As in all elections, there were many winners and losers on Tuesday – but one of the biggest winners in Vermont was the environment.
For the past two years, the Vermont Legislature has not prioritized strong action on the state’s greatest environmental challenges. And, even when they did take modest action – for example passing legislation to fix the state’s broken program intended to keep toxic chemicals out of children’s products – that progress was blocked by Governor Scott’s veto pen.
And on other important issues, such as funding the state’s legal obligation to clean up Lake Champlain and other polluted waters, the mere threat of a gubernatorial veto made making progress an insurmountable challenge.
Hopefully that dynamic will change with Tuesday’s election of numerous first time candidates who ran on a pro-environment platform, as well as the return of longtime champions for clean water, climate action and public health. That outcome stands in contrast to a common misperception about the results of the 2016 legislative election.
That year, outside groups spent tens of thousands of dollars on misleading ads attacking several incumbents for not categorically rejecting putting a price on carbon pollution in any form, regardless of whether it would benefit the state’s economy and protect vulnerable and low income Vermonters. A narrative emerged that support for any such policy was a political liability, despite the fact that the overall balance of power in both the Vermont House and Senate actually improved slightly coming out of that election.
This year, a number of candidates once again raised the specter of a carbon pollution tax and “over-regulation” as a cudgel to attack their opponents. And, if this strategy was largely ineffective in 2016, it was downright counterproductive this year.
In races across the state – Vergennes, Manchester, Waitsfield, St. Johnsbury, Royalton – voters seemed more concerned about inaction on climate change, cleaning up the state’s polluted waters, protecting the health of our forests, holding corporations accountable for pollution, and keeping toxic chemicals out of children’s products, and voted accordingly.
The Vermont Conservation Voters, an organization that works to help elect candidates who support bold environmental policies (of which I am affiliated), actively supported 33 candidates in hotly contested races for house and senate seats through voter outreach and education, direct mail and social media, newspaper advertising, and voter engagement.
Of those candidates, an impressive 28 won their races, and in the process defeated six incumbents with less than stellar, in some cases horrible, voting records on environmental issues. In some districts where anti-environment candidates retired, they were replaced by candidates running on a platform of clean water and progress on climate change.
I have long felt that Vermonters are eager to address the environmental challenges facing our state and world, and expect our elected leaders to lead on those issues. Based on the outcome of this election, my sense is validated by the sheer number of voters showing overwhelming support for environmental candidates. I’m hopeful that the Legislature is prepared to take strong action on policies to support a healthy environment when they convene for a new biennium in January.
Brian Shupe is Vermont Natural Resources Council executive director and a Montpelier resident.