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Democratic candidate for governor Brenda Siegel says Vermont needs a new kind of leader

A woman wearing glasses and a dark blazer outside a two-story white building
Peter Hirschfeld
/
Vermont Public
Brenda Siegel speaks at a recent campaign appearance at Jenna's Promise in Johnson. She says advocating for marginalized Vermonters "at times can be a lonely place to be."

On a chilly September evening on the outskirts of downtown Johnson, Brenda Siegel prepared to address a small crowd that had gathered outside a substance use recovery center, called Jenna’s Promise.

It was an official campaign event for Vermont’s Democratic nominee for governor. But on this day, Siegel veered from the stump speech she usually delivers at appearances like this.

“Normally I start a little bit differently, but because I’m here at Jenna’s Promise, I’m going to start and tell you a little bit about myself,” Siegel began. “In March of 2018, my nephew, his name was Kaya Siegel, died of an overdose.”

Since her nephew’s death, Siegel has worked doggedly to transform the way Vermont deals with the opioid epidemic.

Siegel says Vermont needs universal access to treatment on demand and facilities that can treat substance use disorder alongside co-occurring mental health issues.

She’s been especially vocal about the need for better harm reduction programs, including places where people can inject drugs under medical supervision without fear of arrest.

“I think … she put a lot of pressure within the Statehouse.”
Chittenden County Sen. Ginny Lyons

“I am an outspoken advocate, which at times, can be a lonely place to be,” Siegel told a group of people sitting outside in folding chairs. “And it’s a sword that I will fall on over and over and over again until it changes.”

For Siegel, who’s 45, the personal is often political.

“I’m of a generation where lots of people saw the promise of opportunity just slip away, and they don’t want that to happen anymore,” she said in an interview with Vermont Public. “They want their children to have more opportunity, and be able to thrive here.”

Siegel says she saw her own opportunity begin to slip away when she became a mom at 24, while in a relationship with an abusive partner.

“I am suddenly kind of thrust into poverty and struggling to figure out what is next,” she said. “I’m very much alone with the baby. It’s just me and the baby.”

More from Vermont Public: Brenda Siegel on her win in the uncontested Democratic primary for governor and taking on Gov. Scott in the fall

Right before her son was born, Siegel had been interning in Sen. Bernie Sanders’ office in Washington, D.C., often taking notes on meetings about Medicaid and other social welfare programs.

Then she became a single mom with no job and no income.

“And found myself in a situation where I needed some of those supports, and suddenly I became the person that I had always watched Bernie Sanders fight for,” she said.

A woman speaking at a podium, with five men behind her, on the Statehouse steps
Peter Hirschfeld
/
Vermont Public
Brenda Siegel held a press conference in late August to criticize Gov. Phil Scott's abrupt changes to the Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

Siegel’s financial situation hasn’t improved much since then. Last year, she made $17,000. The year before she ran for lieutenant governor, in 2020, she made $8,000. Those figures comes from personal financial disclosures she filed with the secretary of state.

Siegel counts her financial hardships among her political assets now, because only somebody who’s had to rely on public benefits, she said, can see how damaged the human services system has become.

“Because it’s really hard to imagine what it’s like to, for example, interact with economic services if you’ve never had to interact with economic services,” she said. “Things might seem reasonable that you later find out really are not.”

After a run for governor in 2018 in which she failed to make it out of the Democratic primary, Siegel set out to become a change agent in the Vermont Statehouse.

Some high-profile Vermont lawmakers say Siegel’s advocacy has delivered results.

“I think she was very effective in that,” said Chittenden County Sen. Ginny Lyons. “I think … she put a lot of pressure within the Statehouse.”

Lyons said Siegel gets special credit for the Legislature’s decision to decriminalize an opioid-treatment drug called buprenorphine.

Siegel has pressed the Legislature for change in other arenas too, including housing and criminal justice reform.

"One thing that I have noticed about Brenda is that she’s not a one-sort-of-topic advocate ... she cares greatly about a lot of things.”
Burlington Rep. Barbara Rachelson

Her style can sometimes rankle even Democratic lawmakers. She’s been known to confront legislators after committee meetings to openly challenge their positions — a perceived breach of etiquette to some members of the General Assembly. And she’s held press conferences late in the session to denounce the lack of progress in Montpelier on issues like minimum wage or paid family and medical leave.

“You have to negotiate and collaborate when you’re in the political environment, so her bringing up issues that we were already working on and telling us we weren’t doing enough, that was a little bit of a concern, absolutely,” Lyons said.

More from Vermont Public: A guide to voting in Vermont for the 2022 midterm election

Lyons said she was also initially concerned about Siegel’s lack of political experience, though she said she’s been “somewhat reassured” after talking to Siegel about her background.

