WILMINGTON – When incumbent state senator Mark Shepard announced his intention to run for Vermont’s lone seat in the U.S. Congress last January, his decision set Bennington County Republicans scrambling to find a new candidate to hold onto his former senate seat in Montpelier.
Already a minority in the state Senate, party officials are pinning their hopes on Alan M. MacDougall, 63, of Wilmington, a retired consultant, legislative assistant and career intelligence officer with the federal Defense Intelligence Agency, to hold onto a seat they cannot afford to lose.
The other incumbent office holder in the state Senate is Richard Sears of Bennington, who will be running for his eighth term. With two state Senate slots in play, he will be paired with Robert Hartwell of Dorset on the Democrat side. Winfield Gates Jr., of Manchester, will also be running as a Republican for one of the two slots in the at-large election, where the top two vote-getters will get to go to Montpelier next January.
Along with high taxes, the lack of affordable housing and declining enrollment in schools, MacDougall is concerned about the emigration of young people from the state, who leave in search of better job opportunities. All told, the situation the state faces is one that is rapidly approaching a crisis level, he said in a recent interview.
“It’s a critical situation and something needs to be done,” he said. “I care about people finding it impossible to live here.”
Vermont is no longer a hospitable place for young people to get a start in life, describing the cost of housing in the state as “out of control” which in turn contributes to pressure on the educational system. The net out flow of younger adults results in fewer and fewer children in schools, and the empty classrooms should force a review of how the state organizes education, he said.
But MacDougall is not a fan of closing schools simply because the school population has dipped below some arbitrary level. He would prefer to see local school boards be the ones to choose whether consolidating with neighboring districts made sense or not. A better approach to consolidation would be to start at the supervisory union level, reducing the administrative structure from the present 63 supervisory unions to a much smaller number, he said.
Energy issues are another important area where the state needs to step up and tackle, and MacDougall sees promise in exploiting hydroelectric power. It was a mistake for the state not to buy several existing dams along the Connecticut River when they were available last year, but all may not yet be lost, he said.
Using new technology, one solution to the state’s energy needs might be to build smaller, low level dams on other rivers – such as the Deerfield and Hoosick Rivers locally – that would allow the state to extract power from them, he said.
Moving to a greater level of energy independence by increasing the amount of electric power the state produces within its own borders would be a good thing, MacDougall said. But that scenario doesn’t rely heavily on another much-discussed alternative energy source – wind power.
“Wind power is not the answer for Vermont’s power needs,” he said, adding that care needs to be exercised when choosing appropriate locations for wind turbines. Wilderness areas might be one place to look, but not on ridgelines that would be considered unsightly by local inhabitants, he said.
MacDougall retired to Vermont three years ago from Alexandria, Va. where he worked in a variety of government posts, which included positions in the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency. A military veteran and a former sergeant in the U.S. Army, he was also a legislative assistant for Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska.
This will be the first try for elected public office for the self-described moderate, who has served as a planning commissioner and a justice of the peace in Wilmington for the past two years. Being retired from the regular work-a-day world means he can devote his full time and attention to his work as a senator, if elected, he said.
If successful, MacDougall would be the first candidate from Wilmington elected to one of the two Senate seats set aside for Bennington County. In 2002, the town, which is located in neighboring Windham County, was added to the Bennington district as part of a reapportionment plan to bulk up the population of voters the Bennington County delegation represented.
Running for the Senate seat from outside of the county and its central hub, the town of Bennington, may be a uphill struggle but it’s one that should be possible, said Paul Carroccio of Winhall, the former Chairman of the Bennington County Republicans.
Bob Hartwell, the Democrat running mate of Dick Sears, is in a similar situation, in view of the fact Hartwell’s political base is in Dorset, Carroccio said.
“The key for any new candidate is to get his name out there,” Carroccio said. “MacDougall has a good grasp of the issues and has a good shot at winning.”
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