Primary Source: Vermont House seat opens up

  • John P. Gregg. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/20/2020 9:23:56 PM
Modified: 5/20/2020 9:23:48 PM

State Rep. Randall Szott, D-Barnard, has decided not to seek a second term in the Vermont House, setting up a primary for the Windsor 4-1 district that includes Barnard, Pomfret, West Hartford and part of Quechee.

In a Listserv post to constituents, Szott said he is not running again for personal reasons but said he was proud of the work he did in Montpelier, which included helping establish Indigenous Peoples’ Day and founding a Climate Solutions Resiliency Working Group.

He also alluded to a clash he had with Democratic leaders in February over a critical vote he took that sustained a veto by Republican Gov. Phil Scott of a paid family leave bill. Szott asserted at the time that the legislation, a top priority for Democrats, didn’t do enough to help workers take time off for personal medical issues.

“I worked with colleagues across the political spectrum and supported good ideas and fought bad ideas no matter the source. That, unfortunately, is not always viewed kindly by the party establishment,” Szott said in his statement to constituents.

“I think Vermonters are better served by representatives committed to the common good, rather than to what advances the interest of their parties or their own political ambitions. I know the importance of being a team player in politics, but I also know that people see the importance of independent thinking,” he said.

He also is throwing his support behind a Barnard Democrat who plans to seek the seat.

Heather Surprenant, a 28-year-old Randolph native who moved to Barnard a year ago and runs an organic vegetable farm, said she wants to focus on such issues as rural economic development, youth retention and helping small businesses and small farmers.

A Smith College government major, Surprenant started farming in California. Besides Szott, Surprenant said former state Rep. Teo Zagar, D-Barnard, is also backing her candidacy.

Also running is Hartford resident Havah Armstrong Walther, who works as a disabilities advocate for a program in the Vermont court system and has also been active in town politics (she previously ran and lost for a Selectboard seat).

“I come from a background where public service is something everyone needs to do so it’s always covered,” said Armstrong Walther, 45, who has lived in Hartford since 2000 and resides in the Jericho district.

Walther has the backing of state Rep. Becca White, D-Hartford.

No word yet on whether Republicans will field a candidate. Szott was unopposed in 2018.

The filing deadline for the Aug. 11 Vermont primary is May 28.

The great debate?

Remember that long-running presidential primary debate about whether U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., truly reflected the values of most Democratic voters and could beat a GOP incumbent, to boot?

That same question could now be coming into play in the Democratic primary for Vermont governor, where Lt. Gov David Zuckerman, a Democrat/Progressive and longtime protege of Sanders, is vying against former Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe, a Norwich Democrat.

Holcombe earlier this spring went after Zuckerman for his 2015 vote in favor of an exemption that allowed parents to not vaccinate their children if they had a philosophical objection.

She returned to the theme in a debate earlier this month, where Zuckerman said she was distorting his record and should be focusing on defeating Scott.

For his part, Zuckerman last week released a campaign video emphasizing his work as a farmer in Hinesburg, though the video was not on the web Wednesday night.

And this week he highlighted that the four co-chairs of Sanders’ presidential campaign, including U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, were backing his candidacy.

Holcombe has previously unveiled several mainstream endorsements, including former Gov. Madeleine Kunin; Thetford state Reps. Tim Briglin and Jim Masland; and former state Democratic Chairwoman Dottie Deans, of North Pomfret.

Matthew Dickinson, a Middlebury College professor of political science, said the two don’t differ dramatically on policy issues in general, but that Zuckerman can be seen as the more progressive candidate, Holcombe more of an establishment Democrat. Zuckerman has more name recognition and significant statewide experience, but Dickinson said Holcombe will also be a formidable candidate.

Complicating factors include the presence of a third Democrat in the race, Bennington attorney Pat Winburn, and the fact that Scott, the incumbent, is on television frequently helping to shepherd the state through the COVID-19 pandemic, Dickinson said.

“He has the best of all possible worlds,” Dickinson said. “He’s in front of the media and the cameras every other day, and he doesn’t have to worry about his message being stepped on as a political message.”

Registration deadline

Voters in New Hampshire who want to change their party affiliation before the Sept. 8 primary only have until June 2 to do so. Undeclared, or independent, voters can vote in either major party primary that day and then change back to undeclared status after voting.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, voters can change their party affiliation by mail through a form on the Secretary of State’s website, then mail it to their town or city clerk’s office.

To check on your current party status in New Hampshire, go to

John P. Gregg can be reached at

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