Representative from Corinth looks back on unlikely path to Vermont Statehouse

  • Discussion at the Vershire, Vt., Selectboard meeting attended by, from top left, Road Foreman Alan Lyford, Rep. Carl Demrow, D-Corinth, Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Williamstown, and selecboard member Marc McKee, ranged from transportation, and environmental regulation on building projects, to energy taxation and corrections, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rep. Carl Demrow, D-Corinth, arrives at the Vershire, Vt., Town Offices to speaks to the Selectboard about the state’s plans to repave Route 113, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. Demrow won his seat in the Orange 1 House district in 2018 and sits on the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Vershire Selectboard Chair Vernal Stone, middle, discusses the site plan for a new town garage and salt shed and challenges getting state approval for the project with Rep. Carl Demrow, D-Corinth, right, and Selectboard secretary Debra Kingsbury, at the Vershire, Vt., Town Offices, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2019. During the meeting, Demrow updated the board on state plans to repave a section of Route 113 between Chelsea and Post Mills in 2021 to correct problems caused by using concrete mixed into base materials. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rep. Rodney Graham, R-Williamstown, drives back to his farm after picking up a load of sawdust for cow bedding at in Bethel, Vt., Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019. Graham won his office on his third race in 2014 and is vice chair of the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry. He has also served on his town's school and select boards and said he decided to run for the Legislature because he was interested in politics. "The process, not the bickering," he said. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rep. Rodney Graham, R-Williamstown, milks about 50 cows and produces maple syrup on his farm where he also does Vermont motor vehicle inspections in his shop. Graham spends a moment with his 20-year-old pet cow Pinky, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019. He is the fourth generation of Grahams to run the farm which turned 100 in 2016. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 11/28/2019 9:37:59 PM

CORINTH — When Democrat and political newcomer Carl Demrow won a Vermont House seat representing six Orange County towns in 2018, he upended the conventional wisdom that the rural district is beet-red.

Comprising the central Vermont towns of Chelsea, Corinth, Orange, Vershire, Washington and Williamstown, the Orange 1 House district has long been considered a Republican stronghold.

Despite the recent four-term tenure of Progressive Susan Hatch Davis, conservative candidates have historically prevailed.

Deciding to enter the race, Demrow knew the nature of his campaign would be crucial. So over the course of his run he knocked on about 2,300 doors and listened to the concerns of hundreds of voters in the district, regardless of party affiliation.

The strategy was effective: Demrow took the top spot in a crowded field, claiming a seat with 1,554 votes along with Republican state Rep. Rodney Graham, who received 1,514 to secure a third term in Montpelier. Hatch Davis, who narrowly lost her seat to Chelsea Republican Bob Frenier in 2016, was out of the running with 1,371 votes, and Republican Christopher Covey finished with 1,317 votes.

Demrow is quick to point out that the margin between him and Graham, a dairy farmer and native of Williamstown, the district’s largest town, was a mere 40 votes. Still, Demrow’s finish signifies both an openness to new voices and the power of personal contact on the campaign trail.

Getting in the game

The 55-year-old Corinth resident grew up in Andover, Mass., and spent several years in northern New Hampshire before moving to Washington, Vt., in 2001. A former teacher, Demrow has worked as a carpenter, farmhand and trail builder, and he is currently a partner in a trail construction company that does business throughout the Northeast.

With a history of public service, including seven years as a volunteer firefighter in Jackson, N.H., Demrow said in a recent interview that he had been thinking of running for political office for a while. Demrow was convinced the time had come after a conversation with his neighbor Kerry DeWolfe after the 2018 Town Meeting, where neither of the district’s representatives appeared. And that conversation helped spark her involvement in politics, as well.

A longtime Vermont attorney, DeWolfe said she has “always followed politics on a national level.” At the 2017 Town Meeting, both Graham and Frenier came to speak.

“They didn’t represent my views or the views of anyone I knew,” DeWolfe said. “And this started to pique my interest in local politics.”

The following year, when she learned that Demrow was interested in running for office, DeWolfe — also a political novice — volunteered to manage his campaign.

“We heard, ‘Democrats can’t win here,’ ” DeWolfe said, but she believed that if people met Demrow, that could change. From the start, the heart of the campaign was the push to meet voters, a geographical challenge in a wide-reaching six-town district.

“It was a real effort to cover that much ground, a huge commitment on Carl’s part,” DeWolfe said. “But Carl is really diligent, and he’s a good listener.”

