Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series of profiles on Vermont’s five gubernatorial candidates by the St. Albans Messenger leading up to the August primary. See Democratic candidates Matt Dunne, Peter Galbraith and Sue Minter in next week’s Colchester Sun.
By TOM BENTON
Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Lisman – four-time Analyst All-Star for Wall Street’s Lehman Brothers, a man worth an estimated $50 million – wants to take a “different look” at the Green Mountain State’s political system.
Lisman said his rival, Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, hasn’t affected significant change during Scott’s 15-year political career.
“They say, ‘Nobody’s listening to me,’” Lisman said of people he’s met on the campaign trail. “They say that about Washington, but that’s like howling at the moon. It is a national problem, but it’s so small here, and we can fix it.”
That’s the 69-year-old Shelburne retiree’s mission statement. “I want to recreate government,” he said, “not in some grand fashion, just redirected at you.”
Forget Lisman’s Wall Street experience: “Being governor is not a business,” he stressed. “It’s not about hitting a target.”
Or maybe don’t. Lisman said his work on Wall Street might be his strongest qualification to lead.
Lisman served as CEO of institutional equities for Bear Stearns & Company, where, over 21 years, he increased the number of employees 15-fold and shot revenues from $52 million to $2.3 billion.
He said he’ll use the same tactics to make Vermont better. It all boils down to hiring the best talent.
“It’s a myth that in business, it’s a ‘command and control’ kind of thing,” he said. “In fact, my experience was the opposite. If I were to make any substantive change, or even a little change, first I had to make a coalition for change.”
Lisman said his leadership would be highly transparent.
“You have a right to tell me what you think of me,” he said. “And I have right to tell you, a couple times a year, what I think of you.”
It’s a right he’s exercising about his opponent. Lisman’s campaign flyer, which he held in front of himself like a game board, is devoted to contrasting Scott’s failures and Lisman’s intentions. Scott has called these “D.C.-style tactics” disappointing and reminded people he’s never run a negative campaign; Lisman has accused Scott of operating at Gov. Peter Shumlin’s side, standing by while he says Shumlin took Vermont in the wrong direction.
Lisman, the fresh-faced politico, has even accused Scott of being derivative — in a press release last month, the Lisman campaign called for Scott to “stop plagiarizing and hijacking Bruce Lisman’s public policy ideas,” such as Lisman’s insistence that Vermont’s taxation of veterans and Social Security benefits be repealed.
Lisman touts his knowledge of economics, saying he wants to abolish the capital gains tax for Vermonters over age 65 who have lived here for more than 10 years.
“That encourages them to stay right here,” he said. “I believe if you’ve been here long enough, you should be rewarded in some fashion.”
As to whether that tax cut would extend to sales of undeveloped land, Lisman isn’t sure. Maybe if it’s in the form of a business, he said.
But if one was to incorporate and own a 200-acre parcel and sell it at a significant increase, would that sale, too, be tax-exempt?
“I’ll have to do the work on that,” he said.
Lisman said he’s already done the work on raising the minimum wage, and he doesn’t like it. He likes a slow increase but believes a quick hike’s effects are “not known, and likely negative.”
Lisman doesn’t put a lot of credence in studies suggesting the minimal wages paid by large-scale employers like Walmart force employees to survive on government subsidies, thereby increasing the burden on taxpayers.
Instead, Lisman suggests doubling the earned income tax credit to combat poverty and hunger over four years, financed through state spending reforms on human services, education and economic development.
Speaking of “human services,” don’t get Lisman started on Vermont Health Connect.
“It’s the proverbial faceplant, isn’t it?” he said.
Lisman said the proposed all-payer system – where providers are paid by person, not by procedure – is the “most important and least understood” alternative, but even so, there should be “no more experiments” on Vermonters.
Instead, he wondered, why not spend a little time auditing Medicaid? Medicaid was last audited in 2011.
“Since then, this governor has enrolled a significant number of people not firmly in Medicare or Medicaid benefits,” Lisman said. “We ought to find out who’s there, who’s eligible and who isn’t, what options they’re using, are we offering the right kind of things, are they healthier for being in Medicaid, do they have equal access to care.”
Beyond finances, Lisman’s priorities are environmental. He says the 1970s television ad in which a Native American beholds the trash littering his consumer-ravaged homeland transformed him into an environmentalist. Lisman had a similar reaction to the pollution of northern Lake Champlain.
“It’s not entirely farmers’ fault,” he said. “But they’re more than willing to participate in the cleanup.”
Lisman proposed purchasing problematic parcels of land from farmers at full market price. That land could then be leased back to farmers, who could use it for purposes other than growing corn, such as haying or pasture.
“The problem requires better management, but let’s not just accuse [the farmers],” Lisman said. “Let’s get to work.”
That’s a clear distinction Lisman draws between himself and fellow candidates: He’s about “the hard work of doing things,” he said, not making waves.
“I’m the anti-headline candidate,” he said, smiling.