- Tim Newcomb
A historic wave of retirements by pandemic-weary lawmakers is washing over Vermont's legislative landscape, but the churn doesn't end there.
Four of the state's six top statewide leaders are packing it in, setting up highly competitive primary races for powerful positions that will be decided on August 9.
Lt. Gov. Molly Gray is running for Congress. Secretary of State Jim Condos is retiring, as is Treasurer Beth Pearce, who is battling cancer. And attorney general T.J. Donovan stepped down on Monday to take a job with an online gaming platform.
Gov. Phil Scott and Auditor Doug Hoffer are the only top officials sticking out two more years of statewide service.
Scott, one of the country's most popular governors, has two little-known challengers in the GOP primary: Stephen Bellows, a landscaping contractor from Grand Isle, and Peter Duval, who was recalled from the Underhill Selectboard last year. The primary races for auditor and treasurer are uncontested.
But three competitions for statewide positions are emerging as extremely high-stakes exercises. For the attorney general, lieutenant governor and secretary of state candidates, the August 9 primaries could well be harder fought and the results closer than the general election this fall.
At stake are positions that uphold state law, serve as the No. 2 executive and help safeguard elections themselves.
With absentee voting starting this week, here's the skinny on the candidates who are crisscrossing the state, marching in parades, and saturating airwaves seeking your vote for those influential jobs.
- Kitty Toll
During a tour of the ArtHound Gallery in Essex earlier this month, Kitty Toll, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, chatted with co-owner John Churchman about local artists, rural life and revitalizing the Essex Experience, where the gallery is located.
Toll eyed a colorful painting by Burlington artist Annelein Beukenkamp. "I love the rooster," said the candidate, who grew up on a Danville dairy farm.
Churchman later pronounced the former Democratic lawmaker an impressive candidate.
"I would really like to see a strong woman as lieutenant governor who would be able to then go on and run against the governor," Churchman said.
He could get his wish. This year's race for lieutenant governor is shaping up to be one of the most expensive and closely watched statewide contests. And the winner could find themselves in prime position to run for governor in 2024. Though the LG post is largely a ceremonial position, it has historically served as a stepping-stone to higher office.
"The lieutenant governor's office provides both the ability to have some input into the legislative process but also enough freedom to develop your own agenda that makes it a useful launching pad," said Jim Dandeneau, the interim executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party.
Now six candidates — four Democrats and two Republicans — are hoping to blast off. None will admit they'd use the position to propel their political career, though a major part of the job is being ready to serve as governor if needed.
Toll, a former chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, and farmer-politician David Zuckerman — a former lieutenant governor and one-time gubernatorial candidate — are considered front-runners in the Democratic primary. Dems have two other candidates, though: state Rep. Charlie Kimbell (D-Woodstock) and newcomer Patricia Preston, the president and CEO of the Vermont Council on World Affairs, a Burlington-based nonprofit.
Republicans have fewer options but a starker choice. Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) is an attorney, a moderate Republican and a former minority leader closely aligned with Scott. He's facing Greg Thayer, an accountant, former Rutland alderman and proud Donald Trump supporter who participated in the January 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol protest and continues to downplay the ensuing riot.
Establishment Democrats appear to be rallying behind Toll, with endorsements, donations and support from state lawmakers past and present — including her sister, Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia).
Toll raised the most money, nearly $118,000, through March 15, when the most recent campaign finance disclosures were released. That's compared to $92,391 for Zuckerman, $88,935 for Preston and $43,637 for Kimbell. The next reports are due on July 1.
The funds are critical to Toll, whose name is not widely known outside the Northeast Kingdom and Montpelier, though she served 12 years in the legislature before stepping down in 2020. She's promoting herself with a busy campaign schedule and has been running ads on television and social media. She recently earned the backing of Madeleine Kunin, Vermont's first — and only — female governor and a former LG herself, and former governor Howard Dean.
"Statewide name recognition is something I have to build, and build quickly," Toll said.
