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Barack to the Future 

Vermonters pin their hopes on Obama. But will he deliver?

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When President-elect Barack Obama loses the qualifier from his title at next week’s inauguration, a fitting sound effect would be the starter’s bell for a horse race. Never before in modern history has an American president needed to spring from the gate so swiftly, considering how much is riding on his success.

From day one, millions of Americans will be waiting impatiently for Obama to fix the economy, end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, curb global warming, provide universal health-care coverage, and restore America’s tattered reputation abroad. While he’s at it, Obama might as well promise to rid the world of cancer, stinky diapers and men who leave the toilet seat up, since no matter how much he accomplishes in the first 100 days, someone is bound to be disappointed.

Vermonters’ expectations are understandably high, despite being tempered by the awareness that eight years of Bush can’t be undone overnight. This week, Seven Days asked a cross-section of Vermonters to provide their “wish lists” for the new administration on issues that were often ignored in the last eight years, including poverty, immigration, civil liberties, workers’ rights, the environment and religious tolerance. We asked them what they thought of Obama’s chances of attaining those goals, given the decisions he’s made thus far.

If there’s a common thread to Vermonters’ hopes for 2009, it appears to be a shared desire for more progressive values, a shift away from the politics of divisiveness, and a return to the primacy of science and the rule of law. But in light of some recent cabinet picks from the Clinton ranks, there’s also a sense that only time will tell whether Obama can rise above the Washington morass that bogs down even the most well-intentioned public servants.

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Allen Gilbert, executive director, American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont

The Vermont ACLU didn’t wait for the Obama transition team to settle in before outlining its agenda. The organization is participating in a nationwide “Day One” initiative that’s asking state legislatures to pass resolutions calling on Obama to immediately close the prison at Guantanamo, stop torture, and end the practice of extraordinary rendition.

The Vermont ACLU’s top priorities include terminating warrantless spying on American citizens, reviewing federal watch lists to remove names of people for whom there’s no credible evidence of terrorist links, returning to openness on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and ending the monitoring of political activists, particularly those based in Vermont.

Gilbert says he’s also hoping for renewed enforcement of civil rights by the U.S. Department of Justice, particularly those involving voting, employment and prisons. On the issue of Real IDs, Gilbert urges Obama to “get it right or not at all” by directing the new Secretary of Homeland Security to suspend the regulations until Congress has time to review the entire program.

On the national and global fronts, Gilbert supports a moratorium on the federal death penalty, a lifting of the Bush administration’s prohibition of foreign aid to overseas organizations that promote or perform abortions, and a ban on federal discrimination based on sexual and gender orientation.

Typically, the ACLU doesn’t make political endorsements or comment on political appointments — “We aim for the sin, not the sinner,” Gilbert jokes. Still, he sees Obama’s picks thus far as being so unlike those of the last eight years that he admits to a positive initial reaction.

“Following the November elections, we have high hopes,” Gilbert adds. “But hopes must become real if we are to again live in a country where power is not abused and the liberties of everyone are respected and protected.”

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Judith Stermer, director of communications and public affairs, Vermont Foodbank

Nowhere does the current recession more closely resemble the Great Depression than in Vermont’s food lines. In the last eight months, the Vermont Foodbank and its network of 270 food shelves, meal sites, senior centers and afterschool programs have seen a 20- to 90-percent rise in requests for emergency food assistance.

Not surprisingly, the Vermont Foodbank’s wish list for Obama’s first year focuses heavily on increased funding for nutrition programs that serve women, children, the elderly and low-income families — something that, Stermer points out, has already been promised by the Obama team.

“Since the beginning of his campaign, President-elect Barack Obama has talked about addressing the issue of hunger in the context of poverty,” she says. “In the long term, this means looking at the root causes of hunger and finding sustainable solutions to the problem that affects one in eight Americans.”

During the holidays, Michelle Obama urged Americans to support their local food shelves, offering a possible hint of the First Lady’s long-term priorities. There’s even talk of renaming the Secretary of Agriculture the “Secretary of Food,” since millions more Americans eat food than grow it.

Currently, the Foodbank runs a federal program called Commodity Supplemental Food Program, a once-a-month delivery to seniors, mothers and their children. Several months ago, the Foodbank asked for a 25-percent increase in its funding because it had already surpassed its 3625 caseload limit — it’s now serving nearly 4000 clients through this program. Last week the Foodbank got word that, instead of the 25-percent increase, it will receive more caseloads — yet another area where funding falls “grossly short” of the need.

“Food is a right,” Stermer says. “I am hopeful that the Obama administration will help the Vermont Foodbank and food banks around the country ensure that no one has to choose between food and the other necessities of life.”

