The next gubernatorial election is still more than a year away, and it's been more than 50 years since an incumbent governor lost a reelection bid in Vermont. But the leading Democratic challenger to Gov. Phil Scott says he thinks the Republican incumbent is vulnerable.
There's a good chance you've never heard of James Ehlers — he's never run for political office before, let alone held one. But he could well be the Democratic Party's next gubernatorial nominee, and he's just begun the long process of introducing voters to his platform.
"I would like to start with a baseline, a fundamental philosophy that says, 'We're going to take care of people in this state. We're going to make sure that people have access to health care. We're going to make sure that people get fair wages,'" Ehlers says.
"Taking care of people" is a stock sentiment in every candidate's stump speech, but it's how Ehlers wants to go about doing it that could make next year's gubernatorial race so fascinating.
Ehlers supports a $15 minimum wage. He says he'll champion a Medicare-for-all, universal health care program, though perhaps only at the regional or national level.
Ehlers even says he's ready to entertain the prospect of a guaranteed basic income, where every resident gets a lump sum annually to cover necessities like food and housing.
"I know I'm going to be ridiculed and criticized: 'Vermont is a small state, we should let others lead,'" Ehlers says.
And unlike Scott, who has promised to veto any and all tax increases, raising new public revenues will be part and parcel of Ehlers' political identity.
"I need to be out front offering a vision that Vermont is worth the investment, and I'm going to ask Phil [Scott] and his friends who are fortunate — they're millionaires — to do more," Ehlers says.
Ehlers says increasing taxes on the state's highest income earners will deliver the revenues needed to solve pressing public policy issues, like paying for the infrastructure needed to reduce water pollution, which is at the top of his gubernatorial to-do list.
Ehlers is a longtime clean water advocate and executive director of Lake Champlain International. In addition to taxing the wealthy, Ehlers says he’s prepared to raise taxes on corporations — like large-scale farms and Unilever, which owns Ben & Jerry’s — to fund water quality initiatives.
"I don't think it's unreasonable to bring those people to account to pay their fair share," Ehlers says.
Jeff Bartley, executive director of the Vermont Republican Party, says many of Ehlers' ideas are "out of touch" with the Vermont electorate.
"And he's out there talking about taxing farmers and taxing Unilever and Ben & Jerry's — everyday products really — in order to push his social programs," Bartley says.
If Ehlers is indeed the Democrats' nominee, then Bartley says others will suffer at the ballot box.
"I think it's going to, for the Democratic Party, it's really going to hurt them in how they define their message for 2018, because it just doesn’t resonate," Bartley says.
Ehlers, a 48-year-old father of four young kids, says he's anticipating plenty more hits from the right. But he says by the time the next Election Day rolls around, voters will have grown tired of "that whole ideology of Republican thinking that says if people just work a little bit harder, then they'll succeed, and everyone who isn't succeeding, it's because they're lazy.”
Ehlers says Vermont needs government intervention, in the form of a higher minimum wage, for instance, or universal primary health care, to break down the institutional barriers that are keeping low-income residents from prospering.
"I don't think it's radical to want to take care of single moms and their kids," Ehlers says. "I don't think it's radical to want to make sure that our seniors have access to health care."