MONTPELIER — It seems Vermont Under Secretary of State Chris Winters has played just about every role imaginable in his 25 years in office.
Except the top job, and Winters will be competing for that one in November. Outgoing Secretary of State Jim Condos has decided not to run for re-election this year, offering an opening for Winters and others interested in a role that doesn’t make a lot of headlines but fulfills many important functions. for Vermonters.
Vermont’s secretary of state, who is a constitutional officer, oversees many administrative roles in state government, including elections, maintenance of public records, business registration, and licensing of businesses. professionals, among other functions.
In 1997, Secretary of State James Milne hired Winters for a position as office counsel.
“I was fresh out of law school and trying to make it in Barre City,” Winters recalls his fledgling effort to release his own shingle specializing in real estate, criminal law, and family law.
He had been working there for about a year, when he and his wife discovered that their first of four children was on the way.
Suddenly life became really real. He realized he needed to upgrade his insurance and get a more reliable stream of income.
Fortunately, Milne was looking for a lawyer, and a mutual friend put him in touch with what turned out to be a successful hiring process.
Winters began as an attorney with the Licensing Board of the Office of the Secretary of State, in the Office of Professional Regulation (OPR), the largest division of the Office of the Secretary of State, focused on public protection and licenses.
Winters had only worked in her new role for a year when Milne was defeated by Democrat Deborah Markowitz. But Markowitz not only kept Winters on board, she promoted him to director of the OPR.
Markowitz decided to run for governor in 2010, the same year Democrat Jim Condos won the job of Secretary of State over Republican Jason Gibbs.
“Fortunately (Condos) saw the wisdom to keep me around,” said Winters, who like Condos before him is running as a Democrat.
The condos did more than that; he promoted Winters to assistant secretary of state in 2015. So Winters has spent the past seven years overseeing all divisions of the office, including professional regulation, elections, corporations — and the valuable historical records of that office. State.
With that kind of experience and longevity, Winters thinks he can easily prove to voters that he could launch himself as secretary of state. And while some of the former secretaries of state have managed to rise to higher positions in state government – including Jim Douglas of Middlebury – Winters said he would be content to stay in place as long as the voters would allow it.
“A well-run office of secretary of state makes life safer, easier, and better for Vermonters,” Winters said earlier this month when officially announcing his candidacy.
“Without the right person in charge, Vermont will see an immediate impact on public safety, the economy, government transparency, and even democracy itself,” he added.
Winters thinks he’s the right person for the job and points out that what he said was a great track record the office compiled before — and during — the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There was a lot of pressure and so much at stake,” Winters said of the need to ensure all Vermonters can vote safely and have their ballots counted during the pandemic.
The coronavirus was at its worst in the fall of 2020, coinciding with one of the most anticipated presidential elections (Biden vs. Trump) in recent memory.
“We knew there would be a ton of people who wanted to show up, but we knew people might be afraid to show up, given what was going on with the coronavirus,” he said.
Thus, the Secretary of State’s office began working with the Legislative Assembly in March of that year to authorize an election by mail ballot.
“It really wasn’t an easy legislative lift, because the governor (Phil Scott) wasn’t sure; he was pretty resilient,” Winters said. “We were successful in convincing the Legislative Assembly to give us temporary emergency powers to do what we had to do.”
Thanks to the accumulated goodwill between lawmakers and the Secretary of State, “the Legislative Assembly practically handed over the keys to our office to do what we felt was most necessary,” he continued.
This led to a postcard for people to request their ballots for the primary, and then universal mail voting, for the very first time, in November.
“It was an incredible professional challenge in our lifetime to ensure that no voter had to choose between their health and their right to vote,” Winters said. “We were able to hold an extremely successful election with record turnout in the midst of a pandemic.”
Ultimately, 75% of Vermonters chose to vote early or by mail, leaving manageable traffic at polling places on Election Day, according to Winters.
The success of this electoral process led to a permanent absentee ballot option for the general election, Winters said.
Second on Winters’ job satisfaction list is the progress OPR has made.
“Our OPR is a national model,” he said. “We’ve cut the regulations down to the right size, so you’re not unnecessarily hindering someone’s ability to get a license, but at the same time you’re protecting the public. We have transformed the OPR into a workforce development tool. We are trying to attract people to the state with very simplified and targeted professional regulation laws. We don’t have the paperwork that some other states have.
Winters also touts his role in creating an ethics commission, a single business portal, and effective online services through the office.
The Office of the Secretary of State responds to numerous calls throughout the year from journalists, activists, and citizens wanting to know if a state or local board of directors has mishandled public affairs in secret, or if he improperly withholds public documents. Winters answered many of these calls, and he left no doubt about his position on the issue of public records.
“I have been a strong advocate for transparency, accountability and the public’s right to know,” he said. “We have been a champion of transparency when many other state agencies would rather circle the wagons and not do it because it’s not easy. Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to be responsive the way you’re meant to be. But it makes you a better agency or a better government when you’re held to account, and if 630,000 Vermonters are looking over your shoulder when you’re doing your job.
John Flowers is at [email protected].