Toll is married to Abel Toll, owner of the Autosaver Group, which operates 14 car dealerships in Vermont, New Hampshire and New York. She acknowledged that her family is well off, and friends and family have helped fund her campaign. Donors with the last names of Toll, Kitchel and Beattie, which is Toll's maiden name, gave more than $16,000 combined. She and her husband each contributed close to the maximum individual donations of $4,210.
Aside from a financial edge, Toll also has the support of former legislative colleagues. Reps. Alyssa Black (D-Essex) and Rey Garofano (D-Essex) accompanied Toll on her visit to the Essex shopping center. They introduced her to the backers of a huge new immersive art installation called Babaroosa and praised her candidacy and work ethic to a small group of supporters who gathered at Black Flannel Brewing & Distilling.
Black told the group that Toll garnered deep respect among her colleagues during her four years as chair of the House Appropriations Committee, which made backing her a "no-brainer."
"I think that she'll make a wonderful lieutenant governor," Black said.
Toll leans heavily on her chairmanship, saying in the role she developed insight on state finances, made tough decisions and learned to build consensus.
Her priorities closely align with those of the state party and include addressing the climate and housing crises, making childcare more affordable, and bringing broadband to rural areas. Following the shooting of schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas, she has begun talking about the need for additional gun-control measures, though she does not have a firm proposal.
- File: James Buck
- David Zuckerman
To get the LG job, she'd have to get past a man who did it once already. Zuckerman spent 18 years as a state lawmaker before serving as lieutenant governor from 2016 to 2020, when he stepped down to run against Scott. His gubernatorial bid failed, but now he's back, arguing that someone needs to stand up for the little guy.
"I want to get back into statewide office and fight like hell on the issues that I've been beating the drum on, just like Bernie, for a long time," said Zuckerman, invoking Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Reducing income inequality, addressing the climate crisis and fighting for social justice are some of his priorities.
Selling fresh produce grown on his Hinesburg farm gives Zuckerman countless opportunities to interact with the public. Last week he and his teenage daughter, Addie, were set up in the Temple Sinai parking lot in South Burlington, a pickup spot for the people who pay a lump sum per year to get whatever Full Moon Farm is producing that week, aka community-supported agriculture. Sporting the ripped jeans and soiled T-shirt that are as much a part of his hippie-farmer ethos as his ponytail, he greeted many of these regular customers by their first names and chatted with them about the weather and the growing season.
Linda Rodd of South Burlington stowed greens, yellow squash and radishes in her reusable plastic bag, then asked Zuckerman if she could take one of the campaign lawn signs leaning against his pickup truck.
"I'm happy to see all of the newcomers," Rodd said after maneuvering a Zuckerman sign into the back seat of her Prius, "but where guiding principles are concerned, I so align with where David stands."
While he's received some key endorsements from labor groups and leaders such as Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden) and 350.org cofounder Bill McKibben, some in the Democratic establishment aren't keen to see Zuckerman reclaim his former post.
Former House speaker Mitzi Johnson worked closely with Zuckerman for years, but she's endorsed Toll. Zuckerman's decision to run for governor shows he clearly wants something else, Johnson said, and it strikes her as self-serving for him to return to his former job to wait for another political opportunity to materialize.
"I think Vermonters deserve a lieutenant governor who wants the job of lieutenant governor," she said.
Churchman, the Essex art gallery owner, had a different view. He said Democratic voters ought to back someone who can eventually retake the governorship, and that doesn't appear to be Zuckerman.
"He ran for governor and got creamed!" Churchman declared.
That's no exaggeration. Scott earned 68 percent of the vote in 2020 to Zuckerman's 27 percent.
Zuckerman said he shouldn't be dismissed as a weak candidate for losing that "very atypical" race against a popular governor during the pandemic. He said the positive reaction he's getting on the campaign trail is proof that he's resonating with voters.
"Sometimes I think in political circles we get a little too wrapped up in our own political analysis and don't spend enough face-to-face time with everyday people who don't really care if we've run for this office or that office," he said. "They care about who you are and if you are fighting for them."
- Patricia Preston
The candidates with less legislative experience are emphasizing the fresh perspectives they'd bring to the job. Preston, who at 36 is the youngest candidate, said she would address issues that affect her generation.
