State Senate candidates in Vermont’s most diverse district focus on fairness

Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Essex, Democrat Martine Gulick and Infinite Culceasure as Independents are the state Senate nominees in the Chittenden Central District. Courtesy pictures

The four state senate candidates in the Chittenden Central District, widely considered the most diverse in the state, pledge to address key issues such as housing, child care and education in an equity perspective.

The new three-seat district is made up of the New and Old North Ends of Burlington, Winooski, Essex Junction, parts of the city of Essex and part of Colchester.

With no Republican competition, voters on Nov. 8 will choose between four candidates who all lean left: Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Essex, Democrat Martine Gulick and Infinite Culceasure, which threw away his hat into the mix in August as an independent.

In the primary, Baruth and Vyhovsky secured the first two places with 5,710 and 5,140 votes respectively. Gulick clinched third place with 3,948, beating Erhard Mahnke by four votes in a recount to finalize the district’s Democratic lineup.

In recent interviews, all four cited housing, childcare, education and public safety as their constituents’ top concerns. Although the candidates seemed to largely agree on major issues, they articulated distinct approaches to how they would serve a diverse constituency.

Culcleasure, a former Burlington mayoral candidate, said he brings lived experience as a renter, as a father of a toddler and as a black man to the race. Culcleasure said he saw first-hand the struggles of the working class over housing, food, child care, education and public safety.

“My role is to listen, isn’t it?” he said. “Some people, especially people of color, don’t have much faith in our government to solve their problems. And that makes it harder to motivate people to vote. Most marginalized communities are not convinced that politicians will really make a difference in their lives.

A community organizer with grassroots and lobbying experience, Culcleasure said he inhabits different spaces than his opponents. “I’m going to involve people more than the people I’m racing against,” he said.

Culcleasure, who said he has regularly participated in Vermont’s Social Equity Caucus — a group of lawmakers and advocates who work to improve outcomes for marginalized people — points to a gap between intention and action. “So we talk about this equity lens until we’re blue in the face, but I haven’t seen it in action,” he said.

Baruth, the lone senator out of the race, said the Legislative Assembly is already looking at issues through a social justice lens, but added, “Of course, we’re still finding ways that some Vermonters are prejudiced, and when we do, we work overtime. to change this state of affairs.

He said the Legislature “has worked to” collect data to identify bias, citing the creation of a racial justice statistics division and an executive director of racial equity.

First elected in 2010, Baruth has been a strong advocate for gun safety legislation and is known to be one of the most liberal members of the Senate.

The longtime member of the Senate Judiciary Committee said he often hears concerns about gun violence and public safety. He suggested a multi-pronged approach that includes trying to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, adopting stricter mechanisms for training police and making sure they don’t. abuse of force, and to give police and prosecutors more resources to do their job. .

“Policing issues, mental health resource issues, and then housing continue to be huge issues,” he said. “I’ve heard everyone talk about the affordability aspect, the availability aspect and the aspect of how new populations or minority populations just can’t afford to live anymore. here.”

Vyhovsky, who was elected to the Vermont House in 2020, said she grew up in a working-class single-family home. Now a tenant in Esse, she works as a social worker at Charlotte Central School.

“The fact that I am now a person with a master’s degree who is still struggling financially in Vermont shows how much equity we need to build into our economic policy,” she said.

Vyhovsky was a leader in the fight for a proposed charter change in Burlington to ban evictions without cause. (Governor Phil Scott vetoed the measure in May.) She said she would be one of the Statehouse’s few tenants.

Lawmakers are often “tempted to really focus on a fairness bill,” Vyhovsky said. “I think it’s really extremely important that we look at every element of the policy through a fairness lens.”

She suggested creating a working group to gather the opinions of groups that have been silenced or excluded from the legislative process.

“The reality is that we have to have everyone around the table to really come up with a policy that will work for everyone,” Vyhovsky said. “A lot of this work can happen outside of the committee room to begin with, because it’s about building trust and building relationships with members of our community and the districts I would be representing who, at rightly, do not currently trust the system.”

Gulick’s experience as an educator and librarian shaped her campaign and she made education one of her top priorities. Equity means making sure public schools are funded and private institutions follow the same rules, she said.

She also cited the need to make homeownership more affordable and accessible, as well as the importance of adequately compensating child care and early education providers. Gulick also calls for “radical police reform that ranges from de-escalation, anti-racism and officer bias training to shared surveillance.”

Gulick also said she hears concerns about rising taxes, especially in Burlington, with the link for a new high school on the ballot. She supports Vermont’s constitutional amendment to codify reproductive rights and wants to push the state to reconsider how Law 250, the sweeping land use law, can be better amended to address housing inequities.

“I am extremely concerned about the contamination of our school buildings,” she said. “I’m also concerned that we’re one of the few states in the country that doesn’t have school building assistance. So when a building is condemned or in poor condition, what are we going to do to help our municipalities rebuild their schools?

Baruth seems confident in defending his seat. The former Senate Majority Leader has already emerged as the only candidate to become the next acting president of the Senate, if re-elected, and he has raised funds much less aggressively than two of his competitors. According to the latest filings, as of October 15, Vyhovsky and Gulick had each raised nearly $22,000, while Baruth recorded $10,400. Culcleasure had raised just over $3,000.

Josh Wronski, executive director of the Vermont Progressive Party, said he was confident Vyhovsky would get a seat in what turns out to be a key election for progressives.

While Democratic, progressive and independent candidates all talk about fairness, Wronski suggested that progressives have shown themselves to be the most willing to commit funds to the effort.

“Progressives have consistently launched progressive tax initiatives that would fund grassroots programs to reduce poverty and address inequality. So I would say that’s one of the biggest differences,” he said. “All of our candidates strongly believe that we not only need to talk about these issues, but also be prepared to actually invest money in these programs that will make them effective.”

Michael Ross, chairman of the Chittenden County Democratic Committee, argues that the Democratic Party “has made fairness a top priority in the past and continues to make fairness a top priority.”

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