An Entrenched Democratic Lawmaker Faces His First-Ever Primary | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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An Entrenched Democratic Lawmaker Faces His First-Ever Primary

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Christina Deeley (right) chatting with supporter Michelle McGee - KEVIN MCCALLUM ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Kevin Mccallum ©️ Seven Days
  • Christina Deeley (right) chatting with supporter Michelle McGee

Last fall, when Hinesburg resident Christina Deeley began considering a run for state office, one of the first things she did was try to set up a meeting with the man whose seat she was eyeing.

The 36-year-old mother of four, a librarian at Champlain Valley Union High School, knew Bill Lippert would be tough to unseat. The 70-year-old Democratic icon has served in the House since then-governor Howard Dean appointed him in 1994. Many Vermonters revere Lippert for helping lead the state's historic passage of civil unions in 2000.

And in 26 years, he had never faced a primary challenge.

Deeley, though, was in the midst of a course with Emerge Vermont, which trains Democratic women to run for public office. The group's executive director, House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington), suggested that Deeley contact Lippert.

But Lippert, a retired substance-abuse counselor, didn't immediately respond after Deeley emailed him on September 18. It was only after Deeley mentioned to Krowinski that she was having trouble getting in touch that Lippert agreed to a sit-down a couple of weeks later.

When the two got together, Lippert informed Deeley that he planned to seek reelection and hoped she wouldn't challenge him. If she wanted to get some political experience, he counseled, maybe she could run for the local selectboard or work on his campaign.

"I did find it a little patronizing," Deeley said. "That sort of helped me solidify that I was going to run."

The long odds a newcomer faces in challenging an entrenched incumbent might have once convinced Deeley to instead consider a supporting role, as Lippert suggested. But Deeley said her family's personal experiences with the broken mental health care system and inequitable education funding in Vermont convinced her to get off the sidelines.

"I have value, and I have a voice, and just because someone has been in the seat for a quarter of a century doesn't mean they shouldn't have a challenger," Deeley said.

Even Dean, who considers Lippert a friend and ally, can imagine how Lippert's advice to a female challenger may have backfired in the current political climate.

"This is not the year to argue, 'You should wait your turn,'" Dean told Seven Days last week. "You don't get credit for seniority these days."

While there are other Democratic House contests in the August 11 primary, Lippert is the only incumbent Dem in a single-seat district with a primary opponent. The winner will face off in November against either Dean Rolland or Sarah Toscano, who are vying for the Republican nomination.

The primary race raises compelling questions in one of the most charged and unusual election cycles in memory: Will incumbency carry the same advantage in the COVID-19 era? And are voters so intent on change that they're ready to throw out the old guard despite past legislative accomplishments?

Dean noted that U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), a 16-term incumbent, lost in a shocking July upset to a more progressive newcomer, Jamaal Bowman, despite strong support from the Democratic Party. Engel was no "establishment doofus," but New York voters seemed to want change for change's sake, Dean said

"It's not that he was wrong on the issues," Dean said. "It's just that they wanted someone who was younger and out there and was going to tell it like it is."

Name recognition and 26 years of service still mean a lot in a small state such as Vermont, but the same forces that ended Engel's career are at play here, Dean said.

"It's not about Bill's record, which I think is just terrific," Dean said. "It's about change."

Lippert acknowledged that he may not have immediately responded to Deeley's initial email. He said he was very busy at the time, with meetings of the Vermont State Colleges Board of Trustees, on which he serves, and celebrating his wedding anniversary to his husband, Enrique Peredo. Lippert said he works hard to respond to constituents' needs, but they sometimes have unreasonable expectations.

"People need to understand that we are a citizen legislature," Lippert said. "We have no staff. We have no offices. There are times when we get dozens and dozens of emails and phone calls, and sometimes well in excess of that."

Nevertheless, Lippert went to Deeley's office and met with her for a wide-ranging political discussion. He suggested alternative paths to running against him not to be patronizing but to help someone interested in breaking into local Democratic politics understand the lay of the land and gain valuable campaign experience, he said.

He didn't hear back from Deeley until May 15, when she emailed to inform him that she had decided to run.

