When Channel 17 and VTDigger hosted a forum last week for the Democratic candidates for governor, a new-but-familiar face appeared among the four registered candidates.
Sitting at the table, but noticeably missing from prior gubernatorial forums, was state Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, a write-in candidate that stood out from the pack, both in appearance and his stance on issues.
The mustached masonry business owner from Glover — also a state lawmaker who has served six years in the Senate and eight in the House — joined the race late. A group of disgruntled sportsmen, hunters and other gun owners drafted Rodgers to run after concluding there was no viable candidate in the race who would stand for traditional Vermont freedom and the Constitution.
With the Aug. 14 open primary now only days away, many Democrats, Republicans and independents across Vermont are considering writing in Rodgers on the Democratic ballot — the only party ballot that can put him head-to-head against Republican Gov. Phil Scott in the fall.
Yet some are still asking the question: “Who is John Rodgers?”
In his own words, as excerpted from a transcript of the forum, Rodgers is a five-generation Vermonter, a staunch opponent of gun control, a defender of the Constitution, a naysayer on Act 46, a rugged son of a dairy farmer, a disbeliever in Vermont single-payer, a construction-business owner and a freedom-lover. Some consider him a rare Blue Dog Democrat.
His answers from the forum, published below in transcript form, provide insight into the his positions on a range of important issues.
(11:05 – Introduction) I didn’t really get a chance to introduce myself. So, just a little bit for the audience who doesn’t know me, I grew up on a dairy farm in Glover, Vermont, and my family’s been there for five generations. So, we have deep roots, and a lot of the families around us have been there for as many generations. It’s a real tight community, and that’s what I wish that the entire state could be — as tight a community as we have in Glover.
I’ve run a small construction business since I was in my 20s and I served in the House for eight years and in the Senate for six years. So, I do have legislative leadership, and I have a record of working across party lines, and with all people for the benefit of Vermonters. And I think that’s what I bring to the table, and that’s what people recognize, that I have that record. I’ve built it over time.
When I went to Montpelier, I promised that I would work for the folks who voted for me. I don’t work for a political party. Very few people in that Statehouse actually even have the opportunity to vote for me. And so I’ve always focused on working for the people who vote for me and send me to Montpelier.
(12:20 – On the election) I’ve worked with both James [Ehlers] and Christine [Hallquist] in the Statehouse and have had the chance to hear both Ethan [Sonneborn] and Brenda [Siegel], and I think they’ve all got some great ideas. But I think because of my background, I think I do have a better chance in the November [election]. The problem is, because of this unconventional write-in campaign, I probably have less of a chance in the primary because my name isn’t actually on the ticket. I do realize that it’s an uphill battle to get people to write your name in, but there’s a huge grassroots effort and my name is getting out there, and we’ll see what they come up with. If I do happen to be the nominee, then I’ll ramp things up and take on Phil Scott head on.
(17:10 – On what sets him apart) I think what sets me apart is my life experience. I grew up on a dairy farm where we raised all our own food — beef, pork, chickens, we had laying hens. We had a huge garden. We froze and canned vegetables, [we were] largely self-sufficient. We worked in the woods managing a few hundred acres of forest land, selective cutting to allow the generations of trees to continue to come and be productive.
In my construction business I’ve done everything from building houses and barns and bridges, [to] septic systems, water systems, drainage systems. I’ve stabilized shoreland along lakes and streams and roads and road ditches. I’ve got a broad experience. I think I understand Vermonters because a lot of Vermonters are out there every day doing that same sort of work — getting up early, working hard and coming home. And all they want is to be able to have a decent house and a decent car, be able to pay their taxes, and provide for their family. And it would be really nice if every Vermonter had a chance to take a vacation every year, because a lot of Vermonters never get a chance to get a vacation.
And there’s a lot of really bright kids out there that never get a chance to go to college because they come from poor families. And that’s one of the things I think we really need to improve — is how do we get our kids from cradle to gainfully employed, and hopefully, a lot of them staying here in the state being the next great entrepreneurs and business leaders.
(23:40 – On attracting new Vermonters to the state) I’m gonna disagree a little with the need for more people. I think one of the biggest threats facing the earth is too many people on the planet today. It’s driving climate change, it’s driving the pollution of our air, water and soil. These are essentials for life. If we don’t have clean air, water and soil, then there’s gonna be no life left here.
My idea is to try to grow from within. I don’t think we’re going to encourage a lot of big businesses to come here [because] we have high energy costs, we have high tax costs, Act 250 is hard for businesses to get through. My idea is to focus more on our institutions of higher learning, especially our state colleges, and work with them to figure out how to connect kids to state colleges and then build maker-spaces and incubator spaces around those state colleges. When kids come out of those colleges they have a lot of great ideas, even after they’ve gone away and worked for a business a few years. They have the great ideas that are gonna be the next big inventions and the next big manufacturing. We can grow it right here.
The other thing we need to do is focus on the trades. The average tradesperson is about 56 years old now, and you can make a good living in the trades. We need to start using our tech centers and creating apprenticeship programs to get more people into the trades. Otherwise, Vermonters are not going to be able to find somebody to fix their toilet or build their house or fix the lights in their house. We really need to focus on that.
(38:50 – On health care) I don’t believe that Vermont can do it on its own. If you look at the numbers nationally, and as Christine alluded to, we are the only industrialized nation that doesn’t take care of our people and it’s absolutely absurd. But we already taking care of about 60 percent of the population with taxpayer-funded health care. If you look at your veterans, your Medicare, your Medicaid, police, federal employees, state employees, the list goes on and on — those folks already have health care paid for by tax dollars. So really, we are only looking at about 40 percent of the population that we’ve got to come up with the extra money for. And I understand that with the current administration it’s not gonna happen with the way our federal government is right now, it’s not gonna happen. But I don’t think Vermont can go it alone.
