Primary Source: Vermont House Race in Royalton-Tunbridge District

  • Valley News political columnist and news editor John Gregg in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 20, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Tunbridge Selectman John O’Brien, the filmmaker who made dairy farmer Fred Tuttle a legend in Vermont politics, is running for the Vermont House.

O’Brien on Monday was collecting signatures at Tunbridge’s Memorial Day parade and plans to run as a Democrat for the Windsor-Orange 1 House seat representing Royalton and Tunbridge.

Republican state Rep. David Ainsworth, a dairy farmer from Royalton who has been battling health problems, was also collecting signatures at the parade.

Ainsworth served two terms, lost the seat by one vote in 2010, but then narrowly won it back in 2016 from Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, on a 1,005-1,003 tally.

O’Brien wrote and directed Man With a Plan, the 1996 film in which Tuttle, a retired dairy farmer, played a farmer named Fred Tuttle who ran for Congress.

With O’Brien acting as his campaign manager, Tuttle later ran in real life in the 1998 Republican U.S. Senate primary, defeating a wealthy GOP candidate regarded as a carpetbagger by many Vermonters. Tuttle then lost the general election to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., though he had encouraged voters to back Leahy.

A 55-year-old Tunbridge native who went to Harvard, O’Brien said on Wednesday that he thinks Ainsworth is more conservative than most voters in the centrist district. “I wouldn’t expect an old-time Vermont dairy farmer to be a big lefty, but he never surprises me with something that is against the grain,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien says he probably would have voted for a $15 minimum wage by 2024 and for most of the gun-control measures signed into law by Republican Gov. Phil Scott, though he may have opposed the measure to limit magazine capacity.

Ainsworth, who is back in the Vermont House after spending three months in the hospital and rehab, said, “I am up for running. The rumors on Facebook that I’m retiring are premature.” He said he is siding with Scott in trying to avoid a potential $30 million tax increase in the budget.

“I think Vermonters asked me to be fiscally responsible, and they are getting sick of taxes,” said Ainsworth, who voted against the proposed minimum wage increase.

The 63-year-old Ainsworth said he would have opposed both marijuana legalization and the gun-control measures if his health had allowed him to vote.

“The sad thing is I don’t know if it’s going to make our schools any safer,” he said of the gun measures, which he said were rushed into law. “I understand things need to be done … but quick legislation is not ever good legislation.”

Both men have deep roots in the White River Valley. Ainsworth is a fifth-generation dairy farmer, and O’Brien’s late father, Robert O’Brien, in 1974 was the first Democrat elected to the Orange Senate district since the Civil War. O’Brien lives on the Tunbridge farm his father bought in 1941, and though he raises 25 sheep for meat, wool and breeding stock, he made clear the sheep are also there for the aesthetics.

O’Brien and his wife, Emily Howe, have turned the farm into a wedding venue.

As for the ultimate potential swing voter in this contest — Tuttle — he died in 2003 at age 84.

Kuster on Jobs

U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., is likely to face a strong challenge in November, and was in Lebanon yesterday to tout her “jobs and opportunity agenda.”

That includes skills development to build a 21st century workforce and taking steps to make college more affordable. Kuster met with several major Upper Valley employers at an event at Hypertherm. “Despite New Hampshire’s low unemployment rate, challenges remain for many families in our state who are trying to get ahead,” Kuster said in a news release. “That’s why I’m focused on expanding economic opportunity so that every Granite Stater can make a decent living and raise their family here.”

Briefly Noted

Democrats in Springfield, Vt., next week will host a forum involving their party’s two major gubernatorial candidates. James Ehlers and Christine Hallquist are expected to appear on Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. at the First Congregational Church in Springfield.

New Hampshire voters have a deadline approaching. Tuesday, June 5, is the last day voters can change party affiliation or become unaffiliated for voting in the Sept. 11 New Hampshire primary. Unaffiliated, or so-called independent, voters can vote in either primary.

Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos says a number of early Vermont newspapers have been added to the www.newspapers.com website and can be researched online for free by residents. Condos and State Archivist Tanya Marshall also said “millions of pages” from Vermont newspapers between the 1700s and 1922 have been digitized and are accessible through a state web portal.

John P. Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com.