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Date : March 3, 2024
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John Klar brings the culture wars to Orange County Senate campaign

John Klar brings the culture wars to Orange County Senate campaign

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John Klar critiques “critical race theory” during a gathering held by Vermonters for Vermont in Rutland on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Last week, Orange Southwest School District superintendent Layne Millington postponed a community forum to discuss a controversy over transgender rights. 

“Local members of the community have again reached out to groups around the country to try and stir anger against the district,” Millington wrote in an email to the school community.

The next morning, Orange County Republican Senate candidate and Brookfield farmer John Klar drafted an email. For not the first time, he wanted to give Millington a piece of his mind.

“You slander the community you feign to serve — anyone who dares demur to your extremist ideological theories is portrayed as a dangerous agitator,” Klar wrote. “Have you EVER been held accountable for ANYTHING, or were you always a petulant adolescent?”

Emails obtained through a public records request reveal Klar’s months’ long spat with Millington. But the candidate has also made his feelings clear publicly: in op-eds published in Vermont’s more conservative online publications, at public meetings and in videos posted to social media.

Klar has used his battle with Randolph schools — on critical race theory and Black Lives Matter, transgender rights and equity — as his campaign’s clarion call. He’s betting that his rhetoric, which resembles nationwide conservative messaging, will resonate with his rural electorate. 

Orange County voters have for decades backed Sen. Mark MacDonald, a Democrat. But Klar has made MacDonald’s reelection campaign competitive, seizing on the septuagenarian senator’s support for the vetoed Clean Heat Standard and other climate-related legislation. And just this month, MacDonald had a minor stroke, taking him off the campaign trail in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 8 election. 

MacDonald’s focus is physical therapy, not getting out the vote. His son, Max, said that the senator is making “hour by hour” progress while his “dedicated following” canvasses for him.

Klar, meanwhile, continues posting, setting the tone for the final stretch.

Differences in a changed district

Klar’s prolific blog posts are part of a dominant digital campaign, building on the social network he grew during his 2020 gubernatorial primary run. In that race, Klar ran to the right of Gov. Phil Scott, focusing on the incumbent’s support of some gun safety and abortion rights legislation, as well as Scott’s support for racial equity initiatives. 

In his Senate run, Klar disseminates campaign videos multiple times a week on Facebook and YouTube and has spent about $2,500 on social media advertising. MacDonald lacks a Facebook page or even a website, instead relying on door-knocking and a volunteer ground game.

Klar has also far outraised MacDonald. The Republican has brought in more than $32,000 and spent almost $18,000 — a huge sum for the district. He’s received a combined $4,500 from Republican mega-donor Skip Vallee and Vallee’s family and business; $1,580 from Burlington heiress Lenore Broughton; $1,400 from retired Wall Street executive and former gubernatorial candidate Bruce Lisman; and $200 from former Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie. 

MacDonald, meanwhile, has brought in $6,465 and spent only $2,500. 

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John Klar, then a Republican candidate for governor, at home in Brookfield on Tuesday, June 30, 2020. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The district has also grown more competitive thanks to reapportionment. It lost Thetford — the bluest town in the county, according to the 2020 presidential election results — as well as Braintree. Bradford, Fairlee and Topsham have joined the district. While Fairlee showed up in force for Democrat Joe Biden, Bradford is larger and more moderate, and Topsham voters picked Republican Donald Trump at the highest rate in Orange County in 2020. 

The combination of factors led Vermont Republican Party chair Paul Dame to label the contest “the big Senate race to watch” and call the district a “pickup opportunity” for Republicans.

“John Klar ran statewide in the Republican primary for governor two years ago, so he has a statewide network of people that are supporting him,” Dame said, adding that many in the district feel that MacDonald “doesn’t really take into consideration the difficulty that Vermonters are having paying for things like their heating bill.”

Dame pointed to comments MacDonald made while discussing a bill to create a statewide Clean Heat Standard, in which he compared the legislation to a carbon tax and said people frustrated with the bill should “get a blanket for Christ’s sake.”

Klar has seized on the moment of gruffness, circulating the video on his YouTube channel and quoting MacDonald repeatedly in campaign advertisements. “We think it’s time to hang up your blanket, Senator,” one such ad reads.  

“Mark MacDonald touts the hundreds of millions we spend on out-of-state fuels, but wants to spend hundreds of millions on out-of-nation solar panels and (electric vehicle) cars,” Klar wrote to VTDigger in an email, “all of which will end up in landfills, and which generate mountains of pollution AND Co2 in their manufacture and transportation.”

