A new Burlington-based Senate district gives rise to new contenders

Clockwise from top left: Andrew Brown, Dawn Ellis, Martine Gulick, Erhard Mahnke, Phil Baruth and Tanya Vyhovsky. File and contributed photos

Editor's note: Shortly after this story was published on June 26, Andrew Brown dropped out of the race to represent the Chittenden Central Senate district.

With its once-a-decade redistricting process complete and a slew of lawmakers set to retire, Vermont’s 30-member Senate is guaranteed some new faces this winter.

At least two of them will represent a distinctly left-leaning, three-seat district in Chittenden County, where only one of six contenders in the Aug. 9 Democratic primary is an incumbent. 

The three-member Chittenden Central Senate district stretches across the middle of Chittenden County, encompassing some of the most left-leaning areas in the state. Image via the state of Vermont

The new Chittenden Central district is made up of Burlington's New and Old North Ends; Winooski; a sliver of Colchester; all of Essex Junction; and parts of Essex town. It is now one of four districts representing portions of Vermont’s most populous county — and by far the most liberal. 

The Democratic primary boasts three candidates who have been endorsed by the Progressive Party and three running solely as Democrats. No candidates filed to run in the Republican primary. 

For Progressives, the redrawn district will serve as a key battleground to maintain influence in a Democrat-dominated chamber. With three of five senators affiliated with the Progressive Party set to retire this year — Sens. Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden, Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, and Cheryl Hooker, D/P-Rutland — Chittenden Central appears to be the party’s best hope of retaining representation. 

The Progressive camp consists of Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Essex, and Erhard Mahnke, a longtime affordable housing advocate who works for and was endorsed in a 2020 state Senate run by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. 

On the solely Democratic side are Burlington School Commissioner Martine Gulick, Essex Junction Board of Trustees President Andrew Brown and Vermont human rights commissioner Dawn Ellis.

Despite their varying affiliations, the candidates have articulated few policy disagreements. In recent interviews, all six cited climate change and affordable housing as critical issues, and expressed support for passing tighter gun restrictions in the upcoming legislative session.

A question of compromise

The candidates expressed at least a modest appetite for working with Gov. Phil Scott — should he be elected to a fourth term — after the Republican vetoed a record number of bills this year. 

Baruth, a Burlington resident, pointed to his willingness to work with Scott on a bill restricting gun access that earned the governor’s signature this year. 

Act 87, which narrows the so-called “Charleston Loophole,” extended the period a buyer must wait to obtain a gun if they have yet to receive a clean federal background check. Democrats initially wanted to lengthen the three-day wait time to 30 days. After Scott vetoed that version of the bill, they settled on a seven-day period. 

“There are cases where we can compromise and there are cases where both sides — the governor and the Legislature — are going to stand their ground,” Baruth said. “When you have divided government … that's part of what you get.”

Vyhovsky, who was elected to the Vermont House in 2020, cited her own example of working across the aisle to pass Act 117. Signed into law by Scott this year, it seeks to accelerate licensing for mental health professionals and requires them to participate in equity training.

“There are places, particularly around workforce, where we can gain tripartisan support,” Vyhovsky said. “I've definitely been progressive with a small ‘p.’”

But efforts to compromise would only extend so far. On certain issues, such as climate change, the candidates said they can’t afford to water down the Democratic agenda.

Brown, who testified in Montpelier about the village of Essex Junction’s split from the town of Essex, said he’s been able to “bring a broad group of people together” during his time in local politics. But as a senator, Brown said, he wouldn’t pull punches on environmental issues.

“Every day that goes by where we don't fund implementing the Climate Action Plan is another day that makes it harder, more expensive and potentially lethal to really have the impact that we need to have on our climate,” Brown said. “These are things that we really just can't compromise on.”

Ellis suggested lawmakers could also do more to gather support for bills to dissuade Scott from vetoing them.

“We have ways of pushing back. If a governor is quick to veto, there are ways to build the coalition ahead of time so that the veto is not palatable,” Ellis said. 

Comparing experience

While Baruth and Vyhovsky are the only two incumbent legislators in the race, all six can claim some experience with state politics.

Mahnke, a former Burlington City Council president, is no stranger to the Statehouse. After years of lobbying legislators as the head of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition, Mahnke said he now wants to sit on the other side of the table and advance policies that could ease the state’s severe housing crisis.  

To address Vermont’s housing issues, Mahnke proposed three solutions: instituting “just cause eviction” statewide, fully funding the state’s housing programs after federal money dries up and establishing a maximum percentage increase in rent, also known as rent stabilization. 

“Housing really touches everything, but there's also so many other areas that we need to make progress in,” said Mahnke, a Burlington resident. 

Ellis, also of Burlington, has run twice for a Senate seat in Chittenden County. She appeared on the Democratic ticket in 2014 and came about one thousand votes shy of winning a seat. She lost again in 2016. (Prior to redistricting this year, most of Chittenden County elected a single slate of six legislators.)

Ellis said her experience as the owner of a consulting firm and as a human rights commissioner informs her approach to how government should operate: with accountability and inclusivity. 

Rather than address problems systematically, Ellis said, she wants the state to make “healthy upstream investments.” She argued, for instance, that mental health should be Vermont’s top concern when trying to reduce gun violence.

“The weapon doesn't detonate itself when it's used to harm people. There are people behind that — people who have gotten to a very, very tough place in their journey,” she said, adding that she does support laws prohibiting same-day firearm purchases and guns that could “take out the entire town.”

Gulick gained some chops in Montpelier this year while advocating for a proposal to change Vermont’s education funding system — a measure that was ultimately successful. A former teacher and librarian in Essex who now serves on the Burlington school board, Gulick said one of her top issues is making sure the state helps pay for school renovations made necessary by the discovery of cancer-causing chemicals. 

The issue should hit close to home for Burlington voters, who — after tests revealed their former high school and technical center contained significant amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls — are slated to largely shoulder the cost for a new building. School district officials say they’ll ask the state for help, but have yet to receive any promise of assistance. 

But when it comes to meeting constituents’ needs, Baruth said, the more experienced politicos tend to prevail.

“The seniority system is very much in play in Montpelier,” said Baruth, who has served five terms in the Senate. “Your first term, usually you're off, slightly, to one side from where things are actually happening … as you move up, you just gain more access to the wheels that make things turn.”

Corrections: This story was updated to make clear that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., endorsed Erhard Mahnke in 2020. Sanders has not yet endorsed any candidates in this race. A previous version of this story also misstated the result of Dawn Ellis's 2014 run for state Senate.

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Jack Lyons

About Jack

Burlington reporter Jack Lyons is a 2021 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He majored in theology with a minor in journalism, ethics and democracy. Jack previously interned at the Boston Globe, the Berkshire Eagle and WDEV radio in Waterbury. He also freelanced for VTDigger while studying remotely during the pandemic in 2020.

Email: [email protected]

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