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A personal stake in the issues

For Tristan Toleno, an intimate connection with concerns of District 3

BRATTLEBORO—Running a business and going door-to-door speaking with voters takes serious multitasking skills. Still, House candidate Tristan Toleno said he enjoys speaking with the residents of District 2-3.

Toleno said his life has touched the issues facing District 2-3 — issues like the economy, jobs, and fostering a sustainable community.

In his life, these issues have translated into building and losing his business at the former Riverview Cafe, connecting to the community, starting a new catering business, and working with a sustainable food system.

Those issues are why he’s running, he said.

Toleno is running against fellow Democrat Kate O’Connor in the Aug. 28 primary to succeed outgoing Rep. Sarah Edwards, P/D-Brattleboro, who held the seat for 10 years.

Edwards, who used to be his stepmother, has endorsed Toleno. He doesn’t feel, however, that he’s strictly carrying on her legacy.

Edwards’ endorsement was not “issues based,” said Toleno. Instead, she endorsed him because of his ability to learn quickly and because she trusts that he will step up and do the work to serve his constituents.

“I’m an independent person with independent experience,” Toleno said.

Unlike Edwards, who served as a Progressive/Democrat, Toleno is running as a Democrat.

The Democratic party’s political philosophy best matches him, said Toleno. If he loses the primary on Aug. 28 to O’Connor, he said, he has no intention of running as an independent.

Changes and fears

Voters have expressed to Toleno fears about the area’s long-term economic health. Things have changed a lot, he said. And he hears that people are worried that the detrimental changes are irreversible.

“I’m not stuck in a negative place, but I am honestly acknowledging the hard reality of where we are [economically] for some people,” he said.

He said that admitting flaws and working on fixing the problems that have caused too much suffering are necessary steps for communities.

People believe in Brattleboro’s future but are scared, said Toleno, who wants people to move from that place of uncertainty. “Let’s not stay there,” he said.

Toleno said his responses to this concern have varied, but he sees Brattleboro’s economy boiling down to a fundamental problem with the structure of economic development policy.

Rural communities like Brattleboro thrive when they have a density of good jobs to match their populations, he said. As a potential policy-maker, Toleno views the state representative’s role as finding opportunities to help Brattleboro grow its employment base in a sustainable way consistent with the community’s values.

The Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS) has started with a good framework, he said, but “it’s just the beginning.”

That process is “top down,” rather than “bottom up,” he said. As a result, a lot of “community wisdom” is missing.

But Toleno takes another step back. In his opinion, culture shifts happen ahead of policy.

One of those culture shifts that Toleno was involved in was helping to build local food systems.

More than a decade ago, Toleno said, he and other volunteers brought chefs, farmers, and public servants to the table to help change Vermont’s food system.

Arguments among the groups ensued. But, incrementally, the culture shifted, and chefs started speaking with farmers, and farmers found new markets for their food.

Still, said Toleno, it is only in the last two to four years that policy has caught up with the cultural shift though bills like the Work Lands Enterprise bill.

Policy can’t come from on high, he said; instead, it needs to support changes that are already happening within a community.

“Culture change is the hardest of all,” Toleno said.

Although he agrees 100 percent with the SeVEDS’ assessment that a population of young entrepreneurs is needed to help the town’s economic growth, he said that Brattleboro’s wider culture must also shift to accommodate this demographic.

The young entrepreneurs won’t stay unless they can afford to live here, have an infrastructure that supports their businesses, and can live in an area that provides a social life.

“As a community, we have to own our future,” he said.

Toleno feels that mission-driven businesses, important to many young entrepreneurs, would match Vermont’s overall culture, and such businesses would be worth encouraging.

Voices and leadership

Toleno said his biggest strength as a candidate is fostering community engagement as he has in his business and volunteer activities. He said that his experience of being active in multiple aspects of the community has shown him how the people of Brattleboro prioritize their time and energy.

Engagement consists of people having the confidence to speak up and leaders valuing the citizens’ voices, Toleno said. And, he added, leaders can’t give up because people are reluctant to come to the table.

Toleno hopes that as a legislator, he would model this behavior of listening to residents and talking about his community’s needs in Montpelier, skills he uses in the way he conducts his business. According to Toleno, he has created a space for learning about and caring about what happens in his employees’ lives.

When people know a person genuinely cares about them, they want to share, he said. People are looking for champions willing to go to bat, Toleno added.

He tells people, “I will do what I can as an individual to support you.”

Although Toleno said he and opponent Kate O’Connor agree on most core issues, he feels their experience and leadership styles differ.

In the executive branch, the leadership is “top down” and carrying out the Governor’s vision, Toleno said. In the Vermont House, the District 2-3 rep would be one voice among 150, and “The leadership comes from us,” he said.

O’Connor’s experience in state government consists mostly of executive-branch time, he said. Toleno describes himself as working from the bottom up, like the Legislature.

“[We’re] two different flavors,” Toleno said of himself and O’Connor. “Two different approaches.”

He stresses that both approaches are good, but bottom-up is better suited to the Legislature.

Toleno also said he has never questioned O’Connor’s civic-mindedness.

“We’re both competent, compassionate people,” Toleno said.

But he also wonders if O’Connor’s time away from the area while she worked in Montpelier removed her from the community’s trenches.

If elected, Toleno will have a balancing act between running his catering business and serving in the House.

He said that legislative session takes place during one of his business’ slow times. Toleno’s business partners are also taking a larger role in the business as the crew moves from a single-owner structure to fuller partnership.

“I can’t hide from the fact that it’s busy,” he admitted.

But, he continued, Vermont has a citizen legislature by design. The state expects people to balance their lives with service.

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

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