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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Thirteen Democrats Compete For Senate Seats In Chittenden County Primary

A collage of thirteen headshots
Photos courtesy of candidates
There are 13 candidates vying for two vacant Chittenden County Senate seats in the Aug. 11 Vermont Primary Election.

Some 13 candidates for state senate are competing in Vermont's Democratic primary in Chittenden County, with nine newcomers eyeing vacancies left when two incumbents decided not to run.

While the candidates will still have to run in the November general election, Chittenden County, which has six senators, has only sent Democrats to the Vermont Senate since 2016. In the 2018 general, the sixth place finish, Sen. Chris Pearson, beat the closest Republican challenger by more than 10,000 votes.

The Republican candidates

On the Republican side this year, there are two candidates in the August primary — Ericka Redic and Tom Chastenay. Redic, a financial manager in Burlington, has previously run for city council. Chastenay, of Milton, owns a plumbing and heating company and has never run for officer before, according to The Milton Independent.

Republican voters can pick up to six candidates for state senate, meaning Redic and Chastenay are almost assured to win the nomination.

The Democratic candidates

But on the Democratic side, a slew of candidates are seeking the nomination, in part because two incumbent senators, Tim Ashe and Debbie Ingram, stepped down to run for lieutenant governor, making space for at least two new faces in the Chittenden County senate delegation.

More from VPR: 2020 Primary Debates: Democratic Candidates For Lieutenant Governor

The challenge for the Democratic newcomers is to differentiate and introduce themselves to voters in a large and spread-out county, when traditional campaign strategies, like door knocking, are off the table this year due to COVID-19.

Instead candidates are using virtual methods, like social media advertising, direct mailers and attending remote forums. Voters will be able to choose up to six candidates in the August primary.

Matt Dickinson, a professor of political science at Middlebury College, said he thinks the four incumbents are probably safe in their seats, but the rest of the Democratic field is wide open.

“You’re going to be splitting the vote among many qualified candidates who I think all have pockets of support," Dickinson said. "So just getting turnout, getting people to respond here I think is going to be crucial. This is going to come down to literally hundreds of votes for these seats.”

The newcomers

There are nine candidates challenging the incumbents in the Democratic primary with a range of experiences. Some have held elected office while others have led non-profits and worked in health care, housing advocacy and state government.

Two have been in the Vermont House of Representatives: Dylan Giambatista and Kesha Ram.

Giambatista, a two-term representative from Essex Junction, said he was running in part to bring a younger voice to the senate.

“I dropped out of high school, I didn’t have a straight path, I worked odd jobs,” he said. “It was only through the Community College of Vermont, that public education, that gave me a shot.”

Ram, who spent most of her 20s representing Burlington, took a four-year break from politics after losing a bid to be the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2016.

“After that, I really felt like I had a gift of four years to build on that perspective, see what was urgent for people, see how change does or doesn’t happen in Montpelier,” she said. “And then have a refreshed perspective to go back.”

See all of VPR's Vermont Primary 2020 coverage here.

Other candidates, like David Scherr and Erhard Mahnke, have also spent time in the Statehouse, though not as legislators.

Mahnke, a long-time housing advocate, said his decades of experience on issues of affordability will be valuable as the state responds to COVID-19 and a looming budget shortfall.

“I know there will be voices calling for austerity," he said. “And I think we need to make sure we preserve essential services for everyday, working Vermonters.”

Scherr, an assistant attorney general and former public defender, said his work on criminal justice reform would help as the senate tackles issues around police accountability.

“I served on the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council ... which is the entity that oversees policing in Vermont,” Scherr said. “I think that’s given me insight into areas that we need to do better on, including more, I think, independent oversight.”

More from VPR: Police Reform Bills In Montpelier Get Pushback From Both Cops And Their Critics

Three candidates, Adam Roof, Thomas Chittenden and Steve May, have all served their communities as elected leaders.

Roof, who spent five years on the Burlington City Council, said after he lost his council seat in March, he decided he wasn’t ready to be done with public office.

“One of the critiques that I thought was fair was, 'Adam, you have a lot of experience in Burlington, but what about everywhere else in Chittenden County,’” Roof said. “And I said, 'That’s a good one, I’m going to start my first 1,000 phone calls outside of Burlington.’”

Chittenden, a senior lecturer at UVM and a South Burlington city councilor, said one reason he’s running is to advocate for more collaboration between towns.

“With the technologies that are available today, I see that we’re missing a lot of opportunities to coordinate across town boundaries,” Chittenden said, citing a recent plan to regionalize emergency dispatch services.

May, a clinical social worker and former member of Richmond selectboard, said he’d like to see the state do more to address the opioid epidemic.

“I feel like we’ve taken the eye off the prize in terms of treatment,” May said. “I personally have lost several clients over the last year, year and half.”

More from VPR: 'Significant Challenge': Treating Substance Use Disorder At A Social Distance

The candidates, while all coming from varying backgrounds, tend to agree on the broad issues the Legislature is expected to tackle, namely that the state needs to focus on how to help the state economy recover from the coronavirus pandemic and keep people working.

June Heston, whose long career in the nonprofit sector includes a decade as the chief executive officer of the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Vermont, said to respond to pandemic, the senate will have to do a “lot of listening ... to those who have been affected by this."

Heston added: "We have to work in collaboration to make sure we come to the right solutions.”

Louis Meyers, a physician at Rutland Regional Medical Center, is running because he’s concerned about the state’s health care system, particularly OneCare Vermont — the company charged with administering the state’s all-payer health care system.

“I think it’s critical, particularly as we come out of COVID ... that we rethink about what kind of health care system will work for Vermont,” Meyers said. “While I don’t have all of the right answers, I can ask the right questions.”

The incumbents

The four Democratic incumbents, Phil Baruth, Ginny Lyons, Chris Pearson and Michael Sirotkin, have had little time to campaign this year as the legislative session was extended to work on a number of bills related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The four say they’re now starting to reach out to voters, over social media and mailers, to get the message out that they’re ready to head back.

“Experience really does count in this job,” Pearson said. “And during such an unprecedented time of crisis ... I will argue that it is a smart time for voters to send experienced voices back to Montpelier.”

More from VPR: Legislature Wraps Up Historic COVID Session With $1 Billion Spending Plan

Even with some many challenges, the incumbents said they felt good about their chances.

“I don’t feel nervous about being edged out,” Lyons said. “But I do think it’s really important in any primary that is so significant and has so many running, that you really take it seriously.”

Beside the large slate of candidates and unusual campaign environment, 2020 also marks the last year when Chittenden County will be one district with six senators.

A bill passed last year will break up the county into at least two smaller districts. Baruth said the entire delegation supported splitting up Chittenden County.

“The good thing about breaking up the Chittenden district is that we’ve been spinning off towns into other districts,” he said. “This will allow us, I think, to more fully represent all the people.”

More from VPR: Vt. Senate To Divide Up 6-Member Chittenden County District (The Biggest In The US)

Sirotkin, one of the incumbents, said breaking up the district is the right move.

“I think it probably works against my own interests, because the larger field tends to help incumbents and help Democrats," he said. "But I think it’s the right thing to do for the voters."

But for one last time, Chittenden County voters in November will have to choose among what’s likely to be a large slate of candidates. In 2018, 13 people ran in the general election.

Correction 6:15 p.m. This post has been updated to correct the spelling of David Scherr's last name.

Correction 8:00 p.m. This post has been updated to correct one spelling on Michael Sirotkin's last name and that Steve May is a former member of the Richmond selectboard.

Liam is a reporter based in Burlington and covers a variety of issues, including courts, law enforcement and housing.
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