In Orange County, a contested Republican House primary

Editor’s note: While there are numerous Republican candidates for both governor and lieutenant governor, competition is rare among Republicans seeking House and Senate seats. The Orange-1 House primary is one of the few contested Republican primaries for seats in the Vermont Legislature. Three candidates, including an incumbent, are seeking the GOP nomination for the six-town, two-seat district. Grateful thanks to the Journal-Opinion, the excellent weekly community newspaper for Orange County, for permission to republish this news story on both the Democratic and Republican primaries. The story first ran in the August 5 print edition under the headline, “Six vie for House seats.” Click here to view the Journal-Opinion online, and here to subscribe. 

There is also (at least) one more contested GOP primary: the Washington County Senate race, where Dawnmarie Tomasi, Ken Alger, Dwayne Tucker, and Brent Young seek nominations in the three-seat district. Click here for the Vermont Secretary of State’s listing of all candidates in tomorrow’s State Primary Election.

by Catherine Tudish

The six candidates running in the Aug. 11 Orange-1 primary could hardly be a more balanced group.

The incumbents—Carl Demrow and Rodney Graham—along with challengers Levar Cole, Susan Hatch Davis, Samantha Lefebvre, and Kate MacLean, include three women and three men, three Republicans and three Democrats, three lifelong Vermonters and three who have come to the state in recent years. Three currently serve on their town selectboards. They range in age from 25 to 67.

The profiles that follow are based on phone interviews conducted over the past week. In November, voters in the Orange-1 district of Chelsea, Corinth, Orange, Vershire, Washington, and Williamstown will send two representatives to the Vermont House.

Republican candidate Cole moved to Vermont from the Washington, D.C. area three years ago, after leaving a career with the federal government. Now living in Chelsea with his wife and five children, Cole, 40, said he was drawn to the state by memories of backpacking in the Green Mountains as a college student.

Levar Cole

“I wanted to take up farming, and I wanted to get started while I was still young enough,” Cole said. Currently raising hens and cultivating market vegetables on land leased from a Chelsea neighbor, Cole said he hopes to expand the farming operation to include more livestock. Along with farming, he consults for Vermont businesses, helps homeschool his children, and serves on the Chelsea Selectboard.

Cole said he decided to run for the Vermont House because several people had urged him to do so, based on his finance and budgeting background. In favor of fewer taxes and regulations, he believes too much regulation hinders business growth.

In a highly regulated environment, “The cost of doing business increases, but the returns do not,” Cole said. He trusts business owners to be self-regulating.

“They want to pay employees as much as possible and maintain environmental sustainability, because that is in everyone’s best interest,” he said.

Commenting on how he and fellow selectboard member and Democratic candidate Kate MacLean work together, Cole said, “We have a very friendly relationship. We also have different perspectives, but we’re able to reach a consensus through discussion and involving town residents in our decisions. That’s how democracy is supposed to work.”

When asked what prompted her to enter the primary race this year, Davis, a Democrat who previously served in the House for 10 years, said, “I don’t think that I ever stopped running.” Although she lost in the last two elections, Davis said, “The pandemic has brought to the surface a need for leaders to fight for more diversity and equality.” 

At 67, she is eager to resume that fight, citing the importance of shoring up social infrastructure. In a rural district with a high rate of poverty, Davis said it is vital to achieve food security, access to health care and quality education, affordable housing, and livable wages.

“There is a real need for these moving forward,” she stated.

A resident of Washington, Davis has spent her life in Vermont. Prior to running for office, she retired from a position in state government.

“As a network manager, I had to work at every level of state government,” she said, noting that she was also co-chair of the Workers Caucus in the House. “I am highly motivated to be a voice of working people living paycheck to paycheck,” she said.

One issue that especially concerns Davis: “We have a homeless problem in Orange-1 that is ignored, or just isn’t seen.” The economic crisis brought on by the pandemic has made it worse, she said, adding that she is aware of people “couch-surfing” because they can no longer afford rent and a group of homeless people recently living in a church.

“We desperately need affordable housing,” she said.

Given her volunteer work on various local boards, as well as her positions with the state, Davis said she has many proven strengths. She believes that people see her as honest and fair and “a voice of reason.”

As a final word, Davis made a book recommendation. “Every politician should read ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’ [by Rutger Bregman],” she said. “His thesis is that success depends more on cooperation than competition.”

Notable for knocking on more than 2,000 doors during his campaign in 2018, Demrow said his bid for re-election this year has relied on postcards and phone calls. “It’s a little frustrating,” the 55-year-old Democrat said. “The real work of campaigning is getting out in front of people and listening to their concerns.”

Demrow grew up in Andover, Massachusetts where he developed a love of the outdoors, as well as a commitment to public service. A former teacher, carpenter, farmhand, and volunteer firefighter, he moved to Washingtonin 2001. He now lives in Corinth with his partner Tania Aebi, whom he met while they were both volunteering at Northeast Slopes in East Corinth. In addition to his work as a legislator, Demrow co-owns a trail construction company that operates throughout the Northeast. 

Demrow said he is running for re-election to continue strengthening rural communities. Two issues of particular concern to him are expanding access to health care and creating a more equitable education system that includes a fairer approach to school funding.

