'What is the future going to be?': House race in NEK has voters pondering next steps for rural Vermont
On an old dirt road commissioned by George Washington during the Revolutionary War, Colleen Goodridge recently showed off the lumber mill she started with a single saw 48 years ago. Six men worked in open air under a metal roof, edging, trimming and defecting white cedar logs that were harvested less than 75 miles from this mill in Albany.
Goodridge is an evangelist for the forest products industry.
“All those benefits of healthy forests, clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat, wood products, and yes, the best tool in the toolbox for climate change,” Goodridge said.
But Goodridge, who’s about to turn 70, and her three sons, all in their 40s, are worried about the future of forest and agriculture operations like theirs.
“Working here but also being a business owner, a challenge we face are all the regulations and, you know, hoops you have to jump through if you want to start a business,” said Mark Goodridge, who oversees planning operations at Goodridge Lumber and also handles most of the maintenance and repair.
Mark Goodridge isn’t convinced that lawmakers in Montpelier understand the issues that business owners face, in his industry especially.
And as Colleen Goodridge thinks about who’ll get her vote for state representative on Nov. 8, she’s asking herself one key question: Which candidate will do most to protect and preserve the legacy industries that built the Northeast Kingdom?
“So what is the future going to be? And what have you dedicated your life to for 48 years?” Goodridge said. “And what’s it going to look like? And how are you going to do it?”
"We’ve got more people in town, older folks, less younger people. People can’t come here and afford to buy land or to buy houses, so that’s a problem."Tim Nisbit, Greensboro resident
Republican Vicki Strong and Democrat Katherine Sims have been campaigning overtime this election season to convince voters like the Goodridges that they’ll be the strongest voice in Montpelier for rural Vermont.
“You know, talking to my neighbors … I hear people love living up here because of the outdoors, the working landscape that we have, our farms and our forests, the great recreational opportunities that we have, the world-class beer,” Sims said recently at a picnic table outside the Craftsbury General Store. “And yet it feels like so often we’re left behind, that infrastructure investments don’t quite make it up here, so I was motivated to be a strong voice for rural communities, to have a seat at the table.”
Sims first moved to Vermont after graduating from Yale University. She wanted to work on an organic farm in the Green Mountains.
“I’ll never forget walking into the general store and people saying, ‘Hey you must be the new girl working at the farm!’” Sims recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is a different level of community where everybody at the general store knows your name, and you get stuck in the snowbank and the first person that drives by pulls you out.’”
The demographics of that community have changed over time.
One person who’s witnessed the evolution is Tim Nisbit, who moved to Greensboro 52 years ago and used to run an automotive repair shop called Greensboro Garage.
“At that time there was approximately 600 people in town and maybe 15 active dairy farms,” Nisbit said.
Greensboro’s population has jumped by about 30% since then.
“Probably as far as dairy farms, I bet we’re down to three or four, if that,” Nisbit said.
Residents are also older on average than they were when Nisbit moved to town.
“And what I’ve really seen happen is our school, which was just for the town of Greensboro, go from 120 students down to less than 60 at this point with two towns involved as a union,” he said. “So therefore the demographics have changed. We’ve got more people in town, older folks, less younger people. People can’t come here and afford to buy land or to buy houses, so that’s a problem. We don’t have young families with children to fill our schools.”
Nisbit said that if livability for young families is the problem for rural Vermont, then he thinks Sims brings a needed perspective to fix it.
“I think as a young working parent, I provide a really important perspective that hasn’t always been there at the table,” Sims said.
Sims is a first-term legislator who lives in Craftsbury. She’s also a 40-year-old mother with 3- and 5-year-old boys. She said that’s one of the reasons she’s such a strong proponent of increased public investments in child care, paid family and medical leave, and easier access to preventative health care.
And while Strong is a passionately anti-abortion candidate, Sims is an outspoken supporter of an abortion rights amendment on the ballot Tuesday, known as Article 22.
“I see myself as a part of a group of new young women who are bringing new leadership to the Statehouse who want to work collaboratively to bring new perspectives, new energy, new ideas, new ways of thinking to Statehouse,” Sims said.
“We are going to see fewer Republican seats in the Northeast Kingdom largely because our recruiting measures fell short.”Paul Dame, executive director of the Vermont GOP
Districts in Vermont’s rural northeast have historically favored fiscally conservative candidates with an aversion to new taxes. Jim Dandeneau, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party, says that may be changing.
“And what we’ve heard this year is that doors are being opened for Democratic candidates that are knocking on them that were slammed in their faces in 2018,” Dandeneau said.
The Kingdom is often perceived as Trump territory, by Vermont standards at least. But only about 32% of voters in this four-town district cast ballots for Donald Trump in 2020.
And Democrats see an opening. The VDP is paying for a full-time field organizer, based in St. Johnsbury. And Dandeneau says the party is also hoping to pick up House seats in nearby districts in St. Johnsbury, Lyndonville, Derby and Canaan.
