By Ethan Weinstein
BRANDON—About 150 people — some from hours away — weathered the cold and rain on the Brandon town green to support Paul Dame, the newly elected Vermont Republican party chair, and to protest the Biden presidency at Saturday’s “Let’s Go Brandon” rally.
“Everybody here today, are you guys ready to make a positive impact?” Dame asked those gathered, opening his 10-minute address. “As Republicans, we want to do good in our communities.”
The slogan “Let’s Go Brandon,” chanted with a smirk and a wink, has become a euphemistic rallying cry against President Joe Biden, as well as against media outlets perceived as left-leaning.
The phrase originated following NASCAR driver Brandon Brown’s Oct. 2 victory at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. While NBC reporter Kelli Stavast interviewed Brown after the race, the crowd chanted “F*ck Joe Biden.”
“You can hear the chants from the crowd, ‘Let’s Go Brandon,’” Stavast said, misquoting the fans and sparking the tongue-in-cheek slogan.
Addressing the national implication of the day’s phrase, Dame, who grew up in Brandon, brought the crowd’s attention to Washington.
“We’re going to be honest about how things have been going lately under President Biden,” he said. “We’re seeing huge inflation. People’s Thanksgivings are going to be more expensive than they were before. We’ve got supply chain issues.”
Dame highlighted four specific policies he hoped Vermont Republicans would rally behind.
Advocating for “a full repeal of the military pension tax,” Dame noted that Vermont is one of only three states that taxes 100% of military pensions.
On education, Dame stressed expanding daycare and early education opportunities to allow parents to return to the workforce.
Nodding to issues of public school curricula currently captivating American political discourse, Dame said that “parents have a right to know and to decide what their kids should learn. And while it might be impractical to have parents designing curriculum, they should at least be able to decide which school suits their children’s needs.”
In order to address the state’s housing crisis, Dame proposed reforms to the Act 250 process. “The unpredictability, the expensive process: It’s made it difficult for developers to build starter homes. And the review process makes it harder to get large, efficient units built as well.”
‘I feel like I have to do something’
Saturday’s crowd, sporadically breaking out in choruses of “Let’s Go Brandon,” expressed frustration with a variety of political issues both local and national.
Anger over mask and vaccine mandates brought many to the rally, including Kori Mitchell of Orwell. “It’s not a joke anymore, people are losing their jobs,” she said of vaccine mandates. A self-described libertarian, Mitchell said she has been waiting for the opportunity to protest.
“It’s hitting closer and closer to home. I feel like I have to do something.”
Chan Pan, a Colchester resident who immigrated from China 20 years ago, agreed with Mitchell. He feels like the country’s Covid-related mandates verge on autocratic, reminding him of the communist government he fled decades ago.
Trent Brogren, a senior at Rutland High School, said he wanted the party to “get the Covid mandates under control.”
Brogren himself is vaccinated — a “difficult choice” he said he made to protect his grandparents — but he does not think the government should make health-related choices for its citizens.
A younger generation of voters like Brogren is who Dame hopes to target while at the helm of Vermont’s Republican party.
“I’ve been hearing from people leading up to this that there are a lot of young people, there’s a buzz about [the Vermont GOP] in younger circles, in high schools,” Dame said. “As a brand new chairman, I’m trying to get some attention and say, ‘Hey everybody, tell me where we think the party needs to go.’ ”
Whose Brandon is it?
Although Dame opened his speech by encouraging attendees to support the local community, not everyone interpreted the day so positively.
When Dame announced the event earlier this week, he said that a portion of the proceeds from the “Let’s Go Brandon” merchandise would go to the Brandon Area Food Shelf. But on Wednesday, Kathy Mathis, director of the food shelf, said that no one from the GOP had notified her about the event, and the food shelf would not accept any donations raised during the rally.
Mathis specified to the Rutland Herald that the food shelf would not take donations from any political party, Republican or otherwise.
The “Let’s Go Brandon” event also inspired an organized counter-demonstration within the Brandon community. A group of roughly 20 people blasted Woodstock-era tunes from beneath a gazebo, collecting food and financial donations for the Vermont Foodbank and celebrating a motto of “peace and love.”
Josh Collier had been at the town green since 9 a.m. to claim the gazebo for himself and other Brandon residents who wanted to celebrate their town rather than contribute to a rallying cry they deemed hateful and divisive. They also provided the tent — a welcome gesture given Saturday’s rain — under which Dame gave his speech.
“I live here, and this is an opportunity to celebrate this town that we love a lot,” Collier said. “I think that to co-opt the name of this town is unacceptable and inappropriate. Everyone is allowed their own opinions, but to have it be perceived as a town-sponsored event is unacceptable.”
As of 3 p.m., the group had already raised over $700 for the food bank, exceeding their $500 goal. Despite the proximity of the two opposing gatherings, for the most part, each let the other operate undeterred.
Mark and Patrice Heinrichs drove down from Barton to gather amongst fellow Republicans. Acknowledging the rainbow-sporting crew beneath the gazebo, Mark said, “We know there’s things going on over there, bless ‘em, let them do what they’re doing — same with us.”
“Free speech,” Patrice said, “that’s one of the things that makes America great.”