With two incumbents seeking higher office, the race to represent Chittenden County in the Vermont Senate has attracted 15 candidates for the six seats in the last election before the district is split in half.
A domino effect was set off in January when Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Progressive Democrat from Hinesburg, decided to run for governor. That prompted Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, to announce he would run for the lieutenant governor post. Sen. Debbie Ingram, D-Chittenden, quickly followed with the same plan, opening two seats in a district where incumbents have historically been difficult to beat.
The district’s four other incumbents are seeking reelection: Democrat Sens. Ginny Lyons, and Michael Sirotkin; Sens. Philip Baruth and Christopher Pearson run as Democrats and Progressives.
The candidate pool has a total of 13 Democrats, some familiar names, others newcomers. They are contending with each other during an unprecedented time, when Covid-19 has disrupted the conventional wisdom on fundraising and campaign strategies to run and win in the most populous county.
Rep. Dylan Giambatista, D-Essex Junction, was the first to announce and said he had campaign signs ready to go. Kesha Ram, a former Democratic state representative and onetime candidate for lieutenant governor, joined the fray.
In all, there are 15 candidates — 13 Democrats and two Republicans.
“Six months ago, I would have said 2020 was going to be the most energetic campaign year in a generation,” said Giambatista, who has served on the Education Committee and on Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson’s leadership team.
“Right now, I think we need to acknowledge that the only issue any of us are going to be dealing with in Montpelier in coming years, is going to be how do we rebuild this state,” he said.
In addition to the four incumbents, Ram and Giambatista, the slate of Democratic candidates includes, Assistant Attorney General David Scherr, former Burlington City Councilor Adam Roof and South Burlington Councilor Thomas Chittenden.
Also running are physician Louis Meyers, Richmond social worker Steve May, affordable housing advocate Erhard Mahnke, a former Burlington City councilor, and June Heston, the former president of the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Vermont. Heston has urged lawmakers to ban military burn pits after her husband died from exposure to toxic fumes.
An expensive race in an unprecedented time
Eric Davis, professor of political science emeritus at Middlebury, said a large number of candidates can be expected when incumbents don’t run for re-election.
“Incumbents tend to win in the state Legislature, so your opportunity to get in is when there is an open seat,” Davis said.
Candidates will face new challenges presented by campaigning during the Covid-19 pandemic. Traditional measures to reach voters and debate each other won’t work, he said.
“Some of these candidates won elections, one has a well known name, some have held public office before,” Davis said of the crop of Democratic hopefuls. “I wouldn’t want to say one has an advantage over the other.”
Davis also said it will be interesting to see if the candidates who take the two open seats are from the Burlington area and how that may affect how the Senate district may be changed in the coming year.
“A lot of these candidates are from Burlington and South Burlington, so if the delegation heavily represents this area, it will be interesting to see how the people redistricting will decide to go about it,” he said.
Last year, the Vermont Legislature and the governor approved a proposal to break Chittenden County into at least two districts beginning in the 2022 general election.
The Chittenden County senatorial district with its six members has long been an anomaly across the country — no other state senatorial district in the nation is served by so many lawmakers, raising concerns that the delegation has carried too much clout in Montpelier.
The Chittenden County Senate race can be expensive, particularly when an incumbent decides not to run. In 2016, the last time two incumbents didn’t run, seven new candidates and the four incumbents brought in a combined $293,279 for the primary and general election.
That year, David Zuckerman ran for lieutenant governor and Sen. Helen Riehle, a Republican, stepped down.
Pearson and Ingram were the two non-incumbents to win seats. Pearson, who received a fundraising boost when Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., endorsed him, brought in $98,488. Ingram raised $33,220. Scherr, 377 votes behind, finished in seventh place, while raising $35,936.
Candidates adapt to Covid-19 crisis
Scherr said the crowded field this year is similar to 2016. But the coronavirus has already made the campaign a much different experience.
“Everybody seems to be starting the serious campaigning late — and that makes perfect sense,” he said.
Scherr also said fundraising is markedly different than four years ago. He has been more reticent to ask for money.
Money isn’t everything in the Senate race. In 2016, Faisal Gill, a lawyer who became interim chair of the Vermont Democratic Party in 2017, raised more than $50,000 but only received 6,645 votes.
“I haven’t thought much about the election other than to file my paperwork and work up the courage for another term,” Pearson said.
“I have personally always been more focused on the legislative session than on campaigns. I will have to be disciplined to not let the session work completely overwhelm my own campaign. It’s on my list to figure out how to do that,” Pearson said
Pearson said he hasn’t raised “a dime” yet and might be behind the Eight Ball, but “I also know that I’m focused on what has to be the priority right now,” he said.
So far this year, Ram has raised $43,326, while Giambatista has brought in $17,514, according to the most recent campaign finance filings. The only incumbent to report any fundraising activity so far is Lyons, who has received $20.
