Royalton Seat Draws Challenger

  • Democratic candidate for the Vermont House of Representatives John O'Brien does an interview with co-hosts of the GreenZine radio show, Todd Tyson and Henry Swayze, both of Tunbridge, Vt., at the Royalton Community Radio station on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018. Topics of discussion included climate change, quality of life and community and committees O'Brien would like to serve on in the legislature were he to be elected. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — August Frank

  • David Ainsworth, R-Royalton, the incumbent candidate for Orange-Windsor-1 seat in the House of Representatives, calls in from his Royalton, Vt., home for an interview on Green Zine, a program on Royalton Radio, Oct. 11, 2018. Ainsworth spoke to interviewers Todd Tyson and Henry Swayze after listening to their interview with his challenger, Democrat John O'Brien. Ainsworth, who had bandages covering spots where skin cancers were removed, has faced several health challenges since having kidney transplant in 2016. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/14/2018 12:02:49 AM
Modified: 10/14/2018 12:02:50 AM

Tunbridge — This year, control of a Vermont House district known for razor-thin elections will come down to a battle between a Royalton dairy farmer and a Tunbridge native living on his family’s old sheep farm.

State Rep. David Ainsworth, a Republican dairy and vegetable farmer who reclaimed the Windsor-Orange 1 seat in 2016, faces Democrat John O’Brien, a Tunbridge filmmaker who says the value of his family’s sheep farm has become more sentimental than financial.

Ainsworth served two terms in the House, lost the seat in 2010, but then narrowly won it back by two votes in 2016 over then-Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, after a judge added a second vote to his tally in a recount.

Both Ainsworth, 64, and O’Brien, 55, said the state should do more to help Vermont’s agricultural industry. The number of Vermont dairy farms, the long-standing linchpin of the agricultural economy, has declined from 11,000 to fewer than 750 in the last 70 years, and four consecutive years of low milk prices have made the outlook bleaker than ever.

As the dairy industry and other traditional agricultural sectors have suffered, some farmers and landowners have found success in niche markets. O’Brien and Ainsworth reflect those differences.

“Agriculture is definitely a big thing in this town,” said O’Brien, a lifelong resident of Tunbridge whose 1996 film, Man With a Plan, portrayed Tunbridge resident Fred Tuttle, as a dairy farmer-turned-politician. (Tuttle, who died in 2003, soon gained prominence as a real-life farmer-turned-politician, aided by O’Brien as his campaign manager.) “I look at the farmers here, the challenge is to figure out how to make them next-generation farms. At the moment, I think a lot of them are teetering.”

O’Brien’s father, who was elected to the Orange Senate district in 1974, purchased the farm in 1941. O’Brien, who attended Harvard, has begun renting parts of his 230 acres as a wedding destination; the vegetable garden is for family use, and he maintains 80 apple trees, 25 sheep, horses, and a single Highland cow, none of which are managed commercially.

O’Brien suggested state lawmakers could do more to create agricultural collectives — which bundle the raw materials of many different farmers into a high-value product — or individually branded dairy operations like Strafford Creamery’s.

“You get much closer to the retail markets,” he said. “Instead, we’re making a good product like milk and then selling it at less than it costs to make it. The problem-solving part is figuring out what government can do to help Vermonters get to that point.”

Ainsworth, by contrast, is a fifth-generation dairy farmer who bought the operation, including a traditional milking parlor, from his father in 1985. Today, he has 125 acres of crops and sells milk from 45 to 50 Holsteins to Cabot Agrimark, a collective that he said has managed to turn a modest profit even in these lean years.

Ainsworth, who graduated from the University of Vermont, said the local dairy industry needs help but the state isn’t well-positioned to provide it.

“The best thing they can do is keep improving water quality and preventing erosion,” he said. “They can’t wave a magic wand and give you an extra $5 for your hundredweight.”

He said he felt the current administration is doing a good job of supporting other agricultural sectors.

Ainsworth said farmers would benefit if the state could do a better job of developing markets for local products.

O’Brien, who is a member of the Tunbridge Selectboard, described himself as a moderate Democrat who generally adheres to party positions but isn’t afraid to cross party lines. He said he tends to be more fiscally conservative than other Democrats.

Ainsworth said he is a fiscal conservative, but not a “conservative conservative” on social issues.

“In the case of terminating pregnancy,” he said, by way of example, “I feel that’s an individual choice.”

Ainsworth acknowledged that he has missed significant time in the Legislature over the past two years because of health problems that stemmed from a 2016 kidney transplant from his wife. Complications, including a staph infection, left him, at one point, unable to stand. More recently he has dealt with a bout of shingles.

He said that he’s been building strength since March and that his doctors have told him there is no reason he shouldn’t run for another term.

“I still don’t have my leg strength to climb hills, and I’m never going to jog a marathon, but I’m getting stronger every week,” he said. “I did my own cropping this year. I did my own haying and mowing.”

He said he remains at a higher-than-average risk of picking up a cold, so he plans to wear a protective facemask in the Statehouse for as long as is necessary.

Some Democratic lawmakers have backed a carbon tax proposal that would use revenue from new taxes on propane and gasoline to reduce residential electricity bills.

Ainsworth said he supports expanding certain types of renewable energy, such as hydro, but he doesn’t think Vermont should be the first state in the nation to adopt such a tax.

“I’m not in favor of artificially starting this carbon tax to force people to change their habits,” he said.

O’Brien, who is currently working on a climate change-themed film, said he would be likely to vote for a carbon tax, as long as it includes a mechanism to avoid penalizing those who are required to drive a lot for their jobs, and income-sensitive households.

O’Brien favors Vermont’s recent legalization of marijuana — the state now allows cultivation and possession of small amounts — and said he thinks it makes sense to allow retail sale as a way to raise money and ease the state’s tax burden.

“I think it should just be consistent with things like alcohol and tobacco,” he said.

Ainsworth said he sees a legitimate role for medical but not recreational marijuana. He predicted the state would soon regret legalization.

“Colorado is facing tremendous problems, with increases to usage among youth,” he said. “The black market is flourishing and the gangs are getting into it. I don’t think that was a wise decision.”

Gun rights groups have mounted legal challenges to a gun control bill that was signed into law earlier this year. The law limits magazine sizes on firearms, increases the minimum age to purchase to 21, and subjects private sales to background checks.

O’Brien said he feels Vermont’s current gun laws are now “about where they should be,” and said he considered mental illness to be the root cause of a significant portion of preventable gun violence.

“It’s a mental health issue,” he said. “Why are there so many angry, violent people, most often men, and that ties into the larger health care crisis. I’m disappointed in the pro-gun lobby, that they’re not taking a lead on this.”

Ainsworth said the new laws are unlikely to make Vermont’s schools safer, and said he has reservations about the new laws, mostly because they were adopted so quickly.

“I’m not ready to go out and say we need to repeal everything that’s passed, but I think we need to do research before we try to do anything more, and not rush into it to appease the social anger and anxiety,” he said.

Ainsworth and O’Brien are scheduled to meet for a debate from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 22, at the White River Valley High School in South Royalton. Student organizations are hosting the event, and there will be an opportunity for members of the public ask questions.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at or 603-727-3211.

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