The race to represent Addison County in the Vermont Senate has become unusually competitive, with two pro-business independents challenging an influential Democratic incumbent whom they accuse of losing touch with this agricultural district.
The independents, Vermont Coffee Company CEO Paul Ralston and Blue Spruce Farm co-owner Marie Audet, entered the race in late July, and they're running as a slate in the two-seat district. One position will open up in January with the retirement of Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison), but Ralston and Audet would need to defeat the other incumbent, Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison), in order to serve as a pair.
The duo has taken aim at Bray's recent work as chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, saying the water quality policies he supports place too much burden on the farms and businesses that make up rural Addison County. Audet and Ralston are direct in pointing to their experience running a farm and a coffee company, respectively, as evidence that they know how to solve Vermont's problems in a manner that works for employers.
Bray, meanwhile, has lashed out at his opponents by challenging their business practices.
Ralston served four years in the Vermont House as a Democrat before stepping down in 2014 to focus on his business. He describes himself as a fiscal conservative who supports Republican Gov. Phil Scott, and he characterizes partisan politics in the legislature as a distraction from Vermonters' needs.
The independent challengers have so intertwined their campaigns that they share a website and have identical business cards with each of their contact info. They often conduct interviews with the press in tandem.
"We believe there needs to be a new set of priorities and a new focus in Montpelier. Because ... the rural communities, in particular, are a poor stepchild to Chittenden County, sorry to say," Ralston said last week in his office at the Middlebury headquarters of Vermont Coffee Company, Audet sitting by his side.
Audet continued her running mate's thought.
"But we're equally important for Vermont's vision," she said of the district.
"And who grows the food," Ralston finished.
Bray and the two independents are just three of six candidates in the race. Democrat Ruth Hardy — who, as executive director of Emerge Vermont, has spent the last three years training Democratic women to run for office — is hoping to replace Ayer. Republican Peter Briggs and Libertarian Archie Flower are also running.
Briggs, a 28-year-old selectboard member from Addison, says his experience working on his parents' farm gives him an on-the-ground perspective that's badly needed in the legislature. He ran on a similar message in 2016 and gained some traction. In that year's four-way race, Briggs received 21 percent of the vote compared to Bray's 27 percent. Ayer led the pack with 31 percent.
"Claire's not there," Briggs said of Ayer, who has served since 2002. "She got the most votes [in 2016] and I have no idea where those votes are going to go, but I'm [feeling] positive, thinking I can get some of those."
Between Ralston, Audet, Briggs and Bray, the Addison County Senate race seems largely focused on how politicians interact with the district's farm and business communities. But Hardy doesn't have much to say about that.
"I've actually never worked for private business," the New York native said. "So there's no way I can fashion myself as the business candidate. That's not what I do. I'm a public servant. I've always been a ... public or nonprofit employee."
Hardy said the other candidates' focus on private business ignores the county's three largest employers: Porter Medical Center and Middlebury College, both nonprofits, and the Addison Central School District. She said addressing the needs of families and workers will do the most good for the county.
"Do they have health care?" Hardy said. "Do they have childcare? Do they have good education? Do they have the services they need? Do they have the opportunity to have a well-paying job?"
Though the legislature is likely to face a wide range of issues in the next two years, including marijuana policy, minimum wage and education finance, Bray's challengers — and Bray in response — have turned the race into a referendum on the incumbent's loyalty to the county's agricultural community.
It's a powerful lobby. Take Bob Foster, a fourth-generation farmer with a herd of 400 milking cows on the outskirts of Middlebury. He knows Bray personally and serves as chair of the board of advisers at the University of Vermont's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
"I have to be kind of careful here," Foster said when asked for his thoughts on the senator. After a long pause, he continued, "I think he's lost touch with the ag community."
Foster said he's become disillusioned with Montpelier.
"It's more politics than it is what actually works for people," he said. "I've become kind of, not negative on the system, but negative on the way it's being practiced, with political agendas trumping what's good for society."
When Bray was first elected to the House in 2006, he made sure to get a seat on the agriculture committee. It was a calculated choice.
"Because I'm from Addison County, and I wanted to be a representative for one of the most important things about this rural economy," he explained. "It was a period of record low milk prices. One of the first votes I took was to send $6 million ... in milk price subsidy payments directly to farmers."
Bray wasn't relying on his memory. He showed up for an interview with printed pages of notes outlining the pro-farm policies he has supported in the legislature.
While Bray's challengers frame clean water policy as an expensive mandate from an out-of-touch legislature, environmentalists see it as essential.
Vermont Conservation Voters executive director Lauren Hierl hailed Bray's work as "a huge win for clean water" and said his institutional knowledge would be "real valuable to making progress" in the coming years.