Democrats are benefiting heavily this cycle from the fact that the Vermont GOP couldn’t field candidates in some districts that are currently represented by Republicans.
“We are going to see fewer Republican seats in the Northeast Kingdom largely because our recruiting measures fell short,” said Paul Dame, executive director of the Vermont GOP.
The potential for a bluing of the map in this region of the state is causing angst among some residents here.
There’s a narrow dirt road in West Glover that dead ends on a piece of old farmland with views of Mt. Mansfield, Camel’s Hump, and the Worcester range.
John Rodgers’ family has been living and working this land since the early 1800s. And he’s watched the community evolve over time.
“It’s an interesting place, because there are so many families like mine with super deep roots, whose families have been here for generations and basically built this area,” Rodgers said. “But there’s also been a huge influx of new Vermonters coming from all over the country, and frankly all over the world.”
Rodgers said a lot of the people born and raised here share a common backstory.
“Most of us grew up poor. You know, we grew up on a dairy farm in relative poverty. We never went hungry because we farmed, we always had clothes and a roof over our heads,” he said. “And so you’ll find the majority of the people around here, whether they’re Democrat or Republican, they’re fiscally conservative because of the way they grew up.”
Rodgers said in his experience at least, newer arrivals tend to fall farther left on the political spectrum.
Rodgers is a Democrat. He used to represent Glover in the Vermont House of Representatives, and then Orleans County in the Vermont Senate.
But as Democrats look to pick up seats in the traditionally conservative towns of the Northeast Kingdom this year, Rodgers has some concerns about what it means if they succeed.
“Well it may tell us we need to go back to the name New Connecticut. That’s what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid of losing the culture of the Vermont I grew up in,” Rodgers said.
That sentiment is one that incumbent Republican lawmaker Vicki Strong shares, and is also looking to capitalize on in the upcoming election.
“The people who are moving in have more of that government mindset — it’s the government that solves the problems,” Strong said outside the Busy Bee Diner in Glover’s downtown. “I don’t think so. I think the government can often create the problems.”
Strong came to Vermont 40 years ago to attend Sterling College in Craftsbury. She figured out pretty quickly that she didn’t want to leave.
“I think you can just be yourself,” she said. “There’s no like, peer pressure to be somebody. You don’t have to have a certain car or lifestyle, you just be you, that’s what I like about it.”
As she knocks on doors, attends local meetings and chats with prospective voters at the local grocery store or post office, Strong said she’s heard a consistent message.
“A lot of people here have a lower-wage job. They sometimes work several jobs, two or three. Hard-working families. They really don’t want to see their tax burden increase, and that’s what we’ve been doing in Montpelier, the 12 years I’ve been working there,” she said.
As Strong sees it, government tends to cause more problems than it solves. And she said if you’re sick of regulations and mandates from on high in Montpelier, then she’s your candidate.
“Vermonters want free enterprise and freedom to live their life,” she said. “They want to be independent, they don’t want to be dependent on the government. And right now I believe government’s gotten too top-heavy.”
For decades now, Albany, Craftsbury, Glover and Greensboro have been part of a seven-town, two-member district that sent a Republican and a Democrat to Montpelier.
Now, they’ll have choose just one.
The GOP’s Paul Dame is hoping Strong’s long ties to the district, and her tenure in the Statehouse, will make the difference.
“As I look at the race, it really lines up as Vicki Strong is the candidate with 30 years of community service, she’s lived in that area for 40 years, she’s been a state rep for 12 of those years,” Dame said.
“And what we’ve heard this year is that doors are being opened for Democratic candidates that are knocking on them that were slammed in their faces in 2018."Jim Dandeneau, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party
Sims has raised nearly $25,000 for her campaign so far, an impressive sum for a local House race, and about $8,000 more than Strong has taken in. Vermont Democrats have also invested heavily in their electoral apparatus in in the Kingdom.
“The question that this race will solve is, ‘Can you buy a seat from someone who has longstanding roots in the community,’” Dame said.
Sims is hardly a newcomer. She’s lived in the Kingdom for most of her adult life. And she said the ethics that define this place — stewardship of the land, appreciation of community and care for neighbors — aren’t defined by number of years in residence.
“I see that embodied by people who have been here for generations, and I see that embodied by people who just moved here,” Sims said.
For some longtime residents though, such as Jim Currier, Democratic policies seem to drift from the grit and self-reliance they grew up on.
“Right now, I probably shouldn’t say this, but in Vermont you can get free wood, free electricity, free oil, free health care, and the list goes on and on and on and it’s just terrible,” Currier said.
Currier is 82 years old. He grew up in Newport and owned and operated a landmark grocery store in Glover, called Currier's Market, for more than 50 years.
Currier said he wants his community to reconnect with its conservative roots. And he said that’s why his vote’s going to Vicki Strong.
“I trust her dearly that she is a conservative,” Currier said. “She would watch out for people’s money, for sure. No question in my mind whatsoever.”
Strong and Sims will find out Tuesday who voters trust most to represent their interests and values in Montpelier.
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