Klar initially denied an interview request for this story, instead providing a lengthy email on his political origins and campaign platform. He later stated that he would “reconsider” his “hesitation” but ultimately ignored a further request.

MacDonald did not respond to phone calls immediately after news of his stroke was made public. His son agreed on Thursday to pass questions along to his father, but the senator had not responded by Monday evening.

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Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Tuesday, May 14, 2019. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Jim Dandeneau, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party, acknowledges that MacDonald is “pretty old school” when it comes to campaigning. (MacDonald was first appointed to his late mother’s House seat in 1983 and has run for the Legislature every two years since — losing just twice in nearly four decades.) McDonald’s 20-year run of successful Senate races point to a winning strategy, Dandenau suggested. 

“We encourage candidates to have a digital footprint, but that encouragement only goes so far,” Dandeneau said, adding that “it’s been working for him, so we’re not going to push too hard.”

When it comes to Klar’s aggressive campaigning, Dandeneau argued it may ultimately benefit MacDonald. 

“The more people find out about John Klar’s extremism,” the party leader said, “the less they like him.”

Culture warrior

From certain angles, Klar presents as a moderate conservative with some heterodox beliefs. 

At a Brookfield candidate forum on Sept. 22, he joked that “perhaps I should just run as a Democrat … because if you took the three issues I’m most focused on, which is farming, pensions and reducing regressive taxes, I could have done so equally as a Democrat.”

He also called for Act 250 reforms, a stance echoed by policymakers on both sides of the aisle. Unlike some Republicans, Klar supports commercial marijuana sales. In advocating for economic incentives for farmers, he’s approached local agriculture as a boon for both the climate and the state’s economy. 

But when addressing a conservative audience, Klar takes a decidedly different tack. Since his 2020 run for governor, he’s been a ubiquitous political presence, popping up at town halls targeting “critical race theory” and penning dozens of commentaries posted on the conservative websites True North Reports and Vermont Daily Chronicle. 

In his writing, Klar takes on issues such as abortion (“Proposal 5 is obscene. Roe was extreme.”); the Black Lives Matter movement (“Carpetbagging BLM leftists … seem determined to subjugate Vermont’s existing (mostly white) population by shaming them.”); and transgender rights (he has compared gender-affirming treatment to “lobotomies” and “eugenics” while comparing its supporters to Nazis.). 

Those are the same issues Klar has sought to localize in his fights with the Orange Southwest School District.

Last Spring, Klar argued that Randolph Union High School was violating the law by flying a Black Lives Matter flag, making his case both in person before the school board and in writings online. The district eventually retreated, removing the flag. But that was not the end of the issue for Klar. 

In a June 8 email to Millington, the district superintendent, Klar suggested he and a group of parents were considering taking the district to court.

“Many parents want to pool resources and retain counsel to file a suit now while the evidence is strong,” he wrote. “I’m sitting on petitions, and a community rallying for a fight. The greater power, and benefit for all, is to lay it all down, and seek a truce and mutual respect.”

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John Klar in October 2019 as he announced that he was running for governor. File photo by Grace Elletson/VTDigger.

Come October, as Randolph became the center of international attention over a transgender student using the girls locker room, Klar resumed his presence in Millington’s inbox.

“Layne, you have bullied these children and their parents for years and now you are publicly demonstrating what an ugly thug you are,” he wrote, requesting Millington “resign forthwith.”

Throughout the month, the turmoil continued. The district postponed a community forum due to threatening phone calls, and two athletic coaches in the district who had spoken out against transgender students’ rights were barred from coaching.

Those decisions spurred further emails from Klar, who was incensed that the superintendent had written that “Local members of the community have again reached out to groups around the country to try and stir anger against the district.”

In response, Millington implied Klar had close ties with those exact members.

“I suggest you reach out to the group you have stated in previous emails you represent and ask them to provide you with their social media postings (including the ones they believe are private),” Millington wrote. 

“I represent no group, Layne,” Klar replied. “I just stand up for the children and parents you have persistently slandered and bullied in unconscionable abuse of your authority and position.”

Millington declined to comment on Klar, and did not elaborate on the “community members” or “social media postings” he referred to in his emails with the candidate. 

Those community members, though, appear to be the target audience for Klar’s messaging. The self-styled populist has found a base in Orange County. 

Riley Robinson contributed reporting.

Read the story on VTDigger here: John Klar brings the culture wars to Orange County Senate campaign.

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