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Explore our coverage of government and politics.

Two Democrats From St. Johnsbury Hope To Hold Onto Seats In State House

Charlotte Albright
Robert South, one of two Democratic Representatives for Caledonia District 3, pauses on the front porch of his St. Johnsbury home before heading to work at the Vermont State Employees Association.

With the November election only about a month away, we’re spotlighting some sharply contested races for the legislature. In St. Johnsbury, two Republicans are challenging the Democratic incumbents.

In Part 1 we introduced those challengers. Here we find out how the two Democrats agree -- and disagree --on key issues they would likely face if they return to the House of Representatives from Caledonia District 3.

Robert South has served six years so far in the state Legislature and he wants to be sent back. Although he is a seasoned union leader who works for the Vermont State Employees Association, he says he makes a point of separating his union work from his politics.

“I don’t look at myself as a Democrat even though I am running as a Democrat,” South says.

In his St. Johnsbury kitchen, South says he has been, in his words, “sent to the speaker’s office” for splitting with his party on at least two key issues last session. He voted against the GMO labeling bill and the minimum wage hike. If he returns to the statehouse next year, he says he would need a lot of convincing to vote for a single-payer health care system if the financing does not seem sustainable.

“$2.4 to $2.6 billion dollars for this. There’s two key pieces of this: the governor keeps saying we’re gonna have it, we’re gonna have it. Well, I was at a meeting and the speaker made it very clear that if by the second week in January the governor does not roll out how much it’s going to cost, it’s dead,” South says.

And South says he might vote no, if by then the federal government has not expressly allowed the state to apply Medicaid and Medicare dollars to the single-payer system.

South’s fellow incumbent, first-term Democrat Michelle Fay, seems a little more hopeful that a single payer system would make sense financially, because it would give the state more bargaining power with major health care cost drivers -- pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
Michelle Fay, a Democrat running for re-election to the state House of Representatives from St. Johnsbury, takes a break in the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum from her job at Umbrella, a social service agency serving victims of domestic abuse.

“So there’s something to be said for having a lot of patients being represented by a state or by a country to be able to say to those providers: 'here’s what we are willing to pay, take it or leave it,'” Fay says.

However, both Fay and South are unsure if the state can put reliable technology in place to build a single- payer system. The two Democrats also agree that consolidating school districts may not be the best way to make public education more efficient and affordable. But Fay says she and Robert South do not always vote alike, even though they are both Democrats. She thinks that’s good for St. Johnsbury, because between them, they can represent a wide range of constituents.

“The thing I like to stand by is that I am authentic,” says Fay.

Fay is the director of a non-profit agency that helps survivors of domestic violence. She says one reason she ran for office two years ago was to give them a voice in state government, and also represent a cash-strapped rural area she says does not always get the state funding western Vermont receives.

On that last point, at least, she and Robert South agree.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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