Primary Colors | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Fair Game

Bernie Sanders

Primary Colors

Fair Game


Published August 8, 2012 at 10:22 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

The Democratic race for attorney general isn’t the only contest to be decided on August 28. After scouring the state, Fair Game has discovered plenty of other interesting — albeit under-the-radar — primary match-ups that pit new against old, dynasty against dynasty. Here are the top five:

Seeing Orange

Sen. Mark MacDonald (D-Orange) knows a thing or two about the fickleness of voters. After two terms in the Senate, the retired schoolteacher, beef farmer and Vietnam vet was ousted in 2000 for supporting civil unions. Two years later, voters sent him back to Montpelier to represent this rural, 20,000-person district that stretches from Thetford to Williamstown.

Now the 69-year-old incumbent is facing the second political fight of his life — this one brought by a fellow Democrat. Opponent Tig Tillinghast, 41, is an internet entrepreneur, Dartmouth alum and Connecticut native who returned to the Upper Valley seven years ago to raise his family.

While MacDonald says he’s knocked on nearly 2000 doors this year, Tillinghast is focusing on what he calls the “cheap and efficient targeting mechanisms” of the internet: Facebook groups, Google ads, even a custom-built iPad app.

“It looks like an old-school incumbent and a digital-age challenger,” says Valley News editor and political columnist John Gregg.

Tillinghast’s argument? MacDonald, he says, is out of touch with the district’s town governments and puts too much energy into niche issues, such as the bottle bill, instead of what Tillinghast says is Orange County’s number one concern: high-speed internet access.

“I don’t disagree with Mark on a whole heck of a lot, but a legislator can only raise and spend political capital on so much in the legislature, and I’d spend it on different things,” Tillinghast says.

To that, MacDonald says, “He’s living in a dreamworld … They can say I haven’t gotten fiber to every road, but they can’t say I’m not working my butt off.”

MacDonald, who sits on the Senate finance and natural resources committees, says his legacy over the years has been hammering away at “less sexy issues” such as school funding. And he cites his hard-charging political style — some might call it eccentric — as an asset to the district.

“I think folks who know me say I’ve got a good crap detector,” he says.

More Liberal Than Thou

The retirement of five-term Rep. Sarah Edwards (P-Brattleboro) has launched a clash of local Democratic dynasties.

In one corner is Kate O’Connor: political consultant, long-time aide to former governor Howard Dean and daughter of former House Speaker Timothy O’Connor and former Brattleboro selectboard member Martha O’Connor.

In the other corner is Tristan Toleno: professional caterer, son-in-law of Don Webster — who once held the downtown Brattleboro House seat — and ex-stepson of Rep. Edwards.

“I like my dynasty because mine is quirky and Brattleboro-like,” Toleno says.

O’Connor, who moved back home from Winooski last January, cites her experience in Montpelier as a key asset. Since she volunteered for her father’s unsuccessful 1980 gubernatorial campaign at the age of 16, O’Connor hasn’t been able to shake the political bug.

In addition to her work for Dean — she stayed with Ho-Ho from the day he took office to the day his presidential campaign ended — she’s served as Gov. Peter Shumlin’s campaign treasurer and, more controversially, as an adviser to 2006 Republican senatorial candidate Rich Tarrant, who lost to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“I don’t understand her decision to work for Tarrant,” Toleno says. “In a district as progressive as Brattleboro, it’s likely something voters would have questions about.”

But O’Connor says it’s a nonissue, arguing that as she’s knocked on doors in the district, “There’s not one person who’s asked me about Rich Tarrant, and I bet a bazillion dollars they don’t know who that guy is.”

“I’m as liberal as you can possibly get. He hired me because I was a Democrat and he was like, ‘I want to know what issues are important to Democrats,’” she says. “Why would you pass up an opportunity to educate somebody?”

Toleno used to run the now-defunct Riverview Café. While he’s heavily courted the Progressive vote, he says the differences between him and his opponent are “pragmatic and experiential.”

On that, at least, O’Connor agrees: “The one thing we differ on is our experience. But I don’t think we disagree on a single issue,” she says.

Room for Two

With the retirement of Sara Kittell (D-Franklin) and Randy Brock (R-Franklin), who is running for governor, Vermont’s northwestern county is about to lose both of its senators.

Seeking to fill the void are three Republicans, two Democrats, an independent and a Peace and Prosperity party member. The Rs — Rep. Dustin Degree (R-St. Albans), Rep. Norm McAllister (R-Franklin) and political operative and former lobbyist Joe Sinagra — are vying for two slots on the general election ballot.

