Incoming state Democratic chair vows to be more aggressive

[R]etired AIDS activist Terje Anderson is poised to take over as chair of the state Democratic Party this weekend, promising a “more visible and aggressive” challenge to Republican views while clearly laying out the Democratic position.

Anderson will take over from Faisal Gill, the first Muslim elected as a major-party state chair in the country, who is stepping down to possibly run for office again.

Terje Anderson

Terje Anderson

Gill said he seeks a more activist political role that wasn’t possible while serving as party chair. He ran unsuccessfully for the Vermont Senate from Chittenden County in 2016. He was selected as interim party chair in March to replace Dottie Deans.

Anderson, 59, has been a high-profile activist in Vermont and nationally. He was the former executive director of the National Association of People with AIDS and served on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. He lives in Montgomery.

In a letter to Democratic Party committee members, Anderson outlined plans to improve communication with the membership, expand fundraising and strengthen the county committees with a “14-county, 251 town strategy.”

Anderson also promised to serve as a strong voice and to push for a “more effective, open, and progressive national party.” Anderson supported Sen. Bernie Sanders in his fight for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 against Hillary Clinton.

“I want to help build a stronger Democratic Party in function and funding, to do a better job supporting our candidates so we can sustain the inroads we’ve made and build on them in the Legislature and in the governor’s office,” Anderson said Wednesday.

Democrats are meeting Saturday in Montpelier. Anderson is uncontested for the post. Bolton town chair Peter Jemley also was running for chair but pulled out Wednesday and endorsed Anderson. Jemley said in a statement that he “stepped aside for the same reason Hilary [Clinton] should have stepped aside in the General Election: to help the strongest candidate [Bernie Sanders] win.”

Democrats have a strong majority in both the Vermont House and Senate, and their candidates hold all of the statewide offices except for governor. However, they are not without problems.

In his email stepping aside, Jemley spoke of communication problems with Gill and others in the party, as well as “the general cynicism and what I consider to be dinosaur-era fundraising” efforts. He said Anderson was a stronger candidate who shared his values and priorities.

The party recently had a successful fundraising event with U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., but this fall there were several occasions when the party was late on payroll, said Anderson, who was put on a special committee to try to beef up fundraising.

Anderson acknowledged the difficulty of unseating a first-term governor like Republican Phil Scott but predicted there would be a contested primary among Democrats in 2018 to take him on.

Scott is “personally popular but quite honestly has not been that impressive as governor,” Anderson said, adding that Scott had made “missteps” on teachers health care and other issues.

The only announced Democrat so far to run for governor in 2018 is environmental activist James Ehlers, the executive director of Lake Champlain International.

Gill, an attorney, said he will join the effort for universal primary health care in Vermont and hopes to help advocate for legislation next year. He said he would run for the Legislature again if an opening occurred. He finished eighth in a six-way Senate primary last year.

Democratic Party Executive Director Conor Casey praised Gill’s efforts.

“Given the current climate nationally, it says a lot that Vermont elected the first Muslim chair of a state party in the country. Faisal took the helm of the party during a difficult time, working to heal some of the wounds from the 2016 presidential primary,” he said.

“Over the past year, he’s crisscrossed the state, hearing from all different constituency groups and bringing new activists into the fold. We wish him the absolute best and expect to see him as a candidate in the very near future,” Casey added.

In 2014, journalist Glenn Greenwald revealed through the Edward Snowden leaks that Gill was among a small group of prominent Muslim U.S. citizens under National Security Agency surveillance. No evidence emerged of any wrongdoing.

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Mark Johnson

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