By Tiffany Tan/VTDigger
The last time Democrats won a majority of Rutland County’s three state Senate seats was in 1988, more than three decades ago. Now, with two incumbents not seeking reelection, Democrats see a prime opportunity to reverse that long-running political trend.
Sens. Cheryl Hooker, a Democrat/Progressive, and Joshua Terenzini, a Republican, are vacating their seats, leaving Republican Brian Collamore as the only incumbent in the three-member Rutland Senate district seeking another term.
Without the hurdle of facing an incumbent for Terenzini’s seat, Democrats hope to grab his spot while holding on to Hooker’s.
“We would love to take all three seats, no question about it,” said Mary Mellow, chair of the Rutland County Democrats. “If we take two seats, we would be extraordinarily pleased.”
The party has three candidates — Anna Tadio, Bridgette Remington and Joshua Ferguson — going head-to-head in next month’s election with three Republicans — Collamore, David Weeks and Terry Williams.
The state Democratic Party has regarded the district since the primary as a key battleground in its effort to retain a longstanding two-thirds supermajority in the 30-member Vermont Senate.
Republicans, meanwhile, want to hold on to their local majority in a Senate delegation that has long reflected Vermont’s conservative political roots.
Since 1986, according to the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office, Republicans have won Rutland County’s Senate seats 42 times versus 12 for the Democrats — though the Democrats have controlled the chamber for all but two biennia in that timeframe.
“Vermont needs political balance in the Legislature,” said Terry Burke, chair of the Rutland County GOP. “Every race in our county and around the state is critical.”
She said this election cycle has brought new challenges. Because of legislative redistricting following the 2020 U.S. census, some county voters have been reassigned to new polling places, which they might not know of until they’re redirected to a new voting location on Election Day. Some of this voter confusion was visible in the City of Rutland during the primary election in August.
The option for any voter to vote by mail, first used on an emergency basis during the pandemic in 2020 and now permanent thanks to a 2021 law, has also “shortened the campaign season,” Burke said. Voters began receiving their ballots in September, more than a month before the Nov. 8 general election.
With two left until Election Day, all six candidates said they have worked to reach as many voters as they can. Their efforts have included knocking on doors, attending events in various towns, making phone calls, waving campaign signs as well as advertising and mailing candidate postcards.
Long held wisdom says “you had to see a candidate’s name seven times before it really rang a bell with you,” Mellow, of the Rutland County Democrats, said.
That advantage might then go to the Rutland County Republicans, who have more name recognition through experience.
Collamore, 71, a retired radio broadcaster who is seeking his fifth consecutive Senate term, is favored to hold on to his seat. Collamore was the top vote-getter in the district during his 2018 and 2020 campaigns.
Williams, too, has run this race before. The self-employed farmer and Army veteran placed fourth in the 2020 election, right behind outgoing senator Hooker. Williams, 70, is also a member of the Poultney Select Board.
The other four candidates are making their first bids for countywide elected office. (Tadio, 32, a Democrat and lawyer, is a member of Rutland City’s Board of Aldermen.)
When asked about their legislative priorities, the candidates from both parties found common ground on the major issues.
Economic growth was highlighted by Democratic candidates Remington, 45, a lawyer, and Ferguson, 32, who works in sailboat restoration, as well as Weeks, 61, a Navy veteran and Republican.
Weeks, Tadio and Remington brought up the need to create more affordable housing and develop infrastructure. Providing affordable child care was also a priority for the three Democrats.
Two Republicans, Collamore and Williams, underscored the urgency of solving Vermont’s dearth of emergency responders and dispatchers. They also voiced support for public safety professionals: Collamore wants military veterans’ pensions to be fully tax-exempt in Vermont — a perennial proposal of Republican Gov. Phil Scott — and Williams opposes lowering police budgets and ending qualified immunity for police officers.
Remington said this election cycle presents an opportunity for Democrats to take not just Rutland County’s Senate majority but also to elect two women at the same time. The state’s online database, covering the past 24 years, shows that Rutland County has never elected more than one female senator at a time.
“We are trying to engage with as many voters as possible,” Remington said. “It is a challenge, given that the two women candidates are both working attorneys.”
According to Rich Clark, professor of political science at Castleton University, either outcome has the potential to limit the voice of county residents in the Legislature’s upper chamber. “The more Republicans we have there means the more of our representatives are in the minority party, who are left outside of some of the bigger legislative decisions,” he said.
Incoming Democratic lawmakers could have more influence on state policy, Clark added, but any of the three Democratic candidates would be junior members should they win.
“Despite the fact that you would have the advantage that they are part of the majority party, they’re not going to be in senior positions at this point,” he said.
However, that’s also true for any first-time state politician, Democrat or Republican. Look for a Q&A with the candidates in next week’s edition.