"I was surprised that someone from Emerge had chosen to challenge me in the primary," Lippert said.

He called Emerge Vermont a "terrific organization" but said he found it ironic that one of its graduates would take him on, given his support for getting women in office and in positions of power in the Statehouse.

Krowinski said it is not unusual for Emerge graduates to challenge incumbents, though she focuses her energies as majority leader on races in which Democrats have the chance to flip a seat from red to blue.

"Any of us in the legislature who have worked hard throughout the years, to have another Democrat challenge you, it's just hard," Krowinski said. "I completely empathize with that."

Lippert said he wants another term in part because, as chair of the House Health Care Committee, he's looking forward to hopefully having a Democrat in the White House again to restore some momentum toward a more equitable health care system.

Rep. Bill Lippert speaking with Rep. Jessica Brumstead at the Statehouse in 2019 - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Rep. Bill Lippert speaking with Rep. Jessica Brumstead at the Statehouse in 2019

Deeley, too, cites concerns about the health care system — specifically, mental health — in her decision to run. When she discussed the system's shortcomings with Lippert, she said, he seemed defensive and cited improvements he and other legislators had made. Deeley, who said she had to fight to get a family member proper care, added that Lippert's response helped convince her that change was needed.

"Things may be better, but they're not good enough for the children and people who live here," Deeley said.

The Chicago-area native moved to Vermont from Tennessee in 2010 when her husband, Matthew, accepted a position as a radiology physicist at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

Deeley said she would prioritize the construction of a psychiatric facility and hiring more mental health professionals, and she would seek solutions for the financially troubled Brattleboro Retreat.

As a school district employee with three kids in local schools, Deeley said she has strong community ties and lots of ideas about improving how schools should be funded. These include greater parity in resources between districts and ensuring that Act 46 consolidations are not used to close schools.

Deeley stressed that she holds immense respect for Lippert's success fighting for civil unions in the state, but she wonders how much purchase it gets with voters these days.

"People in Hinesburg have accepted gay marriage for years," Deeley said. "It seems so entrenched in society, especially in Vermont, that it just isn't something that they're concerned about anymore."

Younger voters or those new to town might not be as familiar with his record on civil unions, Lippert acknowledges. But he chafes at the idea that the issue is ancient history.

"Absolutely, it's a fair point that we have been successful in Vermont, not just by my work, but by the work of many people, in making change around LGBTQ issues," Lippert said. "We're not done with that."

He said he's proud of his long legislative record, having learned from the success of civil unions how to advance issues such as racial justice, bias-free policing and mental health reform.

He noted that, as the former chair of the House Judiciary Committee, he helped craft the law requiring police to collect race-related data about vehicle stops. More recently, a big part of his work has been "fighting off attacks on the Affordable Care Act," he said.

"I do not see myself as having been coasting at all," he said.

Deeley doesn't accuse Lippert of such directly, but by focusing on his past successes, she suggests as much. Many voters may not know Lippert, in part because he hasn't needed to vigorously campaign, she said.

"There are a lot of young families in town, and they just don't know who he is," Deeley said. "When you get your absentee ballot, it doesn't say 'incumbent' on it."

Lippert doesn't have a campaign website but said he is taking Deeley's challenge seriously and is working hard to contact supporters, largely by phone, and putting out lawn signs. He had raised just $50 by July 1, compared to Deeley's $1,895. Lippert said he has no in-person campaign events planned.

Deeley does. At a supporter's lakeside home in Hinesburg on Saturday morning, Deeley chatted in the yard with a dozen socially distanced people about her candidacy.

Rahn Fleming works with Deeley at CVU. At first glance, her bid might seem like a long shot, but Fleming called her "fiery" and not one to be counted out.

'"Because that's the way it's always been done' doesn't fly with her," Fleming said.

Lippert deserves unquestionable praise for his work on gay marriage but not a free pass, Fleming said. It just strikes him as wrong for an incumbent to face no primary challenger for so long.

"Even if she doesn't win, she'll have done voters a service by lighting a fire under him," Fleming said.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Civil Dispute | An entrenched Democratic lawmaker faces his first-ever primary"