Candidates in a new Chittenden County Senate district say its redrawn lines could give smaller towns greater influence in Montpelier. Though there are three incumbents in the mix, the district’s new makeup could lead to an unpredictable result.
Five Democrats are competing in the Aug. 9 primary election for three slots on the November ballot.
The three incumbents — Sens. Thomas Chittenden of South Burlington, Ginny Lyons of Williston and Kesha Ram Hinsdale of Shelburne — are joined on the ballot by challengers Steve May, a social worker from Richmond, and Lewis Mudge of Charlotte, the Central Africa director for Human Rights Watch.
No candidates filed for the Republican or Progressive party nominations.
Vermont’s newly redrawn legislative maps carved up the state’s most populous Senate district, which included most of Chittenden County, into two three-member districts and one single-member district.
Chittenden Southeast is the most populous of the three, representing 69,199 residents. It includes Bolton, Charlotte, Hinesburg, Jericho, Richmond, St. George, Shelburne, South Burlington, Williston, Underhill and the southern tip of Burlington.
Change or continuity?
Mudge, 45, who serves on the Charlotte Selectboard, said redistricting was a main reason he entered the race. He suggested that smaller towns have been disenfranchised, and he said he’d prioritize the issues they face.
“I do see value in someone from a smaller Chittenden County town representing or having a voice for these towns because there are just frankly issues that we have that South Burlington and Williston will not have,” he said.
Chittenden, 44, said concerns about smaller communities being overshadowed are present in every district, and in this case, the district lines were drawn to minimize any imbalance. “With this three-seat district, South Burlington is less than 30 percent of the district's population,” he said.
Ram Hinsdale, 35, said that the redrawn lines could pose a challenge for her, suggesting that, as the first woman of color in the Vermont Senate, she better represented the more multicultural parts of the county, such as Burlington and Winooski. She emphasized, however, that she is happy to represent smaller communities, which, she said, contribute their own kind of diversity to the state.
One-third of Vermont’s state senators have announced plans to leave the 30-member body in order to run for higher office or retire. Both Ram Hinsdale and Lyons, 77, made the case that, as veteran lawmakers, they’d bring essential knowledge to Montpelier.
“The Legislature really needs people who have experience and have that long-term vision to return, because there is so much turnover,” said Ram Hinsdale, who had planned to leave the state Senate to run for the U.S. House but dropped out in May to run for reelection.
Ram Hinsdale was elected to represent Burlington’s Old North End in the Vermont House shortly after graduating from college and went on to serve from 2009 to 2016. She finished third in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor in 2016 and was elected to the state Senate in 2020.
Her top priorities, she said, are child care, housing and how the workforce intersects with climate change. “I think we’ll need to do a lot of economic development work to help young people feel like they have a future in the state,” she said.
Lyons, who has served in the Senate since 2001, said she is running in part because “we’re having a huge turnover in the Senate and I think it’s really critically important to maintain some consistency and some institutional knowledge.”
As chair of the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, Lyons cited her work on the proposed constitutional amendment to protect reproductive rights, known as Proposal 5, which will appear on the ballot in November.
“I led it through my committee in the Senate and through the Senate to the House, so that is very important to me,” she said.
A biology professor for more than 30 years and formerly a member of the Williston Selectboard, Lyons said she wants to further equal rights for everyone in Vermont. If reelected, she said she may try to revive the equal rights amendment she proposed in 2019 to prevent discrimination on the basis of a person’s race, ethnicity, sex, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or national origin.
A newer arrival to the Senate, Chittenden is finishing his first term. He also serves on the South Burlington City Council, though he said he would not run again when his term ends in 2023 should he win reelection to the Senate.
Chittenden, who is also a senior lecturer at University of Vermont’s Grossman School of Business and a former member of the Green Mountain Transit board, said his priorities for a second term include gun control, climate change and housing.
He said he would advocate for safe storage, waiting periods, universal background checks and a tax policy for guns and ammunition. Chittenden also said he wants to reduce transportation-sector emissions by assessing fees on cars based on the emissions they produce and would like the state to track vehicular use of roadways with better technology so that those who travel through Vermont frequently could pay more. He would also like to encourage more affordable, high-density housing in urban areas already served by municipal infrastructure rather than encourage suburban sprawl, he said.
May, 45, is a clinical social worker who previously served on the Richmond and Bolton selectboards. He ran unsuccessfully for the Vermont House in 2016 and for the state Senate in 2018 and 2020.
The founder of a political organization addressing patient privacy and genetic discrimination called The Fund for Genetic Equity, May said he is deeply concerned about privacy, calling it “the civil rights issue of our time.” He said privacy rights are currently siloed under education or health care but there is no blanket privacy act in the state.
May, who also previously served as national director of state affairs for the Hemophilia Federation of America, said his background in health care and mental health “fills a specific need at this moment in time. These issues have fallen off our collective radar,” he said, calling the approach to health care policy at the Statehouse “ham-handed.”
May said he decided to make another run for public office after watching the fallout of the pandemic on people with addiction issues. “I couldn’t keep just going to funerals anymore,” he said.
Mudge, a father of three who has spent time in the Peace Corps and has lived and worked in Africa, said he understands the challenges that young families face, such as child care and housing.
Noting that he and his wife have grappled with finding affordable child care in the past, Mudge said he recognizes the value of early child care providers and how they help young children develop.
“I genuinely feel that early child care providers are not respected and they’re not paid enough. And I feel that families need support,” he said.
Mudge, who noted that he owns a gun and grew up hunting in the Upper Valley, said he wants to curb access to assault weapons as a human rights activist who has documented war crimes and the effects of assault weapons in some of the world’s most dangerous places.
While not opposed to development, Mudge said he takes issue with government officials using the housing crisis to push for more development.
“I am absolutely for real affordable housing,” he said. “But I am noticing that this issue around affordability has been conflated with development. And I don’t see half-a-million-dollar homes as affordable housing.”
Corrections: Rep. Thomas Chittenden, D-South Burlington, no longer serves on the Green Mountain Transit board. Steve May has twice run for the state Senate.
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