Senate Shuffle: Chittenden County Candidates Vie for Votes in Three New Districts

click to enlarge From left to right, top to bottom: Brian Shelden, Irene Wrenner, Phil Baruth, Dawn Ellis, Martine Larocque Gulick, Erhard Mahnke, Tanya Vyhovsky, Thomas Chittenden, Kesha Ram Hinsdale, Virginia "Ginny" Lyons, Steve May and Lewis Mudge - COURTESY

  • Courtesy
  • From left to right, top to bottom: Brian Shelden, Irene Wrenner, Phil Baruth, Dawn Ellis, Martine Larocque Gulick, Erhard Mahnke, Tanya Vyhovsky, Thomas Chittenden, Kesha Ram Hinsdale, Virginia “Ginny” Lyons, Steve May and Lewis Mudge

The race for the Vermont Senate looks a lot different in Chittenden County this year. Reapportionment did away with the county’s familiar six-senator district in favor of three separate ones. The new map also gives the region an additional senator for a total of seven, boosting the county’s influence under the Golden Dome.

About a third of the 30-member state Senate is retiring, opening the door for some fresh faces. And there will be some in Chittenden County: Two incumbents are not seeking reelection, and a dozen candidates have lined up for the August 9 primary.

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Five are running for three seats in both the Chittenden Central and Southeast districts, all of them Democrats, meaning the primary winners will almost assuredly be Montpelier-bound come January.

The contest in Chittenden North is between Democrats Irene Wrenner and Brian Shelden, both of Essex Town. The winner will face the sole Republican candidate, Rep. Lee Morgan (R-Milton), in the November general election.

Seven Days called all 12 candidates in contested races and posed them the same four questions about their race. Their answers, lightly edited for length, are below.

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downloading a sample ballot at the Vermont secretary of state’s website by visiting
mvp.vermont.gov.

Chittenden North (1 seat)

Brian Shelden

Democrat, Essex Town
Age: 51
Profession: Software consultant

Why are you running?

Many things I’ve done throughout my life have been a little selfish: Writing software’s a very selfish, heads-down activity. I do triathlons, which is making sure you get your training, nutrition and sleep so you can perform. I never was fortunate enough to have kids, so the best way I can use my privilege to make Vermonters’ lives better is to give back to my community.

What’s the biggest issue facing Vermont, and how would you address it?

We have a housing crisis in northwestern Vermont. We need to build more. I would like to see us tweak Act 250 to make it a little bit easier to build some walkable neighborhoods … [and] to make housing cheaper and more affordable for all of us, so that folks who do have kids don’t have them grow up and move away.

Why should people vote for you?

I believe in civility. As a programmer, I believe in using science and data to make decisions. Part of being a software consultant is, you have to listen to lots of different stakeholders and figure out the best way forward for the whole team. That’s what I’m endeavoring to do [in] these new communities, and I think that would make me a very good senator: to work with people, even those that disagree with me.

What else should voters know about you?

I was adopted when I was 6 days old. I was born in Burlington and raised in Essex. Being an adoptee is one of the reasons why I strongly support Proposition 5. My birth mother had a choice in 1970, and I want to work hard to make sure that everyone has the freedom to make that choice in Vermont and nationally.

Irene Wrenner

Democrat, Essex Town
Age: 58
Profession: Essex ReTorter publisher/owner

Why are you running?

It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up: to give the voters a choice between an experienced candidate and one that did not have elected government experience. And to bring a rural voice to the Statehouse on behalf of Chittenden County, which we’ve never had. The district is just 20,000 people, and that’s the exact same size of my constituency when I served on the selectboard for 12 years.

What’s the biggest issue facing Vermont, and how would you address it?

Hearing all voices. You have lobbyists who have money and time to sit at the Statehouse every day and lean on representatives, and you’ve got people back home who are working three jobs. And unless someone goes to their door and gives them 20 minutes, who’s going to hear that voice? It’s not going to be heard in the halls of power unless the representatives actually represent the people.

Why should people vote for you?

I work my tail off for voters. I listen. I have 17 years of legwork and listening and leadership in town hall, so I know about policy making and budgeting.

What else should voters know about you?

I was a nonpartisan office-holder for 12 years, so I will never forget how important it is to listen to people of all stripes, to take what they say to heart. I have chosen to run under a certain party banner … and I espouse a number of “blue” values, but that does not mean that I don’t hear and respect input from anyone.

