Brenda Siegel Brings the Experience of Poverty to Her Campaign for Governor | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Brenda Siegel Brings the Experience of Poverty to Her Campaign for Governor


Published September 14, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 1, 2022 at 3:23 p.m.

Brenda Siegel - JON OLENDER
  • Jon Olender
  • Brenda Siegel

At first glance, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Brenda Siegel's résumé appears light for someone hoping to unseat one of the country's most popular governors.

She's never held public office. She finished third in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary and third again in the 2020 primary for lieutenant governor. A single mom who acknowledges her financial struggles, Siegel got little attention during the summer primary season, when she was running unopposed and all eyes were focused on the spirited contest for Vermont's sole U.S. House seat.

But now, as her campaign against incumbent Republican Gov. Phil Scott gathers steam, Democrats are rallying to her side, pledging support and applauding her sharp critiques of the governor's record and leadership.

As a passionate advocate for people with substance-use disorder and for unhoused Vermonters, she offers voters a clear contrast with a governor who has been reluctant to endorse progressive opioid policies and is dialing back some housing programs. She's eager to point out those differences and to criticize what she sees as Scott's failures.

"We are not in a wait-and-see moment, and we have a wait-and-see governor," Siegel said at the Democrats' show of unity rally last month in Montpelier.

After a slow fundraising start, she has tapped into the Democrat Party's roster of supporters. Siegel had raised a respectable $103,000 by the end of August, although Scott has three times as much money in the bank. Now she's preparing to go toe to toe with the governor in a series of debates starting on Friday, September 16, at the Tunbridge World's Fair. She and party leaders hope such events will establish her as a serious contender for the state's top office.

Jim Dandeneau, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party, said Siegel's years of advocacy and her willingness to take Scott to task make her a powerful foil for a governor he considers more vulnerable than people recognize.

"I am excited because Brenda is strong in all the areas where Phil Scott's administration has been weak," Dandeneau said.

Siegel's campaign is focused on three core issues, all of which she calls crises that have deepened on Scott's watch — drug addiction and deaths, housing insecurity, and climate change.

Brenda Siegel with Rep. William Notte outside of Phoenix Books Rutland - JON OLENDER
  • Jon Olender
  • Brenda Siegel with Rep. William Notte outside of Phoenix Books Rutland

She faces an uphill climb against a Republican governor who has won the last three elections by widening margins, Dandeneau acknowledged. But her passionate advocacy for the less fortunate resonates with voters because it is rooted in her own struggles with poverty and personal tragedy, he said.

"She gets this stuff," Dandeneau said. "She's had to live with this stuff at an instinctive level that Phil Scott has not had to deal with because he's been a professional politician for 20 years."

No one is as surprised as Siegel herself that she's the party's standard-bearer in the race.

After two failed campaigns and with her son, Ajna, off to college at the University of Vermont, Siegel, 45, said she had not been planning to run again and was looking forward to nonpolitical pursuits. These included reviving the Southern Vermont Dance Festival, which she ran for several years before it was shut down by the pandemic, or perhaps going back to school, she said.

She was also reluctant to run after the draining experience of sleeping for 28 days on the Statehouse steps last fall to pressure the Scott administration to extend a program that housed homeless people in hotels and motels during the pandemic.

"I was unaware of how quickly my body and mind would deteriorate under those conditions," Siegel told a group of people housed in a Rutland hotel earlier this month.

The expanded hotel program, which had been scheduled to end in October 2021, was extended through June 30, when a new transitional housing program took its place. Siegel said her efforts clearly forced the administration to change course, and she and her allies "won" the showdown. (Scott's campaign spokesperson, Tori Biondolillo, dismissed Siegel's "stunt" as having "zero impact" on the administration's decision.)

In the end, Siegel said, she decided to run because she feared that Scott would again try to end the program and because other Democrats had not stepped forward.

"I really became acutely aware that nothing was going to change if we didn't change who was in charge," she said.

Despite growing up in an upper middle-class family in Brattleboro, Siegel said she has lived near the poverty line for most of her adult life. She attended Brattleboro Union High School, then studied dance, choreography and alternative healing at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. She graduated in 2000 and became a single mom two years later, a choice that limited her future education and job options, she said.

When her son was young, she considered going to law school but could not find childcare that would allow her to do so. Instead, she started a business, teaching afterschool programs in dance, civic engagement, leadership and social justice.

"The truth is, I could not get out of poverty while I was raising my son," she said.

A series of misfortunes compounded her cash crunch, including an acute illness and a series of bad landlords, she said. Then came Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

She and her son were living in Williamsville, a community in the town of Newfane, when the storm caused the Rock River to spill over its banks. It flooded their apartment and ruined their furniture, forcing them to live with a family member for two years, she said. That made her realize that policies must account for the disproportionate impact of the climate crisis on the underprivileged.

It was also one of at least three times in her life when, if not for help from family, she would have become homeless, she said. That deepened her empathy for people who face poverty without the advantages of a supportive family and a college education, she said. A former intern for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), she began to speak out about economic injustice.

Her own struggles with money are ongoing and acute, she said. She is currently doing limited consulting work with social justice organizations, including Rights & Democracy.

"I don't have a trust fund. I don't have family resources," she said. "I've been at the Statehouse and not had money to get lunch and gone hungry."

Public filings during recent elections reflect those circumstances: Last year, she reported an income of $17,187, most of it from unemployment benefits, she said. The federal poverty level in Vermont for a family of two is $18,310 in 2022.

Siegel said she has received various forms of government aid over the years, including for housing assistance and help with utility bills.

