Primary Source: Welch Likely to Face Primary Challenge in Vermont

  • Valley News political columnist and news editor John Gregg in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 20, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., cruised to re-election in 2016, facing no primary or Republican opponent and defeating a fringe candidate with almost 78 percent of the vote.

But it does appear that the six-term Democrat will face a primary challenge next year, and from a fellow Upper Valley resident, to boot.

Dr. Daniel Freilich, a Brownsville resident who works as a staff physician at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, said on Wednesday he plans to formally announce his candidacy next month, and has already filed with the Federal Election Commission and launched a campaign website.

“Special interests do not give money to politicians out of the goodness of their heart; they do it because they know the money does affect the decisions of our representatives,” Freilich said on his website. “That’s why I have chosen to take the political risk to stand up for what I know is the only way to bring integrity back into the process — refusing to take any kind of special interest or corporate money.”

The 53-year-old Freilich is a captain in the Navy Reserve after spending 15 years on active duty. He bought a home in Brownsville in the fall of 2016, though he also spends some time in the Washington, D.C., area, where his wife works for a think tank in the homeland security field, and where he fulfills some of his Reserve duties.

Freilich, who specializes in infectious diseases, said he began working part time at the VA in 2011 and has been full time since 2015, working essentially as a contractor, rather than as a civil service employee, and said that would allow him to keep his job while he runs for Congress.

The other issues on his four-plank platform are ending income inequality, addressing health care disparities through some sort of Medicare for all program, and helping to implement a “green energy” economic policy.

Though the 70-year-old Welch remains popular through much of Vermont and has been a consistent vote against Trump-era policies, Freilich said he considers the Norwich Democrat to be part of the problem in Washington, given his campaign warchest. Welch reported more than $2 million cash on hand in the most recent FEC report.

“I’m trying to be positive,” Freilich said. “I’m not critical that he takes money, because almost everyone in Congress does. I just feel that it can be done better.”

This is not a new stance for Freilich. He challenged U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in 2010 on a similar platform, was drubbed in the Democratic primary, but also appeared on the general election ballot as an independent. At the time, Freilich owned a home in the southern Vermont ski town of Wilmington, but also had D.C. ties.

Freilich plans to announce his candidacy on Jan. 21 at an event at the Trail Break taco restaurant in White River Junction.

Sununu’s Standing

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu has blocked a small toll increase that would have provided much needed money for roads; taken some stands that have rankled environmentalists; and backed the big tax cuts sought by President Donald Trump that economists say will prove more beneficial to the wealthy than the working class.

But the first-term Republican also is showing social media skills and political charisma that generally were lacking when it came to his father and brother, a former governor and U.S. senator, respectively. They were on full display, for instance, when Sununu won a “Lebanese Cookoff,” making stuffed grape leaves, earlier this month to benefit Lydia’s House of Hope, a transitional home near the Seacoast.

Sununu has stuck to a generally middle-of-the-road governing style, University of New Hampshire Survey Center Director Andy Smith said last week.

“The other thing that has helped him is he is not Donald Trump or (Maine Gov.) Paul LePage. He is not polarizing,” Smith said.

Former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand is running for the Democratic nomination to take on Sununu.

Dartmouth Caucus

With the appointment of Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to replace Democratic Sen. Al Franken in Washington next week, the number of Dartmouth graduates in the U.S. Senate is about to hit 5 percent.

Smith, a 1984 Tuck School of Business graduate, will join Dartmouth alumni Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Angus King, I-Maine; Rob Portman, R-Ohio; and John Hoeven, R-N.D., in the Senate.

Gillibrand, who went by Tina Rutnik at Dartmouth, made news earlier this month when she called for Trump’s resignation and he lashed back with a sexist tweet. She’s also increasing her national profile.

An Asian studies major, Gillibrand speaks conversational Chinese and earned a law degree at UCLA. Gillibrand was a partner at Boies, Schiller & Flexner, powerhouse lawyer David Boies’ firm, until she was elected to the U.S. House in 2006.

John P. Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com.