Chelsea-area House district draws six candidates in primaries

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/4/2020 10:51:18 AM
Modified: 8/4/2020 11:48:33 AM

CHELSEA — The two-seat Orange 1 district in the Vermont House is currently represented by one Democrat and one Republican, a sign that voters in the six-town district care less about political party than they do about who’s running.

On Aug. 11, voters in Chelsea, Corinth, Orange, Vershire, Washington and Williamstown will choose two Democrats and two Republicans to contest the seats in November.

State Rep. Carl Demrow, D-Corinth, is on the Democratic primary ballot along with former state Rep. Susan Hatch Davis, of Washington, and newcomer Kate MacLean, of Chelsea.

In the Republican primary, Rep. Rodney Graham, of Williamstown, is running along with two newcomers to state politics, Levar Cole, of Chelsea, and Samantha Lefebvre, of Orange.

Demrow, 55, is finishing his first term, while Graham, 56, has served three terms. They view the main challenge facing the state — the novel coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic decline — in similar ways.

“I think the most important thing we need to do is keep our infection rates low,” said Demrow, who has had a varied career and now works in construction. But, “it may be time to open the spigot a quarter-turn” on the economy, perhaps by letting restaurants and hotels to open “just a little more,” he said. That would provide the state with more revenue from the meals and rooms tax.

“The quicker we can get businesses going, the sooner we can get our revenue going,” said Graham, a longtime dairy farmer who sold his cows in May and now raises beef cattle and makes maple syrup. In the meantime, the state is going to have to consider cutting spending, he said.

“I don’t think Vermonters could stand it if we try to tax our way out of this,” Graham said, adding that he wouldn’t want to see the state cut whole programs, but “we’re going to have to take a hard look” at spending.

The incumbents come down on opposite sides of the paid family leave bill that passed the Legislature this year and fell one vote shy of an override of Gov. Phil Scott’s veto.

The state would have been better able to cope with the pandemic if it had a family leave plan in place, Demrow said.

Graham said the proposal was flawed, and that the proposed payroll tax that would have paid for it would have an undue burden on businesses and workers alike.

The other candidates largely hew to those lines of argument.

MacLean, 36, who raises beef and pork on a farm she and her husband run in Chelsea, said she thinks the state is doing a good job managing the pandemic. The health of the citizenry is paramount, she said, and beyond that, the state should be wary of cutting spending that helps maintain its high quality of life.

“We’re going to be doing the same thing on a town level in Chelsea,” said MacLean, who was elected to the Chelsea Selectboard in March.

“I don’t think there’s a lot in our town budget that’s frivolous,” she said, noting that the same is true for the state.

She said she would have voted for paid family leave. While she understands the fear of adding to the tax burden, it’s “important to view paid family leave as an investment in the state.” Only a handful of states have adopted paid family leave, and it could help attract families to Vermont, she said.

Like MacLean, Cole, 39, is a member of the Chelsea Selectboard. Prior to moving to Vermont, he worked in Washington, D.C., in oversight roles in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and at the Department of Homeland Security.

He called the response to the pandemic “probably the largest self-imposed economic shutdown in our lifetimes.” Even before that, Vermont’s economy was struggling to generate consistent wage growth, leading to income inequality, he said.

He said he didn’t want to see the state raise taxes as a response to the economic slowdown.

“I really think that the mere mention of these things ... could likely sabotage a recovery,” he said.

Instead, the state should look at where money isn’t being well-spent and at programs that aren’t working as they should as places to cut.

“That’s a tough one,” he said of paid family leave. While the state wants to create a way to facilitate people being able to work and to take time off when needed, for employers, “the cost associated with it was prohibitive,” he said. The pandemic will shape future discussions, he said. “Maybe we’ll get some proposals that are more amenable to business and government as well.”

Like Graham, Samantha Lefebvre, 25, is a Vermont native. She and her husband own a bread distribution business and she also works as a licensed nursing assistant at UVM Medical Center in Burlington.

She was alone among the candidates in criticizing Gov. Scott’s response to the pandemic, particularly the mask mandate that went into effect on Saturday. “If it’s something that was mandated now, why wasn’t it mandated a couple of months ago so things could open up?” she asked.

Vermont’s reliance on tourism has made it more vulnerable to the pandemic, and the state should seek to diversify its economy.

Paid family leave puts too great a burden on businesses, Lefebvre said. “What might work for a larger company isn’t going to work for a small mom-and-pop business,” she said.

Hatch Davis, who represented the House district running as either a Democrat or Progressive for a decade before narrowly losing in 2016, is also on the primary ballot for the Orange Senate district seat. Messages left for her last week were not returned.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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