Politics

Democratic incumbents dominate in Chittenden County state Senate races

Tanya Vyhovsky, left, and Phil Baruth. Photos by Mike Dougherty and Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Updated Wednesday, Aug. 10, at 6:05 p.m.

Tuesday’s primary elections narrowed a pool of 14 Democratic candidates vying for state Senate in Chittenden County.

According to unofficial Associated Press results with 99% of the vote tallied as of 11 p.m., Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, and Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Essex, had secured spots on the ballot in the three-seat Chittenden Central district. The race for the third spot remained too close to call with Martine Gulick a mere two votes ahead of Erhard Mahnke. 

Baruth led with 24% of the vote, followed by 21% for Vyhovsky and 16% each for Gulick and Mahnke. In fifth place was Dawn Ellis with 14%.

In the Chittenden Southeast district, with 81% of the vote in, incumbent Sens. Ginny Lyons, Kesha Ram Hinsdale and Thomas Chittenden led challengers Lewis Mudge and Steve May. Lyons had 30% of the vote while Ram Hinsdale had 27% and Chittenden had 26%. Mudge and May notched 9% and 8% respectively.

And in the Chittenden North district, with 99% of votes tallied, Irene Wrenner led Brian Shelden with 59% of the vote.

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 this year.

Essex residents Irene Wrenner and Brian Shelden faced off in the Democratic primary for the single-member Chittenden North district, which includes part of Essex Town, all of Milton and Westford in Chittenden County, and all of Fairfax in Franklin County. More than 80% of the district’s population lives in Milton, Westford or Fairfax. 

Wrenner expressed gratitude to her supporters in a written statement provided to VTDigger early Wednesday morning. “This was not an easy campaign, but hard work paid off as it often does,” Wrenner wrote. “I am grateful for the support received from across the political spectrum, as I ran on my solid record of service to 22,000 residents of Essex.”

Wrenner is set to face Rep. Leland Morgan in the general election. Morgan, a Republican who has represented Milton and the five towns in Grand Isle County in the House since 2019, was unopposed for his party’s nomination.

“Tonight is a night to celebrate Vermont democracy,” Shelden wrote in an email to VTDigger. He offered congratulations to Wrenner and thanked his supporters and volunteers. “I'm proud of how they left nothing on the table.”

Five candidates campaigned for the three-member Chittenden Central district. The new 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.

Three candidates were endorsed by the Progressive Party and three ran solely as Democrats. No candidates filed to run in the Republican primary in this district, meaning the three nominees are poised to be elected to the Senate come November.

The Progressive camp consisted of Baruth, Vyhovsky and 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. 

Baruth said he had mixed feelings about the win Tuesday as he watched the numbers change. “On one hand, I’m deeply grateful to the voters of the new Chittenden Central district for the vote of confidence in my work in Montpelier,” he said via a text message. “But on the other, I’m more than a little weirded out by the movement of the numbers over the last 30 minutes... And that’s got all of us wondering where things really stand.”

Vyhovsky said she doesn’t take any race for granted and spent considerable time working to gain name recognition in the new district. She credited her team with working really hard but said they weren't expecting a decisive victory.

“Tonight's win shows that people are ready for change ... and for a more just, sustainable and inclusive Vermont,” Vyhovsky said.

On the solely Democratic side were Gulick, a Burlington school commissioner, and Vermont Ellis, who serves on the Vermont Human Rights Commission. Andrew Brown, the president of Essex Junction’s board of trustees, ran as a Democrat but dropped out of the race in late June.

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

Despite their varying affiliations, the candidates 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.

The redrawn district serves as a key battleground for Progressives to maintain influence in a Democrat-dominated chamber. Three of five incumbent senators affiliated with the Progressive Party are set to retire this year — Sens. Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden, Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, and Cheryl Hooker, D/P-Rutland.

Five vied in the new Chittenden Southeast Senate district for three slots on the November ballot. The three incumbents — Chittenden of South Burlington, Lyons of Williston and Ram Hinsdale of Shelburne — were joined by challengers May, a social worker from Richmond, and Mudge of Charlotte, the Central Africa director for Human Rights Watch. 

Lyons said she was “very pleased” with her victory. “I have been very well received in my district and worked hard for my constituents and so I felt that this was very affirming of the work that I've done.” She stressed the importance of consistency and continuity in the Senate, especially in the new Chittenden district, and said she hopes that voters will continue to support her and her Democratic colleagues.

Ram Hinsdale, who earlier dropped out of the U.S. House primary race, said she was “feeling heartened and grateful after a solid victory.” 

“After getting out of a statewide race and splitting the county-wide district in half, nothing was guaranteed,” Ram Hinsdale said, referring to the redistricting changes.

No candidates filed for the Republican or Progressive nominations in this district.

The most populous of the three new districts, Chittenden Southeast includes South Burlington, the southern tip of Burlington, Bolton, Charlotte, Hinesburg, Jericho, Richmond, St. George, Shelburne, Williston and Underhill.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Chittenden Southeast district.

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Auditi Guha

About Auditi

Auditi is Chittenden County editor at VTDigger. Originally from Calcutta, India, she graduated from Emerson College with an MA in journalism. She has worked as an editor and reporter for several newspapers, and in various beats. Most recently, she covered race and justice at Rewire.News, and higher education at the New Bedford Standard-Times. She previously worked at several Massachusetts newsrooms. She is a mentor for young reporters through the Report For America program, founded the Boston chapter of the South Asian Journalists Association, and is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Email: [email protected]

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