One critic, a former Scott administration aide named Hayden Dublois, has lambasted her on Twitter as a hypocrite and a "Dem Trustfunder."

"How can a self-proclaimed poverty advocate — who is receiving ... taxpayer funded welfare benefits — donate thousands to their own political ventures?" he wrote last week.

Siegel said Dublois relied on partial data, including an error in her filings that listed her address as her father's home in Brattleboro. Siegel said she actually rents a modest home in Newfane and has fixed the mistake in an amended filing.

"The best you can do is pick on someone who went into debt to pay bills in a pandemic?" Siegel replied on Twitter. "What if I hadn't paid the bills? Then you would be attacking me for that."

Siegel called Dublois a "troll."

"It's shameless that Phil Scott had his lackey go after me like that," she said.

Biondolillo, the Scott campaign spokesperson, noted in a statement that Dublois hasn't worked for the administration for several years and said the campaign had "no knowledge of the tweets."

"The Governor is focused on doing the job he was elected to do and does not follow or have any interest in Ms. Siegel's Twitter battles," Biondolillo wrote.

Siegel chafes at the suggestion that just because she runs for public office, she has to divulge what forms of assistance, if any, she currently receives. Wealthy candidates don't often face questions about financial subsidies and tax loopholes, she said, and she declined to say whether she is currently receiving government aid. Scrutiny of their government benefits is one reason so few disadvantaged people engage in politics, she said.

Siegel did acknowledge, however, that she contributed and loaned a total of $9,500 to her 2020 campaign but said she did not make those payments using public assistance. She said she borrowed that money, from sources she declined to identify, because she had an obligation to continue paying her campaign staff when political contributions dried up during the pandemic.

Siegel said she feels compelled to speak up for people who struggle financially because many of them cannot.

"Even though it's sometimes to my own detriment to do this work, the only way we are going to make change is when people with lived experience speak up," she said.

That goes for more than just poverty. Her opioid-addiction advocacy, she said, is rooted in the fatal heroin overdoses of her brother, Johnathon Siegel, in 1996, and his son and her nephew, Kaya Siegel, in 2018.

Brenda Siegel at the Turning Point Center of Rutland talking with executive director Tracie Hauck (left) and Ray "the Preacher" Phillips - JON OLENDER
  • Jon Olender
  • Brenda Siegel at the Turning Point Center of Rutland talking with executive director Tracie Hauck (left) and Ray "the Preacher" Phillips

"There is just not anything like seeing a child whose upbringing you were a part of lowered into the ground," she said.

The experience deepened her commitment to push for a better system of treatment for those who struggle with addiction, a crisis that has only worsened during the pandemic, she said. Siegel has criticized Scott for opposing safe-injection sites, additional funding for treatment programs, expanded criminal record expungements and the study of decriminalizing some drugs.

"He's even against learning about what updated science and drug policy is," she said. "Forget about doing it."

She has taken similar swipes at Scott over his efforts to wind down pandemic-era programs that helped people stay in their homes and provided hotel housing for homeless people.

"He talks about civility, but I don't think it's civil to leave people in the street to freeze to death," she said.

Such bleak and blunt assessments of the governor stand out in a state where many of his political opponents offer softer criticism. Siegel said she is simply holding Scott accountable for the effects of his policies on regular people.

"There is no magical formula. It's just that I'm willing to say the truth," she said.

The truth-to-power narrative rings hollow for Paul Dame, the head of the Vermont Republican Party. Dame called Siegel the "farthest left fringe candidate for governor that Democrats have put up in a long time." He said she is the nominee because Scott's popularity meant Democrats were "unable to recruit a better candidate from their deep legislative bench."

"By electing Brenda Siegel, Democrats have continued down a path of promoting activists within their ranks rather than more reasonable and balanced candidates who are trying to appeal to independents," Dame said.

David Zuckerman, the former lieutenant governor who lost to Scott in 2020 and earned just 27 percent of the vote, knows what Siegel is up against. Still, he thinks she has the opportunity to do better than he did and said it's necessary for her to be "a bit aggressive."

The organic vegetable farmer ran during the pandemic, which made it hard for him to ply his stock-in-trade politics, such as handing out carrots at parades. The public, meantime, was glued to Scott's frequent and lengthy COVID-19 press conferences.

But Siegel can get out and meet voters, Zuckerman noted. She can boost her name recognition, discuss important issues and underscore what progressive Vermonters might consider the governor's shortcomings.

Bolstered by new staff members absorbed from other Democratic primary campaigns, Siegel's been campaigning hard in recent weeks. She rode the Thunder Bolt at the Champlain Valley Fair and kissed a sheep at the Bondville Fair. She marched in parades in the Northeast Kingdom and toured the Good Samaritan Haven homeless shelter in Barre.

She visited downtown Rutland businesses with Rep. Will Notte (D-Rutland), who said she seemed receptive to supporting the city's economic revitalization.

"She's genuine. I don't feel like I'm getting lip service from her," Notte said.

While Siegel's campaign may seem like a long shot, Scott shouldn't get a pass on crucial issues, Sen. Andrew Perchlik (D/P-Washington) said. Few politicians in the state have demonstrated the leadership Siegel has on addiction and homelessness — or shown as much willingness to challenge the governor as she does, he said.

"I think her candidacy is going to be really good for the state, whether she ends up getting elected or not," he said.

Correction, September 18, 2022: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the various iterations of the hotel program.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Underdog's Appeal | Activist Democrat Brenda Siegel brings the experience of poverty to her campaign for governor"