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Date : December 8, 2022
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After redistricting, two Northeast Kingdom incumbents vie for a single seat in the Vermont House

After redistricting, two Northeast Kingdom incumbents vie for a single seat in the Vermont House

Collage Maker 19 Oct 2022 08.25 PM
Vicki Strong, left, and Katherine Sims. Photos by Glenn Russell/VTDigger and Riley Robinson/VTDigger

CRAFTSBURY — For the past two years, Reps. Katherine Sims, D-Craftsbury, and Vicki Strong, R-Albany, have served alongside each other in the Vermont House, jointly representing seven towns in the Northeast Kingdom. 

But this year, due to redistricting, Sims and Strong are competing for a single seat. It is the only race in the state where an incumbent is guaranteed to lose. 

Along stretches of Route 14 in Craftsbury, nearly every driveway sports a campaign lawn sign, alternately supporting each candidate: Sims, Strong, Sims, Strong. Past election results suggest this could be a tight race, won by just a handful of votes. 

“I don’t want to wake up the day after and wish that I had talked to one more voter,” Sims said. “And so I’m trying to do everything that I can.” 

Sims was first elected in 2020, after campaigning almost entirely online due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This year, she’s been knocking on voters’ doors for hours at a time, three to four days a week. With help from Democratic volunteers, her campaign has knocked on more than a thousand doors, she said.

Strong, who described herself as “very much a homebody,” said she’s focused much of her  campaigning at community events, such as farmers markets and town parades. Her husband is a local pastor, and their last name is well-known in the local community. 

“I hope they’ll look at my 12 years representing them and say, you know, Vicki’s been faithful,” Strong said. “She answers my emails, she cares. She’s not, like, a political activist. She’s really there to represent me in Montpelier. I hope they’ll look at that and vote for me.”

Hear scenes from the campaign trail in Craftsbury in our latest Deeper Dig podcast.

Battle lines

Leaders of the state Democratic and Republican parties have for months focused on Orleans-4 as one of the most competitive districts in the state. It has also become one of the most expensive House races this cycle: According to the most recent campaign finance paperwork, Sims’ campaign had raised nearly $29,000 by the Oct. 15 filing deadline, and Strong had raised nearly $17,000. 

Sims and Strong are vying to represent four towns — Albany, Craftsbury, Greensboro and Glover — in the trimmed-down district drawn earlier this year. During the decennial reapportionment, lawmakers merged Barton into a district with Brownington and Westmore, and grouped Sheffield and Wheelock with other Caledonia County towns. 

In late September, Vermont Republican Party Chair Paul Dame sent out a fundraising email focused on the Orleans-4 race, calling the redrawing “one of the worst cases of gerrymandering in the state.” 

Dame alleged that by siphoning off more conservative towns into other districts, lawmakers had created a district that favors Sims. 

Sims — who did not sit on the committee responsible for redistricting — said she disagrees with Dame’s characterization, and noted that municipal leaders supported dividing the district. 

Dame himself advocated for single-member districts throughout the redistricting process, arguing they are more fair to rural towns. He said he hopes to see single-member districts eventually become a formal plank in the party platform. 

In an interview earlier this month, Dame reaffirmed his support for single-member districts — just not how this one was drawn. 

“It’s very possible that we could have cut a map that would have allowed both of the incumbents to serve in their own single-member districts,” Dame said. 

Jim Dandeneau, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party, mocked Dame’s claim of foul play. 

“Paul Dame has spent years banging on about the need for single-member districts,” Dandeneau said. “I think it’s hilarious that as soon as he gets one, that he says, ‘No, not that one.’”

In a neighboring district, Orleans-3 — which includes one of the towns trimmed from Sims’ and Strong’s constituency — a Democrat, David Templeman, is positioned to walk into office unopposed. Republicans aren’t even running a candidate. 

That’s because local party leadership changed hands this spring, when candidates needed to collect signatures to appear on the ballot, Dame said. He added that the party supported write-in campaigns, but it was “too little, too late.” 

Opposing viewpoints

With the maps settled and signed into law, voters in the district are left to choose between two very different candidates.

Sims, who led a rural economic development nonprofit called the Northeast Kingdom Collaborative for three years before her election to the House, cited abortion rights as a key issue for voters in the district. 

Sims is a vocal supporter of Proposal 5, also known as Article 22, the ballot question before voters this fall that would enshrine a right to reproductive autonomy in the state constitution. She described this race as a chance for Vermonters to “vote their values” after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade.

“I believe strongly that every person should have the right to make their own decisions about their own reproductive health,” Sims said. “I think those are deeply personal choices that should never require the permission of a politician.” 

Strong voted against Proposal 5 when it came before the Legislature for approval in February, and has sponsored bills that would limit abortion access. One of her bills sought to establish fetal personhood at 24 weeks. Another would have required health care providers to perform an ultrasound on a patient 24 hours before an abortion, and offer to show the patient the ultrasound and any fetal heartbeat. 

In the same biennium, Strong vigorously opposed Covid-19 vaccine and masking requirements, and argued such requirements infringed on privacy and personal freedoms. She was the lead sponsor on a bill — titled “An act relating to bodily autonomy and health care decision making” — that sought to ban vaccine or testing requirements in virtually any public or private setting.

“I believe the sovereignty of our body is to make our own medical choices, whatever treatment options are available based on our needs, and our bodies,” Strong said in an interview. “So the state should not be infringing on that. But with abortion, you’re talking about a separate body, another human being. So that’s a different type of level of health care freedom.” 

Strong said she believed conservative ideas were often steamrolled with inadequate discussion. in the Democrat-heavy Legislature.

“There’s different topics that I believe were pushed through that actually go against a lot of my private beliefs and faith,” Strong said, noting that she disagreed with the state’s medical aid in dying law and the decision to legalize cannabis. 

Strong named affordability as the most important issue in this race. She wants the Legislature to focus on reducing taxes to address Vermonters’ cost of living and stimulate the economy. 

Sims is also prioritizing economic development in her campaign, but argues the state should use different tools to stimulate growth in rural areas. If elected, Sims said she would focus on Act 250 reforms to ease the regulatory burden on logging and forestry businesses and allow for new housing construction. Her campaign website calls for expanded investment in infrastructure such as broadband, roads and sewers. 

‘Doors are being opened’

Neither the candidates nor party leaders offered confident predictions on how the race would shake out. 

Dandeneau expressed cautious optimism that Northeast Kingdom voters were becoming more receptive to Democratic candidates.

“We have folks knocking on doors in districts where, four years ago, those doors were being slammed in their faces,” Dandeneau said. “And now those doors are being opened.” 

Long-term, he believes these voters could be won over by Democrats’ positions on pocketbook issues, such as housing, child care and paid family leave. 

While Dame also hedged any predictions on this particular race, he believes the Republican stronghold in the Kingdom is secure. A conservative worldview is inherent to the remote landscape and rural way of life, he said.

“Most of the time people move out into the Kingdom because they kind of want to be left alone,” Dame said. “They want a little more space, they want to keep to themselves. And the people who value those kinds of things tend to lean more conservative, want government also to kind of leave them alone. … And so those ideas of affordability and non-interventionist government, I think, are still going to be Republican-inclined.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: After redistricting, two Northeast Kingdom incumbents vie for a single seat in the Vermont House.

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