- Matthew Thorsen
The emotion stirred by Vermont’s proposed right-to-die law has not subsided in Shelburne. In fact, political observers there suggest that the defeat of the “Death with Dignity” measure in the Vermont House last year may have cost Shelburne Republican Rep. Joyce Errecart her seat on November 4.
The GOP had held the seat for more than 30 years. Among those who mobilized to defeat Errecart, a three-term incumbent who voted against the bill to allow doctors to help terminally ill patients hasten their deaths, were residents of the upscale Wake Robin Life Care retirement community. Dick Walters, a Wake Robin resident and the leader of the “Death with Dignity” campaign, said Errecart’s stance on the issue was unpopular among his neighbors.
Kate Webb, the 57-year-old Democrat who defeated Errecart by an unexpectedly wide margin, is credited with running a high-energy campaign for the house seat. She said Wake Robin residents were “very helpful” to her campaign, largely in the form of volunteer hours.
According to campaign-finance reports filed with the state, Webb, the wife of Shelburne Farms heir Marshall Webb, received $9626 in donations — a substantial sum for a state house race in Vermont. The listing of donors who gave more than $100 showed that two Wake Robin residents contributed a total of $330 to Webb.
A portion of Webb’s campaign cash was used to finance mailings attacking Errecart’s record. Webb’s supporters were also critical of Errecart’s positions on energy, education and health-care issues.
Errecart acknowledged that Wake Robin activists, motivated by her vote against what opponents call “Physician-Assisted Suicide,” had a role in her defeat. But she also noted that several Democrats opposed the proposal, along with disability-rights advocates and religious conservatives. The bill was defeated by an 82-63 margin.
Errecart, an attorney, defended her vote, saying the legislation was loosely drafted, leaving “an open door for caregiver abuse.”
Former Vermont Rep. Thomas Little, a Republican, said Wake Robin residents were “very outspoken in favor of the legislation,” and that their efforts on Webb’s behalf had a significant impact on the outcome of the house race.
Yet the retirement community’s activism could not fully account for Errecart’s defeat. Nearly 2500 Shelburnites cast ballots in the Vermont House race, with 1435 — nearly 59 percent — supporting Webb. About 225 retirees are living independently at Wake Robin, with another 100 in its nursing facility, said Marketing Director Nancy Chiquoine.
Chiquoine and Walters agree there’s no reason to suspect that Wake Robin has suddenly emerged as a hotbed of liberalism. “People of all political persuasions” live there, Chiquoine said. Some residents organized on-site candidate forums, but were not permitted to canvass door-to-door for candidates or to display lawn signs. “Everyone has to live in the community once the election is over,” Chiquoine noted.
Little, the lead architect of Vermont’s civil unions law, recruited Errecart to take over the legislative seat he surrendered in 2002. She turned back Democratic and Progressive challengers in her initial run and was unopposed in her 2006 campaign.
Little, who served five terms in the Vermont House, pointed out that 2008 was “a bad year to be running as a Republican.” Nearly three-quarters of voters in Shelburne went for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, no doubt helping Webb’s campaign. Little characterized Errecart’s politics as more conservative than his own, saying she is “more closely aligned with traditional, conventional Republican ideas than I am.”
Judy Raven, a Webb partisan and former director of the Shelburne Craft School, said Webb’s campaign served to make residents “aware of Joyce’s overall voting record, which is pretty conservative.”
Like many towns in Vermont, Shelburne has a history of voting for the Democrat in presidential races and for the Republican in gubernatorial contests. GOP Gov. Jim Douglas won 54 percent of Shelburne’s vote.
A similar outcome occurred a few miles to the south. Democrat Diane Lanpher captured one of the two house seats from Vergennes that had long been controlled by Republicans. Lanpher defeated incumbent GOP member Kitty Oxholm by 70 votes, further reducing the Republicans’ already small house delegation from Chittenden and Addison counties.