Vermont’s speaker of the House, an eight-time incumbent Democrat, may be in danger of losing her seat to a Republican uncle-and-nephew political duo on Tuesday.
Mitzi Johnson, a representative of South Hero, has been re-elected to the House seven times since she first won the seat in 2002. But never before did she have to face Leland and Michael Morgan.
The uncle and nephew share extensive backgrounds in the U.S. Air Force, they’ve collaborated in business ventures, and they’ve been active at various levels of municipal government. According to Leland Morgan, their platforms are basically identical, and they have combined resources for their campaigns.
They also have strong Vermont roots.
“I was born in 1950 and I’ve lived here all my life, except for periods of military service,” Leland Morgan, the uncle, told True North. “I’ve been here almost 69 years and I know what’s going on. I was here before the interstate and I was here before the new Route 2, and I know Vermont better than they ever will.”
Leland was a legislator in the 1990s when the district configuration was different and he only represented Milton. Now the Grand Isle-Chittenden district is comprised of Grand Isle County and West Milton.
He said the duo hears opportunity knocking as Jonhson narrowly defeated Republican challenger Jason Moquin by 103 votes in 2014 and again by only 31 votes in 2016.
“Mitzi Johnson has been in the House a fair amount of time — several terms — and nothing seems to get done,” Leland said. “And the people that we talk with indicate that she’s not responsive to their needs, that they call and she doesn’t get back to them.”
He suspects her political ambitions extend beyond local constituents, and suggested she has her eye on statewide or federal offices in Vermont.
Voters in the Champlain Islands are anxious about the the clean-up effort for Lake Champlain. The Morgans say the issue is a top priority and that they see a lack of progress under the current leadership.
“Nothing seems to be getting done on a long-term basis,” he said. “Just year-to-year they spend a whole bunch of money on studies and nothing really ever gets done.”
Leland Morgan says farmers have been unfairly targeted as the source of pollution, and that about 60 percent is from outdated sewage treatment plants, runoff from city streets and people putting phosphates and fertilizers on their lawn.
He suggested appropriate infrastructure upgrades on the outdated municipal systems would be a smarter investment.
On the issue of the economy, the Morgans argue that high taxes and regulations are responsible for making Vermont on of the worst states in the country for businesses.
“We oppose any new taxes or increased taxes and fees,” he said. “How are we going to pay for things when extra money is needed? Start streamlining the state government.”
For example, he said it seems like state workers are always using the newest trucks and gear, which current equipment still has years of use remaining.
“We periodically auction off a whole bunch of road equipment and people get in line to get the stuff because they see it will still work and it can be used for a long time in the private sector,” he said, adding that the state needs to do a better job in utilizing its resources long term.
On the education front, local schools have been struggling with the state’s school district merger law, Act 46. Leland said the local school boards have too little control. He also said that schools need to get back to basics to achieve affordability.
“We might not be able to offer four different languages and several different types of art classes,” he said. “But we should have a good basic education like what I got when I was a kid. … It was good enough to get me into the University of Vermont and be successful in life.”
On health care, the Morgans oppose Gov. Phil Scott’s decision this year to sign a law re-establishing the Obamacare individual mandate a the state level. The federal mandate was eliminated last year in the Republican-led tax cut passed by Congress.
“Vermonters shouldn’t have to pay a penalty to the state because they can’t afford to buy health insurance,” he said.
Outgoing House Minority Leader and candidate for lieutenant governor Don Turner, R-Milton, said every House seat is critical when it comes to balancing political power — especially the ability to uphold the governor’s veto. Turner is a distant relative of the Morgans.
“I think it’s absolutely essential that the Republicans maintain the ability to sustain a veto for the incoming biennium,” Turner said. “I hope that Vermonters get out and support Republicans to maintain some sort of balance and to support Governor Scott and his ability to do his job.”
Mitzi Johnson did not return True North’s calls for comment in this story.
State Rep. Ben Joseph, D-North Hero, is the other incumbent in the district running against the Morgans.