- (l-r): Denise Smith, Carolyn Branagan, Sara Kittell, Dustin Degree
Bill Mayo and George Gates were sitting at the Franklin General Store last Wednesday, lunching on hot dogs and chatting about the news of the day.
Mayo, who has owned the store for 13 years, is no fan of the state's new GMO labeling law or of the potential $15 minimum wage he hears candidates discussing. A higher minimum wage is already prompting some workers to ask for fewer hours so they can continue to qualify for public assistance, he said. And the GMO law has generated needless confusion, he added.
His views are right in line with those of state Sen. Norm McAllister (R-Franklin). But Mayo doesn't envision voting for the lawmaker, who lives on a farm just two miles up the road. McAllister stands accused of sexual assault in a case that won't be resolved before the primary election.
"I know people are presumed innocent until proven guilty," Mayo said, as though he were trying to convince himself. "I don't think he's capable of representing us very well, because of his credibility."
Gates, who also tends to vote Republican, agreed. "I don't know if in good conscience I could vote for him," he said. "I'm disappointed in him, that he could get himself in this mess at all."
In a phone interview, McAllister told Seven Days that he didn't ask for the mess he's in. "This stuff that's happened was nothing of my wish. When they see these are false accusations, they're going to realize what's going on," he said of his Franklin County constituents.
Meanwhile, though, the charges have given rise to an unusual race. On August 9 — the day Republican voters will decide in a primary whether McAllister should be one of their candidates in the November election — he's due in court for jury selection. His trial starts on August 10.
Franklin County Deputy State's Attorney Diane Wheeler, who is prosecuting the case, said Monday that the timing of the primary was not a factor in setting the trial dates. "Wasn't discussed; didn't know it myself," she said.
McAllister, 64, of Highgate Springs, is running for a third term in the Senate despite the fact that his colleagues voted to suspend him from the chamber at the start of the most recent legislative session. The unprecedented decision was precipitated by his May 2015 arrest on charges of sexual assault and prohibited acts involving three women.
The first of two trials, which covered allegations that he sexually assaulted one of the women, ended on June 16 when prosecutors dismissed the case after one day of testimony because the woman admitted to lying on the stand about a tangential matter. The pending case involves allegations that McAllister sexually assaulted a second woman and solicited sex from a third woman, who has since died.
McAllister's son, Heath, came to his defense Monday in an interview with Seven Days, saying Sen. McAllister had brief consensual sexual relationships with both women he was accused of assaulting but was innocent of any criminal charges.
- Sen. Norm McAllister
McAllister is running for reelection maintaining that he's innocent — and asserting that Franklin County citizens should send him back to Montpelier to fight on their behalf against excessive government spending and intrusion.
So far, though, he hasn't done much campaigning. In fact, McAllister barely assembled enough signatures to meet the 100-voter minimum to get his name on the ballot. Officials subsequently acknowledged that some of those signatures might not represent registered Franklin County voters, but no one challenged them within the 72-hour time limit. Secretary of State Jim Condos said that even if someone had, courts tend to rule in favor of putting candidates on the ballot.
Franklin County voters will be able to check a box for McAllister on the second Tuesday in August, but he hasn't frequented parades, festivals or fairs where other candidates have been glad-handing. No campaign signs advertise his bid. He's been waiting in hopes that he could put the criminal trial behind him, though he was unable to say how. "It'll be a very short campaign," he said.
McAllister's situation is generating increased competition for the Franklin County Senate District — from both political parties. The working-class county that is home to farmers, factory workers and commuters was once reliably Democratic but in recent years has moved to the right. Two years ago, voters chose two Republicans for the Senate — McAllister and freshman Dustin Degree.
Republicans know they risk losing at least one precious Senate seat, and many are distancing themselves from McAllister. That's why the beleaguered incumbent senator finds himself in a rare Republican primary in the two-seat district. Degree is seeking his second term, while Rep. Carolyn Branagan (R-Georgia) is giving up the House seat she's held for 14 years to run for the Senate.
She's raised the ante by declaring that if she loses the primary, she'll run as an independent in the general election — a move that could splinter Republican votes.
"I'm going to fight for it," Branagan said.
Plenty of Rs are rooting for her. "I certainly am of the opinion that if Norm McAllister wins the primary, it will make it difficult to hold onto that seat," said Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning (R-Caledonia). "For that reason, I'm supporting Dustin Degree and Carolyn Branagan."
The general election could be bruising, as Democrats see an opportunity to reclaim the district and boost their 21-9 majority in the Senate.
"Franklin is No. 1," Senate Majority Leader Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden) said of the Senate districts his party is targeting. The Democratic Senate political action committee will commit the bulk of its resources there, he said.
