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September 16, 2013

Shumlin Taps Cheney, a Norwich Democrat, for Public Service Board

CheneyWhen Seven Days' Ken Picard covered the state's little-understood Public Service Board last year, he referred to its three members as "Vermont's most powerful men you've never heard of."

Come October, those three will remain all-powerful — but they won't all be old white dudes.

On Monday, Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed Rep. Margaret Cheney (D-Norwich) to replace David Coen, who's retiring after 18 years on the board. She'll be charged with overseeing Vermont's regulated utilities, which include everything from electric power to telecommunications to pipeline gas.

After seven years on the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee — including four as its vice chairwoman — Cheney (pictured here) says she's looking forward to her new assignment, which begins when she's sworn in on October 1.

"It builds on a base of knowledge I've been accumulating over the last seven years. Working on energy issues, I feel like I've almost earned an advanced degree," Cheney says.

The former journalist and teacher says she applied for the post in April and interviewed with the governor last week. In the interim, the state's Judicial Nominating Board whittled down the list of applicants to three. Shumlin said in a brief interview Monday that he was swayed by Cheney's "sense of fairness, ability to work together with people and her common sense.

"I was convinced that Margaret would bring to the board her extraordinary understanding of the energy needs of the state and the changing environment that we're in, moving from big generation to a world that's gonna embrace more and more renewables and more and more locally generated power," the governor said.

Despite her enthusiasm for the new gig, Cheney says she struggled with the decision to resign her House seat, which she plans to do at the end of the month. At that point, the Democratic committees in her four-town district will nominate a list of candidates, from which Shumlin will select a replacement.

"When you're in the legislature, you really develop some wonderful friendships," Cheney says. "It's like a family, really — and it's a really lively place. I'll miss that."

Cheney's allies in the legislature say they'll miss her, too.

"I think Margaret's going to be great on the Public Service Board," says House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown). "But on a personal level, I'm disappointed, because I consider her a great legislator, a confidant and a good friend. It's always disappointing to lose someone like that in the legislature."

Rep. Tony Klein (D-East Montpelier), who chairs the House energy committee, echoed the sentiment, calling it, "a great loss for me personally." At the same time, he hailed the appointment, citing Cheney's "deep knowledge of the areas the board regulates."

"She's not a lawyer, but she has the expertise," Klein says. "It means she is truly a representative of the everyday, average Vermonter."

On her committee, Cheney has carved out a niche as a forceful proponent of renewable energy, thermal efficiency and net-metering.

She's also received some political contributions from the industry. Of the mere $1175 she raised during her last reelection campaign, Cheney took in $200 from Renewable Energy Vermont and $250 from AllEarth Renewables founder David Blittersdorf. The former is a trade group that advocates for industrial wind development and the latter is co-owner of Georgia Mountain Community Wind, which operates a four-turbine, 10-megawatt facility in Chittenden County.

When she joins the board, Cheney will be charged with approving — or turning down — large-scale wind projects planned for the state. But she says that past contributions from REV and Blittersdorf would have no bearing on her decisions when she joins the board.

"Renewable energy has been a big goal for our state, and I'm proud that I helped with that when I was on the energy committee," she says.

Cheney adds that while she's always supported the state's renewable energy goals, she's never "singled out particular technologies," like wind power.

"I think every technology that is renewable needs to be part of the mix," she says. "I've never singled out ridge-line wind."

Cheney is married to Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who serves on the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee. In that capacity, Welch has raised tens of thousands of dollars this year alone from regulated utilities, including the American Cable Association, the American Gas Association, Comcast, AT&T, and Time Warner Cable. 

Cheney says she's "not aware" of those contributions and keeps her career "completely separate" from his. 

"If there were any [contributions], they would be relevant to his campaign, which is a totally separate matter," she says.

Welch's office declined to comment on Cheney's appointment Monday.

Disclosure: Paul Heintz worked as Peter Welch’s communications director from November 2008 to March 2011.

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