Amanda Ellis-Thurber, right, confers with her campaign manager Lisa Ford before beginning her remarks to supporters at her campaign kickoff event on May 30 at Lilac Ridge Farm in West Brattleboro.
Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons
Amanda Ellis-Thurber, right, confers with her campaign manager Lisa Ford before beginning her remarks to supporters at her campaign kickoff event on May 30 at Lilac Ridge Farm in West Brattleboro.

Democrats split over tax policy, government role

Incumbent state Rep. Emilie Kornheiser will face organic farmer Amanda Ellis-Thurber on Windham-7 primary ballot

BRATTLEBORO-This summer's Democratic primary race in District 7 may be more than just a standard clash of personalities. It may be a sign of a class struggle, as well as a battleground for hearts and minds.

District 7, which includes much of West Brattleboro, has been represented in the state Legislature for the past three terms by Emilie Kornheiser.

Challenging her for the party's nomination on the ballot for the election on Tuesday, Aug. 13, is Amanda Ellis-Thurber, who co-owns the popular Lilac Ridge Farm with her husband, Ross.

The organic dairy farm has been family owned and operated since 1936 and is known for its vistas, organic maple creemees, cut flowers, and short-term rentals.

During her six years in Montpelier, Kornheiser has ascended to the chair of the powerful House Committee on Ways and Means, which deals with state spending and state revenue.

There, she became the face of H.829, a bill to tax those earning over $500,000 a year in order to raise an estimated $10 million for affordable housing.

The bill, which angered many business people, passed out of the House with acclaim, only to be ignored by the Senate ["A wealth-tax bill roared to victory in the House. Then it died in the Senate. What happened?," News, May 8].

A separate bill to tax unrealized gains and unearned income such as trust funds will require more work and was passed out of the House as a multi-state tax commission. It may be taken up in the new biennium if voters return Kornheiser to Montpelier.

Amanda Ellis-Thurber

Amanda Ellis-Thurber, 52, has worked as a farmer, a ski instructor, and a psychotherapist.

At age 40, she earned a master's degree in clinical mental health counseling from Antioch University New England. She worked as a mental health counselor in Greenfield, Mass., before returning to work on the farm in 2020.

"In my capacity as a counselor, I held a caseload of 22 to 25 clients who were struggling with homelessness, substance abuse, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, [and] bipolar disorder," she wrote in an email. "I sat with my clients daily listening, supporting them with behavioral skills to cope […] with the feelings of dread that were ever present in their lives."

Ellis-Thurber said that all her clients "struggled with poverty and trauma."

"Massachusetts at that time did a better job than we are doing in Vermont [of] providing integrated recovery services for individuals, and paths to employment and independent living," she noted.

Alongside growing food, raising three children, and running the farm - which she calls "truly the work of the heart" - the business has provided job training and employment to individuals through Families First, HireAbility Vermont, and the Windham Regional Career Center.

Ellis-Thurber was appointed by President Obama to serve on the board of Vermont's Farm Service Agency.

She is a proponent of state-subsidized employment "so that individuals who want to get out of the cycle of drugs and poverty can start doing that."

"But right now, I see that we are in a pickle," Ellis-Thurber said. " Where are the jobs or the willing employers who could support this?"

On the farm

On the bright and sunny afternoon of May 30, more than 60 people converged on Lilac Ridge Farm for Ellis-Thurber's campaign kickoff. Watermelon slices and creemees were distributed, people registered to vote, and others - many from outside District 7 - mingled in support.

Several people who were unwilling to go on the record said they supported Ellis-Thurber because they described themselves as "conservative Democrats," or in the words of one, a "big-D Democrat, fiscally conservative." More than one person said they thought Kornheiser lacked "humility."

One of the core organizers of Ellis-Thurber's campaign, Lisa Ford, lives in Guilford, where she has operated a vacation rental for 11 years.

Ford said she supported Ellis-Thurber because "I noticed some public policy coming out of the House Ways and Means Committee."

Kornheiser, as the committee chair, "has a very impactful position," she said. "And the decisions impact everyone. And I don't get to vote for that person. So what I can do is support a candidate who might bring a different point of view."

Ford said she believes the state is off-balance with high levels of homelessness and a "low desirability for businesses."

"We should be bringing the scale back to balance, so that it's a place where everyone can thrive," Ford said. "Businesses that are successful give a lot of money to nonprofits, and they also pay taxes that go toward affordable housing. So you need people to succeed."

"I am for Amanda," said attorney Craig Miskovich, also the board president of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation. "I am not against anyone. So I'm not going to speak ill of Emilie. I'll speak volumes about how great Amanda is."

Miskovich said he was there because "Amanda's vision for Brattleboro and District 7 matches with mine."

"I think she has a clear idea how to expand economic opportunity and expand our economy so that we can generate robust opportunities for our young kids and our families," he said. "And then we can generate massive amounts of economic activity that will fund those essential elements of government."

He also emphasized that his support for Ellis-Thurber has to do with economic diversity.

"We need to protect those assets that generate revenue and wealth in this community," Miskovich said. "And that includes our downtowns. It includes our farms. It includes our small businesses."

He also believes "that a tax policy that discourages those economic engines is one that, ultimately, is trying to tax fewer and fewer people more and more, rather than building an economy that's vibrant."

Miskovich added that a change in policy would provide "economic opportunity for people who are here and for people who are moving here. It's for refugees and immigrants coming into the community. We need to build houses, and we need to build opportunity for these folks, and I think Amanda's vision coincides with that."

Another of the campaign's organizers and neighbor of Ellis-Thurber, Jill Stahl Tyler, praised her and her husband for their deep community spirit.

