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Allison Hemming of Jamaica, a Windham County Democratic Party committee member, helped organize the event.

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A civic-minded conga line

Democrats traverse Windham County to connect to community and remind people to cast their ballots

WEST BRATTLEBORO—Candidates, volunteers, and members of the Windham County Democratic Committee stood 6 feet apart while chatting about the Nov. 3 presidential election over slices of apple pie and cups of apple cider.

They had just driven in approximately 70 cars, decorated with banners, streamers, campaign signs, and balloons, looping Windham County on Sunday, as part of the committee’s Ridin’ with Biden get-out-the-vote event.

The travelers started from Guilford County Store in Algiers Village on Route 5. The caravan drove north on Route 30 into Jamaica before turning onto Route 100 and heading back south through Wardsboro and Dover.

Along the way, 13 points were designated as places for cars to merge into the motorcade for part of the journey. These time stations spontaneously became gathering areas where people cheered the caravan.

The civic-minded conga line picked up Route 9 in Wilmington and meandered east to congregate at the spot of the Brattleboro Farmers’ Market.

There was no pressing the flesh, kissing babies, or leafleting this year. While on the road, participants could wave to fellow committee members standing in their driveways, and to those who happened to be outside enjoying the late autumn sunshine.

Candidates envision getting to work after a win

A few candidates and incumbent lawmakers attended the event. Those facing competition on the ballot spoke to The Commons about the major issues they plan to focus on if elected.

Incumbent State Sen. Jeanette White, D-Putney, said she’ll be paying attention to broadband internet, health care, the state budget, and jobs.

She described such issues as “the big things that are always facing us that I will have input into but are not in my committees, so I will not be dealing directly with them but have a lot of interest in how we address them,” White added.

“Serving on Judiciary and Government Operations, a couple of things will be directly in my area,” she said. Those issues: law enforcement reform, criminal justice reform (“the whole system,” she said), elections, supporting the work of Xusana Davis, the state’s executive director of racial equity, and “being ready for the next emergency.”

In the second half of the biennium, White said she will also work on redistricting the House of Representatives, a task that takes place every 10 years with updated results of the federal census.

White is running for Senate along with incumbent Becca Balint (D-Brattleboro), Tyler Colford (I-Whitingham), John Lyddy (R-Whitingham), and Marcus R. Parish (R-Bellows Falls).

Leslie Goldman is running for the Windham-3 district, which includes Athens, Brookline, Grafton, Rockingham, Windham, and a part of Westminster. She faces incumbent Democrat Rep. Carolyn Partridge and independent challenger Ryan Coyne in the two-seat race.

Goldman said she enjoyed the day’s drive. Although she was alone in her car, she still felt the togetherness of friends in the caravan, the political newcomer said.

She said she hopes that the Democrats retain a majority of the House and Senate to move forward legislation and potentially override vetoes from Scott should he be returned to office. The governor faces a contest from Progressive/Democrat David Zuckerman, the current lieutenant governor.

If elected, Goldman said she plans to work on both short-term and long-term issues.

In the short term, she said, she would focus on the state’s pandemic recovery with an eye toward increasing federal funding to the state. She also hopes to simplify the process for obtaining those funds locally.

Goldman, who works with the Everyone Eats! local food, restaurant, and farm-support program in the Rockingham area, noted that sometimes federal grant conditions are difficult to meet.

Another long-term issue: improving health care.

Goldman also wants to approach issues around child care, viewing it as an essential part of the state’s infrastructure, like roads and schools. She also cited climate change, issues of racial and social justice, and economic support for small businesses.

Incumbent Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, urged people at the event to volunteer to make calls — phone banking — prior to Nov. 3.

She said she will continue to work on “making Vermont work for all of us,” a vision that includes affordable child care, higher wages, family medical leave, affordable health care, and a state government accountable to everyone.

As an example of accountability, Kornheiser referenced the issues with people accessing unemployment benefits early in the pandemic.

Because the state “had not paid enough attention to this vital service” and had not invested in making sure it could operate under stressful scenarios, “people had to struggle to get paid.”

“Someone always needs [government services] and we can’t lose track of those people,” she said.

In Kornheiser’s opinion, the pandemic has not created new problems for Vermonters so much as it has “widened the cracks” already in communities and state systems.

She hopes a silver lining to Vermont’s pandemic experience will be that more lawmakers will be able to see the cracks and work together to help all Vermonters. She faces a challenge from Richard Morton, R-Brattleboro, the chair of the Windham County GOP [for information about the Democrats’ opponents, see sidebar].

Along the way, town rallies emerged for people to gather and honk their horns, wave, cheer the caravan on, and express other gestures of support.

In the Windham-6 district, incumbent Democrat John Gannon, organized the Wilmington rally, so he was not among the lawmakers at the gathering. He faces Republican Amy Kamstra on the ballot.

Candidates running unopposed include Sara Coffey (D-Windham-1), Mollie Burke (P/D-Windham-2-2), Tristan Toleno (D-Windham-2-3), Windham-4 Democrats Mike Mrowicki and Michelle Bos-Lun, Emily Long (D-Windham-5), and Kelly Pajala (I-Windham-Bennington-Windsor).

And in the only contested race in the county with no Democrat on the ballot — the Windham-Bennington district — incumbent independent Laura Sibilia faces Republican challenger Matthew Somerville.

Carbon offsets and community

With more people than expected having joined the caravan, “We’re going to need to buy more carbon offsets,” said John Hagen, county committee chair and incumbent candidate for high bailiff.

Carbon offsets are for people and organizations wishing to reduce their own carbon footprints. Each offset purchased funds the equivalent of removing 1 metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere. Money from the purchase of the offsets funds projects that wouldn‘t otherwise be built to improve the escalating climate crisis.

For a party concerned about the consequences (and the optics) of driving dozens of cars over hundreds of miles, purchasing these offsets provided a way for the event to make a positive contribution to the climate issue.

But it was an investment that organizers believed necessary for raising public awareness and pulling together lawmakers, volunteers, and voters in the final stretches of the election.

Committee member Allison Hemming of Jamaica said that the afternoon drive sparked in her a sense of community that she hadn’t felt since the start of the pandemic in March.

The event also brought together Democratic volunteers who might not have known that so many other people were working on the same issues or the same campaigns, Hagen said.

And, he said, the social isolation made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic has also meant that it’s harder for people to “see moments of support.”

Hagen said the event was also designed to encourage county-wide voter participation.

“Because Windham County tends to vote Democrat, there’s an assumption that also builds in a level of complacency,” said Hagen, who has participated in several nonpartisan forums with Morgan, his GOP counterpart, in encouraging general voter awareness and civic responsibility.

“People feel they don’t need to vote because the outcome is predetermined,” Hagen said. “We wanted to encourage people to vote and be part of the process.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #584 (Wednesday, October 21, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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