Politics

With at least 1 vacancy, Windham County’s Senate district is poised to host a competitive race

Clockwise from top left: Nader Hashim, Rick Morton, Wichie Artu and Tim Wessel. Photos courtesy of the candidates

With state Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, vacating her seat to make a run for Congress, her home county will likely play host to its first competitive state Senate race since 2014.

The two-member Windham district’s other senator is 19-year incumbent Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, who hails from Putney. White told VTDigger earlier this month she has not yet decided whether she will seek reelection in November.

If White runs again, she would compete with at least two fellow Democrats in the Aug. 9 primary: Wichie Artu and Nader Hashim. On the other side of the aisle, Rick Morton has declared his candidacy, and could yet be joined by others for a Republican primary.

The top vote-getters in August’s primary would join independent Tim Wessel in the Nov. 8 general election. 

All four announced challengers should be familiar to voters in southern Vermont, either through their community organizing or experience in state and local office.

Artu is a data systems expert and owns and operates Magnetic Fields Farm in Athens with his husband. After the coronavirus pandemic hit Vermont, Artu began co-chairing the Windham County NAACP’s Health Justice Committee to help provide health care to people of color impacted by the pandemic.

Artu told VTDigger that his lived experiences set him apart from the other candidates, from moving from Puerto Rico to Boston as a child and learning English as his second language, to experiencing economic instability in the past, to being a gay person of color.

“I've lived in so many different worlds in so many different ways,” Artu said. “Even if I don't agree with the person, it's very easy for me to just step back and listen and try to understand where a person is at, and why the person feels like they're there, and then how can I help bridge a resource in order to make sure that that person can get to where it is that they want to go, and think about that in a structural, systemic way.”

Hashim has taken a spin through the Statehouse once before. In 2018, he became the first active state trooper elected to the Vermont House. He served one term before stepping down in 2020, citing the logistical and financial challenges of serving in the Legislature. He is currently the assistant director of the Bright Leadership Institute, a statewide political organization that works to promote diverse candidates for elected office.

“I’ve been to literally every single town in the county, and into at least a dozen or so homes in every town in this county,” he told VTDigger. “I’ve seen what Vermonters are facing firsthand — whether it’s poverty, opioid use or other mental health issues — and I want to take those firsthand experiences and continue to make change that helps people live more comfortably and safely in the state.”

Wessel will be most familiar to voters in Brattleboro, where he has served on the selectboard for five years. Even in deep blue Windham County, he told VTDigger, he decided to run as an independent because he’s “not crazy about the two-party system nationally.”

“I’m not alone with that. But the two-party system in Windham County, I think, is even more restrictive for folks,” he said. “We’re arguably the, or one of the, most blue Democratic stronghold counties in Vermont. … And so I feel that sometimes the party primary system really doesn't allow for a lot of new ideas and different considerations to come into it.”

Morton, of Brattleboro, was a security manager and compliance officer at ​​Brattleboro Savings & Loan before he retired four years ago, and he currently chairs the Windham County GOP. This isn’t his first time on the ballot; most recently in 2020, he unsuccessfully ran to replace Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D/P-Brattleboro, in the House

Morton said he decided to jump into this year’s open Senate race largely to rally voters against Proposal 5, a constitutional amendment on this year’s general election ballot that would enshrine Vermonters’ access to abortion and contraception. 

“I’m going to just take the platform that is provided by being a candidate, and whenever the opportunity arises, hopefully each time that I’m in a public setting, I’ll be able to explain what my positions are on a variety of topics. One of them would most likely almost always be my opposition to (Proposal) 5,” he told VTDigger.

When asked about the most vital issues facing Windham County, three of the four candidates, in separate interviews, immediately pointed to Vermont’s statewide housing shortage. And Hashim said he thinks Vermont’s housing belt is only going to tighten in the foreseeable future because “climate refugees are a real thing.”

“I’ve met plenty of people who have come here because of wildfires in California or because of tornadoes in the Midwest,” he said. “I think we're going to continue seeing people move to safer states like Vermont, and that's going to continue putting a crunch on housing. So we really just need to develop more inventory.”

Related to climate resiliency is Vermont’s food supply, an area Artu knows well as a farmer.

“What we need is to be able to empower the 25% of Vermonters who are food insecure with the ability to feed themselves,” he said. “And that can mean access to farmland. That can mean access to higher wages. There's a range of ways that that can happen.”

As the father of a 4-year-old, Wessel said he knows firsthand how dire Vermont’s child care availability and affordability crisis has become. Heightened by the pandemic, he said, it’s “just a constant worry” in his own life.

Child care and other economic challenges are “all stacked on top of each other,” he said. “I'm really interested in things like workforce development, and you can't you can't work on that without having an infrastructure of child care, because young people who can work, have the energy to work, need child care to raise a family.”

Morton said he sees his candidacy as an opportunity to bring partisan balance to the Legislature’s Democratic supermajority.

“I think the Legislature is squandering its resources in unnecessary directions. It's wasteful. It's unrestrained, really,” he said. “We have such an overwhelming majority in Montpelier that Republicans there — not that they’re a party of no, not at all — but we need to say, ‘Wait, have you thought about the consequences of all these things you're proposing?’”

VTDigger reporter Riley Robinson contributed to this report.

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Sarah Mearhoff

About Sarah

Sarah Mearhoff is one of VTDigger's political reporters, covering the Vermont statehouse, executive branch and congressional delegation. Prior to joining Digger, she covered Minnesota and South Dakota state politics for Forum Communications' newspapers across the Upper Midwest for three years. She has also covered politics in Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, she is a proud alumna of the Pennsylvania State University where she studied journalism.

Email: [email protected]

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