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Elizabeth Meyer, executive director of Child Care Resource, a Williston nonprofit that serves Chittenden County childcare needs

Though childcare is rarely touted as a way to jumpstart a stalled economy, there’s no question it affects the lives, and livelihood, of thousands of Vermont workers. One in every three of them needs it. And for many families, childcare is the highest monthly expense — more than rent or mortgage, food, utilities or transportation. One can also make a strong argument that an investment in childcare is an investment in Vermont’s future workforce: Growing evidence indicates that good childcare and early- education programs have demonstrable effects on a child’s performance in school, educational success, and earning potential later in life.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that former community organizer Obama proposed infusing $10 billion into early childhood programs, nearly double the federal government’s current level of support.

From Meyer’s perspective, the federal Child Care Subsidy Program, which provides childcare-tuition aid to low-income families, should be the new administration’s top priority. All too often, she says, CCR can’t help families much, if at all, because of the current eligibility guidelines. A Vermont family “must be poorer than poor” to qualify for the maximum amount of childcare-tuition assistance.

Funding for this program comes through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Former Sen. Tom Daschle, who’s been tapped to head HHS, has a strong grasp on health-care reform, according to Meyer, though his focus on early childhood is “not as clear.”

At the same time, Arne Duncan, who’s been selected to become Obama’s education secretary, has a long history of developing innovative programs that support children’s development through pre-K education.

In Meyer’s opinion, the key factor is how well HHS works with the Department of Education to achieve Obama’s goals. The two federal agencies must reinvent “how we all work together,” she says, to develop “our most important natural resource: our children.”

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John Zicconi, communications director, Vermont Agency of Transportation

Economists at all levels are urging the new administration to invest in “shovel-ready” projects. Since transportation is one of the few areas where government thinks years, if not decades, in advance, money for new roads, bridges, transit stations and other improvements may be the quickest way to get the economy on a road to recovery.

Every six years the feds adopt a transportation reauthorization bill, which provides all states with federal money to repair roads and bridges, run public transit, make highway-safety improvements, and fund other transportation-related programs. The current bill expires in October, so a new six-year bill is due before year’s end.

Vermont Agency of Transportation Communications Director John Zicconi says he’ll be looking for a “massive investment” in the nation’s transportation infrastructure, comparable to that of the 1960s when most of the Eisenhower Interstate System was built.

“The issues that plague Vermont’s crumbling roads and bridges are the same issues faced by every state in the nation,” Zicconi writes in an email. “None of us has enough state revenue to keep up with the necessary rehabilitation and replacement of our aging bridges, or the needed resources to apply preventative maintenance to our roads, bridges and culverts.”

According to Zicconi, a “fair estimate” of Vermont’s annual transportation shortfall is in the range of $100 million to $150 million annually. How does that translate into jobs? Depending on whom you ask, between 34 and 45 new jobs are created for every $1 million spent on transportation infrastructure.

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Jes Kraus, director of the Vermont State Employees Association (VSEA)

Like most folks in the labor movement, Jes Kraus is excited to see the first president in years who holds a positive view of organized labor. And, with the state facing one of the worst budget crises in decades, he’s hoping that any federal relief to the states comes ASAP.

“Like most working Americans, Vermont’s public employees are looking to President Obama to help right our nation’s deeply troubled economy,” he says. “It’s no secret that Vermont, like many other states, is in desperate need of federal assistance to help stop the fiscal bleeding.”

That said, VSEA’s wish list isn’t all about the money. Kraus is hoping the Obama administration will beef up the nation’s occupational safety and health laws to “reverse” the damage that’s been done to them over the past eight years.

Equally important, VSEA is hoping Obama can “restore some integrity” to the National Labor Relations Board, which organized labor has viewed as more foe than friend since 2000. Obama, like Vermont’s congressional delegation, has also expressed strong support for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it much easier for unions to organize.

“The fact is, it’s become harder and harder for workers to organize under the current law because, more often than not, management has the upper hand,” Kraus explains. “Elections can be endlessly delayed, workers are intimidated and threatened in the long periods leading up to elections, or workers just simply grow disenchanted with the process and give up.”

How has Obama done so far? Notably, Kraus is thrilled with his recent pick of Hilda Solis as the new labor secretary.

“VSEA believes Ms. Solis is the right person at the right time to try and reverse some of the damage that was done” during the Bush years, he adds. “She comes from a union household and understands the importance of collective bargaining and the need to protect and enhance workers’ economic and social justice.”

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Armando Vilaseca, commissioner, Vermont Department of Education

Vilaseca cannot yet speak as head of the Vermont Department of Education — his first official work day is January 20. But, as someone who’s worked in education for many years, the top item on his Obama “wish list” is increased funding for special-education programs through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

When Congress first enacted IDEA (under a different name) in 1975, fewer than one in five disabled children got a decent education. At the time, it was assumed the federal government would fund about half its mandates. But in the ensuing years, educational costs have risen dramatically, and the spectrum of people considered “disabled” has grown exponentially.

Currently, Vermont gets less than 20 percent of its special-ed funding from the feds, Vilaseca says; the rest comes from state and local sources. “That puts a tremendous burden on the schools . . . It’s a big, big unfunded mandate.” Realistically, however, Vilaseca isn’t optimistic that Obama will turn on the money spigot quickly.