The coronavirus pandemic and the economic meltdown that has accompanied it has already changed how the candidates are campaigning and fundraising.
Ram, who ran for lieutenant governor in 2016 and spent eight years in the Vermont House, said in an interview that her campaign team of six has been reaching people via social media and working the phones. She said some are eager to help.
“I’ve found that people who have not fared poorly during the pandemic are looking at ways to help the state and one of those ways is to support candidates like myself,” Ram said.
“I think what people are looking for right now is a combination of experience to hit the ground running in Montpelier and to have bold ideas,” she added.
Mahnke said he’s actively fundraising and wants to use his years of advocacy for affordable housing and public service to help get the state “back on track” after the coronavirus crisis.
“We’ve seen Chittenden County races where people spend up to $100,000. I’m clearly not setting that as a target, anywhere near that, but I feel like I need to do a reasonable amount of fundraising to run a competitive campaign, and to get my name out there,” Mahnke said.
Thomas Chittenden, the former board chair of Green Mountain Transit (GMT) who is looking to support the state college system and create regionalized transportation initiatives to cut carbon emissions, is asking people who are interested in supporting his candidacy to first donate money to the local food shelves.
“These are times where, when we start coming out of this, we’re going to need to do things differently in Montpelier,” Chittenden said. He added he supports all four incumbents seeking reelection and will not be targeting them.
Giambatista said he has stopped fundraising altogether.
“I’ve been told it’s political malpractice to suspend fundraising in a competitive election,” Giambatista said. “That’s fine, but I remind my colleagues, there is no playbook for this moment.”
Another first time candidate, Adam Roof, who has spent five years on the Burlington City Council, said he is not only looking for financial help, but asking people to volunteer for his campaign.
Roof said he is already thinking about ways to use technology to try to ensure Vermont is a “national leader in environmental sustainability and a green economy” but is also aware that the state will be facing tough decisions because of the Covid-19 economic crisis.
“We are going to need to do more with less over the next couple of years,” he said.
Don’t expect incumbents to be campaigning much
While Covid-19 has changed how newcomers are campaigning, the way the pandemic hit during the time the session was typically held will mean lawmakers are conducting business perhaps during the time of the Aug. 11 primary.
That means the four incumbents will continue to work on the state’s coronavirus response at a time they might be typically campaigning.
“Ordinarily, we’re done in the middle of May and election season doesn’t really start so much before then. But this time we’re going to be in session right through the end of June and we vote in mid-August,” Baruth said.
“It puts me in a world where I’m trying to do 15 things at once and if anything has to go, it’s going to be campaigning,” he said.
“I hope people won’t take it amiss if they don’t see an active campaign from me for a while,” Baruth added.
As an incumbent, Baruth and the three others do have some protection and less of a need to raise money compared to newcomers. Since he first won his seat, Baruth has raised less money every time he has run for reelection.
“Last time I raised about $6,000 to $7,000 and I probably won’t raise that this time around. If someone is new to the race and they are trying to make themselves known, they have to raise money and they have to spend more,” he said.
Republicans entries and Chittenden House races to watch
In the lead up to the May 28 deadline for primary candidates to file, it appeared no Republicans would run.
However, Tom Chastena, a Milton small business owner who runs Chastenay Plumbing & Heating, and Ericka Redic, who has made multiple bids for Burlington City Council, both threw their hats in the ring for the Republican primary.
In recent years the Chittenden County senate district has predominantly elected Democrat or progressive members. Diane Snelling was the last Republican to win a senate seat in the district — as an incumbent — in 2014.
Redic is running as a self-described conservative libertarian, who is running on a platform centered around economic development, public safety and opposing tax increases.
In addition to the Senate race, there are also open seats in Chittenden County’s House districts.
Reps. Johanna Donovan, D-Burlington, and her district mate Mary Sullivan have both announced they are stepping away from the Statehouse, as has Diana Gonzalez, a Progressive, who represented Winooski.
With both Donovan and Sullivan bowing out, that leaves the Chittenden-6-5 district up for grabs. Five candidates are running in the Democratic primary. In Winooski, incumbent Rep. Hal Colston is running for reelection and two candidates — Jordan Matte and Taylor Small — are competing for the seat left vacant by Gonzalez.
Many candidates said they believe there is still a strong appetite among residents for a competitive primary and campaign season, despite the coronavirus crisis.
“I actually sense relief with the normality that comes with campaigns and to engage in the more normal cycles of life and that includes elections every two years in Vermont,” Scherr said.
“I think there is a general sense that democracy doesn’t stop for a crisis and we still have to make decisions and have elections about what our priorities are and who our leaders are,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this article mischaracterized Adam Roof’s fundraising efforts. It also stated Thomas Chittenden was still board chair of GMT.
Missing out on the latest scoop? Sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on politics. And in case you can't get enough of the Statehouse, sign up for Final Reading for a rundown on the day's news in the Legislature.