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Can only Democrats win a Windham County state Senate seat?

Republicans haven’t won a Senate race in Windham County since the 1990s, but party hopes 2022 — with two seats opening up — will be different

BRATTLEBORO—The late Robert Gannett was a rare breed — and not just because he was both a direct descendant of his hometown of Brattleboro’s namesake, Revolutionary War figure William Brattle, as well as the husband of a granddaughter of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Gannett held one of his southeastern Vermont district’s two Senate seats from 1973 to 1992 — the last Republican to do so.

In the three decades since Gannett retired, only Democrats have represented Windham County in the state Senate, ranging from his replacement, Peter Shumlin, who later served as governor, to current officeholders Becca Balint and Jeanette White.

But Balint, Senate president pro tempore this past session, is stepping down to run for the state’s lone congressional seat, while White is retiring after serving for two decades.

This year is the first since White joined the chamber in 2002 that both Senate seats will be open, sparking a pair of primary election contests on Tuesday, Aug. 9.

On the Democratic side, three candidates — Wichie Artu, an Athens farmer and social justice advocate; Wendy Harrison, a Brattleboro-based traveling municipal manager; and Nader Hashim, a law clerk and former state representative from Dummerston — are running for their party’s two nominations.

On the Republican side, three candidates — Westminster logger Mark Coester, Brattleboro tax preparer Richard Kenyon, and retired-bank-officer-turned-chaplain Richard Morton, also of Brattleboro — are running for their party’s two nominations.

All three Democrats have yard signs and websites and are participating in a series of debates, including one available on YouTube and a second, set for Wednesday, July 20 at 7:30 p.m., open to those who register with its organizer, Vermont Interfaith Action.

Writes Artu on his website: “I am a gay Puerto Rican Vermonter who celebrates my Indigenous (Taíno), African (Nigerian — Yoruba), and European roots. I know that each of our experiences are unique. I promise to listen and learn from yours.”

And Harrison on hers: “Using lessons learned in my decades of local government experience, I want to work to address the challenges facing Vermonters. In collaboration with those most personally impacted, I am committed to identifying barriers and creating solutions that empower individuals and benefit us all.”

And Hashim on his: “As a former Vermont state trooper and state representative, I’ve directly seen the needs and concerns affecting Vermonters throughout our county. I am committed to addressing the housing crisis, preserving our environment, rural economic development, and protecting our most vulnerable neighbors.”

The three Republicans have no presence on lawns or online except for Coester’s website for his separate U.S. Senate campaign. But they share the same inspiration for running: They’re not part of the Democratic majority in both chambers of the state Legislature.

“The idea that we’re going to have no incumbents this year did prompt me to step forward,” said Morton, who chairs the local and regional GOP committees in Brattleboro and Windham County. “But on the Republican side, I think the performance of the Legislature is pushing the envelope much more than we’re comfortable with.”

“That’s a polite way of saying it’s a disaster,” he said.

The GOP ballot will list Coester alongside the similar-looking names of Richard “Rick” Kenyon and Richard “Rick” Morton. The two latter candidates hope people will vote for both of them, as the Vermont Republican Party isn’t backing Coester after he marched in Colchester’s Fourth of July parade with fascist and alt-right symbols.

“I’m encouraging every Republican to vote for the other two established Republicans in that primary,” state GOP Chair Paul Dame told VTDigger.

Whoever wins the party primaries will appear on the Nov. 8 general election ballot alongside Brattleboro Selectboard member Tim Wessel, who’s preparing to run as an independent in a district that includes all Windham County towns except Londonderry, Stratton, and Wilmington. (The latter three communities are part of neighboring Bennington County’s Senate district.)

The three Democratic candidates so far have raised almost $45,000 for their campaigns, with Artu reporting $23,607; Hashim, $14,436; and Harrison, $6,691, according to the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office. In comparison, no Republican has filed the paperwork required of any candidate who has spent or raised at least $500.

Morton said he isn’t bothered by the lack of money or by the absence of a GOP senator from Windham County since Gannett.

“Not only are we not deterred, but current circumstances mandate that we have to step up regardless of what the chances might be or what the lay of the land might seem,” the Republican Party chair said. “It’s time for us to show that there’s more choices than just blue.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #673 (Wednesday, July 20, 2022). This story appeared on page A4.

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