Referring to a December 2019 report by UVM on education funding that weighted pupil numbers based on the relative poverty of districts, Demrow said, “It’s way more expensive to educate students in poor rural areas, because they have more problems when they arrive in the classroom.” He mentioned four bills introduced in the House that would begin to deal with inequality in education funding, but said they had not been taken up in the last session because of other pressing concerns.

“I would sign on to all four in a heartbeat,” Demrow said.

Asked what he considers his strengths as a legislator, Demrow replied that he is a hard worker who likes to spend more time listening to constituents than talking to them. He keeps in touch with a regular email newsletter and encourages people to call or write to let him know what’s on their minds. “People need to be heard,” he said. “Hearing from constituents makes everything real.”

Seeking re-election for a fourth term, Graham—a life-long resident of Williamstown and a Republican—said it was gratifying to see so many candidates this year.

“We struggled for years to find people to run,” he said. “It’s good to see the interest.”

Until the economic situation forced him to sell his cows in May, Graham noted, “I was the only dairy farmer in the House.” He said he would be expanding his maple operation, as well as producing hay crops and starting up a beef operation.

Graham sees restarting the economy as one of the greatest challenges facing the state. He feels fortunate that both his adult son and daughter have been able to stay in Williamstown and make a decent living. An ongoing goal is to “make Vermont a place where kids can stay.”

Rodney Graham

If re-elected, Graham said, he plans to focus on affordable housing, transportation, and increasing wages for workers. Because state revenues are down, “we will have to make tough choices, and we may have to cut funding for some programs,” he said.

A member of the Williamstown school board from 1997-2007, Graham also served on the selectboard from 2008-2018 and has recently been voted in again as board chair. Of his time in the State House, Graham said, “I enjoy being there. Being in the minority party isn’t always fun, but I want to give back to the community.”

The youngest of the candidates at 25, Lefebvre was born and raised in Chittenden County and since 2018 has lived in Orange with her husband and 2-year-old son. She was motivated to run, she wrote in an email, because Vermont “is slowly becoming a state that only has strong representation for some of us. I have always been interested in local politics and government and knew that I could help make a positive difference.”

A Republican, Lefebvre is the only candidate who—in addition to getting the word out over social media—is using “the tried-and-true method of going door-to-door.” Lefebvre wrote that she always has her mask with her and keeps “a respectful distance between me and the community member.” She has found that people appreciate the personal approach.

The major issues for Lefebvre are “building our economy back to be stronger than before the pandemic,” affordability, the closing of local elementary schools, protection of Constitutional rights, and government transparency. The six towns of Orange-1 make up a very rural district that she said needs a strong voice in Montpelier.

Samantha Lefebvre

She and her husband are independent operators for a large bread distribution company, and they own and manage apartment buildings in Washington County. A former firefighter and EMT, Lefebvre is now a licensed nursing assistant on the mother-baby unit at the UVM Medical Center in Burlington and also provides in-home care for a geriatric community member.

Asked to describe her strengths, Lefebvre wrote, “I am no stranger to hard work, and I take pride in my character and integrity. I am a small business owner, landlord, wife, mother, medical professional and most importantly someone who has common sense.”

A resident of Chelsea for eight years, MacLean won a seat on the selectboard in March. From there, she said, her network expanded dramatically. She helped start Chelsea Mutual Aid in response to the pandemic and quickly realized “there was a need for leadership in our town beyond what the select board could do.”

MacLean, now 36, said that she and her husband had been living in Massachusetts and were looking for a place to farm and raise children. “Vermont was a very natural option,” she said. Familiar with the state because she had spent time here as a child, MacLean also admired Vermont’s tradition of civic involvement.

Along with their son and daughter, ages 7 and 4, MacLean and her husband share their Chelsea farm with her parents and her sister and brother-in-law. “We have a multi-generational farm, which I think is rare these days,” MacLean said.

A Democrat, MacLean said two areas of special importance to her are agriculture and education. In conversations with people in the district, MacLean said she hears “a widespread view that property taxes are becoming untenable,” as well as a lot of frustration with Act 46. “The school mergers happened, but people are not seeing the promised results,” in improved education or leaner budgets, she noted.

“I think there can be a dismissal of the rural voice,” MacLean stated. One of her strengths in representing rural voters, she said, is her “ability to have conversations and listen to people who have very different political views.” 

A case in point: working with fellow select board member Levar Cole. “Levar and I don’t always agree on town business, but we have tremendous respect for each other,” MacLean said. “I feel very lucky to have him on the board.”

Asked how she and Cole reacted to finding themselves in the contest for a House seat, MacLean said, “It was a surprise for both of us.”

Photo Credit Levar Cole for State Representative.

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VTWATERCOOLER COMMENT OF THE DAY (post yours at www.vtwatercooler.com):

I can share a personal story about ballots mailed out to everyone. First, it never should have been considered! My wife and I recently moved to New Hampshire. Within 6 weeks, we received an inquiry from the town clerk from Essex Junction, where we had resided. The clerk wanted to know if we in fact moved, and if our names should be removed from the Essex rolls. We sent it back affirming everything. What a surprise it was when we received ballots in the mail from the Essex Town clerk, addressed to us in New Hampshire, and giving us the right to vote in the Vermont primary. Scary does not describe this enough.