Lyons said she’ll be voting for Siegel, because she’s the Democratic nominee. But she said the state will experience some growing pains if Siegel wins.

“If we have a new governor and a significant number of new legislators, it’s going to take at least a year for people to get their feet on the ground, possibly two years,” Lyons said.

For Burlington Rep. Barbara Rachelson, whatever learning curve Siegel requires will be a worthwhile tradeoff for a new governor.

“I would be excited to have a shakeup,” Rachelson said.

A woman in a white shirt and a man in a green jacket holding a cigarette sitting on a park bench
Peter Hirschfeld
/
Vermont Public
Brenda Siegel sitting in 2019 with Shawn O'Dell, a man who was then experiencing homeless, and who Siegel befriended in Brattleboro.

Last fall, Siegel slept on the Statehouse steps for 28 days, often in freezing conditions, to protest Gov. Phil Scott’s emergency housing policy.

Rachelson was impressed.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh … like, good for her,’” she said.

Rachelson said she thinks Siegel’s actions figured in Scott’s decision to expand emergency motel housing last winter — something the Scott campaign dismisses.

“You know, it drew enough attention — I’m hoping that was one of the ways that things sort of got unstuck a little bit,” Rachelson said.

Rachelson’s convinced Siegel would surround herself with a savvy and diverse leadership team if she does win. And if Siegel can move the dial as a freelance advocate with no organizational backing, Rachelson said, then imagine what she could do as governor.

“More and more … it feels like state government is not performing well. Housing’s a mess,” she said. “I keep hearing more concerns about how Department of Mental Health, DCF are functioning.”

While Siegel initially built a name for herself advocating on opioid and housing issues, she said her policy expertise extents to other arenas as well. She’s a member of the Public Transit Advisory Council, a position she was entrusted to fill by the Community of Vermont Elders, which gets to appoint a member to that panel.

“One thing that I have noticed about Brenda is that she’s not a one-sort-of-topic advocate, like she cares greatly about a lot of things,” Rachelson said.

Siegel said she knows she doesn’t fit the mold voters might have come to expect from prospective governors.

“I am not a typical candidate for governor,” she said.

The Newfane resident has never held political office before. She’s never worked in state government. And she hasn’t been a mover and shaker in the private sector either.

A woman sitting at a desk in front of a laptop computer
Peter Hirschfeld
/
Vermont Public
Brenda Siegel during a recent campaign strategy meeting.

But Siegel’s relentless advocacy — and her high-octane criticism of Republican Gov. Phil Scott — have won her admiration and acclaim.

And as economic conditions make it harder and harder for low- and middle-income Vermonters to thrive, Siegel thinks the state is ready for a new kind of leader.

“Frequently, Phil Scott does something like what’s happening with [the emergency rental assistance program], where it’s clear that the administration makes a huge mistake and doesn’t really get held accountable the way that they should, considering it’s Vermonters that have to pay the price for those mistakes,” Siegel said.

With gubernatorial vetoes piling up on bills related to climate change and criminal justice reform, Siegel said, Scott has revealed himself as a barrier to progress.

“He has been quite effective at blaming our legislators when it isn’t really their fault for things that we aren’t moving forward on,” she said. “That is something that has been a huge problem for progress in our state, on climate, on the overdose crisis, on housing, is not having a real partner [in the governor’s office].”

“I am an outspoken advocate, which at times, can be a lonely place to be. And it’s a sword that I will fall on over and over and over again until it changes.”
Brenda Siegel, Democratic nominee for governor

In order to prevail in November, Siegel will first have to energize a Democratic base didn’t warm to her in her previous statewide runs.

In her run for lieutenant governor in 2020, for example, Siegel finished third in a four-way Democratic primary with less than 10% of the vote.

She also faces the power of Phil Scott's incumbency.

When the state's largest child care advocacy organization launched a political action arm earlier this summer, Siegel seemed like a natural pick for an endorsement.

Siegel says she's willing to support a tax increase to pay for increased child care subsidies. Scott has dismissed the idea out of hand.

Yet Let's Grow Kids Action Network had told voters that Scott's the best candidate on child care. Network President Aly Richards recently explained why.

“We’ve worked really successfully with Gov. Scott and his administration throughout his tenure as governor,” Richards said. “We have a longstanding relationship with him and his team.”

Siegel, however, has picked up important endorsements from organizations including the Vermont-NEA, Vermont State Employees Association, and Vermont Conservation Voters.

And a recent poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire suggested that she's gained considerable ground on Scott in recent months.

Siegel says public service is in her constitution.

“If you see something that needs to change in the world, then we should all be part of making that change,” she said.

And Siegel said she can make the most change from inside the governor’s office.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld:

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The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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