Heated competition emerges in Franklin County House races
For the past decade, Franklin County has consistently sent Republicans to the Vermont House of Representatives, with a handful of exceptions. This fall, the party hopes to pick up even more seats, but it will face a series of competitive races.
In St. Albans City, Republican Joe Luneau is seeking to unseat Democratic Rep. Mike McCarthy in the new, single-member Franklin-3 district. Both candidates are well-known in political circles: McCarthy has served three terms in Montpelier and is currently the House Democratic whip, while Luneau is a former chair of the Franklin County GOP.
Republicans hold nine of the county’s 11 House seats; McCarthy and Rep. Barbara Murphy, a Fairfax independent not seeking reelection, hold the other two.
Paul Dame, chair of the Vermont Republican Party, predicted earlier this year that Luneau would give McCarthy “the toughest race that he’s ever had.” Dame said he’s confident that Luneau has the name recognition and campaigning skills to win.
The Republican chair also said he believes the newly-drawn Franklin-1 district — which Murphy’s district is part of — is favorable to Republicans because the district now also includes the reliably conservative town of Georgia, in addition to Fairfax.
That race has four contenders: former Rep. Carolyn Branagan, R-Georgia; Republican Ashley Bartley; and Democrats Alan “Al” Maynard and Devon Thomas.
At the same time, Democratic leaders contend they have strong candidates across the region and suggest they have perhaps their best chance in decades to make inroads in a county that historically has gone back and forth between parties.
Jim Dandeneau, executive director of the state’s Democratic Party, has said Democrats may gain ground in the county as people from the Burlington area migrate north, seeking more affordable housing. Dandeneau pointed to the House’s narrow failure in May to resurrect legislation that would have barred “evictions without cause” in Burlington — after Gov. Phil Scott vetoed the measure — as a case of Republicans blocking a measure he believes would have helped Franklin County residents, especially those in towns bordering Chittenden County.
“If we have more rational housing policy in Burlington, that has a knock-on impact in Franklin County,” he said. “And all of the Republicans stood united against that.”
McCarthy said he believes his role in House leadership positions him well to be an advocate for St. Albans residents’ interests.
Luneau, who is director of operations at Handy Toyota in St. Albans, has framed McCarthy’s role as the opposite. “I will vote my conscience on every question and not toe the party line — let alone whip others into falling in line against my constituents,” Luneau’s campaign website reads.
Following redistricting this year, Luneau or McCarthy will represent four wards of St. Albans City. The city’s two southernmost wards, plus a part of St. Albans Town, were slotted into another new district: Franklin-8, which is also seeing a competitive race.
In that district, Democrat Lauren Dees-Erickson is challenging incumbent Republican Rep. Casey Toof, who is seeking his third term in the House. Dees-Erickson works at an international development nonprofit and is the vice chair of St. Albans City’s planning commission.
Her campaign carries some historical significance: if she wins, she said she’d likely be the first woman of color elected to the Legislature from Franklin County (as would Democratic Franklin district Senate candidate Jessie Nakuma Palczewski).
Dees-Erickson said she would have come down differently than Toof on several recent key votes in the House. She pointed to the Reproductive Liberty Amendment (known as Prop 5 or Article 22) — which Toof voted against approving earlier this year — as well as Scott’s 2020 veto of a paid family leave program, which Toof voted to sustain.
Toof said he believes it’s important for Republicans to win enough seats in the Legislature to be able to uphold potential vetoes should Scott get reelected alongside a Democratic majority in both Legislative chambers.
In a televised forum this month, Toof also said he had changed his mind on Article 22 after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, and now supports the Vermont amendment. He acknowledged he’s faced criticism for shifting his position.
“But I feel like if I’m able to grow as a candidate and listen to what my constituents are telling me,” Toof said in the forum, “I think that people should be happy.”
In the Franklin-7 district, to the northeast, voters are also seeing a competitive contest. Enosburgh Republican Rep. Felisha Leffler’s decision not to seek reelection has produced a three-way race for the single seat representing Enosburgh and Montgomery.
Voters will likely recognize the Progressive/Democratic candidate from Enosburgh on their ballots: Cindy Weed, who has run in four of the district’s five most recent elections, winning twice. Republican Allen “Penny” Demar and independent Suzanne “Suzi” Hull-Casavant — both of Enosburgh — also are running.
Just south in the Franklin-6 district, Republican Rep. James Gregoire, of Fairfield, is facing his first competitive race since he first won a seat in the House in 2018. His challenger is Brenda Churchill, a Bakersfield Democrat and Statehouse advocate for the LGBTQIA Alliance of Vermont. She also sits on her hometown’s selectboard.
The candidates gave differing answers when asked about Article 22 in a televised forum. Churchill said she supported the amendment, while Gregoire declined to say how he would vote on it on his ballot. Gregoire voted against the amendment on the House floor earlier this year, saying in the forum he took issue with the “very partisan” debate.
If Churchill is elected, she would be the second openly transgender person to serve in the Legislature, joining Rep. Taylor Small, P/D-Winooski.
Dame made Gregoire the first subject of a series of fundraising emails this fall highlighting GOP candidates. He did not mention Churchill by name but did cite Emerge Vermont — an organization she has worked with that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office. The chair also said the race could be close.
Gregoire “did such a great job serving his constituents that he ran uncontested in both the Republican primary, and the general election in 2020,” Dame wrote.
“But this year Emerge VT has made a target out of James’s race and may give him the toughest fight thus far in his three races.”
Read the story on VTDigger here: Heated competition emerges in Franklin County House races.