In Orange County, a Conservative Culture Warrior Vies for Sen. MacDonald’s Democratic Seat | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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In Orange County, a Conservative Culture Warrior Vies for Sen. MacDonald’s Democratic Seat


Published October 26, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated October 26, 2022 at 4:47 p.m.

  • File: Ben Deflorio
  • John Klar

A month before Election Day, the two candidates for a Vermont Senate seat representing Orange County squared off in a candidate forum in Vershire.

Democratic incumbent Mark MacDonald, a retired middle school teacher with nearly 40 years of legislative experience, spoke about the rise in heating and transportation costs. He touted the legislature's Global Warming Solutions Act and Clean Heat Standard Bill as proof of his commitment to addressing the climate crisis.

His challenger is John Klar, a 59-year-old former Connecticut tax and criminal defense attorney who ran to the right of Republican Gov. Phil Scott in a failed 2020 bid to become the GOP's gubernatorial nominee. On his best behavior, Klar said he was focused on making the state more affordable, fixing the pension system, and helping local farms and businesses.

You'd never know from their mostly civil exchange that this is one of the most divisive legislative races in Vermont's general election.

Hours after the forum, MacDonald suffered what his family characterized as a mild stroke, which has sidelined him from campaigning while he recuperates at a rehab facility. The senator's son, Max MacDonald, said his father is "cognitively all there," hitting all his physical milestones and, if reelected, hopes to be ready to serve when the legislature reconvenes in January.

Yet whether Mark MacDonald will be reelected is an open question. Klar, a prolific blogger backed by prominent Vermont Republicans and flush with a $33,000 campaign war chest, has been running a vigorous campaign. And redistricting has changed the makeup of the district.

The GOP thinks it is primed to pick up the central Vermont seat, which represents 13 towns from Randolph to the New Hampshire border.

Klar "is really listening to the people of Orange County," said Paul Dame, the party chair. "They're concerned about the basics: heating oil ... getting through a Vermont winter ... housing prices ... I think John is establishing himself as the more credible candidate."

But Democrats have painted Klar as a wolf in sheep's clothing, someone who "is talking out of both sides of his mouth," according to Vermont Democratic Party executive director Jim Dandeneau.

Online, Klar writes "about really hard-core, right-wing, red-meat stuff," Dandeneau said. "But when he's on the campaign trail, he's on his best behavior, using his most coded language possible because he understands that working Vermonters don't have time to dig too deep into the fever swamp and see what John Klar is really like."

Over the years, Klar has published hundreds of commentaries online, often about the culture war issue du jour, including his thoughts on gender identity and race. Most recently, he wrote several opinion pieces about a Randolph Union High School girls' volleyball team, which has been banned from the locker room after a transgender team member was allegedly bullied.

In an October 9 article for the conservative online magazine American Thinker, Klar defended the parents of the girls who objected to the transgender player being in the locker room. Klar characterized the transgender athlete — who is 14 years old — as a "student with a penis leering at their daughters while changing."

Ten days later, on the same site, Klar referred to Orange Southwest School District superintendent Layne Millington as "Herr Millington" and accused him of "content-filtering totalitarianism" after the superintendent allegedly suspended a middle school soccer coach for refusing to apologize for misgendering the student.

In an interview, Klar said he inserted himself into the high school situation not due to "hatefulness about transgender people" but because he wants to protect young girls.

Klar has also written extensively about his dismay with social justice initiatives. He insists that critical race theory is woven into the curriculum in Vermont schools and has lambasted Shelburne Farms for "racist indoctrination" because it offers programming for educators about anti-racism and white-supremacy culture.

  • File: Ben Deflorio
  • Mark MacDonald

By contrast, MacDonald, who is 79 years old, has zero online presence and is an "old-school politician" who knocks on doors and visits with constituents at chicken pot pie suppers, according to Sen. Ann Cummings (D-Washington), a longtime friend and colleague. He's raised just $6,500, including donations from the state teacher's union and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, a left-leaning environmental lobbying organization.

"There's nothing shiny or glossy about Mark," Cummings said. "He's just a basic, down-to-earth person."

MacDonald was first appointed to the House in 1983 to fill a seat left vacant by his mother, Barbara MacDonald, who died while serving her first term in the legislature. He won election to the Senate in 1995, two years before Cummings took office; they both now hold leadership roles on the Senate Finance Committee.

In 2000, MacDonald voted in favor of civil unions, even though Senate leaders told him his vote wasn't needed to pass the bill, Cummings recalled. He told Cummings at the time that he would not have been able to face his students if he voted against civil unions. The vote cost him his seat in the following election, but he won it back two years later.

