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Kate O'Connor, former Dean advisor, eyes House seat

BRATTLEBORO—Kate O’Connor spent nearly 13 years as former Gov. Howard Dean’s most trusted advisor.

From the chaotic beginning of the Dean administration after the then-lieutenant governor was sworn into office after the sudden death of Gov. Richard Snelling in August 1991, through five gubernatorial elections, through the meteoric rise and the hard ending of Dean’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, she has been in the thick of executive decision making.

Since the end of Dean’s presidential campaign, O’Connor has kept a fairly low profile in Vermont politics. Now, that is about to change as she runs for the Windham 3-3 House seat recently vacated by incumbent Rep. Sarah Edwards, P/D-Brattleboro. O’Connor faces Brattleboro chef and business owner Tristan Toleno, who is also seeking the seat.

Despite moving to Winooski for work, O’Connor has always considered Brattleboro her home. When Edwards announced she would step down, O’Connor spotted an opportunity to serve her hometown.

“I can’t think of anything better to do,” she said.

As a member of the governor’s administration, said O’Connor in a recent phone interview, every Vermonter is a constituent. A representative can focus on a smaller group. O’Connor said she looks forward to sitting “on the other side where everything begins.”

The governor oversees the administration’s vision, but it is the Legislature that does the work, she said.

O’Connor characterizes her years in the Dean administration as a strength, furnishing her with a solid understanding of government’s inner workings and of how the legislative process works.

It also gave her a network of former colleagues, and a list of resources to tap on Brattleboro’s behalf.

The forgotten county

O’Connor sits on the board that reviews Community Development Block Grant applications. Appointed in 2004 by former Gov. Jim Douglas, O’Connor said she was the only Windham County resident on the board for seven years.

“We’re lost in the system a lot,” said O’Connor about southern Vermont.

The governor’s office likes to joke that Brattleboro is in Massachusetts, said O’Connor, “but we are easily forgotten.”

As a representative, O’Connor said she would see herself as Brattleboro’s advocate.

Economic development and bringing jobs to town are two issues O’Connor said she feels passionate about.

Brattleboro needs the same resources that often go to Montpelier or Burlington by default. O’Connor said she plans to help business grow in Brattleboro.

“There’s no reason Brattleboro can’t get the computer jobs,” she said. “It’s about making sure people remember us.”

According to O’Connor, Vermont is considering overhauling its tax structure in the next legislative session. If this happens, she said, it could have ramifications for towns bordering New Hampshire. She plans to keep an eye on these developments.

Vermont Yankee and its eventual decommissioning also is on O’Connor’s list of economic development concerns. She believes the plant should close, although she said it’s a hard position to take, because she has friends and relatives working at the plant.

The state must determine how to mitigate the spent nuclear fuel on-site, ensure that Entergy fully funds the plant’s decommissioning fund, and fight for DECON (immediate decommissioning) over SAFSTOR (mothballing the plant indefinitely) when the plant shuts down.

DECON would help protect more workers’ jobs, she said. Also, a nuclear plant sitting mothballed for 80 years under SAFSTOR doesn’t sit well with O’Connor. After 80 years, her young nephews won’t even be around.

“That’s really scary,” she said.

Politically, O’Connor defines herself as moderate. On issues like balancing the budget she tends toward conservative. On social issues, however, she lands on the liberal end of the spectrum.

Creating incremental change through compromise is a skill she said she learned from Dean, who changed the state’s health care system in small steps, starting with providing health insurance for children (Dr. Dynasaur) and laying the initial groundwork that eventually led to Catamount Health.

To get things done requires agreement, she said.

“Better to compromise and get some of what you want, rather than get nothing,” said O’Connor.

A political legacy

Kate O’Connor comes from a family that is quite familiar with politics and public service.

Her father, Timothy O’Connor, served in the Vermont House from 1969 to 1981, and made history in 1975 as the first Democrat to be elected Speaker of the House. He also ran for governor in 1980, losing in the Democratic Primary. An attorney for 50 years, he also serves as Town Moderator.

Her mother, Martha O’Connor, is a former Brattleboro Selectboard member and currently serves on the Vermont State Colleges Board of Trustees. A former school teacher, she has also served on numerous town boards and committees over the years.

Kate O’Connor said her father, who retired last year, has volunteered to help her campaign.

When asked which ticket she’s running on, her response was quick.

“Democrat,” she said. “Always have been, always will be.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #154 (Wednesday, May 30, 2012).

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