“She drove and drove and drove,” Demrow said of DeWolfe, who accompanied him on most of his visits. “The success of the campaign is largely due to her.”

In the beginning, Demrow said, he knew that knocking on doors and asking for votes was necessary to win, but he wasn’t especially comfortable doing it.

Once he lost his self-consciousness, he began to enjoy talking with people and hearing about their concerns.

The issues

Three issues emerged as the most pressing: access to affordable health care, quality education and affordability.

On the subject of education, Demrow said voters are “still stinging over Act 46 school consolidations. It was excruciating for people in Chelsea to lose their high school.”

With the state’s population aging and more residents living on fixed incomes, the problems of maintaining a thriving economy only increase.

“We need to find a way to keep and attract younger people,” Demrow said, echoing a frequently heard refrain.

As a freshman representative, Demrow did not introduce any bills, but he signed on as co-sponsor for a few.

“Campaigning and governing are two very different jobs,” he said.

“The learning curve is so steep.”

He said he tried to keep his focus on constituent work and work on his committee assignment, Corrections and Institutions, which oversees correctional facilities, state office buildings and the capital budget.

To maintain contact with constituents, Demrow sent out a regular email newsletter and held “office hours” for two two-hour sessions in each of the six towns. Often, he said, people would just stop by to chat, but he did hear complaints about his votes on two bills, complaints that reflect the diversity of his constituents.

Some expressed dismay that Demrow supported a House bill that expands and preserves abortion rights and protections. Knowing that many of his constituents opposed that bill, Demrow said he had to vote his conscience.

“I absolutely support a woman’s right to choose,” he said.

Another complaint involved his vote against a 24-hour waiting period for the purchase of a handgun, a measure introduced as a way of preventing suicides. During his campaign, Demrow — a gun owner and hunter — expressed support for the four-part gun safety legislation Republican Gov. Phil Scott signed into law in 2018, but said he believes a 24-hour waiting period would have little to no effect on preventing suicides, as a person could still purchase a rifle or find other means.

Graham, the Williamstown Republican, also voted against the 24-hour waiting period, though cited slightly different reasons. In a phone interview, Graham, who turns 56 on Dec. 1, said he supports Second Amendment rights.

“Until the Constitution is changed, we should be following the Constitution,” he said.

While he voted against the gun legislation in 2018, Graham advocates “common-sense” gun safety, such as keeping firearms stored in a locked cabinet, and he believes prospective gun owners under the age of 21 should be required to pass a firearms safety course.

Graham said he does not own a gun himself and never developed an interest in hunting.

Looking ahead to the 2020 legislative session, Demrow and Graham expressed similar views on what they expect will be two of the most contentious issues: raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and imposing a carbon tax.

“There is going to be a big push for the carbon tax. I think it’s going to be a battle,” Graham said.

Such a tax is not good for a rural state, Graham contends, noting that it might make more sense in urban areas.

“We don’t have a bus route to come and pick us up,” he said. “We don’t have tractors that run on electricity.”

Demrow agrees that imposing a tax on carbon-based fuels, which would include home heating fuels, would be harmful for rural residents already struggling to make ends meet.

Both Demrow and Graham oppose raising the minimum wage. Graham points out the hardship a raise to $15 an hour would cause for small businesses. The current rate of $10.78 per hour will automatically increase to $10.96 on January 1, 2020, he noted.

“The minimum will raise every year, just not as fast as some people would like,” he said.

Demrow is concerned about the effect on Medicaid reimbursement for home health care workers. If the minimum wage exceeds what Medicaid will pay the independent agencies that hire these workers, the agencies are likely to go out of business, leaving families to bear the cost of nursing homes.

“Everyone would like to see the minimum wage increased,” Demrow said. “But right now it just isn’t feasible.”

As legislators, Graham and Demrow face extra challenges during the legislative sessions. Graham gets up before dawn to milk his 60 cows before driving to Montpelier.

“But I have good help,” he said, explaining that his son and nephew step in for the afternoon milking.

Demrow also commutes to the capital, which makes for long days, but he said the drive gives him a few hours at home to tend to other business.

Asked why he campaigned so hard to complicate his life by winning a seat in the Statehouse, Demrow said simply, “It’s an honor to work in that building.”

Catherine Tudish can be reached at ctudish@gmail.com.




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