Three Democrats vie for Caledonia-Washington House seat

The House of Representatives chamber at the Statehouse in Montpelier seen on Friday, February 21, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Three Democrats are vying to fill an open House seat in the towns of Danville, Peacham and Cabot that will be vacated by veteran Rep. Kitty Toll, D-Danville. 

The race for the Caledonia-Washington 1 House seat is one of the only competitive legislative primaries in 2020 outside of Chittenden County. On Aug. 11, voters will determine which Democratic candidate will face off against the Republican candidate for the seat, Bruce Melendy, in November. 

Learn more about the candidates — and how to vote — in VTDigger’s 2020 Voter Guide.

Henry Pearl, a Danville dairy farmer and Selectboard member, Gwendolyn Hallsmith, executive director of an international community development nonprofit, and Peter Griffin, a Danville-based attorney and former lawyer for the Office of Legislative Council, are all hoping to replace Toll. 

Toll, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, has served in the Legislature for 12 years. Before she was elected, the seat had typically been held by Republicans. 

Pearl, 32, who owns Hill View Farm in Danville, says that he is seeking the House seat because he wants to be a “voice for ag” in Montpelier. 

Henry Pearl. Courtesy photo

He said there are no longer any active dairy farmers serving in the Legislature. 

Rep. Rodney Graham, R-Williamstown, was the last dairy farmer in the Statehouse, until he sold his cows earlier this year. 

“People in this area have said that they want somebody that represents them that’s kind of like them as far as working class, and has kids in the public school system and owns a business in this area,” Pearl said. 

Pearl said he didn’t have any specific policy priorities, but would hope to serve on the House Agriculture Committee. 

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He views himself as more moderate than the other candidates in the primary race, which he thinks gives him an edge in the district.

Hallsmith, 60, who lives in Cabot, served as the director of planning and community development in Montpelier from 2006 to 2013, and now runs Global Community Initiatives, a nongovernmental organization that undertakes sustainable community development projects around the world. 

Gwendolyn Hallsmith. Courtesy photo

Between 2000 and 2004, she worked for the United Nations’ environmental program, where she was a consultant on sustainable cities.

Hallsmith has also helped cities including Burlington and Montpelier develop long-term sustainability plans and served as a deputy secretary for the state Agency of Natural Resources from 2000 to 2001.

“I think that my government experience and knowledge of how government works in Vermont and elsewhere, would serve the people in my district very well,” Hallsmith said.

If elected, Hallsmith said she would work to build out broadband to rural Vermont, support a “Green New Deal” to expand the state’s renewable energy and transportation sectors, and help the state’s economy recover from the pandemic. 

“We need to find creative ways to raise new revenues and put the state on sound economic footing,” she said.

Griffin, 52, used to own Old Shaw Farm in Peacham, where he grew organic vegetables, from 2002 to 2010. 

Between 2010 and 2019, he worked in the Statehouse with the Office of Legislative Council, where he gave legislators nonpartisan legal advice. 

Peter Griffin. Courtesy photo

He now works for the Jacobson Law Group, a Minneapolis-based firm that specializes in federal Indian law. 

Griffin said he has policy expertise on a number of statewide issues as a result of his legislative counsel experience, including education funding and environmental policy. 

“I felt like I had experience in the district running a business and dealing with people and living both in Peacham and in Danville which are two of the three towns in our district,” Griffin said. “But I’ve also had some experience with a more kind of statewide perspective.” 

Griffin said he would focus on aiding the struggling state college system, expanding broadband access, and creating more opportunities for small businesses and diversified agriculture. 

Covid-19 has complicated running for office this year, and the candidates in the Caledonia-Washington 1 House race, like in others across the state, have had to restrict in-person campaigning. 

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The Peacham Library recently hosted a Zoom forum for the Democratic candidates. 

“Other than that it’s just been phone calls and mailings … because there really hasn’t been any chance for people to have any sort of gatherings, or door to door or anything,” Pearl said. 

Toll said that she is not endorsing in the Democratic primary, but said she believes that Hallsmith, Pearl and Griffin are all “qualified candidates.”

“I’m encouraged to see that there’s this much excitement and enthusiasm about running,” Toll said. 

She said she believes that Democrats have an “excellent chance” of keeping the seat, and that running in a presidential election year will help them in November. 

“I think politics are local and whoever wins will win on their merits,” Toll said.

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Xander Landen

About Xander

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories for NPR affiliates including WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. While at WNYC, he contributed to an award-winning investigation of how police departments shield misconduct records from the public. He is a graduate of Tufts University and his work has also appeared in PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor.

Email: [email protected]

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