Duffy said his education and employment background give him insight into economic issues often lacking in what he calls an “out of touch” Legislature.

“I am positive we can do better here in Vermont,” he said. “I’m going to be the voice for the Williston worker. I understand the issue of economic development and I want to continue to grow the state’s economy.”


House hopefuls detail positions10/23/08

McCullough seeks fourth term

Oct. 23, 2008

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Jim McCullough was hardly a traditional conservative before switching to the Democratic Party in 2002. So it is perhaps unsurprising that he generally sides with his adopted party.

A three-term incumbent in the Vermont House, McCullough voted with the Democratic majority on most legislation during the past session, a review of his record shows. Though McCullough bridles at the liberal label — he asserts he has represented all voters regardless of their party affiliation — it seems to fit most of his positions.

McCullough is one of four candidates seeking Williston’s two House seats in this election. The others are Selectboard Chairman Terry Macaig, also a Democrat, and Republicans Shelley Palmer and Brennan Duffy.

As a small businessman and an ardent environmentalist, McCullough said he can navigate the frequently conflicting demands of those worried about the state’s threadbare economy and those who want to protect Vermont’s pristine environment.

“I’m a voice for business, landowners and the environment,” he said. “Vermont is inextricably mixed with those three major ingredients that we need to protect and grow. So I think that’s what I bring to the table, an ability to do all of those things.”

McCullough, 63, has perhaps the most recognizable name and face in Williston. A towering man with an Abe Lincoln beard and folksy manner, McCullough is widely known through his business, Catamount Outdoor Family Center, and from his involvement in numerous civic activities. He and his wife, Lucy, have three grown children, including Abbie Bowker, an art teacher at Champlain Valley Union High School.

McCullough was a lifelong Republican until he switched parties six years ago when he ran for his first term in the Legislature. He said at the time that he was disgusted by the party’s rightward drift under President Bush.

But even before that, McCullough said his family knew he hardly fit the Republican mold.

“Well, my children laughed when I said I was switching parties to be a Democrat. They said, ‘Dad you voted in a Democratic fashion, you walked the Democratic walk for years.’”

But McCullough insisted that “Democrat does not equal liberal.” He said he fits well with a Democratic majority in the Statehouse that is actually relatively conservative. He acknowledged, however, that taking a position also means taking sides.

“If you take anything on a single-issue basis, there is a line in the sand,” he said.

But he asserted that what is good for the environment is also good for business, so a vote for the environment is not an anti-business vote.

In the last biennium, McCullough supported a resolution urging the end of the Iraq war, a bill regulating groundwater use and a measure requiring the owner of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant to set aside enough money for decommissioning.

He opposed a law requiring two votes for local school budgets that exceed statewide averages for per-pupil and total spending. McCullough also was against a bill that would have lowered compensation for workers injured on the job.

His record has earned perfect 100 percent ratings by the Vermont League of Conservation Voters, the Vermont State Labor Council, AFL-CIO and the Vermont National Education Association over the past few years.

But Republicans have made an issue of his rating by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, which said McCullough voted for business interests only 14 percent of the time in the past session. Many Democrats earned similarly low ratings.

McCullough disputed the score, claiming that six out of 11 votes he was rated on involved amended legislation that was widely opposed by both Democrats and Republicans.

He spoke passionately about his opposition to the Bush administration and the state and national Republican leadership’s effect on the country and the state of Vermont. He repeatedly linked the policies of President George Bush and Gov. Jim Douglas.

McCullough said the war resolution, criticized by some as a waste of time, was worthwhile — “If we didn’t vote, silence is complicity.”

On issues the Legislature is likely to face next year, McCullough is against mandatory minimum penalties for sex offenders and a state cap on education spending. He supports the decommissioning of Vermont Yankee.

Other states have found the 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for sex offenders referred to as Jessica’s Law to be unworkable, McCullough said. Such punishments reduce the chances of striking a plea bargain, he said, and thus force victims to recount the “horrible, gory details of all the horrible, hateful things that have happened to them” during a trial.

Instead, McCullough said he wants to increase funding for special units that investigate sex crimes. He complained that funding to do so was vetoed by Douglas.

As for the state’s crumbling roads and bridges, McCullough favors borrowing money through bonding to fund repairs. He also thinks the state should alter the way it funds transportation needs through the fuel tax. Revenue from the tax has dropped as gas prices increased. So McCullough wants to base the levy on a percentage of sales rather than a set amount per gallon.

McCullough supports decommissioning Vermont Yankee by 2012, even if it means a big increase in energy costs. He said a shift to renewable energy is key to the state’s economic future.

“Vermont is very well positioned right now to explode its renewable energy businesses,” he said. “If we rely on nuclear energy to be our major player … we will fail to grow our renewable energy at the same rate.”

The cost of education in Vermont has continued to rise despite falling enrollment. Some blame teachers, who have negotiated annual pay raises larger than the rate of inflation.

But McCullough said teachers deserve decent pay. He said concern about rising education expenses stems in part from the increasing cost of health care — and envy.

“Right now a lot of the anti-teacher angst is health care driven,” he said. “They’ve got health care, I don’t. I’ve got health care and I pay through the teeth for it and it isn’t nearly as good as theirs.”

He said the solution is to provide health care coverage for all Vermonters.

McCullough argues that unfunded federal mandates like No Child Left Behind and higher fixed costs like heat and maintenance have much to do with rising education expenses.

“The declining (student) population and the escalating requirements are at cross purposes,” he said. “While it’s OK to say, ‘Well, my God there’s less kids there right now but there aren’t less teachers,’ that doesn’t get it done because the requirements are going up.”


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