If there was a big enough pool of states that could collaborate, there’s a chance that we could pull it off. I think [Gov.] Pete Shumlin was really invested in it, and if it could have worked, I think he would have got it to work. I think everybody realized when the numbers were crunched that Vermont is too small to go it alone.
(45:00 – On education spending) I didn’t support Act 46, and I actually put a proposal on the table to take its place. My proposal was basically starting with the statewide average, which at that time was $14,000, and change per people average. And if you wanted to spend more than that in your community then you would have to come up with that extra money on your local school tax and pay a 25 percent penalty back to the ed fund. If you spent less than that, you would get to reduce your school property tax. What that is, is a carrot and a stick. The problem we have in this state is we have some very high spending towns. We’ve got towns that are spending over $20,000 a kid, and that is just too much to spend on a K-12 education.
We’ve also got a lot of small schools that are doing an excellent job and giving the kids a good education for a very reasonable amount, a bunch of them for less than the statewide average. In my hometown of Glover, we’ve had a tremendous influx of young families because of that. Because the school system is very good, it operates less than or right at the statewide average.
But the other thing we’ve got to recognize — and I fault Governor Scott for his treatment of the education establishment — it used to be you were just teaching kids math and science and English. Now with the opiate epidemic and various drug problems, a ton of kids have been born with drug addiction issues and broken families. Those teachers in schools are asked to become much more than just teachers. They are social workers, health care workers, parents and everything else for those kids.
(49:50 – On gun regulations) I actually supported two of the safety bills, S.221 and H.422 which I think will make a difference. I did not support S.55. That is a bill that does take away Vermonters’ constitutional rights, and no good has ever come from taking rights from good people. The Constitution is a fabric, and if you start tearing at one piece of it, the rest of it is gonna fall apart as well. If we truly want safety, the folks who voted in favor of S.55 didn’t give up any rights. It’s easy to vote somebody else’s rights away.
If we truly want safety, then let’s look at the First Amendment and maybe we should give the government and law enforcement access to everybody’s phones and computers and license plate readers and facial recognition. That would make everyone safer, but I don’t think we’re willing to give up our First Amendment rights for that.
I’m a strong Second Amendment proponent and I think all we did is turn law-abiding citizens into criminals. And in my history, in the Statehouse, starting in the House, I have worked to reduce prison overcrowding and keep people who are not violent and dangerous to society out of prison. We’ve just created a new offense that has jail time connected to it.
(56:00 – On emergency services) Emergency services are a problem all over the state, especially in the rural areas. They count on volunteers and these folks have to put a huge number of hours into training as well as being on-call overnight and on weekends, and at all times. My wife was actually EMT on an ambulance for years and she’s a registered nurse and even being a registered nurse working in the hospital every day, she does not serve on the ambulance any longer because she couldn’t keep up with the continuing education credits she needed to serve there.
So we really have to look at that structure and we want people to be well educated and well qualified, but I think we overburden them with asking too much of them for time in. These are professionals that have extensive experience and knowledge and we’ve got to make it easier for people to be volunteers.
Unfortunately, I think we’re gonna have to figure out how the state starts helping some of those folks financially because they just can’t provide the services. And they are not only providing the services for their community, when people are passing through, when there’s tourists in the area, if somebody gets hurt, they are providing that service.
We have Jay Peak and Burke Mountain in our area, and when people are skiing or biking or any kind of adventuring and they get hurt, those local emergency services are what take care of those people can get them to the hospital. So, hugely important.
(1:02:10 – On drug policy) The United States has a 40- or 50-year history of a failed drug policy. I think one of the things that Vermont should do is look at the Portugal model. What Portugal did was decriminalize all drugs and set up clinics to start helping drug addicts. So if you had a drug addiction problem you could go and you could get drugs and clean needles and have health care folks helping you. You had available treatment options. They reduced their addiction over 50 percent by instituting that model, and I think after 40 years of failure, we’ve got to do something bold. We have a serious issue that is affecting families across the socioeconomic spectrum. I think it’s time to change course.
I know for a lot of people it kind of freaks them out to hear that and to hear about the safe injection sites. But both the Portugal model and the safe injection sites have shown great results in getting people into treatment sooner and providing better outcomes.
(1:12:45 – On a regulated marijuana market) I absolutely support a tax-and-regulate system, but it needs to be done on a Vermont scale. What I don’t want to see is large companies coming from Colorado and California and trying to corner the market. It needs to be very limited in size, to like 500 square-feet so that Vermonters can get a permit to grow, and hopefully it benefits Vermonters and Vermont farmers. We don’t need big corporations coming in here and taking it over.
(1:14:40 – Closing remarks) I would like to thank Digger and Channel 17 for inviting me and holding this. It’s been a great evening. You know, I am the one with the legislative experience and I’ve always been a collaborator, not basing my decisions on party, but listening to the facts with an open mind and trying to make good decisions for Vermonters. And I think that’s what really sets me apart from the others.
Just to touch back on the gun issue, I really think S.55 went too far. I don’t think it made Vermonters any safer. We lost a close friend this year to domestic violence in Orleans, to her husband. Another young lady from the Northeast Kingdom was killed in Barre by her boyfriend. I didn’t know her, but my kids did, and she comes from a wonderful family. [Also] a young lady was killed here in Burlington by her boyfriend. All killed by the person who supposedly loved them. S.55 did nothing to help those women.
We’ve got to address suicide, we’ve got to address domestic violence, we’ve got to stop focusing on the tool. None of those deaths were caused by a so-called large capacity magazine, none of those deaths were caused by a so-called assault rifle. So we need to stop focusing on the tool and start focusing on how we make Vermonters safe without taking law-abiding citizen’s Constitutional rights away from them.