Chittenden Central (3 seats)

Phil Baruth (incumbent)

Democrat/Progressive, Burlington
Age: 60
Profession: English professor at the University of Vermont professor

Why are you running?

My work isn’t finished. I started with Tropical Storm Irene, and I’m now through the back end of the pandemic, and there are a hundred issues that I have more to do on.

What’s the biggest issue facing Vermont, and how would you address it?

Threats to democracy and constitutional rights that have been stripped away. But then, there are perennial problems that we’re working on all the time: mental health, homelessness, early child development and early childhood education; those are all things that I think are important. My No. 1 passionate issue is gun safety. I don’t
think it ranks as high as the things that I just
mentioned, but for me, personally, it’s a big issue.

Why should people vote for you?

I like to think I’ve done a good job in the 12 years that voters have sent me to Montpelier. In the case of this particular district, I’m the only incumbent. And I think it is crucial to have someone with experience, someone with seniority, someone who can quickly empower the other new senators.

What else should voters know about you?

I serve on Appropriations and the Judiciary Committee. And I’m also a passionate advocate, in addition to gun safety, for judicial reform and corrections reform. So, getting out-of-state prisoners back in our own care, ending racial disparities and injustice, and ending things like life without parole.

Dawn Ellis

Democrat, Burlington
Age: 53
Profession: Business owner/consultant, Dawn M. Ellis and Associates; Vermont Human Rights commissioner

Why are you running?

We’re at a crossroads, and our state and our country are in pain. We’ve had a pandemic, we’ve had fearmongering, and I’ve got the skills and background to help us heal.

What’s the biggest issue facing Vermont, and how would you address it?

We bill ourselves as utopia, but as a Human Rights commissioner, I see suffering, fraud and disinvestment of people, of place and of planet. That’s not the Vermont we hold up to the world. So I’m running to shine light, to lift voices that have been silenced and to put in place the governmental infrastructure so we move toward that tremendous vision of Vermont that many of us share.

Why should people vote for you?

I have a unique set of skills and experience, from understanding the needs of micro-businesses to understanding how learning works …. to fighting to remove the barriers that get in the way of any of us thriving. I’m bringing the skills of a qualitative and quantitative researcher, of the facilitator who can hear all the voices, of the watchdog who calls out injustice when she sees it.

What else should voters know about you?

I care deeply about people. I want to make sure we’re building a Vermont where everyone has agency and no one has to wonder: Why are the laws not being enforced for me? Where are my protections? I care. I work hard. I’m already trying to improve the state and our country, and I will continue to look for ways to do that.

Martine Larocque Gulick

Democrat, Burlington
Age: 56
Profession: Retired educator; Burlington School Board member

Why are you running?

Democracy is so fragile and is also potentially in peril right now. There was no better time to step up to run. [I felt] a real call to action to bring a light on our education system. It’s the undergirding of our society; it’s incredibly important to all elements of our society, whether it’s food insecurity or mental health or housing insecurity.

What’s the biggest issue facing Vermont, and how would you address it?

I’ve been really vocal about the importance of lifting the moratorium on school construction aid, because we do have aging school buildings across the state, many of them with potential contamination because they were built in the ’70s and ’80s. To think that property taxpayers and our state will be able to pay for these buildings in the hundreds of millions of dollars is unrealistic.

Why should people vote for you?

I’ve worked in education for 30 years in various roles. I’ve been a leader in the various districts I’ve worked in and on the Burlington School Board. I can say with confidence that the work that we’ve done over the last five years has been extremely positive. We have taken a district that was on the verge of crisis … and we’ve turned things around.

What else should voters know about you?

I lost my father to gun violence in 1994, so gun legislation is important to me and my family — everything from more stringent background checks to secure storage to regulating ghost guns and increasing suicide prevention. I don’t want to take hunting away from folks at all, but I do think we need sensible and strong and targeted gun laws in our state.

Erhard Mahnke

Progressive/Democrat, Burlington
Age: 71
Profession: Outreach representative and housing policy adviser for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); former coordinator for the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition

Why are you running?