On the ballot for the Dems: Former longtime state senator Sara Kittell, who lost to McAllister and Degree two years ago; and Denise Smith, executive director of the Friends of Northern Lake Champlain and a St. Albans City School Board member.
Republicans have a PAC to support candidates in the general election. Will it support McAllister if he wins the primary? "I don't know," PAC treasurer Suzanne Butterfield said.
Vermont Republican Party chair David Sunderland said the party itself will support whoever wins the primary.
Benning and Degree both voted to suspend McAllister from the Senate. Branagan said she would have, too. "Franklin County has taken an awful black eye," Branagan said.
McAllister's strongest ally in the Senate, Sen. Peg Flory (R-Rutland), maintains that he is innocent until proven guilty and should not have been suspended. But even Flory, who shares a condo with Branagan in Montpelier, won't be campaigning for McAllister.
"I like all three — Carolyn, Dustin and Norm," Flory said. "There's no way I'm getting involved."
McAllister's rivals are gearing up in another way McAllister is not. He filed no campaign finance report last week and said he had neither raised nor spent $500. Branagan reported $9,355 in contributions, including $7,200 she loaned her own campaign. Kittell raised $8,374. Smith took in $6,374, and Degree, $3,945.
McAllister does still have backers: John Winters, a former state representative from Swanton, attended McAllister's June trial as a show of support for his longtime friend.
"Yes, I'm going to vote for him in the primary," Winters said last week. But he added, "I don't believe, with what's happened here in the county, he'll win."
Other candidates say that on the campaign trail, they hear about a host of issues that worry residents: taxes and state spending, opiate addiction, cleaning up Lake Champlain, school district consolidation, and the threat of losing school choice. But Franklin County voters are also talking about McAllister's situation.
"It's the first thing they bring up," Branagan said. "How much damage this has done to the county."
"People I've talked to have a lot of sympathy for the young woman," Smith said, referring to the 21-year-old woman — McAllister's former employee — who took the stand in June to accuse him of sexually assaulting her over several years. She said she's also heard some support for McAllister and "that the legislature had no right to get rid of him."
Two years ago, Degree campaigned alongside McAllister. This year, the 31-year-old St. Albans City resident is going out of his way to distance himself from his former colleague.
"I try to focus on what I've done," said Degree, who worked as an aide to former governor Jim Douglas and just took a job working for Republican lieutenant governor candidate Randy Brock, also a Franklin County resident.
Degree said that while campaigning, he talks about his work in Montpelier as a freshman senator in the minority party.
"I fought both of the budgets we passed," Degree said. "I was a strong supporter of getting a drug treatment center passed ... Act 46 has its detractors, but right here in my home district we're going to see some instant tax savings."
Branagan, 62, said she has been emphasizing her work in the House, where she serves as vice chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. "I know the players. I know how to get my way in the Statehouse rationally. And I talk to people in my district," she said.
McAllister, a former dairy farmer who served eight years in the House before moving to the Senate, is equally fired up to talk issues. He decried decisions by the Democratic majority on state spending, taxes and the required labeling of genetically modified foods.
"I'm running because we have to have people who stand up for what's right," McAllister said. "I'm not afraid to take the hits."
Despite being miffed that Degree voted to suspend him from the Senate, McAllister said he takes no issue with his district mate's voting record.
Branagan's is another matter. McAllister said that when he starts campaigning, he'll argue that Branagan increased a host of fees this year. That, he said, is not good Republican politics.
"When I saw that she was the other candidate, that's when I decided to run," he said.
Branagan acknowledged that she voted for fee increases. But she contended that fees are different than taxes because they cover the cost of a service. "I think it's fair," she said.
"I have fought dozens of taxes," she countered. "I've voted against tax bills and budget bills."
Kittell, 69, of Fairfield, a former school nurse and business owner who served 17 years in the Senate, argues that Republicans complain about taxes and spending but offer no viable solutions. She noted that, compared to 2014, the year she finished third, this is a presidential election year that will likely bring out more Democratic voters.
Smith, a 44-year-old married mother of three young children, is the only first-time legislative candidate in the race. But her job with Friends of Northern Lake Champlain and her role on the school board give her many connections to the community and relate to two of the hottest issues in the county.
Joe Sinagra, a Franklin County Republican who ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2012 and pays close attention to politics, said he's noticed Smith is running an active campaign. Kittell, Degree and Branagan are all out there, too.
He said he's seen nothing of McAllister, which, upon reflection, is not surprising. "If I'm in his situation, it's kind of hard to campaign," Sinagra said. "You become a sideshow."