Ditto the No Child Left Behind Act, where Vilaseca thinks “the spirit of the law is good,” and he doesn’t expect Obama to make any major changes. Look for his ed folks to tweak things, but not institute a wholesale overhaul.

As for Obama’s pick for education secretary of Arne Duncan, the Chicago public schools chief and president-elect’s longtime hoops buddy, Vilaseca seems more optimistic. Duncan has a reputation as a reformer and — dare we use the word? — maverick who isn’t shy about challenging the teachers’ unions or punishing underperforming schools.

“He’s someone who’s willing to look at things from another perspective,” the new commish adds. “What I hear is all good stuff about the guy, and I look forward to working with him.”

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Jessica Edgerly, community organizer, Toxics Action Center

It’s hard to overstate the damage the Bush administration has wrought on environmental protection efforts in the last eight years; at times, it seemed to be straining to devise Orwellian names for its work, such as the “Clear Skies” and “Healthy Forests” initiatives.

But in the next year, Jessica Edgerly is looking forward to a new administration that’s more proactive and “precautionary” on toxics policy. Given the state of the economy, she expects the policies most likely to “gain traction” will be ones that lighten the budget demands on state governments, create jobs, or both.

Additionally, Edgerly thinks we’ll see important progress on state toxics reforms that have the potential to be adopted nationally. They include reinstating the so-called “polluter pays” policy in the Superfund program. Currently, state governments and the EPA rely heavily on taxpayer dollars to clean up toxic-waste sites that burden their communities, including nearly 1500 in Vermont.

Edgerly is hoping Obama will shift the onus for waste-disposal costs from municipalities to manufacturers, creating an incentive to design more durable and less toxic products. As she points out, Vermont’s solid-waste districts collectively spend more than $1 million annually to get rid of hazardous waste.

Also on Edgerly’s wish list: re-reforming the Toxic Substances Reform Act by creating a system for phasing out persistent toxic chemicals. Several states, including Vermont, have banned specific chemicals from the marketplace. She says a nationwide system to identify and ban chemicals linked to health problems would establish more uniformity among manufacturers and protect more Americans from toxic hazards.

“We have a critical opportunity in the midst of the economic recession to shape our marketplace,” Edgerly adds, “to be the one that recognizes environmental costs and promotes truly ‘green’ industries.”

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Patrick Giantonio, director, Vermont Refugee Assistance

It’s been a decade of fear, intolerance and uncertainty for the tens of thousands of refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers who enter this country each year. And no administration in recent memory has shown more contempt for America’s immigrant roots than the one leaving office on January 20.

As an advocate for the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers who pass through Vermont each year, Patrick Giantonio is looking for the new administration to take “concrete steps” toward a new era of respect for human rights and the rule of law here and abroad. That includes making a national commitment to “actively and aggressively intervene to stop genocide.”

Giantonio also hopes Obama will end the federal workplace raids seeking undocumented workers; close Guantanamo; scrap the “fence” being erected between the U.S. and Mexico; ban torture and abide by the terms of the Geneva conventions; discontinue the imprisonment of asylum seekers (many of whom are torture survivors themselves) during their asylum process; and address the backlogs and long waits for reunion of families after they’re granted political asylum.

Giantonio’s final wish? That the new administration “brings charges of war crimes against Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld and the rest of their henchmen.” If you’re dreaming, might as well dream big.

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The Right Rev. Thomas Ely, bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Vermont

A change in national leadership won’t just manifest itself in new policies and programs. Some members of Vermont’s ecumenical community are looking to the Obama administration to usher in a new era of cultural acceptance and inclusiveness.

Bishop Ely can’t speak for Vermont’s entire religious community, or even the entire Episcopal Church. But as the spiritual leader of the state’s fourth largest Christian denomination, he expresses three wishes for the Obama administration, all of which focus on “collaborative or reconciliatory leadership.” He hopes it will address the current economic challenges, with particular emphasis on people of middle and lower incomes; establish adequate, affordable and accessible health care for all, especially those without access now; and take a leadership role in addressing the global climate crisis, which Ely calls “the number-one theological and moral challenge of our time.”

“President-elect Obama gets it on this issue,” he adds, “and I think if he can lead on this issue and draw us more deeply into the community of nations addressing this issue . . . that would be an encouraging sign.”

In a broader sense, Ely is hoping that Obama will find ways to “respect and honor the diversity of faith expressions that are so much a part of our culture and are guaranteed in our Constitution.”

In that regard, Ely was “disappointed” by the choice of Rick Warren, the California evangelical pastor who has equated homosexuality with incest, to give the invocation at Obama’s inauguration.

“We are also a nation of symbols, and religious people are people of symbols,” he says. “If the person who’s going to lead the prayer is a lightning rod for religious intolerance, does that serve a unifying purpose for us?”

After Ely’s Seven Days interview, several news organizations reported that the Right Rev. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay man to be ordained a bishop in the Episcopal Church, has also been asked by Obama to give the invocation for Inauguration Week. Perhaps the bishop’s prayers were answered.

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Bio:
Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.

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