Town planner running for Burlington House seat

If Larry Lewack is elected, it won’t interfere with his work because he plans to retire in December

Town planner Larry Lewack is a candidate for the state House of Representatives for Burlington’s Chittenden 13 district seat.

He said campaigning for office for the Aug. 13 statewide party primary election will not interfere with his work as town planner because he works a four-day week with Fridays off. He plans to do a lot of canvassing, knocking on doors on his day off, on weekends or after work around dinner time when people are home.

If he is elected in the general election on Nov. 5, his duties as a state representative will not interfere with his duties in Charlotte because he plans to retire as town planner in December and the new legislative session will begin in January, Lewack said.

Larry Lewack

There are four candidates for the two-member district, so if he is one of the two candidates elected in the primary, his campaigning will be much less intensive after that. With no Republican candidates for the seat, the Democratic nominee’s prospect of winning the open seat in the general election would be all but assured.

Even if a write-in candidate from the other party comes along, no Republican has won in the Chittenden 13 district during the 30 years Lewack has lived there, he said, and maybe longer. He lives in the Five Sisters neighborhood in Burlington’s South End.

As of an interview on June 5, Lewack said he had not talked to selectboard members about his plans to run for the House. As long as he doesn’t do anything that takes away from fulfilling his work duties, he feels it’s not a concern and is his own business.

There had not been any public announcement of his plan to step down as town planner, but he has told his work colleagues and “it’s common knowledge within town hall.”

This will not be Lewack’s first foray into the political rodeo. Before he moved to Burlington, he lived in Winooski from 1985-94. In the mid-1980s, he was a member of the zoning board there and then the planning commission.
In the interest of full disclosure, I realized in the middle of this interview that I lived in the district Lewack is running for.

Because of his experience in public service and involvement in statewide issues, Lewack decided to run for one of the two house seats Winooski had at that time, losing in 1986 and 1988.

In his first campaign, “I was running against two well-established incumbents and got smoked,” Lewack said. “The second time out, I was running for an open seat, and I came within 36 votes of winning that primary.”

Before becoming a municipal employee in small Vermont towns, Lewack worked for several small nonprofit organizations in several positions. He worked as a fundraiser, then in direct services for people with disabilities and was promoted to program director at a couple of those jobs.

“It was mostly just low-salary kinds of positions, but very personally fulfilling because I felt like I was making a difference in the world,” Lewack said.

He feels it is ironic that when he ran for the House almost 40 years ago, his main issue was tax reform and now school tax reform is back on the front burner with so many school budgets being voted down.

This was before the state supreme court ruled that Vermont needed to amend the way school property taxes were collected, so that there would be more equity between poor and wealthy school districts. In response, the legislature passed Act 60 that fundamentally changed the way Vermont pays for public education.

“Before we had any type of equalizing legislation in place at the state level, school districts were 100 percent on their own. If you went to school or taught school in a low-income town, your students and your schools were shabby and underfunded, and students had really limited access to educational opportunity,” Lewack said. “If you went to school in a wealthy school district, it was the exact opposite with gold-plated everything in your schools.”

The big issue he is running on is tax reform, which he believes the legislature “kind of bailed on” in this past term.
He feels like, every time tax reform that would put a higher tax on people with considerable wealth is proposed in the legislature, it is rebuffed by lobbyists who argue that the wealthy will leave Vermont if that happens.

“That’s not happened in Massachusetts or anywhere else where that type of tax has been adopted. It’s really more about getting people to pay their fair share,” Lewack said. “We do not have a graduated tax system in Vermont for income taxes.”

Vermont had a graduated income tax enacted under the administration of Gov. Richard Snelling, Lewack said, a very Republican governor.

Snelling was governor for three terms from 1977-1985. He was reelected in 1990 and served from January 1991 until his death in August 1991. During his short final term, Snelling worked with Democrats to enact the largest tax increase in Vermont history to help the state get out of the world-wide recession of the late 1980s.
The graduated income tax sunsetted, and the state hasn’t had one since.

“That was the core message that I espoused during my unsuccessful legislative campaigns in the 1980s, and I think it has new relevance and urgency today. That’s going to be my number one issue as I go door to door in this campaign,” Lewack said.

He also plans to campaign on both landlord and tenant rights so that tenants aren’t “getting screwed,” who are paying their rent on time, and landlords aren’t “been shafted,” who don’t have an equitable means for evicting tenants with legitimate cause for months.

Tiff Bluemle is the incumbent in the Chittenden 13 district, and Lewack thinks she has been doing a good job and will probably have a lock on being reelected. So, he essentially sees the race as being between himself and the other two candidates — Bram Kleppner and Dale Azaria — for the only open seat in the district.

Although Lewack says both of those are credible candidates, he likes his chances, particularly in light of his experience.

Lewack is running as a Democrat, but he has been very active, and still is, in the Progressive Party. He is on the steering committee for the Burlington Progressives and was a co-founder of the Vermont Progressive Party back in the 1980s.

He said he was on the staff for Bernie Sanders’ first successful campaign for Congress.

“Those are my values, but I have worked politically through and with the Democratic Party,” Lewack said.
His work for the Democratic Party goes back to when he was a 16-year-old campaign volunteer in the Washington, D.C., area, canvassing, putting up signs and helping one of his neighbors get elected to the Maryland legislature.