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The Deeper Dig: Competition in the Kingdom

The Deeper Dig: Competition in the Kingdom

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

The Deeper Dig is a weekly podcast from the VTDigger newsroom. Listen below, and subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlaySpotify or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

CRAFTSBURY — Redistricting, the once-per-decade process of redrawing electoral maps, is not a particularly sexy political task. But in the Northeast Kingdom, this year’s new maps have added a unique wrinkle to a Vermont House race. Two incumbents, who had jointly represented seven towns, are now competing for a single seat. 

Reps. Katherine Sims, D-Craftsbury, and Vicki Strong, R-Albany, are two very different candidates each seeking to represent Albany, Craftsbury, Greensboro and Glover in the newly-drawn Orleans-4 district. 

The Vermont Republican Party has called this race an example of gerrymandering. Democrats dispute that description. But everyone seems to agree that this will likely be a tight race. 

Read the full story here

In our latest podcast, Sims and Strong discuss their political priorities and how they’re navigating their campaigns. Paul Dame, the state GOP chair, explains his objections to the district boundaries. And voters share what they’re hoping to see from lawmakers next year. 

Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity.

Dan Fingas, VT Movement Politics Director at Rights and Democracy Vermont: I think we’re leaving literature behind, is that right? Probably one out of four, one out of five doors, someone will be home. It’s a beautiful sunny day. It’s been raining for a number of days. People might be out. 

Riley Robinson: It was a Sunday morning, at the point in the fall when the foliage is just about half green. I tiptoed through a front door to where roughly a dozen volunteers had gathered in a living room in Craftsbury. 

They were Democrats of all different ages. Some had never volunteered for a campaign before. A few of them currently serve in elected office themselves. And they were all getting tips on how to knock on doors and talk to voters. 

Don’t go inside the house. Don’t lose sight of your door knocking buddy. Ask the name of the person who comes to the door. 

These volunteers were door knocking in support of Katherine Sims, a Democratic state representative who’s running for reelection.

Dan Fingas: “Leave literature behind, but don’t leave it in or around the mailbox. Mailboxes are federal property, technically, and doing anything with them if you’re not a postal worker, is against the law.” 

Riley Robinson: And just before the volunteers headed out in pairs, they were left with one last reminder: In a local race like this, that one voter at the end of the long, long driveway might be the person that determines the winner. 

Rep. Taylor Small, P/D-Winooski: And that is not a unique story in Vermont elections. 

Riley Robinson: This is Taylor Small, a Progressive/Democrat representative in the Vermont House. 

Taylor Small: We saw it in the primaries, when some people lost by just four votes. So anyone who’s like, does my vote matter? Absolutely. It does matter. Especially when you go down ballot, it does matter. 

Riley Robinson: This is a unique race. Two incumbents in the Vermont House are running against each other for a single seat: Sims, a Democrat, and Republican Vicki Strong. It is the only race in the state where two incumbents have to run against each other. 

This happened because of redistricting. Every ten years, lawmakers draw new political maps to balance out shifts in the population. 

For the past two years, Sims and Strong have served alongside each other, in a multi-member district. The two of them together represented seven towns in the Northeast Kingdom: Albany, Barton, Craftsbury, Greensboro, Glover, Sheffield and Wheelock. 

When the Legislature approved new maps this year, that district was trimmed to just four towns — Albany, Craftsbury, Greensboro and Glover.  

Riley Robinson: How would you describe your district to people who live in other parts of the state? 

Rep. Vicki Strong, R-Albany: Oh, man, a little piece of heaven. Bucolic. Albany, Craftsbury, Greensboro and Glover — it’s almost like stepping back in time.

Riley Robinson: This is Vicki Strong, the Republican candidate. She’s served in the Legislature since 2011. 

Rep. Katherine Sims, D-Craftsbury: I like to say that, you know, I’m not running against Vicki, I’m running for the seat — we just both happen to be running for it — and try to stay focused on who I am. 

This is Katherine Sims, the Democratic candidate. She’s just finishing her first two-year term in office. 

Katherine Sims: For me, that’s about being a strong voice for rural communities. I mean, I’m running because I love this place. The Kingdom is so special. We work hard, we get outside, we raise resilient children, we, you know, come together and do big things. And yet, often it feels like the opportunities and challenges that we face are ignored or not understood. 

Riley Robinson: Three towns — Barton, Sheffield and Wheelock — were regrouped into other districts. So now Sims and Strong are running head to head. And only one can win. 

Sims voted yes on the new district, alongside the vast majority of her colleagues. 

