Newspaper reporter: “Gov. Scott, it doesn’t look like we’re going to get to many of the questions I’d meant to ask, so I’m just going to hit ‘record’ while you talk to people, if that’s OK.”
Sure, he said, and turned back to the pizza chef and continued talking about life in Elmore, where things are still much as they were when he spent his childhood and early adulthood here, where people congregate in the general store and the lake laps up against the shore.
Not all interviews go as planned, even when the questions are meticulously written out ahead of time, phrased to evoke a palpable sense of place.
The idea was to sit down with Gov. Scott at Fire Tower Pizza, located in a snug nook off the back side of the Elmore Store, and talk about the issues. Scott’s up for re-election next week.
Problem was, his campaign handlers scheduled the governor for a 3:30 engagement in Stowe, and it’s about 20 minutes there and the pizza joint doesn’t open until 3.
The chef, Jimmy Kalp, was unperturbed. Nonsense, he said, we’ll crank ’em right out. Is there anything the governor doesn’t like on his pie?
He doesn’t really like any vegetables, campaign manager Brittney Wilson said, almost apologetically.
Not a prob, we got plenty of meat back here, Kalp said.
A few minutes later, the governor arrived at the store with his state-issued security detail, a quiet plainclothes state trooper named Chuck Schulze.
Scott spent his summers on Lake Elmore, living with his aunt Mary Hoisington. She died in 2013, a local legend who co-founded the Lamoille Area Cancer Network. Scott took his oath of office on Aunt Mary’s bible.
“Hey, Phil, how’s it going?” Kathy Miller said when Scott walked in. Kathy owns the store with her husband, Warren; they have known Scott for decades.
Scott, explaining the charm and timelessness of the store to Wilson and Schulze, noticed the bank of old mailboxes on one of the walls.
“I bet I can still remember Aunt Mary’s combination,” he said. Give it a whirl, invited Kathy Miller, it’s probably the same.
The state trooper chuckled a bit. Scott muttered, trying to remember if it was left, right, left or right, left, right. No luck. I know I remember it, he muttered.
“Hey, Phil, how’s it going?” Warren Miller said when he walked into the store and took his spot behind the counter. Scott conferred quietly with Miller, who’d been out of work for a while last year with health problems. He’s doing better, and thanked the governor for asking.
Pizza’s up, folks, Kalp said.
Schools, guns and drugs
Despite the scheduling squeeze and a predilection for reminiscence, the governor was still able to answer policy-related questions for the newspaper. Three of them.
There was one about Act 46, the state’s school district consolidation law. Lamoille County, he was reminded, has five towns — Cambridge, Stowe, Elmore, Morristown and Wolcott — that have been waiting with different levels of anxiety as the state decides which educational district they will belong to.
Cambridge voted to not join the rest of the elementary school districts that feed into Lamoille Union High School, but likely will be forced to. Wolcott residents want to maintain school choice, but there are geographical issues, insofar as Wolcott extends into three counties when it comes to schooling.
And Stowe just wants to do its own thing.
“There was a little anxiety here in Elmore, too, but they went through it,” Scott added.
He said he doesn’t know if it’s fair to the towns that already made “the difficult decisions” to merge if “the last strongholds of opposition” receive more freedom.
Scott said one thing is clear — there are simply fewer students, 30,000 fewer than there once were.
“That’s significant,” he said. “That’s the canary in the mine shaft. That tells us a lot about what’s happening to Vermont, and when we have more deaths than births for the first time ever, that’s concerning.”
On guns, Scott, a hunter and fisher who’s been shooting rifles since he was 11 — here in Elmore — was asked if he feels something different nowadays when he hears gunshots. They are sounds he heard, and created, regularly growing up.
Scott signed three bills related to gun control this year, a reversal from his previous stances. The change of heart stemmed from the discovery that a teen had made plans to shoot up Fair Haven High School just days after a Feb. 14 mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Fla. Fortunately, the plan was discovered and halted.
Scott, who grew up bird hunting on Thompson Hill, the next road down from the Elmore Store, said he doesn’t think Vermont’s hunting culture will be hurt by the laws he supported, and they make the state safer.
