A cancer diagnosis is adding yet another wrinkle to the political campaign season in Vermont, by forcing the retirement of a longtime public servant and elected official.
"This is a tough day," said State Treasurer Beth Pearce, who revealed Wednesday she needs surgery and other treatments for an undisclosed form of cancer that was diagnosed last month. "I will not be seeking re-election."
The 68-year-old Democrat said she had planned to run again this fall, but after learning the results from an early April biopsy, will instead retire in January after six terms.
Pearce’s career has spanned 45 years in government finance in both Massachusetts and Vermont, according to her office.
"We are not like D.C., where you see the divisiveness," Pearce said of Vermont during a Wednesday press conference in Montpelier. "We are a state where people work together, they solve problems together. And I’m so grateful for the opportunity."
Pearce pointed to her office’s quick response to communities that needed funding help following Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 as one of her proudest moments. She also cited a program to help people with disabilities save for the future as another accomplishment.
Pearce hinted that before she leaves office, she plans to roll out a retirement program for private-sector employees not served by employer retirement benefits.
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The treasurer’s announcement should make an already hot political year in Vermont even hotter.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, Rep. Peter Welch, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, and Secretary of State Jim Condos — all Democrats — previously announced they are leaving their positions either to retire or to seek higher office. Those decisions created a cascade of down-ballot changes, too.
"It’s an honor for me to know you and to have worked with you," Condos told Pearce Wednesday before embracing her as friends and colleagues applauded.
Pearce drew praise and well wishes from both sides of the political aisle.
"Treasurer Pearce has been a steadfast public servant, deeply committed to Vermont," Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, said in a written statement. "For the past twelve years, serving together as statewide officials, I have enjoyed our collaborate [sic] relationship. Regardless of our differences, we have worked together well on several issues. I know Beth will continue to serve Vermonters well for the remainder of her term, and I wish her a speedy recovery."
Gray wrote that it is hard to imagine not having Pearce’s expertise in the Vermont treasurer’s office after nearly 20 years of service — first as deputy treasurer then as treasurer.
"Through her entire career she has remained an inspiration, a mentor, and steadfast champion for women in leadership at all levels of government," Gray said, adding that she and her husband wish Pearce a speedy recovery. "I am grateful for her mentorship and am honored to serve statewide with her."
Steve Howard, the executive director of the Vermont State Employees’ Association, praised Pearce’s work on a range of complex issues — including ongoing work to clean up Lake Champlain.
"Whoever takes her place has really big shoes to fill," Howard told NECN & NBC10 Boston. "I really think Vermonters owe her a tremendous amount, and I know they are all wishing her well and I know she is going to be back in fighting form fairly soon."
Chris Dube of the Vermont Municipal Employees Retirement System said he is grateful for Pearce’s work on issues like strengthening pensions for public employees.
"She’s always been an advocate of that — having that dignity — that when you retire, you don’t have to worry about finding where your next meal is going to come from," Dube said.
Pearce noted in her announcement that there is "unfinished business" that she wished she could be there to continue working on.
That includes more focus on pensions, she added, as well as determining how to best fund public building projects — challenges, now, for her eventual successor. Pearce said she hopes whoever ends up serving in the job next prioritizes Vermonters’ financial well-being.
As Pearce takes on cancer with optimism for her prognosis, she asked state leaders to make sure others have the same access to medical appointments and early diagnoses as she did.
"We need to make sure everyone has the opportunity for quality health care," Pearce emphasized.