Sweet 17? A Readers Guide to the Crowded Chittenden County Senate Race
The unwieldy race to represent Vermont’s most populous county in the state senate might appear to be a free-for-all: six seats, 17 candidates, a fifth of the state’s population voting. You do the math.
But in the biennial battle to represent Chittenden County, the results are nearly always predictable: Incumbents easily win reelection, and challengers fight over the leftovers.
With a bumper crop of credible candidates in this year’s race, could that calculus be upended?
In addition to five incumbent senators seeking reelection, challengers include a former mayor of Burlington, a former House Agriculture Committee chairman, a Burlington city councilor, a Williston selectboard member and a former House member from Essex.
The field of 17 candidates will be winnowed slightly in August, when nine Democrats compete for six slots on that party’s slate. They will join two Republicans, a Progressive and five independents on the November ballot. Voters can choose up to a half-dozen candidates; the six highest vote getters win a ticket to Montpelier.
In Vermont’s most outsized legislative race, the incumbent advantage is not a myth. During the past decade, not a single sitting Chittenden County state senator has been defeated. The reasons are myriad: Incumbents have an easier time raising money, are experienced at campaigning and — most important in a crowded field — have better name recognition.
Case in point: Sen. Ginny Lyons, the longest-serving member of the Chittenden County delegation, came in first in the 2010 election with 28,605 votes, despite spending less than any other winning candidate.
Lyons, a former Trinity College professor from Williston, will be joined on the ballot this year by fellow Democratic Sens. Philip Baruth and Sally Fox, Republican Sen. Diane Snelling, and Democrat/Progressive Tim Ashe. The sixth member of the delegation, Democrat Hinda Miller, is not seeking reelection.
Baruth, a novelist and English professor at the University of Vermont who lives in Burlington, says that despite the trappings of incumbency, “My reelection is not assured.” In his first outing as a candidate in 2010, Baruth came in sixth with 25,179 votes, edging out his next closest competitor by just 1700 votes.
Baruth, who clashed during his first term with Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, says he hopes Miller’s seat will be filled by a more left-leaning candidate who supports legislation that was bottled up in a chamber controlled by moderates: decriminalizing marijuana, physician-assisted suicide and unionizing childcare workers.
“They’re all things that should have been a slam dunk for a 22-member caucus,” he says, questioning how a solidly Democratic body failed to deliver on these liberal initiatives.
If reelected, Baruth says he’ll fight for changes in procedure or in leadership, arguing that Campbell is ideologically out of touch.
“The left wing of the Democratic party is growing stronger,” Baruth says. “I definitely want changes, and I plan to vote for someone who’s offering changes from what we had last time.”
Among those who may try to deliver such changes is Ashe, who says he plans to run for majority leader or another top leadership position if he’s reelected to the Senate.
“It’s my opinion that the Senate is going through something of a generational transition, and I believe that I could play a positive role in bridging the veteran contingent with the newcomers and helping with the balancing act of 30 strong Senate personalities,” he says.
Ashe, an affordable-housing developer from Burlington, has twice won election to the senate as a “fusion” Democratic and Progressive candidate — and last fall narrowly lost the Democratic nomination for mayor.
“It’s my sense there is going to be change at some level in Senate leadership in the next term, and I would be excited to be part of that,” he says. “That said, I’m not looking beyond the fact that I have to win a primary and a general election before any of that has any chance of happening.”
Among the strongest candidates in the 2010 election was Fox, a Democrat from South Burlington, who came in second place, behind Lyons, with 27,448 votes. Though it was her first run for senate, Fox had previously spent 14 years representing Essex in the House. That experience provided her with an additional geographic base of support.
Fox missed much of the 2012 legislative session to focus on her health. She was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year and underwent surgery in March to remove a malignant tumor. While she continues to recover, Fox says, her campaigning may be curtailed — but she’s prepared for another term in Montpelier.
