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A Stowe House Republican Clings to a District That's Shifting Left

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Rep. Heidi Scheuermann - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Rep. Heidi Scheuermann

George Lewis was in a panic.

The coronavirus shutdown in the spring and strict travel restrictions through the summer had devastated business at his Brass Lantern Inn, a nine-room guesthouse in Stowe.

He and his wife, Mary Anne, were banking on the state's low infection rate and natural beauty to draw at least some autumn leaf-peeper traffic.

Then even that seemed to be in jeopardy. A fall repaving project of Route 100 just outside the inn allowed the contractor to work through the night — hardly the quiet Green Mountain getaway for which Brass Lantern guests pay $250 per night.

When his pleas to the Vermont Agency of Transportation fell on deaf ears, Lewis sought help from state Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe).

"She got all the way to the top, and the secretary of transportation called my house to tell me, 'Listen, we're working on a solution,'" Lewis said.

Lewis feels grateful to have an advocate with a track record of going to bat for people and businesses in Stowe. "She is boots on the ground," Lewis said. "I've never seen anyone work so hard for their constituents as Heidi Scheuermann."

Lewis describes himself as a "middle-of-the-road guy" uninvolved in local party politics. He has voted for Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Gov. Phil Scott and said he'd have no problem voting for a Democrat in a local race. But Scheuermann's work has earned his vote, he said.

This ability to appeal to crossover voters such as Lewis helps explain how Scheuermann, a moderate Republican, has been able to hang on to her House seat for seven terms, even as her district has increasingly leaned left.

But this year, Scheuermann, who owns and manages properties, is facing Jo Sabel Courtney, a Democratic opponent well-known in the community — and another wave of Democratic activism fueled by opposition to President Donald Trump.

"2018 was a tough year, and it'll be a tough year again this year, I suspect," Scheuermann said. "Stowe has turned a little more left than it has been in the past."

Two years ago, Marina Meerburg, a candidate in her first run for state office, secured the Democratic line as a write-in, got endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and, with enthusiastic backing from the state party, came just 87 votes short of defeating Scheuermann. Democrats view Meerburg's strong performance as the latest evidence that Stowe is turning from red to purple.

The upscale ski town voted for Democrat Sue Minter over Scott in the 2016 gubernatorial race, 49 percent to 47 percent, although Scott beat Minter 52-43 in statewide results. In the same election, Hillary Clinton trounced Trump in Stowe, receiving three votes for every one of his, a significantly wider margin than she enjoyed statewide.

But in 2018, when Stowe voters supported Republican Scott over Democrat Christine Hallquist, 55 percent to 41 percent, Scheuermann out-raised Meerburg in campaign funding two-to-one and still barely hung on.

"The current representative has been in there for more than a decade, and Stowe residents might be looking for a different voice," Spencer Dole, House campaign director for the Vermont Democratic Party, said last week. "This is probably one of our top 10 House districts in terms of picking up a seat from an incumbent Republican."

Instead of making another run herself, Meerburg convinced her friend Sabel Courtney to take up the mantle. It wasn't a tough sell. A public relations consultant, Sabel Courtney was inspired by Sanders' 2016 presidential run and wanted to get more politically involved.

"Bernie put out the call to all of us to step up," she said. "I'm hearing that it's time for a change."

Sabel Courtney owns her own PR firm and works largely for clients in the tourism industry. She was the marketing and public relations manager for the Stowe Area Association, and also has worked to market Cabot Creamery cheese around the region.

"I've been so immersed in tourism in this town, promoting and marketing Stowe all over the world," she said, adding that her experience would help her advocate for the industry. "I've worked in the business and know the players."

She also has deep ties to the arts community, having cofounded the Stowe Theater Guild in 1995.

Despite working in one of the most upscale towns in the state, she's an avowed Sanders supporter who advocates for progressive policy.

She said she believes it is the government's role to help people in need, and she would back Democratic priorities that support working people, including legislation to create a living wage, paid family leave, health care for all and affordable housing.

The pandemic has brought home for her the importance of passing policies that address the glaring economic inequalities in the state. Sabel Courtney noted she can only afford to live in Stowe because she rents her apartment from a friend for less than the market rate.

