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After years of helping other politicians, Kate O'Connor steps out for her first House campaign

BRATTLEBORO—House candidate Kate O’Connor has felt amazed by the personal stories that voters have shared during her primary campaign.

Jobs stand at the top of many people’s lists. Others have spoken about witnessing more crime in their neighborhoods, some have expressed concern about increasing the town’s accessibility, and seniors have talked about facing selling their homes and leaving Brattleboro because they can’t afford to remain.

O’Connor calls the conversations “eye opening” and valuable to her as someone looking to represent her community.

Door knocking takes longer than people think, said O’Connor, who has rapped her knuckles against District 2-3 doors for the past month.

“I’m so close to knocking on every door,” she said.

O’Connor is running for the seat held by outgoing incumbent Rep. Sarah Edwards, who, after 10 years, decided not to seek a sixth term. O’Connor is running against fellow Democrat Tristan Toleno in the Aug. 28 primary.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has endorsed O’Connor’s candidacy. According to O’Connor, she is the only candidate in the primary he has endorsed.

O’Connor said she wants to bring the needs of Brattleboro to Montpelier and find resources that could help the town achieve its goals. She said that, on issues, she tends toward being socially liberal and fiscally conservative.

In conversations, voters have asked O’Connor to make sure the people in Montpelier pay attention to Brattleboro.

On that issue, O’Connor describes herself as passionate.

“I want to be an advocate for Brattleboro,” O’Connor said about why she’s running. “I really believe in Brattleboro. This town has been a big part of my family’s life.”

A legacy, not a dynasty

O’Connor doesn’t see her family history as a dynasty.

“‘Dynasty’ seems too grand,” she said.

According to O’Connor, her grandfather was orphaned as a teen. Instead of being shipped off to an orphanage in Rutland, neighbors took him in.

“But for the kindness of neighbors,” said O’Connor. “[Community] is one of the things that really drives me to do this.”

O’Connor grew up in politics. Her father, Tim, was elected to the Statehouse when she was four, and later became the first elected Democratic Speaker of the House.

For her own career, O’Connor, now 48, started in government at 22 when she moved to Washington to work in the office of U.S. Rep. Thomas Downey, D-N.Y. She then transferred to former Gov. Madeline Kunin’s campaign.

O’Connor spent 11 years as part of Gov. Howard Dean’s administration, later working on his presidential campaign. She has also advised Shumlin’s campaign.

“I don’t see my [political] experience as baggage at all,” said O’Connor. “I know how it works. I know what compromise is all about.”

Compromise gets good results, she said.

In regard to the back-room conversations that sometimes take place in Montpelier, O’Connor answered that Vermont doesn’t have a “shady” government system.

“I do think [the process is] a give and take,” she said.

But O’Connor did take issue with the fear some legislators have faced that if they upset another legislator, votes will go against their bill out of spite.

“It’s not right,” she said, adding that legislators should vote on bills based on merit.

O’Connor remembers some legislators voting to reduce Dean’s office budget because they were mad at him.

The lessons she took away from her time working with the former governor was seeing that small changes, like conserving a piece of land, can live on forever.

O’Connor also learned the value of baby steps. To move forward, ultimately people need to know their goals and chart a path for success, she said; with a legislature of 180 people, baby steps move people forward.

One change achieved incrementally was marriage equality, said O’Connor.

Dean wanted same-sex marriage, but most of the state was not ready. So the administration moved for civil unions first, she said.

Before Dean signed the civil unions bill in 2000, O’Connor said that “horrible and shocking” words and phone calls flooded the Governor’s office.

But after Dean signed the bill, O’Connor said, “That truly made a difference to people. It was inspiring. Little Vermont did something meaningful,” she said, adding that everyone just had to live through the “hate of things.”

Hometown?

Opponents have raised questions about O’Connor’s definition of community, her working for Republican businessman Rich Tarrant, who ran against Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2006, and whether she can adequately serve Brattleboro after all her years living away.

Her work on the Tarrant campaign has led some critics to question if O’Connor is a Republican in Democrat’s clothing.

O’Connor said that her beliefs align with the Democratic Party. “I’ve never been anything else,” she said.

According to O’Connor, Tarrant hired her because he wanted to understand Democrats better. To her, this represented an opportunity to bring wisdom to a Republican campaign.

O’Connor categorizes opponents’ negative comments as “not pertinent,” saying that she’s running on issues and experience. “It’s not productive,” she said of negative campaign tactics. “It does a disservice.”

Dean’s presidential run in 2004 made O’Connor less tolerant of negative campaigns. Brattleboro is a small town, she said. O’Connor wishes that people would contact her directly rather than write a negative letter to the editor.

“We’re still going to be together,” said O’Connor, regardless of the race’s outcome.

Dean’s presidential campaign almost ended O’Connor’s time in politics; the negative tactics employed by the camp of his primary opponent, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., made the run “so hard,” she said.

Kerry’s team took shots at O’Connor in USA Today and The Washington Post, she said, noting that she was unknown to them, which made her an easy target.

Writing her book, Do The Impossible: My Crash Course on Presidential Politics Inside the Howard Dean Campaign, served as a “cathartic” experience, she said. The first draft “was so negative,” O’Connor admitted, but by the second draft she remembered the “good stuff.”

The presidential campaign helped O’Connor appreciate the Governor’s office. She realized that a person in state government could have tremendous impact without having to operate in the “cutthroat” world of federal politics.

O’Connor said she never planned to run for the House. She returned to Brattleboro last year to help her father clean out his law office after he retired.

“What the heck am I doing [living in] Winooski?” O’Connor said she asked herself.

Without any plans or a place to live lined up, O’Connor broke the lease on her apartment up north and returned to Brattleboro.

Edwards’ retirement sparked O’Connor’s realization that she could re-enter public service in a new way.

She said when people question her commitment to Brattleboro, her “blood boils.”

According to O’Connor, she turned down opportunities outside the area because there is nowhere else she wants to live.

“I’ve always considered this place my home,” she said of Brattleboro.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #165 (Wednesday, August 15, 2012).

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