After lawmakers redrew legislative district lines in St. Albans City earlier this year, Lauren Dees-Erickson realized that her neighborhood would soon be represented by a single Republican, two-term Rep. Casey Toof.
“I didn’t see myself or my family represented” in Toof’s voting record, said Dees-Erickson, a Democrat.
That was when she decided to challenge him for the new single-member Franklin-8 district.
As a mother and a woman who “believe(s) in bodily autonomy,” Dees-Erickson was particularly concerned by Toof’s decision to vote against Proposal 5, which would enshrine abortion rights in the Vermont Constitution.
Since Roe v. Wade was overturned in June, Toof said that he has changed his mind about the amendment. He now supports Proposal 5, which is on the ballot before voters this election season, because he realizes that “it’s not up to the government to decide,” he said.
Toof said his problem with Proposal 5 was its silence on “late-term abortions.” While medical providers argue that abortions late in pregnancy are rare and highly regulated, opponents of the amendment contend that it could increase the frequency of such procedures.
Toof was born and raised in St. Albans City and works as a community relations manager at Handy Toyota. Dees-Erickson works at an international development nonprofit and is the vice chair of St. Albans City’s planning commission.
Although Dees-Erickson considers herself “a bit of the underdog” in the race, she said she wanted to elevate the issues that she felt Toof hasn’t addressed.
“Democracy is all about the little people, so I figured I’d put my hat in the ring,” she said.
Yet Dees-Erickson has a significant edge in fundraising. As of the latest filing deadline on Oct. 15, the first-time candidate had raised just over $16,000, including donations from the Vermont-NEA ($735) and from San Francisco-based tech entrepreneur Ross Boucher ($1,000).
Toof has raised more than $10,000, including more than $3,000 from Republican mega-donor Skip Vallee and his family and business, as well as $1,000 each from Handy Toyota — his employer — and Rail City Liners.
The Franklin-8 district, previously known as the Franklin 3-1 district and represented by both Toof and Rep. Mike McCarthy, a Democrat, will be a single-member district including only the two southernmost wards of St. Albans City and a part of St. Albans town.
It is one of five districts in Franklin County that are seeing competitive races this year. As Democrats seek to bolster a legislative supermajority and Republicans work to block one, the county has emerged as a key battleground in this year’s legislative elections.
Dees-Erickson said that if she wins the race, she would likely be the first woman of color elected to the Legislature from Franklin County (as would Democratic Franklin district Senate candidate Jessie Nakuma Palczewski).
“I definitely think that representation matters. I have a 10-year-old daughter and I have an 8-year-old son. … I think it’s so great that they can see themselves reflected in that race,” Dees-Erickson said.
Toof said that he believes that in his time in office, he has done a “great job” of “representing all of St. Albans” — even by crossing party lines.
“I’m able to work and compromise across the party aisle … and I have to because we’re so outnumbered — Republicans are so outnumbered — in the House,” Toof said.
Toof said he has aligned with House Democrats on supporting universal vote-by-mail, universal school meals and funding construction of additional housing, pointing to over $250 million that Vermont has committed to housing over the past two years.
Dees-Erickson argued that although Toof purports to care for issues like housing or paid family leave, his “voting record doesn’t reflect that care.”
For instance, Toof voted to sustain Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s 2020 veto for a paid family leave program because he didn’t agree with adding a payroll tax.
“Between 2021 and 2022, there were about five or six different bills related to housing, and he had voted them all down — and that’s fine — but I also didn’t see him introducing any bills or co-signing any bills that addressed the issue of housing,” Dees-Erickson said.
Toof said that signing articles or writing bills “doesn’t define who you are as a representative. It’s the work that you do while you’re in there.”
Alex Lehning, a St. Albans City resident who works in nonprofit mental health and has volunteered for Dees-Erickson’s campaign, said that he is also concerned by Toof’s voting record.
“I just don’t see a connection between what he says and what he does when it comes time to cast a vote. And you know, to me, that’s putting my community at risk,” Lehning said.
Toof has focused his campaign on increasing access to education, combating the opioid epidemic and promoting affordability, pledging to support policies to reduce the cost of living and limit taxation.
Brendan Deso, a member of the St. Albans Town Selectboard and a residential developer for manufactured homes, said he has valued the work that Toof has done on the town’s planning commission in making “pragmatic decisions” to help create more affordable housing.
“Casey has always had a mind for affordability,” Deso said. “And he’s sought to protect the most vulnerable among us by keeping our state as affordable as possible without risking access to crucial services.”
Read the story on VTDigger here: A Democratic ‘underdog’ takes on 2-term Republican incumbent in redrawn St. Albans City House district.