MANCHESTER — When Rep. Cynthia Browning called for a quorum on a remote voting question in late March, forcing 76 members into the House chamber just as the Covid-19 pandemic was emerging, it was the last straw for her political challengers.
The Bennington-4 Democratic representative has always had a reputation in the Statehouse as a political nuisance. Browning, who has held her seat since 2007, is staunchly principled. She often votes against party priorities and challenges leadership, like she did in March with her quorum call, for the sake of upholding Statehouse rules.
To some, she’s an uncollaborative political blockage. To others, she’s renowned for her fierce independence. Which is why much of this two-seat House race is coming down to a referendum on Browning’s record. Her opponents hope her quorum stunt will be the last straw for voters too — that is, if they know or care enough about Statehouse rules.
The race has another historical twist. Jamie Dufour, a local Manchester business owner who is running as a Democrat, is openly transgender. If she wins a seat, she could become Vermont’s first openly transgender lawmaker.
Browning is running as an independent to avoid being knocked out of the race by a party-backed primary opponent, which she suspected would come after she called for the quorum in March. So Aug. 11 is largely meaningless to her. Her fight comes in the November general election.
She’s also running as an independent to detach herself from a party whose priorities she doesn’t blindly follow. This past session she voted against paid family leave and the minimum wage bills — top legislative priorities for Democrats.
“It’s become clear that the Democratic House leadership in Montpelier is not willing to tolerate someone who votes as I do based on my principles and my best judgment,” Browning said. “I’ve always put what I thought was best for my constituents and best for Vermont above my own personal ambitions.”
She said she doesn’t regret calling for the quorum that gained her widespread criticism. Because she said she knew it was right — a token session where only a handful of lawmakers were present couldn’t be used to pass a provision to allow for remote voting by the entire body of lawmakers.
She said all members were socially distant. Some were wearing masks (at that point there was no CDC guidance suggesting they should be worn) so she doesn’t think any legislator was in danger.
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“It’s really important to follow the rules in democracy,” she said. “You can’t throw the rules overboard in an emergency without much more careful thought.”
Others disagreed. A Bennington Banner editorial called the move “less of a brave stand and more of a tantrum.” Terje Anderson, chair of the Vermont Democratic Party, condemned Browning’s quorum call in a statement, saying it was “an irresponsible step that unnecessarily risks the health” of Statehouse members and staff.
The move cost Browning her seat on the influential Ways and Means Committee. Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, wrote in an email to lawmakers that Browning “unnecessarily required every other member to choose between their duty to Vermont and the health and safety of their communities, peers, and loved ones at home.”
Browning was later assigned to the Agriculture and Forestry Committee, after criticizing the speaker on the floor for not reassigning her sooner and for keeping her from her legislative duty for most of the remaining session.
Browning, who has said she’ll run for speaker of the House if reelected, said that by keeping her off a committee for weeks, Johnson again broke Statehouse rules. “It just shows how insecure and vindictive she is,” she said.
Whether the quorum call will cost her her seat, Browning said she doesn’t know. Although people criticized her at the time, she said she also heard from people who agreed with the move. Now, she’s more focused on convincing voters that the Statehouse needs someone with her experience and expertise in economics to lead the state out of the Covid-19 crisis.
“My skills as an economist and an environmentalist are more important than ever, in terms of trying to deal with the economic consequences of the pandemic and how to resolve the budget and how to make the investments Vermonters need,” she said.
From her perspective, the state is going to have to borrow money to climb out of the budget deficit it found itself in, if the federal government doesn’t give out more money to states. Specifically, she thinks the state will have to take out a bond, like it does to fund capital projects, to invest in the areas that will keep the state afloat: schools, housing, etc.
This year won’t be Browning’s first battle. She’s faced tough elections in the past — she has finished second in the four two-seat elections since 2012 and she almost lost her race in 2016.
She hypothesized that maybe without the party’s support and the “D” next to her name, voters won’t support her. “I think Vermonters vote for the person or the candidate over the party,” she said. “But this particular election is very different from other ones. But I just couldn’t say.”
“I think I deserve it,” she said. “I think I’ve proven my skills and independence. But it’ll be up to the voters to say.”
The case against Browning
“We’ve really had effectively one legislator from Bennington from this district,” Seth Bongartz said while sitting in a lawn chair at the Dana L. Thompson Memorial Park in Manchester in early August.
“Cynthia has just not been an effective participant in the process,” he said. “I knew that, but I also thought it would be really hard to really demonstrate that. And then she demonstrated for us with, you know, the stunt at the end of the session.”
Bongartz is running a joint campaign with incumbent Rep. Kathleen James, D-Manchester, who is looking to secure a second term. He said their central platform is “collaboration and effectiveness,” a direct dig to Browning’s reputation as an individualistically stubborn lawmaker.
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He challenged Browning’s accusations that the Democratic Party is backing his run to oust her. He said that no one asked him to go up against Browning and that no one is giving him special support. When he witnessed her quorum call in March, which he thinks put lawmakers in unnecessary danger, he felt he had to get into the race. “I saw that and I just went, this is just too much.”