Katherine Sims: I think what we heard from the local boards of civil authorities, which really weighed in on the new maps, was that the previous district didn’t make sense, on the grounds that the seven towns that were included had a big mountain in the middle, and that Sheffield and Wheelock were in a different county in a different school district, different senate districts, and that they didn’t feel … in community with the other towns. 

And so the redistricting gave us an opportunity to draw a district that better responded to the local geography and existing boundaries. And, you know, for me, what was most important was coming up with a map that made sense for the communities. Yeah, it was awkward, that it kind of put two incumbents in the district, but you know the adage: Voters should choose their politicians, politicians shouldn’t choose their voters. [That] always really resonated with me. And so you know, I wanted to stay focused on what made the most sense for these communities in that process. 

Riley Robinson: Republicans turned their attention on this district and said it could put Strong in a tough spot. In late September, the Vermont Republican Party chair, Paul Dame, called this district, quote, “one of the worst cases of gerrymandering in the state.” 

I called him to ask why.

Riley Robinson: You said the way that the district was cut, gives Sims an advantage. Can you tell me how you see that division giving Sims an advantage in this race?

Paul Dame: There’s a couple different ways that the map could have been cut. 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. 

In this case, with this district up in Orleans, the Democrats had an advantage by pitting the two incumbents against each other in a district that, you know, we think is a little bit more liberal than the district as a whole. 

Riley Robinson: Just so I understand, do you see it as the remaining four towns — Craftsbury, Albany, Glover and Greensboro — have more of a liberal or Democrat leaning, than with Barton, Sheffield and Wheelock? 

Paul Dame: Yes. 

Riley Robinson: But Dame also made a lot of noise this legislative session advocating for single member districts, meaning maps where every district is represented by just one person in the House. And in this district, he got that. These maps passed out of committee on a unanimous vote. 

And the Republican Party has not filed a lawsuit challenging the fairness of these maps in court, which they could have done. 

Strong voted against the maps this spring. 

Vicki Strong: I’m disheartened. Disappointed. I had hoped that it would be — stay — a two member district, because I believe both myself and the other seatmate are a good team and could be pretty dynamic together. So I didn’t want to see us split up, per se, and have to run against each other. 

I don’t ever want to sound like sour grapes. Because I don’t think that reflects well on my towns and my constituents. As far as gerrymandering goes, you can look at the dynamics of towns and say they’re, they’re more liberal leaning. But I have a lot of folks in all those towns who I know know me, and trust me, I hope they’ll look at my 12 years, representing them and say, you know, Vicki’s been faithful. 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.

Riley Robinson: The Vermont Democratic Party has been taking this race seriously since the spring. Democrats want to solidify a veto-proof supermajority in the House, and any competitive seat could be the one that gives them an edge.

This is also turning into 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 October 15th. Strong had raised nearly $17,000. 

As I drove into Craftsbury along Route 14, it seemed like almost every driveway had a campaign lawn sign, and it seemed like every other house supported every other candidate – Sims, Strong, Sims, Strong.  

Both candidates told me this race is more intense than any campaign they’ve mounted before. 

When I met with Strong a couple weeks ago, she said she had woken up with a start before dawn, worried about the campaign. 

Vicki Strong: My campaign is very different. More intense, hard work. I’m enjoying it because it is getting me out. I am very much a homebody in the sense of, I can tomatoes and have a little garden and can applesauce. Make jam and jelly. You know, it’s kind of like, I can be happy at home. But I’m making myself get out and knock on some doors and get yard signs out and attend things when I can. And so I’m very much more involved.

Riley Robinson: Sims was first elected in 2020, during the pandemic, so most of her campaigning that year took place online. This year is really different. She’s been doing a lot of door knocking. 

Riley Robinson: How often do you do door knocking? 

Katherine Sims: Yeah, so I’ve been ramping up. Started with, you know, one, one day a week, and now trying to do three or four days a week for, you know, three or four hours. 

Riley Robinson: One Sunday morning, I tagged along as Sims, and that group of volunteers, went door to door.

The first house we stopped at, we drove up the driveway, as a guy drove back down the other way in a tractor. He said we looked a little lost. Katherine explained she was out talking to voters, and was looking for his wife, Tamara.

Peter Burke: She’s in the back office, if you want to talk to her. I’ll be back if you want to hang out for a minute. 

Katherine Sims: Ok. You said back office — is there a way to get around so she can hear us? 

Peter Burke: Well, if you knock on the door, the dogs will go crazy. They’re our doorbell. They’ll try and kiss you, but I’ll warn you, they have sheep poop breath. 

Katherine Sims: OK. We’re not afraid. 

Riley Robinson: What did he say they have?

Katherine: Um, sheep poop breath. 

Riley Robinson: Oh lovely. 