"A lot of the voices in this race ... are voices that have been there for a very long time," she said of her rivals.
Preston, who lacks political experience and grew up on a dairy farm, has enough in common with current LG Gray that some have privately dubbed her "Molly 2.0." But Preston denies that Gray's success motivated her to follow in her footsteps.
"I think that it's really easy for folks to draw comparisons when there have been so few women to choose from," she said.
Preston said her work hosting international exchange events around the state for years makes her "uniquely qualified" for the lieutenant governor's role. The campaign is her first run for public office.
While Preston's pitch is about fresh ideas, she sometimes has difficulty articulating them. She speaks about expanding renewable energy but doesn't have a plan to do so. She says she'd convene a climate conversation with voters and experts but couldn't say how that would differ from the yearlong work of the Vermont Climate Council.
She acknowledges being disappointed by recent legislative failures on climate efforts but said she isn't discouraged.
"I'm not going to give up on that promise of Vermont," she said.
- Charlie Kimbell
Kimbell, an affable, moderate Democrat from Woodstock, said he initially got into the race to address the workforce shortage and the systemic problems facing career development programs.
The St. Albans native figured that his work on economic development issues in the House and his varied business background — he's worked in five industries — give him a unique perspective on workforce issues. He's now director of sales and marketing for MISys Manufacturing, a Woodstock software company.
"I can relate to the problem from an employer's standpoint," he said.
But as the campaign has progressed, he's realized that housing also hugely affects businesses' ability to attract and retain workers.
"Anytime I talk to anybody about workforce development, the instant question is, 'Where are they going to live?'" Kimbell said.
As lieutenant governor, he'd focus on the housing crisis, working closely with administration officials to tackle it from multiple angles, he said.
"You can make a difference as lieutenant governor by bringing the players together," he said. "The office is what you make of it."
Kimbell is probably the most conservative Democrat in the race. He opposes eliminating qualified immunity for police officers, citing worries about the impact on recruiting. He was hesitant to embrace issues such as the legalization of cannabis and paid family leave, but he came around on both after weighing the benefits and costs.
Voters he's spoken with seem most interested in his positions on guns and abortion, he said. He's open to requiring licenses and firearms training for gun buyers, he said. And he's pro-choice, supporting Proposal 5, the amendment on the November ballot that would enshrine reproductive rights in the state constitution.
- Joe Benning
On the Republican side, a smaller slate of candidates is nevertheless revealing deep party divisions.
The assumed front-runner, Benning, aligns himself closely with Gov. Scott and other moderates, saying he'd be a cheerleader for Vermont. But Benning says far-right party activists have been unusually vocal this year, and that's got him concerned.
"When people tell me I don't have much to worry about, I start to worry," said Benning, who is campaigning mostly by touring the state on his Harley-Davidson.
Proposal 5, which Benning supports, has turned the debate about abortion into a regrettable litmus test for many in the Vermont GOP, he said. His primary opponent, Thayer, is against the measure. Thayer is a former Rutland city councilor running on a pro-police, anti-abortion, gun rights platform, with a dash of insurrection denial thrown in.
Benning reported raising $8,175 through March 15. Thayer did not have to file a campaign disclosure for that period because he did not raise or spend at least $500.
- Greg Thayer
Thayer attended the January 6 Stop the Steal rally-turned-riot at the U.S. Capitol but has dismissed the siege as the work of a handful of bad actors.
"It was a great day for our Constitution and the presidency, but, unfortunately, some bad eggs did some horrible things," Thayer said. He condemned the rioters who stormed the building but at the same time suggested they may have been justified.
Thayer has also denounced critical race theory and claimed the country is sliding toward Marxism.
Earlier this year, right-wing party activists, including Thayer, tried to get the VTGOP to kick moderates such as Scott out of the party for not fully embracing its platform, Benning said. The effort failed but illustrates the degree of turmoil in the party, he said.
"There is a very vocal group of individuals who are bound and determined to have a purified party," Benning said, "and it appears that they don't care whether they elect people or not."
