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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Packed Addison County Senate Race Most Expensive in History

<span class="photocreditinline"><a href="">VAN BARTH</a></span><br />The candidates for Addison County's two state Senate seats were among those who debated in a town hall last month.
The candidates for Addison County's two state Senate seats were among those who debated in a town hall last month.

MIDDLEBURY — The race to represent Addison County in the Vermont Senate is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in the state’s history. With the announcement of Claire Ayer’s ’92 (D-Addison) retirement, six candidates are vying to fill the district’s two seats in Montpelier. Total campaign funding has exceeded $100,000, a historic high, making up a disproportionate 20 percent of the total Vermont Senate campaign financing across 13 different districts. 

Incumbent Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison), seeking to defend his seat, is joined by fellow Democratic candidate Ruth Hardy. Two “pro-business” Independents, Blue Spruce Farm owner Marie Audet and Vermont Coffee Company owner Paul Ralston, have also entered the race on a joint ticket, with the support of Gov. Phil Scott (R). Republican Peter Briggs and Libertarian Archie Flower are also running in the highly contested election.

Ayer’s vacant seat prompted Ruth Hardy to put her name on the ticket, but Hardy is no stranger to politics. She serves as the executive director of Emerge Vermont, a non-profit organization that trains and helps women run for office, graduating prominent alumnae such as Christine Hallquist, this year’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee. She also served three terms on local school boards.

“By running for the State Senate myself, I am walking the talk,” Hardy said. “I am doing what I ask of other women – which is to step up and run for office when the opportunity arises and when the need is great.”

This may in part explain why Hardy, a first-time senate candidate, has amassed the most individual donors of any candidate, and obtained endorsements from key Democratic figures like former Governor Madeleine Kunin, the state’s first and only female governor, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Ayer herself. Hardy’s platform focuses on access to healthcare, affordable education and child care, as well as climate change. 

After knocking on more than 1,500 doors, she concluded that health care access and affordability is the number one concern of Addison County residents. 

“What I am hearing from voters over and over again is that they are worried about health care,” Hardy said. “What I would like to work on is having universal access to primary care as a starter for Vermont.”   

Audet, the other first-time candidate, describes herself as an “organic candidate,” saying that her extensive experience in local business and her ties to the community are what pushed her to put her name on the ballot.

“Paul and I are coming at this from a position of experience, having firm ties to our communities, and being leaders in our communities as people who do things for the growth of our communities,” Audet said. “I felt that it would be good for the legislature to have some regular working folks — boots-on-the-ground kinds of folks.”

Audet and Ralston are running together on what they have called a pro-business ticket, focusing particularly on the agricultural business prominent in Addison County. Ralston is a former two-term Democratic member of the Vermont House of Representatives. 

The duo have pushed for creating business incentives and inducing bottom-up change instead of levying taxes. When it comes to environmental policies, for example, Ralston says they are generally in favor of lowering carbon fuel emissions, but opposed to a direct carbon tax.  

“One of the issues that I have faced every time I speak to people is that they are afraid of Vermont becoming unaffordable,” Audet said. “We need businesses to thrive to pay taxes. We need businesses to want to employ people. We need businesses to pay people well. That is another big hole of representation that we are finding.”

Ralston cited high taxes as a culprit for the recent business closures in downtown Middlebury, pointing to high property taxes as a barrier for entry and operation. 

“Many of the things that we would be promoting are not the big, sexy ideas,” Ralston said. “They are the practical, affordable, simple steps that can be made without raising taxes, without dramatic changes.”

Governor Scott’s support for the independent ticket may well have disappointed Republican hopeful Peter Briggs, who has raised less money than any of the candidates except Flower. 

In 2016, when Briggs ran against Ayer and Bray on an agricultural-focused message similar to Audet’s and Ralston’s, he won 21 percent of the votes, compared to Ayer’s 31 percent and Bray’s 27 percent. Briggs is running again with a platform that is against taxation, hardline carbon emissions reduction bills and gun control laws.  

Audet and Ralston have clashed with Bray, the lone incumbent in the race. During the campaign, the independent ticket questioned Bray’s agricultural and environmental policies, framing them as out of touch with the farming community.

Bray defended his track record, citing bills that he proposed which have provided farm subsidies, protected and maintained current use, and helped farmers integrate to greener options.

“Within two months of arriving, I started crafting legislation, which I have been for a decade, that is highly supportive of farmers,” said Bray. “Bill after bill, program after program, and dollar after dollar, I have stepped up to support farmers to change their practices. Every large and medium farm in this state has received many, many thousands of dollars.”

Bray also added that Blue Spruce Farms, which Audet owns, received millions of dollars worth of government support in the last decade. Citing this example, Bray pointed to the pragmatic flaws of the independents’ policies, stating that subsidies and regulations must go together.

“There is a certain hypocrisy with accepting high levels of subsidies, from government and state, and then rejecting regulation that travels with it,” he said. “It is environmental and economy that go hand in hand.”

Bray’s platform is centered on balancing the environment with business opportunities.  For example, he pointed to the Farm to Plate program, which has created new work opportunities while increasing access to healthy local produce.  

Bray also jabbed at Ralston, who previously served in the statehouse as a Democratic representative. “One of the opponents in the Senate race has a four year record already in the Vermont house,” said Bray, referring to Ralston. “I would invite and encourage anyone who is considering candidates to carefully scrutinize that record, and look at what contributions that legislator made on issues that we are talking about today.”

According to Sun Community News, Ralston himself sent a perplexing message to potential voters at a candidate forum held in Bristol on Oct. 17, seeming to encourage constituents to vote for Audet and Hardy.  

“This campaign has been a bit of a Dickensian experience for me: The best of times, the worst of times,” Ralston said. “I do believe it would be good for us to have fresh ideas... the best decision may be to send two women to Montpelier as our senators”

But, Ralston later elaborated that the message was not to annul his own ticket.  

“We are trying to get elected, both Marie and I need to go to Montpelier.  We need to go to Montpelier together.  That is what I hope happens,” Ralston said. “If that cannot happen, there needs to be a change and that means someone else of the six people has to go. In that moment, I thought, ‘People should think about whether a good alternative is sending two women to Montpelier.’”

Despite differences, candidates coalesced around the importance of college students exerting their voting rights either in local elections or in elections back home. 

“Middlebury College students, in particular, are here for four years and live here and it is your home. There are a lot of things that happen in the Vermont legislature that affect you while you are living in Vermont,” Hardy said. “If I am elected, I really hope that Middlebury College students will come to the state house. I can help them make their voices heard.”

Editor’s Note: Ruth Hardy is the spouse of Prof. Jason Mittell, The Campus’ academic advisor. Mittell plays no role in any editorial decisions made by the paper. Any questions may be directed to