Government & Politics

Walters: First-time candidates face campaigning in a pandemic

Tanya Vyhovsky, shown speaking earlier this year at a Statehouse press conference, is running for the Vermont House in the Chittenden 8-1 district. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

In normal times, deciding to run for the Vermont Legislature is a difficult process. Can you balance work and family? Can you devote several months to the grind of campaigning? Can you maintain a career while serving in the Statehouse for five months a year?

And can you win?

Let’s say you manage to answer “yes” and launch your candidacy. And after all that, a pandemic hits.

“There’s nothing like announcing you’re running for office and then a week later, everything changes,” said Katherine Sims, a Craftsbury Democrat running for the seat occupied by the retiring Rep. Sam Young, D-Greensboro. This is a return to politics for Sims, who ran for the House unsuccessfully in 2012 and 2016. 

Karen Dolan got a double dose of whiplash. The Essex Junction Democrat was circulating candidacy petitions for village trustee, when incumbent Rep. Dylan Giambatista, D-Essex Junction, announced he was running for state Senate. “I took a couple of weeks, met with community leaders, and decided [running for House] made a lot of sense.” She announced in mid-February — less than a month before Gov. Phil Scott announced a state of emergency.

“My campaign went on pause,” said Tanya Vyhovsky, an Essex Progressive running in the Democratic primary in the Chittenden 8-1 district, currently represented by Democratic Rep. Marybeth Redmond and Republican Rep. Linda Myers, who is not seeking reelection. “I’ve done some interviews and town halls, but I haven’t been looking for opportunities [to campaign].”  (Vyhovsky ran as a Prog in 2018 and lost. She's hoping her name recognition from that race will get her over the hump this year.)"

“It was a big challenge as it was,” said Sally Achey, a Republican taking on incumbent Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, P-Middletown Springs. “Now, I can’t go out and talk to anyone.”

Getting out in the community is Job One for any legislative candidate, but especially a first-timer. Even more so for a newbie tackling an incumbent, who has an edge in community connections and name recognition. Achey hopes to be able to do traditional campaigning at some point, but she wonders if things will truly get back to normal. “If I go door to door, it’s sort of invading someone’s safe space,” she noted.

You might think the pandemic would prompt some second thoughts, or even some withdrawals, among candidates who've never held office. You’d mostly be wrong.

“I never thought of quitting, but is connecting with enough voters even a possibility?” said Scott Pavek, one of four first-time candidates in Burlington’s solidly Democratic south end. The two incumbents, Mary Sullivan and Johanna Leddy Donovan, are both retiring. Pavek, Tiff Bluemle, Gabrielle Stebbins and Jesse Paul Warren are all running to replace them.

Gabrielle Stebbins is running for the Vermont House from Burlington's south end.

“I will say I could have done it at an easier time,” Stebbins remarked. But for her and many of her fellow candidates, the pandemic has affirmed their decision to get involved. “Coronavirus has revealed just where the cracks are in our social and environmental structure,” Stebbins said.

“This has just deepened my commitment,” Sims said. “In rural Vermont, we already struggle on child care, health care, internet access, economic development. We need strong voices at the table.”

Zack Lang, a Republican challenging incumbent Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, said he didn’t have any second thoughts. “As difficult as it can be, I’m dedicated to campaigning and getting into the House,” he said.

Beyond the lack of face-to-face opportunities, there’s also the fact that asking people for money seems a little tone-deaf right now. “I had done a little fundraising, but I’ve basically stopped,” said Kirk White, a Bethel Democrat looking to replace the retiring Rep. Sandy Haas, P-Rochester. “My political aspirations are not a major consideration for people right now.”

For a few candidates, the indefinite suspension of “normal” is actually a blessing because their regular jobs have suddenly gotten much busier. Alyssa Black, the Essex Democrat challenging incumbent Rep. Bob Bancroft, R-Westford, is the billing manager for Evergreen Family Health. Like other family practices, her shop is facing a substantial drop in revenue. “I’ve put the campaign on hold to tackle my work,” Black said. “The majority of my time is fighting with insurance companies, trying to keep up with changing protocols and requests for information. I’m trying to, every two weeks, see how much money I can bring in to make payroll.”

Vyhovsky is a social worker. “This turned my work life on its head,” she said. “I’m doing things by telehealth, and helping schools navigate distance learning. The campaign can wait.”

Katherine Sims
Katherine Sims is running for the Vermont House in the Orleans-Caledonia district. Photo by Justin Trombly/VTDigger

For these candidates and their parties, the pandemic has forced a fundamental rethinking of what it means to run for office. “We’re trying to figure out what a campaign looks like now,” said Josh Wronski, executive director of the Vermont Progressive Party. 

“There’s a lot of conversation on the question end, but not much on the answer end,” said former state representative Paul Dame, legislative recruitment coordinator for the Vermont Republican Party. “You can’t say, ‘This is a tried and true method.’ How do we solve problems with no track record?”

Vermont Democrats are advising their candidates to set politics aside for the moment. “Embrace your community,” said R. Christopher Di Mezzo, the party’s communications director. “Then, when it’s time for politics again, you’ll have a connection with your community.”

The party is urging candidates to engage in volunteer activities, and use the Dems’ vaunted voter lists to make contact with people — not for political purposes, but simply to check in with them.

“There’s a party initiative to check in on people to see how they’re doing,” said Brian Shelden, a Democratic candidate from Essex Town (and town party chair). “A lot of people are isolated. It’s a resource the party has, and it’s a way to do good work for the community.”

This would usually be the time when the parties are struggling to recruit candidates for vacant spots on their tickets. The customary late-May deadline has been waived because of the pandemic, but for obvious reasons it’s gotten harder to recruit since the pandemic hit.

“Fewer people are initiating the process,” Dame said, “but some who were on the fence have buckled down and said ‘Yeah, I’m in.’”

Di Mezzo said the Dems had completed much of their recruitment efforts before Covid-19 hit, but acknowledged that filling the remaining vacancies isn’t easy. “Conversations with potential candidates are usually personal,” Di Mezzo said. “It’s harder to do that over the phone. But we’re still plugging away.”

The 2020 campaign season is already unprecedented. And its future shape is entirely a mystery, at the mercy of forces beyond anyone’s control. “Anyone who makes a plan more than 2-3 weeks out is a blushing optimist,” Dame said.

In an enterprise built on planning and organization, that’s a formula for another kind of outbreak — of headaches and ulcers among our political class.

Correction: Rep. Linda Myers, R-Essex, name has been corrected.

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John Walters

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