We’re in a really unique moment in Vermont’s history. COVID revealed so many deficiencies in our system, especially in housing. I have a lot of Statehouse experience as an advocate to help the state fully recover from COVID economically and in every other way. We’ve made a lot of progress thanks to [the American Rescue Plan Act] and the CARES Act, and I want to continue to meet the needs of everyday Vermonters.

What’s the biggest issue facing Vermont, and how would you address it?

The state housing crisis. Closely related to that is our workforce shortage. Federal investments [have addressed] some of the systemic needs of everyday Vermonters for the first time in many years, but I think the real challenge is going to be continuing to maintain some of those investments and that we don’t just fall back to the austerity that we faced in our budgets before the pandemic.

Why should people vote for you?

I was a Statehouse advocate for the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition for 24 years and a legislative liaison for the City of Burlington for 11 years. As we see one-third of the Senate and House not coming back, it’s important that people with experience and with established relationships at the Statehouse serve and bring that experience and that institutional knowledge to bear and hit the ground running.

What else should voters know about you?

I would focus on racial and social justice and climate action. We need to make Vermont more inclusive, welcoming and safe for African American, Indigenous and other people of color. I would also work to make Vermont a safe haven for women seeking an abortion. And we need to treat climate change more urgently. We can’t afford not to pass things like the clean fuel standards bill that was vetoed by the governor.

Tanya Vyhovsky

Progressive/Democrat, Essex Town
Age: 37
Profession: Social worker; elected state representative

Why are you running?

I’m running to build on the work that I started in the House and to really diversify the voices that we have in the Senate to make sure that everyday Vermonters are represented and spaces [are] created for them to speak about the issues that are important to them.

What’s the biggest issue facing Vermont, and how would you address it?

We need to look at things in a holistic way and really address economic, racial, social and climate justice in a sort of holistic and intersectional way. I just don’t think we’re going to solve the problems facing us today when we look at it in a siloed, one-issue manner.

Why should people vote for you?

I’ve proven in my time in the House that I’m really willing to fight for everyday Vermonters. As a relatively young woman who grew up in Vermont and struggled to come back and live here, I understand the importance of building better systems. As a social worker, I see how our current systems are failing Vermonters, and I bring a unique and transformative perspective in ways to address them.

What else should voters know about you?

I spent a long time as an organizer and really understand the importance of building diverse coalitions and welcoming voices and opinions into a conversation in order to build solutions that actually work for everyone. In committee, we heard from commissioners and department heads over and over again, and I really fought for making sure we heard from everyday Vermonters being impacted by policy.

Chittenden Southeast (3 seats)

Thomas Chittenden (incumbent)

Democrat, South Burlington
Age: 44
Profession: Senior lecturer, University of Vermont; South Burlington city councilor

Why are you running?

I want to see more of our elected leaders advocating for Vermont to grow. I want to see more opportunities for current and future generations to stay here, live here, work here and thrive here.

What’s the biggest issue facing Vermont, and how would you address it?

I want to say guns, but I will go with affordability. Vermont needs to have more opportunities to build homes that people can live in and can afford, as well as grow businesses that can create an improved quality of life for current and future generations. It’s important for us to consider the impact [of] our regulations and not just the intent when it comes to the affordability of Vermont.

Why should people vote for you?

Voters can count on me to serve transparently, deliberately, accessibly and with the best of intentions. I hope to serve their interests for making Vermont a welcoming, inclusive, diverse and growing state.

What else should voters know about you?

I’m a father of three, a husband of one, a Rotarian and pet owner of many. I’m a South Burlington city councilor, and I used to serve on the Green Mountain Transit board. I was a volunteer firefighter in Williston and volunteered on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. I was raised to give time and service to my community, and that’s why I’m running for state Senate.

Virginia “Ginny” Lyons (incumbent)

Democrat, Williston
Age: 77
Profession: Biology professor

Why are you running?

It is critical that we maintain some consistency and continuity in the Senate at a time when we’re seeing about a third of the Senate leaving. Beyond that, there are some very critical issues that I want to follow up on, including health care reform, childcare, mental health and substance-use disorder, which is so important to the state, particularly after COVID.

What’s the biggest issue facing Vermont, and how would you address it?

Trying to balance the needs that we have with the economic support that we also have. We’re seeing money from the opioid settlement, so that particular issue may have met its solution. But we’re also looking at concerns that require not only an infusion of funds but also critical thinking about how we expand our services. I’m thinking about mental health care for children and adults, and childcare.