Securing the votes
- John Odum
John Odum knows he has more tattoos than the typical candidate for Vermont secretary of state. But tattoos aren't all that Odum, a musician, has up his sleeves. He's also a nationally known cybersecurity expert, and he's guessing that those credentials will appeal strongly to voters.
Odum, who administers municipal elections as Montpelier city clerk, holds several IT certifications, including certified ethical hacker — a designation for people who reveal vulnerabilities of online systems. He's also on the advisory board of the University of Chicago's Cyber Policy Initiative, and he writes and speaks internationally on election security.
That's been a concern in the U.S., amplified because of attempts by Russia and other foreign actors to meddle in the 2016 election. And since he lost the 2020 election, former president Trump has broadcast false claims that the process was "rigged," convincing millions of followers that victory was stolen from him.
Election security is at the forefront for Odum and his Democratic primary opponents: Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford) and Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters. The three have worked together on election issues. Now they're vying to succeed Secretary of State Condos, who has served 11 years in the office.
Odum believes his skills and credentials could help Vermont emerge as a leader in election technology and policy. If elected, he said, he'd like to create an elections network for Vermont municipalities — not a proprietary one managed by a third-party vendor, but, instead, a collaboratively built system that experts could refine. He acknowledged that model, known as open source, is widely debated in the software community. Odum said many big companies, such as Facebook and Google, use a combination of open-source and proprietary software.
"Vermont has done a great job under the standard model of cybersecurity, but it's not enough these days," he said. "We need a dedicated network for city clerks so they are not checking their home email on the computers that they're doing the election work on."
The secretary of state also oversees business registrations, a division that licenses professions, as well as voter access. While SOS candidates do run on party lines, the job itself is administrative and considered politically neutral. But the candidates, knowing election security is the hottest issue, are touting their election credentials.
- Chris Winters
Winters, an attorney who has worked in the Secretary of State's Office since 1997, guided Vermont lawmakers early in the pandemic as they approved online and same-day voter registration and voting by mail. In an interview, he acknowledged Odum's technical qualifications but noted that Vermont still has town clerks who aren't comfortable using online tools. He gets a lot of phone calls from municipal clerks about elections, sometimes as voting is under way.
He recently asked the Vermont League of Cities & Towns to survey its members to learn how many still don't have a website.
"We have a wide range, with some people who don't really like to turn on the computer," Winters said of town officials.
Copeland Hanzas also is running on her experience making laws around election security and access. She spent the last four of her 18 years in the Statehouse as chair of the House Government Operations Committee, the panel that worked on the groundbreaking COVID-19 vote-by-mail legislation, which has fundamentally changed elections. The law requires clerks to mail ballots to all active voters for general elections, though voters must request a mail ballot to vote that way in the primaries.
Copeland Hanzas and Winters both said they want to reintroduce civic education to the office to avert some of the polarization that has blighted public discourse in recent years.
"You don't have to look very far to see that democracy is under threat from a number of fronts, from intentional misinformation, active voter suppression, election deniers to things that are a little harder to quantify — like how we no longer know how to disagree with each other without being disagreeable," Copeland Hanzas said.
Winters said he wants to engage young people in civic matters so "they'll be more inclined to volunteer for local positions," such as selectboard members. To that end, he's working with the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction on a comic book about how Vermont democracy works.
The nature of online discourse, he said, has led people to believe the election was stolen from Trump — and to threaten officials, including the Secretary of State's Office in 2020.
Winters wants to teach people to see they're being targeted by partisan groups, sometimes without their knowledge.
"Media literacy helps you understand how your data is being used and understand that you're the commodity when you're online," he said.
- Sarah Copeland Hanzas
Copeland Hanzas grew up in Corinth and Bradford, where her father started Copeland Furniture, a high-end manufacturer. She taught science in Hanover, N.H., schools for two years before leaving to coach varsity field hockey and softball. She also ran a Bradford café, the Local Buzz, for 11 years.
During the legislative session, she can often be found playing in the fast-moving Friday morning basketball games that draw lawmakers, lobbyists and administration members. She's often the only woman on the court.
