Teo Zagar has been the local representative for Barnard, Pomfret, Quechee, and West Hartford, since he replaced Mark Mitchel in 2011, and for the first time he is running opposed in the upcoming election next Tuesday. I got a chance to sit down with my representative to hear from him about the pressing issues this coming season, and hear from him why he thinks he’s fit to keep up his work in Montpelier.
Driving through Barnard and Pomfret you’ll see many Zagar signs reading “common ground” and Teo lives up to his slogan, and truly believes that when it comes down to it, “we share more common values than differences, and we should use that common ground as a starting point to work together.” Though he is running as a Democrat, he is not afraid to vote against party lines and working across the aisles to best represent all his constituents. Teo voted with Republicans for property tax reform before it was a popular issue with Democrats. At 36, he is one of the seven members under 40 in the house, and his perspective as a younger person and someone who grew up in the community he is representing is valuable.
Zagar not only grew up in the public school system here in Barnard and Woodstock, but also has 8 years experience working within the school system as a special educator at WUHS. This position has garnered him a unique perspective in the state house about how decisions made at the state level affect the quality of education for the students. He sees the value of local control of our small schools. “I think the small schools, like this one here that I went to are really the beating heart of the community. It brings families and kids together, creates social opportunities, ties the community together and gets people talking and getting to know each other.” The issues facing small schools are going to be one of the priorities this coming legislative session. “We need to overhaul our education financing system while still providing equal opportunity to all Vermonters. I think we do need to take a hard look at education governance, but we should leave the decision of whether or not a school should stay open up to the townsfolk.“ Overhauling the financing system, he says, should involve a move to a more income-based system where taxes are based not on land ownership but on ability to pay, allowing working families to live here without overburdening them with property taxes.
On a bright note, he spoke of the comparatively high rates of achievement in Vermont schools, and the success of the Farm to School Program statewide which places emphasis on healthy communities through agricultural and nutrition education in classrooms, and local whole foods in school cafeterias. As rising costs for health insurance are partially a result of increased rates of diet-related diseases, investments in nutrition education and increasing agricultural output in the state could reduce health insurance costs in the long run.
Along with education, single payer healthcare is going to be the other big issue in the coming legislative session, and Zagar is in favor of a publicly financed option as a more efficient and affordable system, though he stated honestly “ I don’t think we will ever truly fix our healthcare system until we address the root causes of why costs are going up, which have to do with nutrition, environment and lifestyle, and until we change that the government isn’t going to be able to fix it.” Zagar, who serves on the Agricultural committee, was involved in the Working Lands bill, providing technical assistance and financial incentives to farmers and food entrepreneurs to expand their businesses and believes “the more food we are able to produce and get on the tables of Vermonters the healthier we’ll be in the long run.”
Zagar, as one of the younger members in the house, represents a demographic which, he was happy to report, is no longer fleeing at the same rate as ten year ago. The rate of youth flight is actually going down. “In the rural areas” he reported, “what we are seeing happen is more young people getting involved in agriculture and food, which is creating new businesses and jobs”.
Teo represents someone who is bucking the trend, choosing to return to Vermont after college rather than to pursue his work in a city. “I make part of my living in the arts as a filmmaker, and I made a conscious decision to move back to Vermont to pursue that, when I would have had an easier time doing that in California or New York, but I didn’t want to live there. There is a growing arts economy where people are making a living from being creative and sharing stories and ideas with others and I think there is value to that. I think Vermont is a nurturing place to do that.” He spoke of the arts as well as agriculture in our educational and economic priorities. “Society and culture are defined more by our values and how we express ourselves than by economic statistics. I’ve always felt that as we talk about education, and STEM education in particular, (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) that we should put two A’s into that acronym. I think that Arts and Agriculture need to be an equal part of the educational and social equation.”
Aside from addressing the biggest issues facing the legislators this coming session, we touched on some stickier issues such as drugs and guns. Vermont has received a lot of attention for our “drug epidemic” since Shumlin devoted his whole State of the State address last year to the opiate problem in Vermont, but Vermont is not alone. This is a national issue, Vermont has only called attention to it, and I think this is an important first step. “I think that prescription opioids are the gateway drug to heroin. Once people get hooked on pills and realize that heroin is cheaper, that’s an easier choice. We’ve got some of the biggest drug companies in the world basically lying to the FDA about the efficacy and dangers of these drugs and bribing doctors to overprescribe them.” As young people who have grown up in this area, we are both affected by news of our peers whose addictions have turned them to desperation and crime and Teo stated “addiction needs to be treated as an illness” stating the need for more access to treatment in the state. He also stated the need to provide more controls over prescription pain killers, but suggested the challenges doing that at the state level “We are not the FDA , we can’t regulate the pharmaceutical industry. We can try to monitor them and set rules as to how they are prescribed, and we need to invest more money in treating the addicted and in law enforcement to take down more dealers.” he said.
On guns, Teo said he is a gun owner and supports the second amendment. “Vermont has a long history and tradition of safe and responsible gun ownership. I think Vermont is a model for how citizens can responsibly possess firearms. We don’t have the kind of misuse as other areas with much more restrictive gun laws.” He listed closing the gun-show loophole as something which will be looked at in the coming session, which would prevent private sales at gun shows without background checks, keeping more guns out of the wrong hands. “I think we can strengthen our existing framework of background checks to minimize guns getting into the wrong hands, and I think it is worth having the conversation about closing the so-called gun-show loophole. But some gun show organizers are already doing this on their own, so this may be something that can become self-regulating without the need for new laws”.
Teo fell into being a politician because the opportunity presented itself to him at a time when he was looking to become more involved in his community, and after three years he is still the best kind of politician- a real person, citizen legislator whose interest is in serving the people the best he can. He does not claim to have all the answers, but promises to keep asking questions and searching for solutions. As we spoke, we often circled back to a common refrain. The issues that Vermont faces are not unique to Vermont but “stem from broader national and international problems” and Teo feels a lot of the job of the legislators is about “putting out fires.” But he asks and encourages constituents to ask ourselves and engage in conversations with our legislators about “how Vermont can not only insulate ourselves from these larger social and economic problems, but what creative solutions can we find to try to fix them in our own state or at least to start reversing the negative trends we see in healthcare, the economy, education, drug use, etc.” Let’s give him another chance to keep working on that, and make sure to get out and vote on November 4th.