Two of them — Degree and McAllister — are collaborating in their effort to secure the nomination and edge out Sinagra. “It’s the kid and the old guy,” says the 61-year-old McAllister about his alliance with Degree, a 27-year-old business consultant.

McAllister, who calls himself “the last working dairy farmer in the Statehouse,” says he and Degree complement each other well. He knows the district’s rural stretches and concentrates on agriculture, while Degree focuses on issues more relevant to St. Albans city and town.

“I thought my candidacy was unique in offering real experience in state government, real experience in the legislature,” says Degree, who worked as an aide to former governor Jim Douglas before winning a seat in the legislature at the age of 25. “I’ve got a long runway. I can spend a good portion of my next years serving Franklin County.”

Sinagra splits the difference age-wise, saying he’s the only one of 26 candidates vying for 13 House and Senate seats in Franklin County between the age of 30 and 50.

“I’m the only candidate who represents a majority of people,” he says.

Rather than shy away from his past as a lobbyist, Sinagra highlights his work representing the Homebuilders and Remodelers Association of Vermont.

“Legislators rely on lobbyists to help out as de facto staff,” he says. “I think my time as a lobbyist shows my ability to work with both Republicans and Democrats.”

New North End Variety

Rep. Bill Aswad (D-Burlington) may be a Burlington Democratic legend, but that doesn’t mean the 90-year-old is cruising unchallenged toward a 10th term representing Burlington’s New North End.

The veteran House member, who served seven years on the Burlington City Council and 15 years on the city’s planning commission, is one of three Democrats vying for two slots on the general election ballot. The winners will take on Rep. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington) — himself a former city councilor and recent mayoral candidate — for one of two seats representing the district.

Aswad’s competition? Robert Hooper, chairman of the Chittenden County Democratic Party and a former longtime president of the Vermont State Employees Association. And Joanna Cole, a retired chemistry and biology professor and two-time Democratic nominee for the district.

“I think I have fresher ideas and am prepared to go down there and actually do some stuff,” says Hooper, who got to know the ways of Montpelier while lobbying for organized labor.

Cole, who serves as a justice of the peace, says she’s eager to fight for health care access and better mental health services.

“I don’t really like having to go through the campaigning part,” she says. “I really just want to go into the policy work.”

While Aswad has one of the lowest voting attendance records in the House, he says that’s because his eyesight is deteriorating.

“I don’t drive at night,” he says. “If the session is running late, I leave early because I don’t want to have an accident.”

Nevertheless, Aswad says he’s still got a lot of fight left in him. And he’s hoping to direct it toward his long-held goal of extending passenger rail service from Albany, N.Y., to Burlington.

“There are people who want to take my seat, and they’re welcome to try it in the election,” he says. “Compare their ability to contribute to my ability. I bring a lot of experience.”

Lucky Six

If history is any guide, the four incumbent Democrats representing Chittenden County in the Senate — Tim Ashe, Philip Baruth, Sally Fox and Ginny Lyons — should have no problem securing their party’s nod this month.

The real race in Vermont’s most populous Senate district is between the four challengers seeking to fill out the remaining two slots on the Democrats’ general election dance card: Debbie Ingram, Peter Hunt, Loyal Ploof and David Zuckerman. Burlington City Councilor Ed Adrian recently dropped out of the race, citing family and work conflicts.

Their respective strategies?

“If I can meet you, I can get your vote,” says Hunt, a former three-term House member from Essex, who hopes his work as a local school principal and business owner will help him carry his hometown.

Hunt says he’s been spending eight hours a day, seven days a week knocking on doors around the district.

Ingram, a Williston selectboard member and executive director of Vermont Interfaith Action, has been making the rounds too — though her travels keep leading her to the dump.

“People are kind of held captive because they have to wait in line, anyway,” she says of the age-old Vermont tradition of stumping at the dump. She’s visited seven in Chittenden County.

Ploof, a Burlington dog walker and filmmaker, says he has a backup plan in case he fails to finish in the top six: he’s asking Republicans he meets to write him for state Senate on their primary ballots.

“If for some reason I get knocked out, I can still get on the ballot in November as a Republican,” says Ploof, who is campaigning on eliminating property taxes.

Zuckerman, a former seven-term Progressive House member and organic farmer who recently moved from Burlington to Hinesburg, has been hitting up Burlington-area concerts and recently locked up the support of the Professional Firefighters of Vermont.

He’s also found an issue that he says differentiates him from all the other candidates.

“One of the things that uniquely helps me in this primary — especially in Winooski and South Burlington — is my public and longstanding opposition to the F-35,” he says, noting that he was one of five to oppose a 2010 House resolution in support of basing the fighter planes in Burlington. “The thing about primaries is people who are hot on an issue are the ones who are going to come out.”