"I know Mark. He knows the issues [and] approaches things in a rational way," said Randolph resident Floyd Cone, a retired school principal. "I don't always agree with him, but he's done a really good job."

While MacDonald convalesces, legislative colleagues — including Cummings and Sen. Ruth Hardy (D-Addison) — have stepped up to phone bank and canvas on his behalf.

Hardy said MacDonald has an "incredible knowledge and passion" for school financing and helped her understand the history of the state's education funding system as she led efforts to update the pupil-weighting formula last legislative session.

As surrogates stump for MacDonald, Klar continues to attend community gatherings and post photos and videos on social media. His wife, Jackie Klar, a nurse, is also running, in what has been a far quieter campaign for a seat in the Orange-Washington-Addison House district.

John Klar's pitch to voters centers on issues that he says can bring together moderate Republicans and Democrats, such as making Vermont more affordable by rolling back regressive taxes; fixing the state's pension system, which he says has been mismanaged; and helping local businesses and farms. A hobby farmer who rents land in Brookfield, Klar wrote a 14-page "farming manifesto" in 2020 that calls for giving farmers a temporary tax break to encourage young people to farm, increasing food production in the state, and giving a boost to restaurants and tourism. He's also shopping around a book he wrote about regenerative local farming that aims to persuade conservatives to embrace the concept.

Klar has financial backing from prominent Republicans including former Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman, Montgomery Ward heiress and True North Reports founder Lenore Broughton, former lieutenant governor Brian Dubie, and Maplefields convenience store founder Skip Vallee. He also received the endorsement of former governor Jim Douglas. Klar has used the money to send out mailers, purchase more than 1,000 campaign signs and run radio ads.

In an interview, Douglas said he believes Vermont needs "a little balance" in the Statehouse, where only seven of 30 senators are Republican. "I hope they can increase our ranks this year," he said.

Douglas said he hasn't followed Klar's writing on conservative websites.

"This is an era where everybody has an extensive personal record, and I'm sure we could find something objectionable that anybody has said or written," Douglas said. Klar understands the need to make Vermont a more affordable place to live, work and raise families, Douglas added.

Vermont Republican Party chair Dame, too, said his party supports Klar because of his stance on issues such as pensions, agriculture and affordability, and is not focused on his writing.

Yet Klar's message isn't winning over every member of the GOP. East Randolph residents Ronald and Lillian Greenwood, who identify as Republicans, have a bright orange sign supporting MacDonald staked outside their tidy home.

Ronald, whose family founded the farm supply company L.W. Greenwood & Sons in 1929, was succinct when asked why he is crossing party lines to support MacDonald.

"I sold him a tractor," he said.

Ronald said he didn't agree with MacDonald's support for the Clean Heat Standard Bill, which Gov. Scott vetoed last legislative session due to concerns that it would raise home heating costs, but he believes the senator is a hard worker.

"He's out there doing his job," Ronald said, "and he knows what's going on."

Lillian pointed to several books about the Vietnam War on a side table in the living room. MacDonald, like her husband, is a Vietnam vet; he dropped off the books because he thought Ronald would find them interesting, Lillian said.

In nearby Williamstown, the façade of the Pub, a local watering hole, is plastered with signs: one that has the words of the Pledge of Allegiance, another that says "We ❤️ Our Farmers" and two in support of Klar.

Working behind the bar, Lindsey Contois, who owns the business with her family, said she's backing Klar because he supports small businesses and doesn't want to raise taxes. MacDonald, on the other hand, is "a career politician," she said.

Contois said she doesn't want her 11-year-old daughter in the same changing room or bathroom as a transgender student and appreciates that Klar stands up for parents like her.

"He's a man of the people," Contois said.

"He's a Christian," a woman eating lunch at the bar chimed in.

The Pub in Williamstown - ALISON NOVAK
  • Alison Novak
  • The Pub in Williamstown

One town over, in Brookfield, Amy Borgman and Michael Fiorillo said they're deeply opposed to the division they believe Klar is sowing in their community.

"I don't really want that to infiltrate our politics," Fiorillo, a retired teacher and firefighter, said of Klar's rhetoric about social issues. "I think it's destructive."

"He's everything we don't want for the community, as far as I'm concerned," added Borgman, who worked as a physician's assistant at Planned Parenthood. "Mark has been a senator for a very long time. He's a very nice man who has a sense of the issues ... He's just so much more tolerant."

At the end of a driveway in Chelsea, Klar's sign is part of a lineup with several others, including one that states "Pray to End Abortion." Ed Kuban, who has lived there for 62 years, said he's voting to send Klar to the Statehouse because of his conservative values.

"We need some different blood up there," Kuban said. "Someone with common sense."