Riley Robinson: We got up to the door, and met three large golden retrievers. One of them had recently gotten sprayed pretty bad by a skunk. Peter, the guy driving the tractor, walked back to the porch a few minutes later. 

Katherine Sims: Is there anything else that you think we’re doing really well, or you want us to pay more attention to in the coming session? 

Peter Burke: Yes. I’ve read a lot of the proposals — well, still in the discussion phase — about gas taxes, and trying to get more people to try fuel efficient vehicles and winterize their homes and stuff like that. That works really well in the big voting bloc of Burlington and Middlebury and stuff like that. But when you’re out here, and you live on a dirt road, and you can afford one vehicle, it’s got to be a big truck that can get you through mud season. And nobody’s talking about that. In a rural state, to have things so slanted towards urban, it bothers me.

Riley Robinson: Peter said at one point, he’d been a longtime Republican. But he’s watched the party change. And among other things, he said was upset by how Vicki Strong and some other Republicans responded to Covid. 

Peter Burke: And the thing is, she just kind of goes along with the whole, the direction the GOP is going, which like I said, I was a Republican for a long time, like when I was in the military — until the party left me. 

Riley Robinson: But the district is also home to plenty of voters who remain conservative, and support the Republican Party. 

Cindy Corkins has known Vicki Strong for 30-plus years. They met at church, where Vicki’s husband is the pastor. 

Cindy has helped out on several of Vicki’s campaigns, including this one. A few weeks ago, Cindy dressed up in a cow costume to walk alongside Vicki’s float in a local parade. She’s all in for this race. 

Riley Robinson: What do you like about her, what makes you want to support her as a candidate?   

Cindy Corkins: She has been, since she lost her son in the war, she has been a strong supporter of veterans. And my partner now is a veteran. And so I think she’s done a fabulous job in supporting them.

Riley Robinson: Cindy said she thought Vicki was great at constituent services — answering people’s questions and connecting them with services. 

Cindy Corkins: She’s also a Christian, and she has Christian values, that I certainly appreciate and support.

Riley Robinson: For you, as a voter, what do you think is most important, that the Legislature should be working on next year? 

Cindy Corkins: I’d like them to look at taxation, and if there can be anything done to reduce taxes. We’re so heavily burdened with that, and people are struggling right now with being able to pay for their food. I mean, we’re going into a recession. And we’re not — the cost of living is not meeting the needs of the people that are working. I don’t think we need to raise the minimum wage, but we have to find some balance that can help Vermonters sustain and remain living in this beautiful state.

Riley Robinson: And then there’s also people like Will Marlier, a 23-year old recent grad, who signed up to door knock for Katherine. 

Riley Robinson: Have you volunteered with political campaigns before?

Will Marlier: I have not, this is my first time. 

Riley Robinson: Will grew up in the Kingdom, and went away to college in Philadelphia. He said that was a wake-up call for him. 

Will Marlier: It didn’t take me too long to start getting homesick. And realize that these downtown metropolitan centers are kind of symptomatic of larger issues that our planet is facing. And so that’s why conservation is really important to me.

Riley Robinson: He also named Proposal 5, and reproductive rights, as one of the top issues for him in this election. 

Will Marlier: I’m trying to focus more on what I can do for my local community. And so having someone that is basically my neighbor, running for office seems like a great way to meet people that are interested in the same things. And yeah, I think just making those connections, and showing that people do care about these issues is important. 

Riley Robinson: Would you go door knocking again?

Will Marlier: Um … maybe? If someone dragged me into it, probably? 

Riley Robinson: Did someone drag you into it today? 

Will Marlier: No. I dragged myself into it, I guess. 

Riley Robinson: When I talked to both candidates about this race, I asked them what they see as the biggest issue in this election, and what they’re hearing is most important to voters. 

Katherine Sims said she’s hearing from a lot of voters that reproductive rights and abortion access are really important to them right now. She sees it as one of the major issues this election, not just at the national level, but also in down-ballot races like hers. 

And it came up multiple times with voters when she was out doorknocking. 

Katherine Sims: Are there issues that feel kind of top of mind as you think about the election coming up?

Anne-Marie Keppel, a Craftsbury voter: Oh, yes. Article 22. Is that right? Article 22 is on the forefront. It’s never really been an issue that I have had to care much about, because it’s passed without much trouble. Although if you look carefully, I started realizing that the vote was kind of close in some places.

Riley Robinson: It’s also one issue where Sims and Strong might have the most distinctly different positions.

Katherine Sims: My opponent and I disagree on reproductive liberty. I believe strongly that every person should have the right to make their own decisions about their own reproductive health. I think those are deeply personal choices that should never require the permission of a politician. And so when people cast their ballot, cast their vote here in November, they’ll have an opportunity and a local race to vote their values. 