Jo Sabel Courtney - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Jo Sabel Courtney

"I know young people who have grown up here, gone to school here, work here and can't buy a house here, and they have families," Sabel Courtney said. "What happens to our community when they move?"

Affordable housing is crucial not just to families but to the local economy, Meerburg said. While Scheuermann owns rental properties and therefore benefits from advocating for low property taxes, Meerburg said, Sabel Courtney will attack the problem from a fresh angle.

"Jo is acutely aware that in order to run our businesses, we need people to be able to afford to live here," Meerburg said. That includes not just affordable housing but living wages and affordable childcare, she said.

After deciding to run, Sabel Courtney participated in Emerge Vermont, which trains Democratic women to run for public office. It was not lost on Scheuermann that if her opponent were to win, she would not increase the number of women in the Statehouse. Scheuermann took to Twitter last month to point out that Emerge Vermont is not dedicated to electing all women, just Democratic women.

In response to a tweet from Molly Gray, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, announcing a Rally to Elect VT Women, Scheuermann snarkily tweeted, "Must have misplaced my invitation."

"Oh wait," she continued. "I'm a VT Republican woman, so not woman enough apparently."

The recent primaries suggest that Scheuermann might again have cause for concern. Sabel Courtney ran unopposed and collected 654 votes on the Democratic ballot, while Scheuermann, also unopposed, had 432 votes on the GOP side.

Scheuermann said she understands all too well that Republican support in her district is eroding. Many Republicans, she said, have moved south or died. In their place are families drawn to Stowe "from urban areas, which tend to be a little bit more liberal," she said.

In 2018, however, after Republicans were routed nationally in the midterms and in the Statehouse, Scheuermann urged members of her party to look inward for an explanation. Disgust at Trump surely played a role in local losses, but so did a Vermont GOP that had lost its way, she argued then in an op-ed.

"We continue to be lifeless and uninspiring. We lack a clear message that inspires and welcomes Vermonters into our fold, and, in fact, in some cases, we are moving away from our traditional core values that have served this state so well for so many years," Scheuermann wrote.

She urged her colleagues to recommit to Republican traditions of supporting free enterprise, personal liberty, individual responsibility and limited government, noting that she thought of herself as a "Verpublican."

Scheuermann stands by that analysis and said national political trends continue to generate stiff headwinds for local Republicans.

"The image and the reputation on the part of national Republicans certainly can make it difficult for Republicans locally to attract the independents and moderate Democrats that we need to win," she said.

And yet the intense focus of Vermont voters on local issues — the response to COVID-19, returning to school, the reopening of the economy — all make Scheuermann hopeful Republicans will regain some lost ground.

"Voters are focused on their local issues, and that's where Republicans shine," she said.

When it comes to the tourism industry that is the lifeblood of her town, Scheuermann has lobbied hard in support. Last year she started a caucus made up of representatives from tourist-dependent towns. Scheuermann pushed to increase the state's tourism marketing budget by $500,000, arguing that other states were chipping away at Vermont's signature industry.

"Her voice is probably one of the loudest in Montpelier in support of the tourism industry," said Amy Spear, vice president of tourism at the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.

Since COVID-19 hit, Scheuermann said, her concern for the hospitality industry led her to urge the Scott administration to reopen the state more quickly. In retrospect, her stance may have been unwise, she said.

"Some of the things I might have been a little more aggressive on might not have been the right way to go," she said, such as faster and broader reopening of lodging and restaurants.

If the reopening of schools goes smoothly and infection rates remain at low levels, Scheuermann said, she expects she'll again make the case to further ease the constraints on businesses.

"We don't have enough grant money in the world to get our lodging community through this if people don't come here," she said.

Pre-pandemic, Scheuermann voted against a minimum-wage increase and a mandatory paid family leave program during the current legislative session, and in the past she has opposed the push for single-payer health care.

Vermonters have always had a strong independent streak, Scheuermann said, and she hopes they continue that long tradition of voting for person over party.

"It's not about national politics," Scheuermann said. "It's about who's the best person to represent this community and fight for this community."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Purple Terrain | A longtime House Republican clings to a district that has shifted left"