BRATTLEBORO—In the reshuffling of the Vermont electoral deck that started with the retirement of U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, virtually every officeholder was faced with a question: Do I stay put, or do I try to move up?
Two Windham County members of the Vermont House of Representatives whom many thought would take a flier at a run for higher office decided to stay put.
Reps. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, and Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, both have served two terms. Both are alumni of the former Marlboro College. Both have carved out significant roles for themselves on their respective committees.
And both were asked by Democratic Party leaders if they would consider a run for the state Senate, and both decided they would be more effective in the House.
Both Coffey and Kornheiser are running unopposed in the Democratic Primary on Aug. 9.
Kornheiser, whose newly created Windham-7 district is primarily comprised of West Brattleboro, will likely be unopposed in the Nov. 8 general election. Coffey is expected to face Nancy Gassett of Vernon, who is running unopposed in the Republican primary, for the Windham-1 district seat that represents Guilford and Vernon.
The ‘Covid biennium’
Coffey and Kornheiser served their second terms in the House in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic and the massive disruption it caused to the legislative process. Much of the Legislature’s business had to be done remotely during the 2021–22 biennium, particularly during the first year.
“I don’t even remember that first year,” said Kornheiser. “It seemed to go on forever.”
The flip side of the pandemic, Coffey said, was “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get this infusion of federal money” for Covid relief that allowed the Legislature to accomplish many long-sought reforms and improvements in the areas of housing, infrastructure, education, and child care.
Coffey serves as vice-chair of the House Corrections and Institutions Committee, the committee which oversees the state’s corrections policy, the state’s capital budget, and the $113 million from the federal Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund, part of the American Rescue Plan Act.
She said that she was “really proud of the way we were able to work together” and reach consensus on big issues, in particular shoring up the state pension system and dealing with the state’s ongoing housing crisis.
But Coffey said she knows that the coming budget cycles will be more difficult, because the federal largesse won’t be there, but the needs addressed in this biennium will remain.
Kornheiser serves as vice-chair of the Ways and Means Committee, the House body that deals with matters of state taxation and revenues. It is one of the most powerful committees in the Legislature.
With the retirement of Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, the longtime chair of the committee, many see Kornheiser as the logical successor if she is re-elected.
“I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to serve as vice-chair and to have Janet Ancel as a mentor over the last two years, and I do hope to have a bigger role next year,” said Kornheiser. “I enjoy tax policy tremendously and see it as the linchpin of a thriving democracy and an economy that works for all of us.”
“Right now, though, I’m going to spend the summer focusing on my own election and working to increase our majority in the House,” she added.
Kornheiser said that a lot of people “were assuming that I was going to run for the Senate, and that others might have wanted to run for the Senate and never got ready because they thought I was going to run.”
“But I’ve been really happy with what I have been able to get done in the House — the impact I have been able to have and the relationships I’ve made,” she said.
Kornheiser added that serving her constituents, who look to her “to make sure state government is running smoothly,” is something she takes seriously, which makes serving in the House — in session for approximately five months each year — “almost a full-time job” for her.
She said she would find it hard as a senator to duplicate the level of attention she brings to representing her West Brattleboro district on a countywide level as a senator.
Coffey said that she was approached about running for the Senate, “but I felt that my job was to hold down Guilford and Vernon as a Democratic seat” and that she loves her district and being close to the community.
“That’s where I want to be,” she said.
Like Kornheiser, Coffey could be in a leadership position in the House if re-elected and would like to serve on the Appropriations Committee in the 2023–24 biennium.
“I’ve always been about budgets, because I do believe they are expressions of our values,” said Coffey, who describes herself as being socially progressive but fiscally conservative.
As politics gets more divisive and polarized around the country, both Coffey and Kornheiser said it is easy for Vermonters to get lulled into a false sense of security.
“We feel so sure that nothing will happen here.” said Kornheiser, who spoke of how the ability to work together across party lines is something that still manages to happen in the Vermont Legislature.
At the same time, she said, an increasing number of Republican lawmakers “are much more ready to pick a fight about stuff that really hurts people. It’s not about debating differing theories on how the economy should work. It’s different now.”
“We can’t fall into this sense of Vermont exceptionalism,” said Coffey, noting that the disruption of the pandemic “has really taken a toll on everyone in the country” and has fueled political divisiveness at all levels of government.
“It’s not a surprise that so many [lawmakers] chose not to stick around,” said Coffey, alluding to the unusual legislative churn in both chambers. Ten of the state’s 30 senators and 41 of 150 members of the House are declining to run for another term.
However, Coffey is optimistic that the turnover of members and committee leaders in the Legislature will bring a generational opportunity “to change the culture” and bring more collaboration to the governing process.
“When we make space for different voices, we make better policy,” Coffey said. “That’s the point. That’s democracy.”
A return to ‘retail politics’
As the pandemic eases, both Coffey and Kornheiser say they are excited about having in-person campaign events and being able to knock on doors again.
Coffey said being able to do that is a reflection of how well Vermont dealt with COVID-19 over the past two years.
“We’re a state of small communities, and we need to work together to accomplish things,” she said.
Working together and taking responsibility for one another’s welfare enabled Vermont to escape the worst of the pandemic, Coffey said, as well as attracting more people to Vermont who share the values of community and cooperation.
But those values also need to go hand in hand with government policies that nurture the Vermont economy, Kornheiser said.
She noted that the idea of a citizen legislature is often romanticized, but the reality is that most Vermonters can’t afford to serve in the Legislature unless they are self-employed, retired, or have the means to spend close to half of the year away from home and work obligations.
And those pressures are felt by many of her constituents, she said.
Kornheiser says they don’t “have the time or space to talk to me about anything unless they are in a full crisis.”
“Until we make an economy that works for everyone, we’re not going have the level of civic participation that we need to realize the dream of the Vermont town meeting that we all aspire to,” she said.