GUILFORD — On May 9, Guilford resident Sara Coffey launched her campaign as a Democratic candidate for the Vermont House of Representatives.
She's running for the open seat in the Windham-1 district, made up of Guilford and Vernon. The incumbent, Vernon Republican Mike Hebert, announced last month that he wouldn't seek re-election.
Coffey officially announced her campaign at a party held at the home of Anne Rider and Rob Hinrichs.
The event featured speeches by Rider, a former Guilford Selectboard chair; Vernon Democratic Party Vice-Chair Tom Rappaport; Andy Burrows, Guilford Democratic Party chair; and Guilford resident Heather Franklin, who is part of the Franklin Farm family.
Coffey graduated a few months ago from the Emerge Vermont program, which trains Democratic women in the state to run for office.
“It demystified the process,” said Coffey, who noted, “women need to be asked many more times than men to run.”
One major lesson Coffey learned from Emerge is that “my work experience is totally relevant to [holding office] and I hadn't really realized that before going through” the program.
Coffey, originally from the Boston area, first came to Vermont in 1986 to attend Marlboro College, where she studied anthropology and dance.
“I was a scholarship kid,” said Coffey. “I come from a really large, tight-knit, working-class, Irish Catholic family - I'm the oldest of four kids. We had some hard times, but I have a resourceful mother. Most of my family had two jobs: firefighter and something else. That has informed my outlook.”
During a conversation with The Commons, Coffey spoke of the experiences that guided her and influenced her values, and linked those with her reasons for running for office: her early life, her time in college, and her work in the community, mostly through the arts.
“My Marlboro College experience had a huge imprint on my life,” she said. It was where she met her husband, Dave Snyder.
Coffey mentioned the college's town meeting as an eye-opener. “It's a microcosm of the state,” she said. Similar to the governance system used by most Vermont towns, the school's town meeting gives all members of the college - students, faculty, and staff - an equal vote and the opportunity to serve on committees.
This was the first time Coffey “got to see how that worked, where everyone has a voice,” and those lessons stuck with her.
After graduating from Marlboro, Coffey moved to New York City and worked for arts and dance organizations. Some of them focused on connecting artists and residents through schools and neighborhood projects.
“It was great training in how to get funding, networking, and working in the community,” said Coffey, “and I used that experience to develop the Vermont Performance Lab,” the arts project she founded in Guilford in 2006 and that she still runs.
“I saw the power of the arts as a way to bring people together across divides,” she said.
Coffey and Snyder decided to leave New York City after the one-two punch of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack and the 2003 blackout.
After a few trips to Southern Vermont, including school visits, the couple knew they could live here. By selling their Manhattan apartment and Dave's recording studio, Coffey and Snyder had “a small nest egg,” she said.
After a brief stint living on Augur Hole Road, the family moved to Guilford in 2007. It didn't take long before Coffey was smitten with her new town and its people.
Coffey quickly got involved in the community “because of our amazing neighbors,” she said, and noted, “we got invited to dinner by our neighbors before we even bought our house.”
“Guilford has a great spirit,” she said. “Although many people work in Brattleboro, it's not a bedroom community. Its identity is formed by farm families, back-to-the-landers, and activists who came to start communes. I benefit from those who came before me.”
Guilford's 250th Anniversary celebration showed Coffey how “different people, regardless of age, origin, and political differences could come together” to support the town.
She mentioned the New Year's Eve dance at the Grange that was part of the anniversary festivities: “We danced so hard we cracked a joist that night!"
After the anniversary events, Coffey wanted to find other ways to continue that spirit of coming together. She was instrumental in getting the Vermont Council on Rural Development to conduct workshops in the town.
From the council's work with Guilford, a number of projects emerged, including the Community Collaboration for Guilford and the Broad Brook Community Center, which recently purchased the Grange. Coffey serves as the Community Center's Board president.
With all of her responsibilities - running an arts organization, chairing the BBCC's Board, raising two teenagers with Snyder - why is Sara Coffey running for the Vermont Legislature now?
“I'm coming into this as Mike Hebert is retiring,” Coffey said.
'The community is coming together'
This provided Coffey an opportunity to run for the seat and to get to know her neighbors in the next town over. “I'm excited to see how, in the wake of the Vermont Yankee closure, the community is coming together to forge an identity,” she said.
In the past few months, Coffey has attended a number of Vernon's functions: Town Meeting, the Planning Commission meetings, and workshops on the town's Village Center Designation. She has also spent time with the town's individuals and families.
Coffey lauds Hebert for “building a bridge” between the two towns - namely, by supporting a dam.
Hebert was instrumental in garnering legislative support for the restoration of Sweet Pond, a popular recreation spot in Guilford. After fears that the dam would fail, the water was drained and Sweet Pond disappeared. Hebert secured $405,000 in funding to restore the dam.
“In Vermont, it's our local issues that guide us,” Coffey said.
Coffey, a Democrat, noted that although Hebert is a Republican, as are many of Vernon's voters, “political parties aside, it's our common things - schools, we want there to be jobs, people see farms are closing - that are important to the people of both towns. I've been meeting with many people who are not Democrats, and they're really supportive” of her campaign, she said.
“I hear their concerns, and I'm carrying their stories with me,” said Coffey. “Guilford and Vernon need a strong voice, and we need somebody to stick up for us in the Legislature.”
“I can cross the bridge” that Hebert built, too, she said.
Coffey described Vermont as “a small state with big challenges,” including the geography of having its population spread out across a rural landscape.
“There are a few things our government does for us,” said Coffey, “and one of my favorites is, 'How do we express our priorities through the budget?'”
Schools, a green economy, and broadband
Some issues she will focus on are school investment - “and not a chipping-away, but a full investment” - supporting the “green economy,” and how to get broadband internet access into every community.
In addition, Coffey said, “we need to rethink the way we've created systems: education, health and human services, and criminal justice. Funding shapes these, and I can bring some experience, some new ideas, and some creativity."
Coffey said she plans to stay on as executive director of the Vermont Performance Lab. She noted the structure of the legislature means its senators and representatives “still need jobs.”
Plus, keeping current with the arts will help her be a more effective representative. “I can be a strong voice for artists,” Coffey said. “The arts are a crucial aspect of the state's economy. I don't just believe in this; there's evidence for this.” Coffey said this is something that is often overlooked in the Statehouse.
Coffey said she appreciates living in a small state because, “you can connect with people and get things done,” she said. “Our legislators don't have offices. They have drawers in the committee room. And anyone can sit in on any committee meetings. The Statehouse really is the 'people's house,'” she said.
Her campaign plans are focused on making herself accessible to her constituents. “We'll have neighborhood parties - which are not fund-raisers in someone's house,” she said, adding that she wants to spend more time meeting people and talking with them, and not so much time making speeches.
Coffey credits Snyder and her children with supporting her run for office, and noted Windham County legislators have it harder because of the distance from home to Montpelier. “They're up there Tuesday through Friday, away from their families. So, your family makes a sacrifice,” she said. “I'm lucky I have Dave. He will hold down the fort,” while the legislature is in session.
She mentioned another aspect of her fortunate situation: “I'm in an economically privileged position, and I can do this,” said Coffey. “But I didn't grow up that way. And I think about people like my mom, who raised four kids and couldn't always pay the bills on time, or pay for a haircut,” she said.
Coffey wants to ensure “elected people are representing, and are listening, and can acknowledge some of that privilege.”
“I'm doing this because I have kids. I have skin in this game,” Coffey said. “I want there to be a future for them, and for other people's kids.”