‘She keeps showing up’
Brenda Siegel of Newfane, the Democratic candidate for governor, visits with people at the Buffalo Mountain Market in Hardwick on Oct. 25.

‘She keeps showing up’

Brenda Siegel entered the race for governor with little name recognition and no prior experience serving in elected office. But despite an uphill battle, the Democratic nominee has surpassed many expectations.

Brenda Siegel of Newfane, the Democratic nominee for governor, spent a recent afternoon walking through Hardwick's downtown with Rep. Chip Troiano, D-Stannard, as her guide.

Local business owners chatted politely each time she popped in to introduce herself and hand out campaign pamphlets. But out on the street, one woman immediately recognized her and warmly exclaimed: “Thank you for running!”

Buttonholed by a reporter in a flower shop a few minutes later, the woman, Karen Starr, 70, of Danville, said she was just glad to have a choice in this year's gubernatorial contest.

“People in the state are really struggling,” she said.

Of particular resonance to Starr: Siegel's steadfast advocacy for harm reduction strategies in the state's ongoing battle with the opioid epidemic, and her discussion of poverty and the social safety net.

Siegel's opponent, Republican Gov. Phil Scott, may talk a lot about affordability, Starr said, but that's just “window dressing.”

“It's clear that he does not understand what the struggles are of a majority of people in this state,” she said.

A campaign work ethic

As Election Day nears, Siegel is pounding the pavement with increasing urgency, often criss-crossing the state multiple times a day. “It's sunrise to past sunset, pretty consistently,” said Nick Clark, a part-time campaign aide.

Clark has been helping out on Siegel's campaigns since 2018, when she first made a run for governor and put her experiences struggling to make ends meet and raising a child alone at the center of her campaign.

“I was raised by a low-income single mom, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for people that work that hard and don't give up,” Clark said, adding that Siegel's work ethic on the campaign trail reflects that, too.

“It surpasses almost everyone else I've seen in politics - she just keeps going up and showing up and showing up, and that's what makes it easy to work for her,” he said.

Siegel was not the candidate the Vermont Democratic Party had sought to challenge Scott, a three-term incumbent who continues to rank as one of the country's most popular governors.

An activist who had failed to clear the Democratic primary in two previous bids for statewide office, Siegel had little name recognition and no prior experience serving in elected office.

But after no one else stepped forward, Siegel was embraced as the party's champion, given institutional support, and endorsed by high-profile Democrats including Rep. Peter Welch, U.S. House candidate and state Sen. Becca Balint, and former Gov. Howard Dean.

And while Siegel's bid remains a long shot, every indicator that shows Scott out ahead also suggests her tenacious campaigning and disciplined messaging is gaining more traction than expected.

Scott has raised more money - $200,879, as of the latest filing deadline on Oct. 15 - but Siegel has hundreds more individual donors, and she has taken in a nevertheless serious sum: $165,806. That's more than the state Democratic party thought was possible, according to Executive Director Jim Dandeneau.

While the latest public polling still suggests Scott winning by a comfortable margin, it also shows Siegel gaining ground.

Putting the governor on defense

Siegel has also impressed at debates, where she has doggedly put Scott on the defensive about his record and driven home her campaign's primary message: that while the incumbent has always named affordability as his number one priority, the average Vermonter is finding the basics increasingly out of reach.

“I think win or lose, Vermont has a more accurate picture of what Phil Scott has actually managed to accomplish for the last six years because of Brenda's campaign,” Dandeneau said.

Scott's campaign manager, Tori Biondolillo, countered that while “national factors” were contributing to cost-of-living increases, Vermonters should “imagine the place we would be in if we had the tax increases that the governor stopped.”

She also argued historic investments in climate change, workforce development, and housing made during the governor's tenure would take time to pay dividends but have “set Vermont up for a transformative future.”

Scott is also not spending much time campaigning. While Siegel is out every day and has just released her first television ad, Scott is mostly off the trail and focused on the day-to-day work of governance. The governor's campaign has stuck to more low-key social media, radio, and newspaper advertising, and it still hasn't decided whether to make a TV buy.

“At the end of the day, when people know you so well, persuasion is not necessarily your number one priority. It's just continuing to do good work and hope that that translates into votes,” Biondolillo said.

But Siegel may nevertheless be getting under the governor's skin. Candidates in debates often use candidate-to-candidate question segments to highlight what they see as their opponent's weakness, which Siegel has done relentlessly.

In a September VTDigger debate, Scott did not punch back, instead asking Siegel simple yes-or-no questions about whether she supported two of his pet policy issues - exempting military retirement pay from state income taxes and the use of tax-increment financing districts for economic development. (She said yes to both.)

At a Vermont Public debate a few weeks later, Scott was more forceful. Given the chance again to ask Siegel a question of his choosing, the governor went on the offensive. Siegel had “made a lot of promises,” he said, listing off proposals for universal school meals, massive housing investments, and child care.

“Where are you going to come up with a half a billion to billion dollars to pay for that?” he asked. “How are you going to pay for it?”

Siegel was prepared for the question. She reiterated a longstanding talking point - that not solving these problems was more expensive than investing in them upfront - but this time came armed with numbers.

“Right now, the national average for the cost per person experiencing homelessness is $35,000 a year,” she said. “We have about 3,000 unhoused people in Vermont. And that means that we're spending about $105 million a year, $525 million in 5 years, and $1.05 billion in 10 years.”

Scott pressed her again. There was no “magic switch” to make such a transition, he said, and she would have to find the cash to make these initial investments.

In reply, Siegel did not offer up new sources of revenue, but instead threw the implied critique - that she had no plan - back to the governor.

“We can't just throw money at new builds and hope that it solves a problem,” she said, referring to recent federally funded investments in affordable housing. “We have to have a plan that transitions us from point A to point B. And right now we do not have that.”

'There's a desperation'

Outside the Buffalo Mountain Food Co-op in Hardwick, Nate Peyman of Cabot said he'd voted for Siegel in early voting after watching her debate with Scott on Vermont Public.

Scott is a “very good speaker,” Peyman said, but Siegel's answers were “more sensitive to real needs and seeing the bigger picture.”

His wife, Ama Peyman, said she hadn't made up her mind yet, although she appreciated being able to meet and speak with Siegel one-on-one. But she said housing was top of mind.

A teacher in her local school district is living in a motel, she said, because there was nowhere else to live, and an ever-growing number of housing units appear to be turning into short-term rentals, she said.

Ama Peyman works with Neighbors in Action, a local group feeding people in the area, and she said they get more calls each day.

“There's a desperation in working-class people,” she said.

“Whoever as governor is thoughtful about these issues, and doesn't just try and hit it with a big stick, [who] thinks about how do we keep people from falling through the cracks so that they can get back up - that's the person that I'll vote for,” she said.

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