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Republican Joe Benning enters race for Vermont Lieutenant Governor

Vermont state Senator Joe Benning
Vermont Legislature
Vermont state Senator Joe Benning

The first Republican has joined the race for Vermont lieutenant governor. State Senator Joe Benning is a trial lawyer from Lyndonville. The former Senate minority leader currently chairs the committees on ethics and on institutions and is a member of the judiciary committee. Two Democrats are already running to replace Democratic Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray, who is running for Congress. Senator Benning tells WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley that he has the necessary legislative experience for the position.

I have been in the Senate now for 12 years. We are in the midst of COVID. And one of the things that I would really like to see in the position is longevity and someone with institutional knowledge. I have been the chair of the Senate Institutions committee, I've served on probably a dozen ad hoc committees, chairing probably six of them. So I have a pretty good knowledge of who the players are and how they all work together. One of the most important roles of a lieutenant governor is to be on the Committee on Committees, which is a three member group that literally appoints the chairs and the membership of each committee. I know the players. I know how they fit together and I think I bring that mindset to the position where somebody from the outside of the Senate would have no clue as to who they are and how they fit together. The position itself offers the opportunity to be a cheerleader for Vermont. I am a fierce student of Vermont history. I love the state. I love her people. And I really want to present a positive image about the state wherever I would be given the opportunity to go. So at this point I look at the position as a step up for me, the ability to exercise some skills that I have. I've been town moderator in the town of Lyndon so I know how to run a meeting. I've chaired several boards and commissions along the way. And so I have the skill set necessary to develop the simple rhythm of making a senate meeting go forward. For all those reasons I really look forward to the opportunity to put myself into a place where I think I would have a great deal of fun and I hope that Vermont could have a lot of benefit from my experience.

The lieutenant governor's position presides over the Senate. We have people who are running who are saying, well, you know, I could do a lot of work on all of these other issues and things like that. What do you feel you would be able to accomplish beyond presiding over the Senate?

Let me say first that anybody running for the position who is out there pontificating about one particular cause or another that they want to advance, I am very well cognizant that this position does not enable you to draft legislation. It does not enable you to meet with committees and vote in committee and have debate in committee. As close as you get to that from this position is if there's a tie vote in the Senate you get to cast the deciding vote. But I don't see this as a place to advance a given cause. I see this as a place to advance Vermont and have the the mindset that I want to jump into this and go to various functions, be they a local business opening, to representing the state in places where the governor cannot make it. That is just a very exciting thing for me and I really feel so positive about the state that I would be more than happy to jump out there and advocate for the cause, so to speak.

Joe Benning, you are the first Republican to join the race for lieutenant governor, which in Vermont is voted on separately from the governor who is currently a Republican. Do you believe it's important to have a lieutenant governor that's the same party as the governor?

I think initially I bring personally to the table a smooth transition possibilities should I get there. The position for a Republican to a Republican governor is very important. And at this point I can say that I've worked very long and hard with the governor's current team, both his campaign team as well as his administration. So if something were to happen that Governor Scott could not fulfill the role I think I offer as smooth a transition as one could possibly imagine. But it is not necessary for us to be from the same party and Phil Scott is the classic example of that. When Peter Shumlin was Governor, Peter Shumlin gave Phil Scott the opportunity to actually come into his cabinet. And that's the way Vermont works. We have a real strong desire to work across party lines and I think I could do that very effectively. If you look at my track record and legislation you'll see that I've done several things across party lines joining with Democrats and Progressives on various pieces of legislation and have been very successful at that. I think I could if there was a different party member in the governor's chair.

Joe Benning,  VTDigger described your voting record as libertarian. When you talk about working across the aisle, how would you describe your Republican philosophy?

I think I adhere very strongly to the Constitution and the history of the state of Vermont. And at the point where a Progressive or a Democrat is approached by me or they approach me to work on a piece of legislation they know where I'm coming from. So let's take the example of an expungement process. Before I came to the Senate Vermont had no expungement process whatsoever and I got together with Senator Dick Sears, who's from Bennington County and also chair of the Judiciary Committee, and we joined on a bill to create an expungement process. And as of last Friday, we did this by the way back in 2011. And as of last Friday 24,488 expungement cases have gone through and been granted. And that means that people who made a mistake a very long time ago in their lives and literally are now grandparents and unable to go to chaperone their grandchild's school event because of some mistake they made a long time ago now have that opportunity because their records have been cleaned up. I'll also point to the breakup of the so called "Chittenden Six Pack". The State Senate has a block of six senators from Chittenden County. It's grossly out of whack with everything else in the country. Literally, it is the worst one in the country for reapportionment purposes and two Democrats and I got together and we had a bill put in. It's now law that prevents any district from being more than three senators. So you're going to see a change in the makeup and at this stage. I could go on. There's marijuana legalization. You're going to find me at the head of the line of a list of tri-partisan folks who have gone on to develop a tax and regulated system here in Vermont. And that's the kind of thing that I do. I work across party lines constantly to try to advance things that I see are in line with my basic philosophy of what a libertarian Vermont is all about.

Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray is running for Congress. Senator Joe Benning is the first Republican to enter the race to replace her. House member Charles Kimbell and Vermont Council on World Affairs Executive Director Patricia Preston are the current candidates in the Democratic primary.

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