“This time I have a little less energy because I’m recovering from surgery, so I’m not 100 percent. So I’m not sure how much physically I’m running around,” she says. “But I’ve been given a clean bill of health. I don’t have any further treatment that I’m undergoing, so the likelihood that I would find myself in similar circumstances is, as far as my doctors are concerned, I’m going to be OK.”
Fox says that her recent health struggles have motivated her to return to the Statehouse and continue fighting for health care reform.
“I learned a lot about the health care system, really,” she says. “I’m going to have a different perspective than I have had up until now, certainly, seeing it from the consumer point of view.”
Snelling, the sole Republican representing the county in the senate, says she has survived politically because voters view her as a moderate and an independent — not as a member of the GOP.
“You have to choose a party, and I come from a long line of good Republicans and believe very much in having content-based conversations about issues, not politics,” says the daughter of former governor Richard Snelling and former lieutenant governor Barbara Snelling.
A member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Snelling says she’ll continue to focus on fiscal issues if reelected — particularly “measuring the results we get and the dollars we spend.”
“We can have all the arguments we want about which programs to support, but first we need to know what the dollars are doing,” she says.
The Democratic Primary
The presidential reelection fight is likely to lure a large number of voters to the polls in November. A high turnout could mean state Senate candidates have to collect at least 28,000 votes to win a seat.
But first, the nine Democrats in the running have to fight for just six positions on that party’s slate in the August 28 primary, which could be a poorly attended affair. In 2008, the highest vote getter in the county’s Democratic Senate primary won just 4358 votes. In 2010, that number was 13,045 — thanks to a heavily contested gubernatorial primary, which boosted turnout. This August, the only other race of note is a primary between two Democratic candidates for attorney general.
If each of the four incumbent Democrats wins a position on the party’s slate, that would leave five challengers fighting for two slots: Ed Adrian, Debbie Ingram, Peter Hunt, Loyal Ploof and David Zuckerman.
Adrian, who heads the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office of Professional Regulation, says he’s running on a platform of “technology, transparency through 21st-century communication and wind energy.” First elected to the Burlington City Council in 2007, Adrian has earned a reputation on that body for his hard-charging tactics and obsessive tweeting — a practice that’s banned on the floor of the Senate.
“I do think that the rules, as I understand them, need to be modified in order to accommodate transparency, technology and communication,” he says.
Debbie Ingram, a Williston selectboard member and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, has worked for the past five years as executive director of Vermont Interfaith Action. She says she’ll put to use the grassroots community-organizing skills she honed at the faith-based group during her Senate run — along with traditional campaign tactics.
“I plan to go to every farmers market and Fourth of July parade and chicken supper I can manage — and go door to door also,” she says.
Like Ingram, who plans to make the most of her Williston-area connections, Peter Hunt will rely on his decades of service to the town of Essex. A former three-term House member and retired principal of Hiawatha Elementary School, Hunt now runs an antique business.
“I’ve been in the village for close to 45 years now,” he says. “Because I’ve held so many offices and volunteer positions in the village, I know a lot of people.”
Hunt, who left the House in 2008 to work for former House speaker Gaye Symington’s gubernatorial campaign, says that if elected he intends to focus on supporting the middle class.
Loyal Ploof, a dog walker and filmmaker, may be targeting the same group, running under the slogan of “Restore Your Freedom Now.” A longtime Burlington activist, Ploof says he’s particularly focused on getting chloramine and fluoride out of drinking water and preventing the deployment of smart meters.
“I’m at a point where I’m sick of our politicians not listening to us,” he says. “People have come up to me and said, ‘Why should I vote if the politicians aren’t going to listen to what I want?’”
David Zuckerman has been there and back. After serving 14 years in the House — as a Progressive — and a stint chairing the agriculture committee, Zuckerman left the legislature in 2010. This time, he’s vying for the upper chamber, with different letters after his name. Following the examples set by Ashe and Sen. Anthony Pollina (D/P-Washington), Zuckerman is seeking a place on the Democratic ballot. He’s also hoping for a nod from the Progressives as a write-in — and, if elected, would identify himself as a “P/D.”
