The chair of the Burlington Republican Party bashed Sen. Debbie Ingram (D-Chittenden) on Twitter this week over a drunk driving arrest. The attack drew swift rebukes from other top GOP officials, including Gov. Phil Scott, who called it “unacceptable.”
Ingram crashed her car into a ditch in Williston less than a mile from her home in October 2017. The Burlington Free Pressreported that Ingram’s blood alcohol content at the time of the crash was 0.186 percent, more than double the 0.08 percent legal limit for driving.
Ingram released a statement shortly after her arrest in which she accepted responsibility for driving drunk.
“I am grateful that no one was injured as a result of my irresponsible behavior,” she wrote. “I suffer from a disease for which I have been getting treatment through a 12-step program.”
That, apparently, was not good enough for Burlington Republican Party chair Paco DeFrancis.
“If [Ingram] cared about her ‘disease’ and cared about others who may be using that public infrastructure then she should recognize that she is NOT capable of driving and should give up her car and license,” he tweeted Monday night.
It's not the first time DeFrancis has taken a shot at Ingram, who is up for reelection in November. In late July, he posted an edited police dashcam video of Ingram's arrest along with the message, "Just say NO to drunk driving." DeFrancis claims he was acting in a personal capacity and not as a party official when he posted the tweet from his account, but the final seconds of the video feature the Burlington GOP logo.
Paco DeFrancis' video of Sen. Debbie Ingram's arrest
At least one other state Republican official picked up on the attack.
“Our Vermont State Senator [Debbie Ingram] thinks it's cool to drive when she is snot-flying drunk,” Vermont Republican Party vice chair Brady Toensing tweeted in response to the video on August 15.
DeFrancis said in an interview Tuesday that the senator’s actions show she isn’t fit to serve in office, regardless of how she handles the consequences.
“It’s one thing to take that individual responsibility — and I hope that she’s able to overcome that and get treatment,” he said. “But it’s very different when you’re exposing others to that risk when she’s driving.”
Ingram said Wednesday that she “can only say now what I said at the time — that I take full responsibility for my actions and I’m very grateful that no one was hurt as a result of my driving that night.”
The senator pointed out that she hasn't tried to hide from the consequences of the crash.
“I pled guilty, I have done everything that the court required,” she said. “I had a relapse. I am an alcoholic and I admit that.”
A judge sentenced Ingram to three months’ probation and ordered her to undergo counseling and take public safety classes. She also paid about $750 in fines.
Ingram said DeFrancis’ suggestion that the incident exposed flaws in her character is off-base.
“I think that shows a fundamental lack of understanding of substance use disorders. It’s not a lack of judgement … it’s a disease,” she said. “I’m addressing the relapse and my goal is to not ever take that first drink again. And that’s the treatment for substance use disorder. And there are thousands of Vermonters doing what I’m doing every single day.”
Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint (D-Windham) said she's been impressed at how Ingram has taken responsibility and accepted the consequences of her mistake.
"She handled it better than anyone I’ve ever seen in public service handle an incident like this," Balint said.
Balint said public actions by public officials are fair game in a campaign, but she doesn't see Ingram's driving record as a major political liability.
"They’re deciding to drag this out and hold this up as a terrible character flaw of hers," Balint said. "And we all have our struggles, she has owned her addiction and she is going to make restitution in any way possible, and I expect this from any political figure on either side of the aisle."
Balint said the attacks on Ingram revealed more about political discourse than about the freshman senator.
“Politics have become not just hyper-partisan, they’ve become hyper-personal,” Balint said. “It certainly makes me sad that they’re not running on her record and they’re not being honest about they way she’s addressed this terrible incident that happened.”
Alex Farrell, one of three Republicans running for six Chittenden County seats in the Senate, said the attacks against his opponent have no place in the campaign. DeFrancis, who identifies himself in his Twitter biography as a "@GovPhilScott enthusiast," is a vocal supporter of Farrell's campaign, but the candidate said he's told DeFrancis that the attacks are out of bounds.
“Sen. Ingram, like all of us, has her own personal life and she’s allowed to,” Farrell said. “Her votes, what she says on issues, things like that — that is what this [campaign] is all about. Her family and friends should be there to support her through whatever other challenges she has. The public … and especially other candidates and other folks in this realm, should respect her privacy when it comes to this.”
Jack Moulton, the executive director of the Vermont GOP, said the statewide organization has nothing to do with DeFrancis’ and Toensing’s tweets.
“I would say that they’re … definitely not getting any guidance from the state party on it,” he said.
In Moulton’s opinion, Ingram’s policy positions are reason enough for Chittenden County residents to oppose her.
“Voters don’t really need to look at her DWI,” he said. “They can look at her awful voting record for Vermonters and make a decision based on that.”
Moulton said it wouldn’t be in the party’s interest to focus on Ingram’s actions outside of the Statehouse.
“I don’t think there’s really a place at the state party level for that message,” he said.
At its August meeting, according to DeFrancis, the Burlington GOP committee
discussed using police video of Ingram’s arrest to turn voters against her but never held a vote.
“It was well-received, but it’s not an official position at all. It never came from the Burlington Republican account,” DeFrancis said. “It’s my own personal view.”
After an earlier version of this story was published, Gov. Scott took to Twitter to condemn DeFrancis’ post.
Thank you, Governor. I am grateful that you are an honorable man.
“As I’ve said, one of the most significant challenges we face is political polarization that’s amplified by social media,” the governor wrote. “You can disagree on policy issues, but these personal attacks on @DebbieIngramdeb are unacceptable. Together, we can rise above it and focus on the issues.”
Ingram then responded, “Thank you, Governor. I am grateful that you are an honorable man.”