"Where else do you get to really throw an elbow or put a pick on someone?" she said. "It's a wonderful way to unwind after a long, grueling legislative week."
Winters, a marathon runner who grew up in Williamstown, has deep ties to central Vermont. His grandmother, a Marshfield dairy farmer, was a fortune-teller back in the days when that profession was licensed, and Winters has a copy of her paperwork, along with letters from grateful customers. He operated a law practice before taking a job at the Secretary of State's Office.
Winters does have the backing of his boss, Condos, and an edge in fundraising, according to the most recent campaign finance filing reports. He reported a haul of about $21,400 compared to Odum, who'd raised nearly $6,700. Copeland Hanzas only announced her run in late April and hasn't filed.
Odum said his more unorthodox background sets him apart at election security conferences or when meeting with his University of Chicago colleagues. He grew up in Kentucky and moved to Vermont to attend Goddard College in Plainfield. He left school before finishing his degree to work for the Vermont Democratic Party.
Odum has a certificate in election management from the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.
In his role as Montpelier city clerk, Odum advocated for noncitizen voting in local elections and helped guide the process of voting. Last year, he was named in a lawsuit filed by the Republican National Committee and VTGOP that accused the municipality of violating the state constitution.
As secretary of state, Odum said, he could help other communities around the country pursue noncitizen voting, which he's already done in his current job.
"We could provide resources on the constitutionality ... and peer support," he said.
Until recently, Odum always made sure to get tattoos he could hide under a shirt. Then he decided to add a large Celtic symbol with an arctic tern that can be spotted on his chest if he doesn't fasten his top buttons.
"Shortly thereafter, I decided to run for statewide office, and there was no hiding this one," Odum said. When he's at conferences with secretaries of state from around the country, Odum feels as though he stands out — but it has nothing to do with the tattoos.
"I am bringing a perspective and level of expertise on election security that just isn't like anyone in those rooms," he said.
Pleading their cases
- Charity Clark
Charity Clark and Rory Thibault both figured they might run for attorney general one day, but neither expected their chance would come quite so soon. On May 5, attorney general T.J. Donovan, a fellow Democrat, made the surprising announcement that he would not seek reelection.
Clark, Donovan's chief of staff since 2018, learned of her boss' decision mere hours before the public. That night, while cooking macaroni and cheese for her 8-year-old daughter, Clark cobbled together some makeshift campaign signs. On May 16, she announced her run to become Vermont's first female attorney general.
Thibault, the Washington County state's attorney, was in court when news of Donovan's decision broke. His phone vibrated incessantly with texts from friends and calls from reporters inquiring about his plans. He told news outlets that he wanted to speak with his family before making any commitments.
"Well, you're running, aren't you?" his wife asked once he got home. Thibault announced his campaign the next morning.
Six weeks later, the two Democrats are both pitching themselves as the best person to lead Vermont's largest law firm.
With a staff of roughly 150 employees, the AG's Office enforces environmental laws, prosecutes crimes and defends state laws in court. The office can bring or join lawsuits to challenge federal policies — something Donovan repeatedly did during the Trump era — and routinely weighs in on proposed legislation. The AG can influence state lawmakers to support a criminal justice reform bill or tweak drug laws.
The office also has a heavy consumer protection focus, through both a dedicated enforcement division and a hotline run in partnership with the University of Vermont that receives about 11,000 calls and complaints annually.
Clark is intimately familiar with these responsibilities. The Vermont native worked at private law firms in Burlington and New York City for a decade before taking a job in the AG's consumer division in 2014. As Donovan's chief of staff, she helped manage the office, oversaw the consumer protection program and ran several expungement clinics each year. She resigned last month to focus on her campaign.
"This is a management job," Clark said of serving as attorney general. "I will be ready to lead on day one."
