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Jim Kenyon: In Vermont Senate race, it’s the young and the restless

Valley News Columnist
Published: 4/27/2022 8:41:41 AM
Modified: 4/27/2022 8:40:13 AM

Part of me thinks it’s too early to be writing about an election that’s still more than six months away. Particularly when it’s not a statewide office at stake.

But the race for Windsor County’s three seats in the Vermont Senate is already on.

Becca White, a two-term Democratic state representative from Hartford, announced earlier this month that she’s not waiting around for one of the county’s three entrenched Democratic incumbents to retire.

“I’ve decided it’s the right time for me,” White said when we talked in the Statehouse cafeteria last week. “Throughout the pandemic, I saw that on socio-economic issues and things like climate change that our time for action is limited. I want to have more of a regional impact.”

White is breaking an unwritten rule in Vermont politics: Don’t challenge your party’s elders.

Dick McCormack, of Bethel, entered the Senate in 1989. He turns 75 this summer. Alice Nitka, of Ludlow, was elected in 2006, after serving multiple terms in the House. By the time the next legislative rolls around in January, she’ll be 78.

By Senate standards, McCormack and Nitka aren’t age outliers. Of the 30 senators, 14 are 70 and older. Only seven are under age 50.

“I’m 66 and considered one of the young people,” said Sen. Alison Clarkson, of Woodstock, who has represented Windsor County since 2017.

If elected, White, who turns 28 in July, would likely become the youngest state senator. Currently, the three youngest are in their 30s.

The part-time job pays about $24,000 a year, which helps explain why the Vermont Legislature includes a lot of retirees.

In making the rounds at the Statehouse last week, I talked with McCormack and Nitka. With the filing deadline still a month away, both said they haven’t made up their minds about running again.

“I love this place, and I’d love to have another term,” McCormack said. “But I also have a canoe in my back yard that doesn’t see enough use.”

The Senate could benefit from younger voices, he added, “but it doesn’t necessarily mean I should leave.”

Considering the last time a Republican won a Senate contest in Windsor County was 1994, it’s likely the race will be decided in the Aug. 9 Democratic primary.

White, a Hartford High School graduate, knows that. She recently quit her job with Efficiency Vermont, a nonprofit that promotes clean energy, to campaign nonstop once the Legislature adjourns next month.

Not having the name recognition of the three incumbents is “going to be the toughest part,” she said.

People joke that McCormack, a musician, has played in half the weddings held in the county over the years.

Clarkson, the Senate majority leader, is the safest bet to win re-election. She has nearly $27,000 left in the bank from her 2020 campaign, according to state campaign finance records. White, who has raised about $7,000 so far, hopes to reach $15,000 in contributions.

Nitka, considered the most moderate of the three incumbents also appears the most vulnerable. It’s partly due to redistricting. Under the redrawn Senate map, Londonderry and Mount Holly — towns that Nitka has done well in — are no longer part of the district.

On the flip side, Thetford was moved from the Orange County district to Windsor County, which from a geographical standpoint makes door-to-door campaigning easier for White than Nitka.

On Monday, I called Kevin Ellis, who writes a political blog from his home in East Montpelier, Vt., to get his take on the Windsor County race.

Ellis spent 25 years sitting in legislative committee rooms and chatting up lawmakers at the Statehouse. After starting out as a reporter, he became one of the state’s most influential lobbyists. He works mostly now as a consultant to nonprofits and political candidates. (White isn’t among them.)

McCormack has been a “great senator and good liberal voice,” Ellis said. But both McCormack and Nitka “need to give way to the next generation,” he said.

“At 63, I’m sympathetic,” Ellis added. “When you’re retired, your sense of wanting to give back doesn’t end. But at some point, it’s time to go. The need for new blood is paramount.”

Ellis doesn’t know White, but he’s watched the videos she posts on Instagram of her interviewing lawmakers and giving updates on proposed legislation.

“She’s a pioneer, in Vermont at least, of using social media to communicate with voters,” Ellis said.

Campaigning is a “very different dynamic today,” said White, who will also be relying heavily on Facebook and TikTok in her campaign.

No matter if White is knocking on doors or reaching out to voters via their smartphone videos, she’ll from getting across her personal story.

When Vermonters say they’re worried about “home instability” and the dire shortage of affordable housing, White talks from experience.

While she was growing up in Wilder, her family struggled at times to make ends meet. Her father, a plumber and electrician, and her mother, a paraprofessional at Hartford High, divorced before she entered middle school.

Her mother, Ramona O’Brien White, bought a house in Wilder before the global financial crisis of 2008. “I bought high,” O’Brien White told me in a phone interview. “I tried, but I just couldn’t make it.”

She lost the house in foreclosure. She moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Hartford with her two children. Becca’s brother got one bedroom. Becca and her mother set up twin beds in the other.

At lunchtime in middle school, it wasn’t hard to pick out White and other kids from low-income families. Kids in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program were given black poker chips to drop in a bucket at the end of lunch line.

A first-generation, low-income student, White was captain of the debate team at the University of Vermont. “She’s definitely a go-getter,” her mother said.

After challenging her party’s elders to a primary showdown, there’s no debating it.

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




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