"Another main reason I would like to vote for Amanda is she understands business," Stahl Tyler said. "Businesses employ people, and people pay taxes, and business pays taxes. Businesses understand that there are limited resources, and that you have to apply your resources for good results. And I personally feel that the current folks in Montpelier don't really understand that idea of limited resources. I believe Amanda understands how to be both compassionate and balanced."

"She's hard working," Stahl Tyler continued. "Amanda gets real life. She's had to balance being a mother with running a business, being a farmer - and an organic farmer, at that. It is not an easy career choice."

Ellis-Thurber "has had to make the tough choices when looking at a budget and figuring out where to put the family's time and effort and money," Stahl Tyler said.

"She brings that same focus to everything she does, that sensible, pragmatic, hardworking approach," she said. "That's [the type of person] I want to see representing me up in Montpelier."

Addressing the crowd, Ellis-Thurber said, "I'm running for the young people. I'm running for a future of Vermont. I'm running for a horizon of not only sustainability, but economic vitality. We need a horizon for thriving and not just surviving. It's with all humility that I stand before you today."

She said that "sometimes you're called to do something, and you do it."

"I started a senior CSA for low-income [residents] at Melrose Terrace and Hayes Court," she said. "I've done farm-based education since the very beginning. I've done early childhood field trips."

Ellis-Thurber wants to help build housing for seniors. "Our older Vermonters built our state, and they need that respect and they need that support," she said.

Brattleboro's tax base is shrinking, Ellis-Thurber said.

"By working together, we can build a stronger and more resilient economy that will provide the revenue for essential work of government and more," she said.

Right now, Ellis-Thurber said, she wants to listen to the people of District 7.

Half-gallon glass jars at the event were set up as suggestion boxes, and the candidate encouraged attendees "to put in whatever's on your mind, honestly. What kind of Vermont do you want to see? What changes do we need to do in Montpelier?"

Emilie Kornheiser

Emilie Kornheiser, 45, has worked internationally as a consultant "brokering and evaluating partnerships between corporations and national governments to meet community development goals," according to her official legislative bio.

She received her bachelor's degree in sociology from Marlboro College and attended the master's program in community development and applied economics at the University of Vermont. She has held numerous positions at community-based organizations throughout Vermont.

On June 6, Kornheiser held her campaign kickoff at the Kiwanis Shelter at the top of Living Memorial Park. Despite the threat of rain on the overcast afternoon, there were bountiful views, the smell of fresh grass, bouquets of flowers, and colorful T-shirts and tote bags for sale carrying Kornheiser's slogan, "Committing to Community."

Approximately 40 people came out for the event. Supporting Kornheiser were a significant number of her Democractic colleagues from the House and Senate, including Sen. Nader Hashim of Dummerston; retiring Reps. Tristan Toleno and Tristan Roberts; Rep. Emily Long, the House majority leader, of Newfane; and Rep. Mike Mrowicki of Putney.

"I strongly support Emilie Kornheiser," Long said. "I have been very impressed with the amount of leadership she's shown and her role in the Legislature on advancing tax policy that has been new and different - and transformative."

Long said Kornheiser "looks at tax policy in a different way that has eyes strictly on Vermonters and Vermonters' needs, which I think is really important. And she gets people interested in tax policy."

Toleno - a former chef who brought with him trays of vegetables, bread, hummus, roast beef, cheese, and various dipping sauces - said he was supporting Kornheiser because of her leadership in the House.

"I think she's a tremendous leader," he said. "She's highly attuned to Brattleboro and Brattleboro's needs, and also has a deep understanding of what needs to happen at the statewide level on a whole range of complex issues, from tax policies [and] education to human services and what we're doing to support the most vulnerable Vermonters. I couldn't be more proud of the work she's done."

Jennifer Jacobs, who lives in District 7, said she is supporting Kornheiser for two reasons: "her policies and her priorities."

Jacobs said Kornheiser has been "fighting for a fair Vermont, to help make sure that we have communities that support and work for everyone."

She said that Kornheiser "looks at big, complex problems and takes it all in and works with other people to break it down and figure out what solutions we can develop to address those complex problems."

When Kornheiser addressed the crowd, she talked about solving homelessness, drug abuse, and affordable housing.

"We can find that vision of Brattleboro that you've all held by coming up here today to the top of the town," she said. "We can do those hard things together, and we can do more than one hard thing at a time. And we have to do more than one hard thing at a time if we're going to get it done for this incredible, special town that is frankly struggling right now."

This year, Kornheiser said, the Legislature did some of that hard work.

"We passed sea change legislation on climate," she said.

Such legislation will "hold folks accountable for the emissions and the flooding that we are having in this state," she said, as well as "protect us from toxic chemicals, to continue to protect this beautiful, special place that we have here."

Legislation for housing - "that we can all afford," she said - addresses "how we create housing so that we can continue to build more housing for all of us."

"We passed really profound community safety bills. We didn't just talk about public safety, we talked about community safety that includes affordable health care. That includes extensive services for folks [struggling with] opiate use and other drugs," Kornheiser said.

"Right now, our drug supply is messy and terrible, and it's hurting the folks in our communities, and we want folks who are struggling to have those services," she continued.

"We changed our judicial system so that folks have ready access to justice, because when folks are trapped in the court system for years, there's no justice for anyone on any side of that issue. And we did all that, again, because our community needed us to."

But it wasn't enough, Kornheiser said.

"There is so much more to do, and I want to be up there for all of you doing that and fighting for that," she implored.

This News item by Joyce Marcel was written for The Commons.

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