BRATTLEBORO—On March 7, Brenda Siegel of Newfane decided to run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
The next day, she learned that her nephew, Kaya Siegel, was dead of a drug overdose. Twenty years earlier, Brenda’s brother — Kaya’s father — also died of a drug overdose.
For Brenda Siegel, one of four candidates vying for the Democratic nomination, opioid addiction is not an abstract issue. It is deeply personal in a way many of us will never know.
“I don’t think what we’ve been doing is working,” she said. “It’s time for us to take a different approach.”
That different approach was unveiled on July 12, when Siegel stood beside Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George in front of the Edward J. Costello Courthouse, and outlined a four-part strategy to fight opioid addiction.
Siegel’s plan focuses on harm reduction, offering treatment on demand, putting more resources into recovery and prevention, and reforming the criminal justice system.
The most controversial part of the plan is her proposal to set up safe injection sites, a key element of the concept of harm reduction. Siegel said European countries such as Portugal that have tried this approach have seen fewer overdose deaths.
Burlington currently has a program, Burlington Harm Reduction, that does needle exchanges and offers unlimited access to Narcan, the drug that can prevent overdose deaths if administered in time.
“Harm reduction saves lives,” she said. “We need to embrace it, because if the goal is to save lives, to lower the rate of drug use, to get people into treatment, and to reduce the collateral damage like panhandling, theft, and needles on the streets, we have to embrace the best practices that work.”
Building a just economy
Siegel says she comes from a different place as a candidate — a single mother of modest means with no formal political experience.
“Politics only changes when we decide it’s going to change, when we decide we’re going to vote for people from different backgrounds with different voices,” she said. “That is how our political system really changes.”
Siegel said she interned at the Capitol with then-Congressman Bernie Sanders when she was in her 20s, and worked in six states as a campaign volunteer in Sanders’ president campaign in 2016. She also has done what she called “issue-based advocacy” at the Statehouse for the past few years.
“When we utilize the resources that already exist in our state — like the arts, recreation, and farms — and connect those to our businesses and our government,” she says, “then we begin to see us lifting up the bottom and building an economy that works for all of us.”
She is unabashedly progressive in her political views, particularly on economic issues. She worked on campaigns to get the state to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour and to enact paid medical leave for workers. She says that if people don’t have enough money in their pockets to spend at local stores and restaurants, the whole economy suffers.
Siegel rejects the idea that young people don’t want to live in Vermont, but, she says “we have to create policies that encourage young families to come here.”
That starts with supporting public education. “Schools are the economic centers of our towns, and this is certainly not a time to underfund public schools, particularly when we are seeing serious poverty and the opioid epidemic going on in our state.”
Siegel criticized Republican Gov. Phil Scott for misleading Vermonters on his school spending plans.
“[Scott’s] plan, where he said he was going to save everybody money on their property taxes? Fifty percent of the towns saw property tax bills increase this year,” she said, adding that they were towns that had to spend more on public education because their school population needed more services.
In the third, fourth, and fifth years of Scott’s plan, Siegel said, all towns would be paying higher property taxes. That’s by design, she said, so that towns would start voting down their school budgets “which would undermine public schools and give him the platform to move toward a voucher system” for funding education.
Not afraid of a fight
Siegel said that if she wins the Democratic nomination, Scott “is going to have a really hard time going toe-to-toe with me.”
For example, Siegel said Scott promised policies that would protect the most vulnerable Vermonters, “but the bills he vetoed this year are bills that would have helped my family and many others around Vermont. He’s going to have a tough time defending that.”
Scott has lost some of his luster, and Siegel believes it is because he has shown that “we have a governor who doesn’t negotiate with the teachers’ union, who doesn’t negotiate with the public employees’ union, who doesn’t negotiate with the Legislature, and has a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude.”
This “dictatorial” style, she said, “is not what we know in Vermont. We know we can work together and create good strong legislation that can move this state, and this nation, forward.”
As far as Siegel is concerned, “we can change the system. What we have to do is get in there and fight for what Vermonters need and want, and be very clear with our message with a strong platform going forward. But it is essential that we understand what [Scott] has been doing, and we have to counter that message. That is how we win.”
She said of the four-person field — which also includes James Ehlers of Winooski, Christine Hallquist of Hyde Park, and Ethan Sonneborn of Bristol — she is the one with the most political experience. She is the vice-chair of the Newfane Democratic Committee, a member of the Windham County Democrats, and has spent the last two years with Rights & Democracy, a political activist group.
Combined with her executive experience running the Southern Vermont Dance Festival, Siegel said she has demonstrated she can make things happen, and that you can be someone other than a lawmaker or a CEO and run for governor.
“It’s time for us to redefine leadership,” she said. “Executive leadership comes in many different forms, and what we want is someone with the bravery, the political courage, and the understanding of our political system to make sure we push popular, progressive movements forward.”