The road to becoming a Vermont gubernatorial candidate began a long time ago for Norwich resident Rebecca Holcombe whose childhood in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Fiji Islands, and Sudan had a direct impact not only on how she has perceived the world but how she has navigated through it. Even though her family “had the bad fortune of arriving in ountries just as political trouble was beginning,” Holcombe learned quickly from her mother that, in comparison with many global native inhabitants, she had a privileged upbringing. “In my own family, particularly on my mother’s side, access to public schooling gave her many opportunities,” said Holcombe. “She was always acutely aware that she was lucky and that those who weren’t, should have a chance.”
Opportunity. Education. Equality. Those are the words that encompassed Holcombe’s core values as a child and then as a teenager when she arrived in the United States. And those are the philosophies that are still ingrained in her as an adult, spouse, parent and politician.
Prior to that, Holcombe lived in Afghanistan from 4th to 7th grade, attending a government subsidized public school, until the Soviet invasion in 1979 forced her family out of the country. From there, they traveled to Pakistan where Holcombe attended the International School of Islamabad until anti-American unrest scared away nearly all the English-speaking students and teachers. Because Holcombe’s family stayed, however, she was home schooled.
“The power of living abroad is you have to look at yourself from the outside,” said Holcombe. “When you’re in one of those international schools, you’re going to school with children from so many different countries. That challenges you to think about things you take for granted. You realize quickly how important language facility is to doing well. It’s an incredibly privileged way to grow up.”
From the Mideast, Holcombe returned to the United States to attend the Boston preparatory Milton Academy. During vacations, she regularly joined her parents overseas including Fiji and Sudan. And, while at Milton, she spent a year in Spain, resulting in her speaking fluent Spanish to this day.
Holcombe went on to earn her bachelor’s degree from Brown University, an MBA from Simmons School of Management, and her Doctorate in Educational Leadership, Policy and Practice from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. She completed coursework for her principal certification at Lyndon State College.
She and her husband, James Bandler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, moved to Norwich 11 years ago. “Living in Vermont is a values issue,” said Holcombe. “One of the things on this side of the river is a sense of community. We all celebrate the walkable downtown area while maintaining the land around us. And, frankly, the high-speed internet allowed James to telecommute to New York City where he was based as a journalist. So, it’s a nice mix of nearby family, community ties, and the internet.”
Holcombe spent the next several years as a teacher, principal and Vermont secretary of education, continuing to focus her life’s work on creating equal opportunities for every child and every individual in the state of Vermont.
As secretary, she worked to address the inequalities between those with wealth and those without in Vermont communities, keeping in mind what she had witnessed as a child growing up in an international community. “Public schools are where we achieve equality,” said Holcombe. “It’s where we bring each other together and become a civil society. It’s the means for making sure every child has a chance.”
As Governor, Holcombe said she wants to take advantage of her life experience “to push the democratic project of making sure the state is working to create opportunities so people can go out and live well. I’m going to win by showing everyday working Vermonters that it’s not enough to talk,” said Holcombe. “I think Vermonters want a governor who’s going to roll up their sleeves and engage.”
Whether focusing on health care, affordable housing or education, Holcombe emphasized that people can’t live if these issues are not addressed. “People are struggling to pay their bills,” she said. “They need good jobs that pay them living wages. We need to make sure people that work hard are able to cover their bills and pay for their rent and not worry about health care.”
The first job of governor, she continued, is to improve the lives of the people. “That means putting our resources where they make it better and where they make our communities stronger so that people can live well and prosper and be happy in our Vermont communities,” Holcombe said.
Holcombe is deeply committed to her own community of Norwich where she has raised her two children, Daniel and Johanna, both of whom attended local public schools. “I’m so proud of them. It’s tough for young people growing up right now. Many whom I’ve met are full of hope and ideals, but they’re not sitting on the sidelines. I appreciate their hard work and their realism and clarity. It’s incredibly inspiring, and I see it in my own kids. They give me hope.”
It is exactly that aspiration, Holcombe indicated, that propelled her into public service, understanding her own privileged inheritance and wanting to pass that on “to make sure everyone has the chance to learn, and to grow up healthy and strong.”
“Where I grew up, there was no opportunity or certainty,” Holcombe said. “I saw first-hand the desperation people had and the direct consequences of having no education or nutrition. When children have the opportunity to get a good education, they will always take with them the ability to make good things happen even in the face of challenge.”
Diverse communities, such as those found in public schools, are brought together by how to build an institution that prepares children for the future, Holcombe noted. And schools are the most democratic institution because “we come together to figure out how to work together,” she added. It is these institutions that reflect individual core values that, according to Holcombe, “will keep you on a straight course in a world that can get confusing fast.”
Holcombe and David Zuckerman are running in the Democratic primary for Governor of Vermont on August 11, 2020.
The Essential Guide to Rebecca Holcombe
What is one person, place or thing you love about living in Norwich?
I love living near our neighbors, and that feeling of having good neighbors with all that means. When our kids were young, they were like another set of grandparents. We can just show up at their house, or them at our house, for a last minute, casual shared dinner of leftovers or cup of tea. We help them with sugar, and they keep us grounded. My kids love the candy in the cupboard, and I like the comfort of old, gold relationships.
What did/do you want to be when you grew/grow up?
Just about everything at one point or another, except a politician.
Which bedtime story you read to your kids is your favorite and why?
Good Night, Gorilla and Ten Minutes Till Bedtime by Peggy Rathmann. Both perfectly capture the yearning and absurdity of bedtime.
If you had your own talk show, who would be your first three guests?
Today? Eleanor Roosevelt, Claudette Colvin, and Ruha Benjamin.
What is your favorite quote?
Changes by the week. This week it’s by Wendell Berry: “All we can do to prepare rightly for tomorrow is to do the right thing today.”
If you could be invisible for one day, where would you be?
I wouldn’t be invisible. I think it’s past time for us to be more direct and transparent about the challenges we face, and what it will take to work together to overcome them. This is a time for courage, not invisibility.
Wine, beer, martini, green tea or Lou’s milkshake?
Blues Sparrow hot chocolate. I love buying Vermont products!
What is your biggest fear or phobia?
I was once served a bowl of snakes in broth in China. That was pretty much where my adventurous spirit hit a wall.
What is your most energizing dream/vision for your future?
I want to be able to look my children and their friends in the eye and know I did everything I could to make this a state and nation where we work together with our neighbors and give everyone a fair chance. I want them to know that when we live in ways that protect the environment and institutions for the future, we are all better off.
Print or digital?
For pleasure, there is nothing like print.
What do you love most about living in Vermont?
The people and the place.