Riley Robinson: Vicki Strong voted against Proposal 5, the constitutional amendment, when it came before the House in both 2020 and 2022. In the past couple years, Strong has also been the lead sponsor on bills that would put restrictions on abortion. One of her bills sought to establish fetal personhood at 24 weeks. Another bill would have required health care providers to do an ultrasound on a patient 24 hours before an abortion, and offer to show the patient the ultrasound and any fetal heartbeat. 

Strong objected to testing, masking and vaccine requirements in the Statehouse last year, arguing they were an infringement on privacy and personal freedoms. She was the lead sponsor on a bill that sought to ban vaccine or testing requirements in virtually any public or private setting. That bill was named “An act relating to bodily autonomy and health care decision making.” 

I asked her how she squares her views on medical freedom around Covid restrictions with her views on abortion.

Vicki Strong: Well, thanks for that question. Because that has been confusing to some folks. I square that with the idea that we have to figure out when, when an unborn child is, is at the stage of viability, and that’s getting younger and younger, according to science and technology. And that child is a different body. It’s not the woman’s body. So where is that point of viability?

I believe the sovereignty of our body is to make our own medical choices, whatever treatment or options are available based on our needs, and our bodies. 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. What about the health care freedom of that unborn child? When does that child become its own human life and become its own rights and its own reproductive autonomy? Those are all questions that legislators wrestled with. I’m not telling you I have the right answer.

Riley Robinson: Strong said abortion hasn’t been coming up all that often in her conversations with voters, and she’s prioritizing different issues in this race. 

What issues are you hearing from voters are most important to them to be addressed in Montpelier next year?

Vicki Strong: I believe it’s affordability. I’m just constantly hearing that people feel like they aren’t being heard in Montpelier, that the whole issue of everything from our fiscal situation in the state, the taxes are my constituents pay. They just are really stretched, really stretched with inflation the way it is. And then with bills being proposed, that would raise their costs for fuel. I mean, they’re dumbfounded and really feel like they’re being lost and that their voices aren’t heard. So number one issue, as far as I can hear, is affordability. Access to things like jobs, housing, because of affordability problems, health care’s extremely expensive childcare, just starting a business is overwhelming and daunting.

We made steps in the Statehouse to provide better economic development. But the real reforms that need to happen to help really grow just are so slow, and almost non-existent in some ways.

Riley Robinson: Sims is also prioritizing economic growth in her campaign, but she comes at it from a different angle. 

Katherine Sims: So often I hear from folks right about how they’re struggling, it’s feels like it’s harder and harder to take care of basic needs… 

Riley Robinson: She wants to see greater investment in rural infrastructure like broadband, roads and sewers, and wants to prioritize Act 250 reforms, to promote economic growth and create more housing. 

Katherine Sims: You know, we have important Act 250 regulations to support and protect our environment and keep Vermont what is so special about Vermont. And yet, the permitting and regulatory challenges and how they play out in our rural communities are really different than downtowns, and the size and scale of developers and investors and small businesses are really different. And I think there are times when folks feel really overburdened, and that some of our Act 250 regulations really inhibit the necessary and important economic development that we want to have in our communities in a way that’s smart and sustainable. 

Riley Robinson: Sims emphasized that rural places just function differently than denser areas, and have different challenges. She’s also concerned about the need for first responders and dispatchers in rural areas. 

Katherine Sims: Our high poverty, rural communities just aren’t necessarily able to find as many volunteers, raise the same amount of money, and that leaves many of our communities struggling to have enough folks who can come to your aid when you need it.

Riley Robinson: The Northeast Kingdom is generally seen as a more conservative area in a very blue state. And when I talked to Paul Dame, the state GOP chair, I asked him if he anticipates any broader changes in the politics of this area, especially given the demographic changes: a shrinking population, the rise in remote work. 

Dame said he expects the area to remain a conservative stronghold. 

Paul Dame: Most of the time people move out into the Kingdom because they kind of want to be left alone. They want a little more space, they want to keep to themselves. 

And the people who who value those kinds of things tend to lean more conservative, to want government also to kind of leave them alone. They want their space, they want an affordable lifestyle, right, the housing is more affordable out there. And so those ideas of affordability and sort of non interventionist government, I think are still going to be Republican inclined.

Riley Robinson: But nobody I talked to for this story had any confident predictions about how this race would shake out. For at least the past ten years, this district has been represented by one rep from each party. And this place — like any place, really — is more complex, more nuanced, the closer you look. 

There’s also not much political polling in Vermont, generally, and especially not at this granular level. So we’ll only really know what voters want when polls close November 8.

Read the story on VTDigger here: The Deeper Dig: Competition in the Kingdom.

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