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Jim Kenyon: Face time can win an election, even in a pandemic

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 11/7/2020 11:25:59 PM
Modified: 11/7/2020 11:25:57 PM

In the age of Facebook, Instagram and all-consuming social media, it’s heartening to see the path to winning a seat in the Vermont House can still run through front steps and porches.

Take the six-town Orange 1 district, which covers Chelsea, Corinth, Orange, Vershire, Washington and Williamstown.

In 2018, Corinth carpenter Carl Demrow, a Democrat, knocked on about 2,300 doors in the months leading up to the election in the two-seat district. Demrow, running his first campaign, ended up the top vote-getter in a four-candidate field.

This year, Republican Samantha Lefebvre, a 25-year-old political novice, used a similar playbook. Until she began knocking on doors ahead of the August primary, “no one knew who I was,” Lefebvre told me after she defeated Demrow and three other candidates to secure the district’s second seat last Tuesday.

“I tried to run a grassroots campaign,” said Lefebvre, who moved to Orange with her husband, Shane, and their 2-year-old son from northern Vermont in 2018. “I’d go door-to-door as much as I could.”

Lefebvre knocked on about 1,000 doors — a remarkable feat, considering how much the coronavirus pandemic hampered candidates’ face-to-face campaigning.

“When someone sees you in person, they pay a lot more attention to what you’re saying than if you just put something up on social media,” said Lefebvre, who also has about 275 followers on Facebook.

Lefebvre, a licensed nursing assistant, told me that she prioritized social distancing when campaigning, remaining outdoors while carrying on conversations.

At first, “I was really nervous,” she said. “I didn’t want to offend anyone or have them think I wasn’t concerned about their health.”

In her front yard chats, Lefebvre heard plenty from voters about their economic struggles due to the pandemic. As a small business owner — she and her husband operate a bread distribution company — Lefebvre assured voters that getting the economy going again was a top priority.

Historically, the towns that make up Orange 1 have had a strong Republican bent. Throughout the campaign, Lefebvre repeated familiar GOP refrains that the state is not “business-friendly” and “rural Vermont is not being equally represented in Montpelier.”

Lefebvre, a native Vermonter who graduated from Mount Mansfield Union High School in Jericho, also let voters know that she’s a fierce supporter of gun owners’ rights, earning the endorsement of the National Rifle Association. (She’s a hunter, having shot a turkey and a bear, but she’s still looking for her first deer.)

Still, as the election results show, it was a difficult campaign. “In the beginning, I got pushback being a young female Republican,” she said.

Just to make it onto the November ballot, Lefebvre had to get past Chelsea Selectboard member Levar Cole in the GOP primary. (She won by 20 votes.)

In the general election, she finished ahead of Demrow; Kate MacLean, who is also on the Chelsea Selectboard; and former lawmaker Susan Hatch Davis, of Washington, who ran as a Progressive after losing in the Democratic primary.

Rodney Graham, a Williamstown farmer, was last week’s leading vote-getter. Lefebvre finished second with 1,774 votes, 40 more than MacLean and 212 more than Demrow. Hatch Davis and Rama Schneider, an independent, rounded out the field.

Although she lost to Lefebvre by less than a half a percentage point, MacLean told me on Friday that she wouldn’t seek a recount. Lefebvre “worked very hard,” MacLean said. “She absolutely earned those votes.”

It’s probably safe to assume that Hatch Davis, a former five-term lawmaker, siphoned votes from MacLean and Demrow. But MacLean, who expects to make another run in 2022, isn’t dwelling on what might have been. “I’ll never be able to control who is in the field,” she said. “I have to try to figure out what I can do better.”

With the legislative session, which went to Zoom meetings early on in the pandemic, stretching into late summer, Demrow found himself pressed for time.

“It really compressed the campaign season to a little over a month of knocking on doors,” he said.

Demrow and MacLean campaigned as a team, but making 2,000 or so phone calls was no substitute for meeting people where they live, Demrow said.

His experiences on the 2018 campaign trail stayed with him when he got to Montpelier. “I learned a lot about rural poverty,” he said. “You really see it up close when you go door to door.”

Meeting residents on their home turf helped Demrow recognize that even small tax increases on necessities such as heating fuel and gasoline come at a price for the working class.

Even if they qualify for government assistance, some impoverished Vermonters often run up against obstacles. “You can’t apply for benefits unless you’ve got a computer,” he said.

Demrow, 55, isn’t sure if he’ll run again. In the meantime, his loss on Tuesday was a blow to state Democrats. Along with Demrow’s seat, Republicans picked up two others. Unless House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, of Grand Isle, who lost by 18 votes, prevails in a recount, the Democratic/Progressive “super coalition” will drop from 102 seats to 99. With 100 votes needed to override any of his vetoes, Republican Gov. Phil Scott now holds the upper hand.

Although this was her first bid for office, Lefebvre already has stories to tell from the campaign trail. Here’s one:

On a Sunday afternoon, she was knocking on doors on a back road in the town of Washington, or at least what she thought was Washington. At one house, the owner interrupted as she made her pitch.

“Sweetheart,” he advised, “you need to turn around.”

Without knowing, Lefebvre had crossed out of her district about three houses earlier.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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