Klar and MacDonald disagree when it comes to Article 22, also known as Proposal 5, a November ballot item that would amend Vermont's constitution to protect people's right to reproductive liberty.

"Government shouldn't be telling women what to do on health care issues," MacDonald said at a Brookfield candidate forum on September 22. "I hope that the amendment passes."

At the forum, Klar called Proposal 5 "an abomination."

"It's a nonissue. Vermont already has the strongest support laws in the country for abortion," he said. "The repeal of Roe v. Wade does not impact Vermont's ability to provide women with abortions."

At the Vershire forum — just hours before MacDonald's stroke — an audience member asked the candidates whether they believed the 2020 presidential election was fair and that Joe Biden was the duly elected president.

"I believe Joe Biden was elected president, and he's the legitimate president," MacDonald said.

Klar, meanwhile, did not answer directly.

"I have been disturbed about our elections, the weaponization and polarization on both sides," he said. "We do have voter fraud ... We've had some voter fraud right here in Vermont," he continued, though he didn't elaborate.

(Town clerks reported seven "voter abnormalities" related to the 2020 election, according to the Vermont Secretary of State's Office. "Only one was found to be actionable: a voter attempted to vote twice to prove he could dupe the system," the office said in a statement. "He was caught and his test only proved that the system works. It was reported, investigated, and prosecuted.")

Klar recommended the 2022 documentary 2000 Mules, codirected by right-wing political commentator Dinesh D'Souza. The film, which claims that there was widespread, coordinated voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election, has been widely debunked, including by former attorney general Bill Barr.

Klar's sympathies scare Brookfield resident Gary Hillard. A retired social worker, Hillard has plunged into Klar's writing.

Though Klar has said publicly that he didn't vote for Donald Trump, Hillard said the candidate reminds him of the former president in his bombastic style and targeting of marginalized groups. Hillard's fear of Klar being elected has prompted him to share his views on Front Porch Forum and in a letter to the editor of his local newspaper, the White River Valley Herald.

"This is like your neighbor's house is on fire, and are you going to go back and sit inside and watch TV, or are you going to do something about the fire?" Hillard said. "That's literally what it feels like to me."

Hillard said Klar can't be trusted. He pointed to the fact that Klar calls himself a substance abuse counselor; a mailer Klar sent to voters identifies him as a "Vermont recovery coach." When Seven Days asked about his training, Klar said he undertook a recovery coach certification process in 2017 but did not complete a required additional certification.

"I encourage people with addiction to get help, and I give them referrals to recovery services," Klar wrote in an email to Seven Days. "I do not formally or informally serve as a recovery coach to anyone at present." He added that the weeklong, unpaid recovery-coach training he undertook demonstrates his "deep commitment to those suffering with substance abuse" and that he never called himself a "certified" recovery coach in the mailer.

That's not good enough for Hillard. While MacDonald "probably had bad judgment in not retiring 'X' years ago," Hillard said, "he definitely has integrity." (Several other voters Seven Days talked to said they were not concerned about MacDonald's ability to recuperate after his stroke; one described him as "a pretty rigorous guy.")

For his part, Klar said he's unsure why people find his viewpoints inflammatory.

"'Provocative' may be a better word," Klar said. "I do like to evoke thought. But also ... you don't get published unless you have a certain — you kind of have to stake a claim. I don't choose the titles, and the titles are what are often the most inflammatory."

He said he's having fun on the campaign trail.

"The part I thought I would hate the most about politics is the part I love the most — going out and meeting people," Klar said as he walked around Barre's Thunder Road Speedbowl on October 2.

Earlier in the day, Klar ran into independent gubernatorial candidate and conspiracy theorist Kevin Hoyt — who several years ago unsuccessfully sued Klar for defamation — and filmed a short video with him.

"You gotta be civil with all kinds of people," Klar said to a reporter after the Hoyt encounter.

At Thunder Road, Klar participated in a cow dung contest with other political candidates and posed for photos with Speed Bump the Moose, the track's mascot. He thanked a woman in a military uniform for her service and made small talk with several EMTs, telling them that his daughter was training to be a combat paramedic.

Then, amid the revving of car engines, Klar launched into a monologue to this reporter, voicing his opposition to "experimental" drugs and surgeries for transgender minors and "genderqueer novels" on display at public libraries. He also warned that social justice movements can cause harm by leading to a backlash against gay and transgender people.

In a moment of apparent self-reflection later in the day, Klar acknowledged that he could be "a little histrionic."

"Sometimes," he said, "that's the only way people listen to you."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Seeing Orange | IIn Orange County, a conservative culture warrior vies for Sen. MacDonald’s Democratic seat"