- Rory Thibault
Thibault has a different pedigree. He bounced around the country for nearly a decade as a judge advocate general in the military's justice branch, then settled in Vermont in 2016 to work as a deputy state's attorney in Washington County. A brief stint in the AG's criminal division ended in 2018, when Gov. Scott appointed him Washington County's top prosecutor following the resignation of Scott Williams. Thibault was elected later that year to a four-year term and is continuing to run his 12-person office while he juggles his campaign.
Setting him apart, he argues, are his management skills and leadership qualities. "My legal responsibility so frequently also has a leadership element — being in high-stakes situations," he said.
The Democratic hopefuls have a few small but notable policy differences.
Clark tentatively supports safe injection sites, while Thibault would prefer to study the idea further. Earlier this month, Gov. Scott vetoed a bill that would have further explored the options.
Thibault has bigger ideas for police oversight, citing what he views as an "incredibly concerning" lack of public trust in how misconduct cases are reviewed. He wants the state to consider appointing a special prosecutor to handle such cases and said state's attorneys and the AG's Office should be allowed to refer abusive officers for decertification proceedings. Currently, that authority rests only with the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, a 24-member panel with a strong law enforcement presence.
Clark, on the other hand, had little to offer on police reform; conversations in the legislature "should continue," she said. "My leadership style is very collaborative, and this is an area where I think it's really important to get all the voices and make sure that we're doing the best we can."
As in many primaries, the distance between the two candidates' platforms is otherwise quite limited. Both say they would seek to defend reproductive liberties, push the state to meet its climate emission goals, advocate for stronger data privacy laws and push for criminal justice reforms related to lower-level crimes, particularly those involving drugs.
Both candidates also endorse the federal push for stronger gun control and say they would back any new attempts to enact a waiting period on gun purchases in Vermont. Two years ago, Scott vetoed legislation that would have forced people who buy handguns to wait 24 hours to receive them. Thibault and Clark say at least 48 hours would be more appropriate.
More revealing is how they would prioritize the many issues jockeying for their attention — and how they plan to marshal the office's resources to get stuff done.
Thibault wants to reinvigorate the AG's Office by giving staff more freedom to make decisions. Donovan's team was sometimes stifled by "an undue concentration of decision making in the front office," Thibault said. The office has "some of the most brilliant attorneys in the state. I think we can achieve more — as long as we move in a consistent policy direction — by allowing rapid decision making and creativity to prevail."
Thibault would also ask his prosecutors to take on more criminal cases. The AG's Office can prosecute cases in any of Vermont's 14 counties but has recently focused its efforts on child pornography cases, elder fraud and high-profile murders. Expanding this portfolio would help ease the burden on state's attorneys, some of whom are "drowning in backlogs," Thibault said.
In the short term, violent crimes connected to drug trafficking should take priority, Thibault said. He pointed to a recent spate of shootings in Springfield and gunfire incidents in Burlington, some of which local officials have linked to the drug trade. "We don't have a statewide or coordinated enforcement strategy for how we're trying to cut the flow [of drugs] into the state of Vermont," he said.
Five of Vermont's eight other Democratic state's attorneys have endorsed Thibault's campaign. Among three who have yet to weigh in is Chittenden County's top prosecutor, Sarah George, who says she wants to hear more about Clark's positions.
Clark isn't convinced that AG prosecutors need to do more. "I have great respect for the county prosecutors and think they're doing a great job," she said. The current system seems to be "working well the way it is."
Her immediate goal would be to build on some of the office's existing efforts. If elected, she would encourage lawmakers to pass a stronger data privacy law, one that specifically covers what's known as "biometric data," such as face scans and fingerprints. Clark would also seek to expand the law that allows Vermonters to have old criminal records sealed or expunged — something Donovan also championed over the years.
One move her boss made more recently that she would not replicate: leaving the gig for another job. Donovan resigned six months before his term was up to take a corporate position at the online gaming platform Roblox. Both Clark and Thibault said they would serve out their terms, even if they decided not to seek reelection.
"I can't see myself wanting any other job," Clark said.
Coming next week: The Seven Days Primary Voters' Guide
How do you register to vote in Vermont? Should you vote in person or by mail? Where can you find candidate debates? Find answers to these questions — and more — in next week's issue of Seven Days.