For voters in the Franklin Senate district this fall, “the choice is clear,” wrote outgoing Republican Sen. Corey Parent, in an October social media post: “Burlington-style progressive politics or Franklin County common sense.”
Parent, who also chairs the county’s Republican Party, was writing to endorse Rep. Robert Norris, a first-term Sheldon Republican looking to make the jump to the upper chamber. The district’s other senator, Republican Randy Brock, is seeking a sixth term. Parent announced in May he would not be seeking reelection to the Franklin seat.
But the Democrats vying for the county’s two Senate seats — former Vermont Family Network CEO Pam McCarthy and small business owner Jessie Nakuma Palczewski — dispute the “progressive” label and describe themselves as moderates.
It’s been a decade since Franklin district voters sent a Democrat to the Senate, and the party holds just one of the county’s current seats in the House. The Senate race may well be a litmus test for the Democratic Party, which has identified historically purple Franklin County as a key battleground this year.
“There’s no question it’s a competitive race,” Brock said in an interview this week.
The Franklin Senate district includes most municipalities in Franklin County, as well as Alburgh in neighboring Grand Isle County. Following redistricting this year, the Franklin County towns of Fairfax and Fletcher are no longer part of the Senate district, though the Franklin County town of Richford was slotted in from the Essex-Orleans district.
All four candidates have identified the cost of living and access to housing as key issues in the county. A televised forum on Oct. 10, though, revealed some differences of opinion — including on the amendment that would enshrine access to reproductive care in the Vermont Constitution, known as Proposal 5 or Article 22.
In the debate, McCarthy and Palczewski were unequivocal in their support for Article 22, and while Brock also said he supported it, he discussed concerns about the possibility of an abortion being performed involving “a fetus that is viable outside of the womb.”
Norris said he had not yet decided how to vote on Article 22, and even if he had, he likely wouldn’t share his vote publicly. Norris said he voted against adopting the proposal in the House earlier this year because that reflected the will of most of his constituents in Sheldon and Swanton.
Parent said Brock and Norris, who served 20 years as a Democratic Franklin County sheriff, will provide a moderate brand of Republican politics similar to that of Gov. Phil Scott, which he thinks will appeal to many Democrats in the county.
Zach Scheffler, chair of the Franklin County Democrats, pointed to Article 22 as an issue he believes McCarthy and Palczewski have “made very clear that it’s important to them,” but he could not say the same for the Republican candidates.
Asked about Parent’s comment that the Democratic candidates were “Burlington-style progressives,” Scheffler called the senator’s words “divisive,” arguing the candidates would “work hard” for issues important to the county regardless of their party.
McCarthy’s name may be familiar to some Franklin County voters as she ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 2018. She won just under a quarter of the vote that year, finishing about 2,400 votes behind Brock and Parent, respectively.
The two towns — Fairfax and Fletcher — removed from the district happen to have been two of McCarthy’s best-performing municipalities in 2018. Fletcher was one of just three communities she won that year; St. Albans City and Bakersfield were the others.
Scheffler dismissed the idea that redistricting would be a detriment to the Franklin Democrats’ chances, saying the two candidates would have made concerted efforts to campaign in every community in their district regardless of which those were.
McCarthy echoed that sentiment, noting she hopes to “have at least a toehold” in newly added Richford, a town where she has worked in the past.
“You can never rely on someone to always make the same choice, particularly if you haven’t preserved a connection or a relationship with them,” McCarthy said.
Pam McCarthy’s son, Rep. Mike McCarthy, D-St. Albans, is the only Democrat currently serving in the Legislature from Franklin County. (He is also seeking reelection.) The last time a Democrat was elected to the Senate in the Franklin district was in 2012, when Don Collins beat Republican Dustin Degree by just 26 votes.
Franklin County has voted reliably Republican in recent years, though decades ago was a Democratic stronghold, Collins said this week. He and several other local Democrats said that may be changing again, though, as recent population growth brings more people into the county from other parts of the state and the country.
Collins said many people moving to Franklin County are from neighboring Chittenden County, an area that has reliably elected Democrats.
“When I look at the next five years in Franklin County, I think you’re going to see a lot of new families — and I think many of those families are going to come from more urban areas. And I think their political beliefs will be in line with the Democrats,” he said.
The county Democrats acknowledged it has been challenging to match the name recognition of both Republican candidates.
Brock has served five terms in the Senate representing the Franklin district since 2008, and currently serves as Senate Minority Leader. He also served as state auditor and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2012 against Democrat Peter Shumlin.
“I will be very surprised if Randy does not win,” said Carolyn Branagan, who has served seven terms in the House and one in the Senate representing Franklin County. She is seeking another term in the House this year representing Georgia and Fairfax.
Despite the advantage of incumbency, Brock was adamant in an interview that he is not taking this year’s race for granted.
While Norris has served just one term in the House, he is likely better known across the county for the roughly two decades he served as sheriff, starting in 1999. Branagan described Norris as a well-known and “respected member of his community.”
McCarthy had spent by far the most money in the Franklin Senate race as of Oct. 1, with disclosures showing about $14,000 in expenditures for her campaign. Brock’s spending was the second-highest at about $6,800. Norris had spent just more than $4,000 as of Oct. 1, and Palczewski had spent the least, about $1,500.
McCarthy said she believed her spending was important in order to get her name in front of voters, especially since she is running against two incumbent legislators.
Palczewski, the candidate with the least name recognition in the race, said she is the best choice because, as a parent of young children with aging parents of her own, she is facing many of the same challenges today that other Vermonters are.
She moved to St. Albans Town in 2020 with her husband, who she said works in law enforcement and is a Republican, which tempers her political views.
“I understand compromising very well — we have discussions all the time about politics,” Palczewski said. “I truly believe both sides are the best for Vermont.”
Read the story on VTDigger here: In Franklin Senate race, both sides claim moderate label.