BRATTLEBORO — After nearly five years of being an advocate, Ann Braden wants to be on the inside.
Braden, the founder of GunSense Vermont and a gun-violence prevention advocate, recently announced that she will step away from leading the organization to run for public office. Clai Lashman-Sommers will be the group's acting executive director.
This fall, Braden was accepted to Emerge Vermont, a Democratic Party program that trains women to run for political office, and she said she wants to run for the Vermont Senate.
“I'm not sure about the timing,” she said. “There are decisions to be made in the coming months and there are people I need to talk to.”
Windham County's current two senators, Rebecca Balint of Brattleboro and Jeanette White of Putney, were unopposed in the 2016 Democratic Primary, and both won handily in the general election last year.
White is in her eighth term in the Senate and hasn't given any indication of whether she is interested in another term. Braden said she has informally spoken with White about a Senate race in 2018.
Braden, who grew up in Fairfield, Conn., and graduated from Dartmouth in 2001, was a middle school teacher before she became a full-time mother and activist.
Her husband, Dan, is a native Vermonter and a science teacher at Brattleboro Union High School. They have two children - Ethan, who is 8, and Alice, who is 5.
She said she hadn't thought about running for office, but the result of the 2016 presidential election “was like a kick in the gut that was so deep and was such a clear call for how everyone needs to be involved in the political process.”
She also remembered a passage from former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin's book Pearls, Politics, and Power: “Why do women always assume they have to respond to decisions, rather than being at the table making them?”
“I am ready to be the one making decisions,” Braden said. “I can strategize and find common ground and figure out a way forward.”
She said democracy “only works if we're all stepping up, even if it is not the most comfortable thing to do.”
But she said that her time leading GunSense Vermont has helped her make the transition from introvert to activist to aspiring politician.
“The more I dip my toe in, the more I find that I love doing this, that I'm being called to this,” Braden said. “The 2016 election was such a nadir, but we can learn from it.”
And, for her, the biggest lesson she drew from 2016 was “how many issues need work, and how I wanted to work on many issues, not just one.”
Lessons learned the hard way
Braden founded GunSense Vermont shortly after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012 that left 20 children and six adults dead. As a former middle school teacher and the mother of two young children, she felt compelled to act.
“I have such a love for democracy, and I started GunSense because I felt democracy wasn't working the way it is supposed to and that people's voices were not effectively being heard,” Braden said. “I wanted to channel all that grassroots energy directly to the Statehouse.”
GunSense Vermont started by circulating an online petition demanding universal background checks for all gun sales in Vermont. Though it has yet to become law, the idea enjoys wide support among Democratic Party members.
However, Braden's group was able to get legislation enacted in 2015 that would make it harder for violent criminals and the severely mentally ill to possess firearms by requiring state courts to share information about people in those categories with a federal database.
It's still a work in progress, but Braden believes GunSense has changed the conversation.
“It's no longer a zero-sum game, that you're either pro-gun or anti-gun. I think we've created space for common ground on issues like keeping guns away from the wrong people and focusing on gun-owner responsibility. Those are shared values that cross all the divides.”
It has taken a great deal of courage for Braden to challenge the gun culture of Vermont. She said the amount of abuse that she and her family have received online has been considerable.
“It's been such a lesson. When you have a face-to-face conversation with someone, it's so much easier to find common ground and pull back on the emotions. When you listen to what people are saying, and people know that you're listening, the rhetoric and emotion is dialed down.”
She says she wants “to bring more compassion into the political process. I feel like I can be a leader [who] can push back against divisive rhetoric and see people as people.”
But she says she isn't going to be a one-issue candidate, because so much needs to be done on so many different fronts.
She says more needs to be done to deal with the growing human toll of Vermont's opioid crisis, with helping older Vermonters stay out of poverty while aging with dignity, and containing ever-rising health-care costs for all Vermonters.
“Having tackled one hard issue, it gives you the confidence to tackle other hard issues,” Braden said.
Help along the way
One of Braden's political mentors is Balint, who was elected as Senate Majority Leader this year and will be seeking her third term in the Vermont Senate in 2018.
“Being able to watch someone like Becca, who is being her authentic self - listening to constituents and channeling those views upward, while still being a strategic player - shows me how it can be done,” Braden said.
She also said she “devoured” Kunin's first book on being a woman in politics, Living A Political Life, and counts the three-term governor and former ambassador as another role model.
“Everything she was doing [as a first-time candidate for the Vermont Legislature in the early 1970s], I thought, 'I can do this,'” Braden said.
Braden said having more women in politics means more role models for aspiring candidates, which translates into more women wanting to get involved in the political process once they see that it isn't an impossible task.
“For men in politics, role models are all around,” she said. “For women, they're harder to find.”
She says she has been heartened by how many people want to help her on the next stage of her public life.
“Community is the antidote to almost all of our problems,” she said. “The community spirit is so fabulous. It's a place you can thrive, if you have the economic foundation to do so.”
She says she isn't concerned about the possibility of out-of-state political action groups going all out to defeat her based on her work for GunSense Vermont.
“They'd have to make stuff up,” she said with a laugh. “I lived a squeaky clean life, and it's finally going to pay off. Groups like that are always emboldened when you are weaker, and I've gotten to a level of support where it's become harder to attack me.”