“She didn’t get her way so she threw a tantrum,” he said. “To force people back to Montpelier in the middle of the pandemic, as we were just figuring out how dangerous it was, is really, in my view, I just looked at it as alienating everybody for no purpose.”
He also wanted to run to get back into policymaking. Bongartz was elected to the House twice, in 1980 and 1982. In 1986, he ran for Senate and served one term. He was recently married and wanted to build a family and continue his career as a lawyer.
Beyond his vow to be a more collaborative lawmaker than Browning, Bongartz said his experience growing the Hildene operation — the Lincoln family home heritage site —and his work founding The Shires — a group that works to foster tourism in the Bennington region — gives him the experience to construct sound policy.
James said it was a “no brainer” to embark on a joint campaign with Bongartz because she knew he had a strong reputation in the region and she admired the career he built for himself. When she first came to the Statehouse, she wanted to build collaborative, effective relationships with her fellow lawmakers. She doesn’t think Browning is willing to do that.
“If I thought she was effective I wouldn’t be running with someone else,” James said.
James said she’s running on her record that she built her first term, when she sat on the House Education Committee. She’s been appointed to the New England Board of Higher Education and helped create a bipartisan caucus to strengthen Vermont’s tourism industry. She also won the rising star award from Vermont Conservation Voters for her work advocating for more renewable energy sources in Vermont.
Tom Haley, chair of the Bennington County Democratic Committee, said he thinks Bongartz is a strong candidate because he has name recognition from his previous time in Montpelier and his work in the Manchester region. There’s also the strategic advantage of having Bongartz and James running in a joint campaign. “It’s almost like you have two incumbents,” Haley said, referring to Bongartz’s past experience.
Haley shares Bongartz’s concerns about Browning’s quorum call. Haley said the Democratic Party is moving farther left than it’s previously been in Vermont, exemplified by policy pushes for paid family leave. He thinks it’s a good thing that Browning, who has a more conservative voting record, is running as an independent.
Although he recognized that the district Browning oversees does have a conservative reputation, which may explain why Browning might have a foothold in the region. At the same time, Haley said more liberal voters have been energized by President Donald Trump, which in part helped the Vermont Democrats score a House supermajority last election cycle.
“Last time around she came close to losing that seat,” Haley said. “I don’t think she has the support that she used to have.” In 2018, Browning was 207 votes away from losing to Republican candidate Brian Keefe.
Jamie Dufour has a big personality. She drives a bright yellow Lotus sports car and she throws axes in her free time on her front lawn.
Dufour isn’t running a traditional campaign. She doesn’t have a website, she isn’t raising money or buying signs. She discusses some policy issues on her Facebook page, but she’s not formally campaigning. She’s primarily relying on her connection to the community through her kitchen and bathroom remodeling business. (Both Bongartz and James said they didn’t know a lot about Dufour’s platform.)
Because of her experience as a small business owner who has struggled to retain a skilled and dependable workforce, Dufour’s central platform rests on fortifying small businesses. She supports the development of training programs for skilled workers, like plumbers and contractors. She doesn’t support parts of Act 250 because she thinks it inhibits business growth.
Unlike her primary opponents, Dufour likes Browning’s style as a lawmaker. Dufour is aiming to knock James out of her seat.
“I don’t think Kathleen has done anything of consequence for her constituents or this area,” Dufour said. “I think she’s scripted. I think she’s a puppet and looking to take Dick Sears’ seat when he retires.” Sears, a Democrat, is a veteran Bennington senator.
James responded that Dufour’s comments were “disappointing.”
“Instead of talking about her own ideas for our community or taking time to learn about the bills we’ve been voting on, she’s based her campaign almost entirely on negative personal attacks like this. That’s not the kind of leadership style that would help her succeed in the Statehouse,” James wrote in an email. “It says a lot about her, and nothing about me. And I think voters can decide if that’s the kind of person we want representing our community in Montpelier.”
If Dufour wins a seat, she would make history as one of the first openly transgender people to serve in a state legislature in the country. But she doesn’t want to be known as the transgender candidate in this race. In fact, she said she felt “outed” by previous coverage done by VTDigger and WCAX on her candidacy, and that she could make history as the first openly transgender Vermont lawmaker, if elected. (Dufour did not bring up these concerns when VTDigger initially reported on her candidacy.)
She said she doesn’t conceal her transgender identity in her Manchester community where she’s lived for more than 15 years. She just doesn’t talk about it. And she doesn’t think her identity will add anything special to Statehouse conversations.
“I think it’s going to be distracting more than it’s helpful,” she said, referring to her transgender identity if she were to make it to the Statehouse. “I don’t feel marginalized.”
Dufour said that if she were to win the primary she would see herself as an independent thinker, like Browning, in the House. She supports a minimum wage but thinks it should be set at a different level for people with more or less years of experience, per profession. She supports paid family leave, but she would have voted against it in the House because she didn’t think it was fair that some part-time workers were paying into the program but couldn’t benefit from it.
“I think people might expect me to be more in tune with certain things because they think I’m trans or that I’m a Democrat,” Dufour said. “I could have run as an independent.”
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