“I never hear a gunshot where I think something other than target practice or hunting is happening. I never get any different thoughts,” he said.
The governor also fielded the question that state’s prosecutors have been answering in recent years, about how to find the right balance between stiffer penalties and more rehabilitative services for offenders.
The question was asked through the filter of a car crash in July that killed 19-year-old Dexter Thurston on Route 12, less than a mile south of the Elmore Store. Police say the driver who hit Thurston’s car was impaired, with suboxone and Xanax in his system.
“I know it well,” Schulze, the trooper who’d been sitting in the corner, said quietly. He was involved in reconstructing the crash for investigators.
Scott used a four-legged stool analogy, saying that in cases of drugged or drunken driving, there are four parts to dealing with offenders or people with substance abuse issues: education, treatment, recovery and law enforcement. He didn’t say whether Vermont’s criminal justice system skews too much toward treatment or incarceration.
He did use it as a stepping stone to reiterate his resistance to taking the next step in marijuana legalization — creating a system to tax and regulate sales of the plant, which was made legal for adult use and cultivation this year. The libertarian in him signed the bill this year.
“What you do in your own home, as long as you’re not adversely affecting someone else, is your own business. I truly believe that,” he said.
But, he added, “there’s no rush” to go the next step. Rather, learn from neighbors like Massachusetts and Canada as they roll out their retail laws.
“I’m not saying never,” he said.
The governor and the chef
If an interview starts when the reporter hits ‘record,’ then this interview started with Scott sharing with Kalp memories of his childhood and early adult years in Elmore.
This wasn’t an interview with the paper; this was a conversation with the man who just made your lunch. Still, you go with what you’ve got.
Scott told Kalp that his father, Howard, a truck driver by trade, entered the military service as a tank operator and drove over a land mine during the D-Day invasion. He lost both his legs above the knee.
After two years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Howard moved back to Vermont, got his truck specially outfitted so he could drive, and built a cabin on the lake. Back in the early 1950s, there weren’t many wheelchair ramps, or an Americans with Disabilities Act to require them. And that included the Elmore Store.
So, a young woman, who lived two doors up with her sister while attending Johnson State College and working part-time at the store, would deliver his groceries to him.
“And that turned out to be my mom, and that’s how they met,” Scott told Kalp.
“I just got chills, man,” Kalp said.
Scott’s father died when he was 11. Scott continued on in Elmore, where he started his first business ventures, providing lawn services and paddleboat rentals on the lake. This was years before his ownership of Dubois Construction, and before he came under scrutiny for how he’s separated himself from the company as governor.
Scott talked about his early 20s as a “half-assed carpenter,” and watching the daughter of one of his Elmore clients take his Camaro and wreck it chasing after a horse that got away.
Eons before the state’s current clean water laws, and before he came under scrutiny for not divulging how he’ll pay for lake and river cleanup with his “no new taxes or fees” mantra in effect, he talked about that time when some agency dropped a bunch of copper sulfate into the lake to deal with algae and junk fish.
“You’d never do that today,” he said.
Scott remembered seeing pike “this big” just floating on the surface, dead, after that. A couple of big ones mounted on the store walls illustrate the monsters that once swam Elmore.
“I didn’t have a political bone in my body until 20 years ago,” he said, when asked if Elmore and Lamoille County shaped his views. “But it did reinforce my blue-collar roots.”
He asked Kalp how he landed in Elmore. Kalp said he used to be the “white tablecloth, fine dining” kind of chef, and had never made pizza. Then one day Blair Marvin, co-owner of Elmore Mountain Bread — it provides the mix for the pizza dough — asked Kalp to take over.
Now, Kalp bikes, jogs and skis to work from just a couple of miles away. He’s no longer the guy in the kitchen making food for people he never sees or talks to. One old-timer, Al, swings by the store every day during the summer to talk about the Red Sox, and “every conversation just starts where the other one ended the day before.”
Said Kalp, “And I can say, I yearned for that. I yearned for that…”
Scott finished his sentence, “Community.”
Updated to correct the name of Scott's construction company.