Why should people vote for you?

Over the years, I’ve been very committed to my constituents’ and my communities’ needs. I’ll continue to pass legislation that supports our environment and health care and, most importantly, the needs of people. Finally, I was the primary author of Proposition 5. Improving our Constitution is a first step, but we have other steps to take to protect those coming to Vermont to seek reproductive care and, in particular, abortion.

What else should voters know about you?

As a scientist, I bring a critical eye and a scientific perspective to the issues. As we solve problems and write policies, it’s really important to have a data-informed approach, and I’ll continue to bring that. But beyond that, I enjoy working with people who have different ideas and trying to bring them together. My work has proven that I’m capable of doing that.

Steve May

Democrat, Richmond
Age: 45
Profession: Clinical social worker

Why are you running?

I want to make change. Having worked around addiction issues for many years, I saw that things weren’t working. The last full year that I was working in private practice, I went to four funerals of patients of mine because whatever we were doing around addiction didn’t work.

What’s the biggest issue facing Vermont, and how would you address it?

The biggest issue facing the state is our affordability crisis and being able to make a living and a livelihood here, where folks are feeling challenged by downward pressure on their wallets. It’s part of the reason that I’ve been a supporter of universal basic income.

Why should people vote for you?

My life experience is very different than the majority of the sitting members. And I bring a different and unique perspective to the day-to-day operation of the legislature.

What else should voters know about you?

I’m really committed to health care and privacy rights. And I think that Vermont is an incredible place to live and work and play, and that we should celebrate it. And I’m much happier on days after the Red Sox win and much, much happier when the Bruins win.

Lewis Mudge

Democrat, Charlotte
Age: 45
Profession: Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch; member of the Charlotte Selectboard

Why are you running?

Montpelier needs some new energy from folks who are on the front lines of the childcare challenges or the housing crisis. I want to be a part of the debate around housing and affordability, because I don’t want us to lose sight of the importance of Act 250 and protecting our green spaces and doing our bit for climate change.

What’s the biggest issue facing Vermont, and how would you address it?

The most pressing issue is: How do we balance this demand for housing with keeping true to our principles of protecting the environment? Also, how do we adapt to the changing climate and try to mitigate its repercussions? And we need to do more to help young families who really are struggling with childcare costs and also help early childcare providers, because they deserve more.

Why should people vote for you?

I’ll bring a different perspective to Montpelier. I know there’s a lot of turnover, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. We need some different energy and visions in Montpelier. I’m only doing this now because I can afford to, and that lends itself to folks who may be on the back end of their careers. I think we need some folks maybe who are early or mid-career, as well.

What else should voters know about you?

I would give a voice to towns that may not have the resources or services as larger towns in this new district. Also, as someone in the field of human rights and resolving conflict, I would bring diplomacy skills to Montpelier. And, finally, this is a tough place to raise kids. It’s really expensive, and we need folks in Montpelier who can speak beyond anecdotes and platitudes to those challenges.

Kesha Ram Hinsdale (incumbent)

Democrat, Shelburne
Age: 35
Profession: Equity and community builder; former candidate for U.S. House

Why are you running?

I have worked at the intersection of labor, climate and justice for a decade in the legislature, and I believe my experience and relational organizing is needed now more than ever in Montpelier.

What’s the biggest issue facing Vermont, and how would you address it?

Vermonters are worried about their own family’s well-being, their democracy and their climate, in that order. And so I think the biggest issues facing Vermont families right now are existential, and we have to help people achieve well-being with housing, childcare and meeting their basic needs so they can live to their fullest potential to help us save this democracy and the planet.

Why should people vote for you?

It’s a critical time to have a mix of long-term experience legislating and a continued renewed perspective that incorporates the lived experiences of those most left behind in the state. Vermonters want their kids to be able to find meaning and have the kinds of job opportunities that will lend to that meaning in Vermont, and that is the work that I’ve always done and is continually needed so that we have a bright future in the state.

What else should voters know about you?

Even after a decade in the legislature, I don’t claim to have all the answers. I think this is an extraordinarily challenging time, where I’m grateful when Vermonters reach out to share articles, to ask questions and to coauthor legislation, to co-govern. So I hope Vermonters will continue to see me as a thought partner, not an expert.

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