“Looking at the major issues of this last session that didn’t get resolved, many are issues I helped get started years ago,” he says, referring to GMO labeling, workers’ rights, physician-assisted suicide and health care reform. “And I’d like to get back to the Senate and continue that work,” he says.
Zuckerman, who recently moved his family and organic farm to Hinesburg, says that even if he loses the Democratic primary, he’ll still march onward as a Prog in the general election.
Democrats tend to dominate the Chittenden County Senate district, but this year’s designated Dems will face a number of compelling candidates in the general election. Only two hail from the state’s other two political parties: Progressive Terry Jeroloman and Republican Shelley Palmer, who is also running as a member of the Tea Party.
Jeroloman, a retired engineer and lawyer from Burlington who now hosts a local public-access television show, says he’s hoping to focus on reversing what he calls “the inequitable distribution of wealth.” In the 2010 Senate race, Jeroloman came in second to last, with 1934 votes.
Palmer, a Williston resident who makes a living operating heavy equipment and working for a painting crew, also ran for Senate two years ago. He came in 12th, winning 14,464 votes.
“There are very few people in the Vermont legislature who are qualified to run a wheelbarrow,” he says. “I’m on the bottom of the totem pole. I make less than the living wage.”
Palmer says that if elected he would fight single-payer health care reform and the “nanny state” — and he would work to reduce the size of government.
Another five candidates are running as independents, including Patrick Brown, Larkin Forney, Bob Kiss, Robert Letovsky and Sean Selby. Neither Kiss nor Selby could be reached for comment.
Brown, a Jamaica native and Burlington resident, is an adjunct professor at the University of Vermont, executive director of the Greater Burlington Multicultural Resource Center and owns the Caribbean Buffet restaurant. He says he hopes to fight for “the poor and working class, indigenous people, immigrants, people of color and youth.”
“Because I’m running as an independent, I would bring independence, which is just what the Senate needs,” he says. “Nobody will tell me how to vote except the citizens of Chittenden County.”
Forney, a homeless, self-published writer, is mounting his third campaign for the Senate. In 2008, he won 3121 votes; in 2010 he got roughly half that, coming in at last place.
“I’ve seen the injustice in the justice system,” Forney says. “I don’t think the politicians are working for us. I think they’re working for the people with money.”
Kiss, a former three-term House member and two-term mayor of Burlington, has the most political experience of anyone in the group. While elected previously as a Progressive, Kiss told Seven Days in May that he looks forward to running free of party labels.
“I reflect back on the last couple of years, and my position on the issues is really more of an independent voice,” Kiss said in May. “I’m definitely running as a progressive, but it’s a small ‘p.’”
Though Kiss’ tenure in office was marred by his administration’s mishandling of the municipally owned Burlington Telecom, the former mayor told Seven Days he looks forward to defending his city-hall record during his Senate campaign.
He’s up against Letovsky, a Jericho resident and chairman of the department of business administration and accounting at St. Michael’s College, who describes himself as “basically a single-issue candidate.”
“I am alarmed about the exodus of young people from this state,” Letovsky says. “My fear is that, 10 years from now, if I’m the youngest guy in the room, this state’s going to be one big early-bird special, and who’s going to pay the bills?”
To get out the word about his candidacy, Letovsky plans to hold a series of “public hearings” on legislation he’s drafted, such as the “I want to be able to live in Vermont but don’t want to live with my parents until I’m 40” Act.
Will his unconventional campaign strategy work?
“I think, frankly, the setup of [the Chittenden County Senate district] is highly skewed to favor somebody who’s from Burlington, someone who’s a city councilor, and the unwashed masses out in the ’burbs don’t count,” he says. “I have been here for 26 years, and the truth is, I’ve never had a state Senate candidate come to my house.”
Maybe this year?
(Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly).