Chittenden North Senate primary pits 2 often-at-odds Essex Democrats against each other

Irene Wrenner, left, and Brian Shelden are competing in the Democratic primary for the new Chittenden North Senate seat. Courtesy photos

Two Essex residents who have been on opposite sides of contentious local issues are vying to represent their hometown and three other communities in the state Senate.

Irene Wrenner and Brian Shelden are facing off in the Democratic primary for the newly formed, single-member Chittenden North Senate district, which includes part of Essex Town, all of Milton and Westford in Chittenden County, and all of Fairfax in Franklin County.

The winner of the Aug. 9 contest is set to face Rep. Leland Morgan, a Republican who has represented Milton and the five towns in Grand Isle County in the House since 2019. 

The race will be closely watched: After the breakup of the solidly Democratic six-member Chittenden district during reapportionment this year, the new district represents the best chance in the region for Republicans to pick up a Senate seat.

Shelden and Wrenner have both been vocal in yearslong debates about local governance. They clashed over whether or not to combine the governments of Essex Town and what was, at the time, the Village of Essex Junction. That merger never happened, and on July 1, the village became an independent city.  

Wrenner, who served on the Essex Town Selectboard from 2007 to 2019, said she supported combining the town and village governments for more than a decade, but later became opposed because she thought the proposals were unfair to people living outside the village.

Her advocacy on the issue made headlines in 2019, when she sang an Essex-themed version of Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath” at a selectboard meeting. Wrenner’s rendition included the line, “Slow this merger train down.”

Shelden, who chairs the Essex Democrats and has led the town’s Economic Development Commission, campaigned for years in support of a merger, heading up a political action committee called “One Essex.” He said in an interview that having a single, unified community had “always made more sense” to him.

The merger debate wasn’t the only time the two candidates found themselves at odds. 

In 2020, Wrenner and another local resident, Ken Signorello, pushed successfully for a public vote on whether to change the makeup of the Essex Selectboard from five at-large members to six members, three of whom would hail from the village, and three from the town outside the village. They maintained this configuration would prevent either side from having disproportionate power.

Shelden opposed the “three-plus-three” plan, starting an organization called “Don’t Gerrymander Essex.” A six-member selectboard would be “a recipe for gridlock,” he said at the time, arguing that it would pit the village against the rest of the town.

Voters approved the plan by a wide margin. But it was never put into place because the Legislature, which must approve charter changes, did not act on the proposal.

Beyond Essex 

Both candidates acknowledged that while they’ve spent years involved in Essex politics, they have had to spend time knocking on doors, talking to officials and attending meetings in the three other towns in the new Senate district in order to bolster their campaigns.  

More than 80% of the district’s population lives in Milton, Westford or Fairfax.

Wrenner and Shelden appear to have the most in common on statewide issues. At a televised forum in June, the two candidates gave similar answers to questions on topics ranging from gun control to the environment.

Both said that “health care is a human right” and maintained that the state needs to do more to support health care workers during the pandemic. 

In the forum, Shelden stressed the importance of housing among district residents. He said he would support reforms to Act 250 to make it easier to build new housing across the state.

Wrenner said one of her goals as a state senator would be to “protect the rights of our most vulnerable citizens.” She pointed to Vermont’s record number of deaths last year from opioid overdoses as the reason she supports revisiting H.728 — a bill vetoed last month by Republican Gov. Phil Scott that would have created a feasibility study on opening an overdose prevention site. 

Wrenner contended that she is more qualified to serve in the Legislature because she, unlike Shelden, has held elected office. She said she never missed a meeting in her 12 years on the Essex Selectboard.

“I expect the people in the Senate — just, as a voter — to have some sense of policymaking and budgeting from the inside of government, either local or state,” she said. “That’s just a bar I set in my mind.” 

Shelden ran for the Vermont House in 2020 but lost in a three-way Democratic primary.

Earlier this year, he waged an unsuccessful write-in bid for a one-year seat on the Essex Selectboard. The only candidate on the ballot, Ethan Lawrence, had been accused of making “bullying” comments online and spreading misinformation about Covid-19. 

Shelden contends that while he hasn’t been elected to office, he has garnered experience in politics by canvassing for a successful redistricting effort in Texas, as well as knocking on doors for candidates there and in Ohio and Virginia.

He also feels his years of business experience in software development — which involves listening “to all sides and figuring out what the best way is going forward” — would help him be an effective lawmaker.

Shelden grew up in Essex and graduated from the local high school before moving to study computer science at Cornell University, though did not graduate and later completed his degree at The Ohio State University. He moved back to the Chittenden County town in 2019, he said.

Wrenner graduated from Cornell, where she studied industrial and labor relations. She grew up in New Jersey. She’s worked in the human resources, technology and communication fields, she said.

Scuffle in print

While Wrenner is no longer in office, she’s remained active in the local discourse through the Essex ReTorter, a publication she and Signorello started in 2020. The name is a play on the town’s local newspaper, the Essex Reporter.

The ReTorter publishes articles — many written by Wrenner — online and in a monthly print edition. Wrenner said the publication fills a gap in regular coverage of Essex government and aims to hold town officials accountable. The Essex Reporter ceased publishing a print edition at the start of the pandemic.

Though her photo and bio are still featured prominently on the outlet’s “About Us” page, Wrenner said she has turned over the ReTorter’s operations to an interim publisher during her campaign and wouldn’t return to the helm should she win the seat. 

Signorello praised Wrenner’s work at the ReTorter. “She’s a very dedicated, conscientious, hard-working person,” he said, “who listens to her constituents and acts upon what she hears.”

But some Essex residents point to what they consider a longstanding bias against Shelden in the pages of the ReTorter.

Essex Junction resident Alexis Dubief said the publication “fosters division,” pointing to two cartoons lampooning Shelden that were published in February.

In one about Shelden’s selectboard campaign, he is depicted as the head of a Trojan horse, bringing a “village agenda” into Essex Town. Another cartoon depicts Shelden as the Wizard of Oz, saying, “Pay no attention to my track record!” 

Wrenner acknowledged that the cartoons, drawn by a contributor, were unflattering, but she maintained that the content was based in fact. She said that she decided to publish the cartoons before she was considering running for state Senate and before she knew Shelden would be her opponent. 

Shelden referred to the ReTorter as a “political blog” but declined to comment further on Wrenner or the publication.

“We need to stop attacking people that we disagree with,” he said. “I don't believe in tearing down your opponents. I believe in listening to them, figuring out what will work for everybody and moving forward.”

Wrenner said the ReTorter works with a proofreader who makes sure the publication’s articles are unbiased and well-written. Still, she said, no one working at the ReTorter is a journalist by training, and she encouraged people who are concerned about its coverage to reach out.

“We have certainly taken it to heart when people said we were too hard on somebody. I totally get that,” Wrenner said. “We're learning this from the ground up.” 

Some have also complained that Wrenner has gone to inappropriate lengths to deliver the free publication to people’s homes, a charge Wrenner disputes.

According to Adam Newhard, another local resident, residents have been unnerved to see Wrenner dropping off copies of the ReTorter inside their garages. 

Newhard also said that after another resident, Tim Miller, posted in a Facebook group that he liked to use the ReTorter as kindling, Wrenner brought a box of print copies to his house with a note that read, “Happy firestarting, Tim! Hope this saves you some steps.” 

Wrenner acknowledged that she has gone into people’s garages to deliver the ReTorter, though said she would only do so if their door was somehow obstructed. She also confirmed the “firestarting” incident, and said that she felt her response to Miller was appropriate. 

Wrenner, in turn, pointed to an incident in February during which Shelden left a note at her door along with a flier for his write-in campaign. The note was addressed to Wrenner and said, “Every time you mention my name I earn 5 votes.”

In this instance and other discourse about Essex issues, Wrenner said, Shelden “has worked hard over time” — including before she and Signorello founded the Essex ReTorter — “to demonize me and my accomplishments.”

Shelden confirmed that he had written the note to Wrenner earlier this year, saying it “was in response to Ms. Wrenner's very negative, public attacks in social media of me, and of others.”

“Those attacks, while bolstering support for me, were ruining the political environment in town,” he wrote in an email. “I thought that if she understood that her tactics were backfiring, she might tone it down for the good of Essex.”

Wrenner considers herself an activist, she said, which sometimes means people disagree with her actions or find them offensive.

“I am definitely, some people would say, a lightning rod. I have done enough things that have made enough people upset,” Wrenner said. “So be that as it may, I'm still going to be an activist — no matter what happens in this election.”

Corrections: Brian Shelden did not graduate from Cornell, and an earlier version of this story mischaracterized Wrenner's portrayal of a note Shelden left her.

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Shaun Robinson

About Shaun

Shaun Robinson is a Report for America corps member with a special focus on issues of importance to Franklin and Grand Isle counties. He is a journalism graduate of Boston University, with a minor in political science. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Patriot Ledger of Quincy and the Cape Cod Times.

Email: [email protected]

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