Because independent candidates don't face a primary, it's not yet clear whether Ralston and Audet's pro-business message is resonating with voters. But their candidacies appear to have rattled Bray. The day after he spoke to a reporter in Vergennes, the incumbent called to suggest some "follow-up" questions for Audet and Ralston regarding their claims that they've provided high-quality jobs in the county.
Bray, who once worked for Ralston in production at Vermont Coffee Company, questioned whether either candidate's business offered health insurance to employees. He also claimed that Audet had previously stated that she'd hired migrant workers living in the country illegally.
"Has this really created a healthier economy for Vermonters?" Bray asked. "That, to me, is a genuine question and concern I have. My understanding is no, you don't get health care. I don't know what the wages are like."
Told of Bray's comments, Audet said she was disappointed but not surprised.
"Going into this, I was wondering who would try to use this," she said. "That's interesting. OK. He wants to go here."
Audet paused before explaining Blue Spruce Farm's employment practices.
"We pay a hiring service that does the paperwork for us," she said. "Everyone has documentation. Everyone pays taxes. Everyone is paid above minimum wage — sometimes double minimum wage. So it's not a matter of paying less for any person for any reason. It's about who applies. I'm sorry that he's trying to make this a deal."
Audet also said that her farm pays most of its 28 employees' health insurance premiums, though some are insured through a spouse's employer.
Bray later claimed he did not mean to suggest Audet's employees were in the country illegally — just that they were not from Vermont.
"I don't know their status. I don't know if they're legal, illegal," he said. "What was of concern to me was to see and to be told by Marie that, 'We're not finding Vermonters who want these jobs, and so we're hiring people from out of the country.' And when someone holds themselves up to be an exemplary Vermont business, I'd say, 'Well, there's something peculiar about not finding Vermonters, then, to fill these exemplary positions.'"
Audet said Bray's comments were telling.
"Clearly, Sen. Bray is no friend of Vermont farmers or employers," she said.
As for Bray's allegations about Vermont Coffee Company, Ralston called them "false and spurious" and said its 35 employees are offered health insurance through Vermont Health Connect.
"It just sounds like this is what mudslinging is," Ralston said of Bray's accusation. "You throw dirt around hoping that it will stick on something. I'm really disappointed in Sen. Bray for this tactic. This is a cheap shot."
It's unclear what Addison County voters will make of Bray's lines of attack. Audet and Ralston, for their part, have taken aim at policies Bray has supported in Montpelier that require farms, developers and local governments to spend more money to reduce water pollution.
During the 2018 legislative session, Bray proposed charging Vermont property owners an annual fee to fund water quality projects. To the senator, the proposal was the obvious next step in Vermont's water quality plan — a plan he helped design. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Lake Champlain cleanup requirements call on the state to establish a long-term source of funding for clean water. So does Vermont's Clean Water Act, passed in 2015.
To Ralston and Audet, Bray's bill exemplified the problem with his approach in Montpelier. They say lawmakers don't make enough effort to understand what farms and businesses have already done to improve water quality and how state government can help. Instead, they say, out-of-touch lawmakers pass down new, expensive mandates.
"It scared a lot of people that there was a big new tax coming down the road," Ralston said.
Audet, whose farm was the first in the state to use a methane digester to produce energy, said farms and businesses across the state are already spending millions on water quality improvements. "The last thing I thought we needed was to tax us for our good efforts," she said.
Bray's bill was ultimately watered down — converted to a study of the issue instead of an actual policy change — and passed in the final days of the legislative session. But Bert Johnson, a Middlebury College political science professor, said there's no question that Bray's water quality push has turned some constituents against him.
"There's a real sense in which [Bray's] specific proposals on agricultural runoff have drawn this challenge," Johnson said. "I think it taps into a feeling that Phil Scott has tapped into as well, which is that Democrats in Vermont state government have tried to move too fast in addressing what they see as the state's problems."
Both independents say the state needs to find ways to help farmers, developers and other companies with financial incentives to make it easier to do business and protect the environment. For example, Ralston said, the government could lease farmland at the edge of streams and lakes from farmers, then manage the land to absorb water pollution. That would help farmers offset the loss in crop revenue while helping water quality. Currently, the state requires "buffer strips" between crops and waterways but doesn't pay farmers to maintain them.
"We should be using our [state] resources to incent the behavior that we want — to help farmers, not blame farmers," Ralston said. "The method right now is punitive. It's 'we will impose this tax on you' or 'we will regulate you' or 'we will sue you.'"
Such ideas are attracting Addison County residents such as Foster, the farmer, to Ralston's and Audet's candidacies.
"I think some independent thinking would be healthy," he said, adding: "Allegiances are to the electorate, rather than allegiances to a particular party."