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Audet, Ralston set priorities in independent Senate run

ADDISON COUNTY — Marie Audet of Bridport and Paul Ralston of New Haven are hoping to become the first two independents to ever occupy the two state Senate seats representing Addison County, Huntington and Buel’s Gore.
Ralston, the founder and CEO of Vermont Coffee Company, and Audet, a co-owner of Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport, officially entered the race early this month. They join a field that includes incumbent Sen. Christopher Bray, D-New Haven, Democrat Ruth Hardy of Middlebury and Addison Republican Peter Briggs.
Longtime incumbent Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, is not running for re-election.
This is Audet’s first foray into politics — an arena that Ralston knows well. He served two terms as a Democrat representing Middlebury’s Addison-1 House district before opting against re-election in 2013. He recently moved to New Haven. Both candidates said they’re running as independents so they won’t have to worry about taking marching orders from either of the major parties.
“What we think is important right now is to be talking about the principles and not the parties,” Ralston said. “We’re in a place in the country and in Vermont where there’s too much partisanship… We know it’s going to be harder to be elected as independents, but I don’t think it’s going to be harder to serve as an independent. I think both of us are smart, persuasive people and if we have good ideas, I think we can convince (the major parties).”
Audet said independent status is in keeping with how she’s voted in past elections
“I’ve always voted for the person I thought would do the best job,” Audet said. “I don’t want to get this job and be told by anybody how to vote for Addison County, just because I’m a Democrat or a Republican. That’s the beauty about being an independent.”
The two forged their campaign alliance earlier this summer.
“I’d been thinking about running and I had also been scouring the countryside looking for other people who might consider running,” Ralston said. “Democracy needs a healthy debate.”
His search for an independent “teammate” came down to Audet, whom he decided to recruit.
Little did he know, Audet was already thinking about dipping her toe into political waters this November, and she, too, was looking for a running mate.
“It turns out she was trying to recruit me,” Ralston said with a smile. “At some point in time we just looked at each other and said, ‘If you do it, I’ll do it.’”
They are making their campaign a true collaboration. They have a joint website, audetralstonvermont.com. They traveled together to the secretary of state’s office early this month to file their election-related paperwork. They’re making joint appearances, and their campaign publicity material bears both their names. They insisted on being interviewed together for this story, though each candidate was extended the customary offer of a solo article.
Audet and Ralston — after discussing their respective views on major issues, campaign themes and roles of state government — are finding themselves on the same page.
“We both run small businesses in Vermont, we’re both competing in a challenging market place,” Ralston said. “We have foreign and domestic competition, we’re both employers and understand what working Vermonters are up against.”
But above all, the candidates said they share a sense of optimism about the state’s future, driven by the very challenges Vermont is facing and the role Addison County can play in providing the solutions.
CLIMATE CHANGE
“People are willing to criticize, a lot,” Ralston said. “But there’s so much potential here, and the rural parts of Vermont can and will be a much bigger part of the future — because of climate change, because of energy, because of food.”
Climate change is a big political motivator for both Ralston and Audet.
“We all recognize it’s a serious concern,” Ralston said. “Marie and I are both actually doing something about it.”
As previously reported by the Independent, Blue Spruce Farm in 2005 became the first agricultural enterprise in the state to invest in manure-to-energy technology as part of Green Mountain Power’s “Cow Power” program. The farm is equipped with an anaerobic digester that manufactures electricity.
Meanwhile, Vermont Coffee Company recently became the first U.S. coffee roaster to use 100-percent renewable biogas to roast its coffee, sourcing energy for both thermal and electric needs from renewable methane.
Ralston and Audet now want to be champions of that technology at the state level.
“We have a lot to offer, and I’m not sure the state is necessarily valuing the potential of farms and forests for carbon sequestration,” Ralston said. “Biomass doesn’t get the attention that solar and wind does.”
The candidates also noted Vermont’s Act 148 will require the diversion of compostable materials away from landfills by July of 2020.
“We need to figure out what to do with all that food waste,” Ralston said.
Ralston said he’s pleased with Addison County’s recent efforts in increasing its renewable energy portfolio. Along with a growing number of solar farms, there’s been a spike in local efforts to convert waste into biogas. As reported by the Independent, Massachusetts-based PurposeEnergy Inc. wants to build a plant in Middlebury’s industrial park that would capture energy from wastewater supplied by several local manufacturers, energy that would be funneled into Vermont’s electricity grid.
That kind of technology has many different helpful applications, according to Ralston.
“Rural Vermont has different transportation challenges,” Ralston said. “We need trucks; you can’t move milk in a Prius. But those trucks can run on natural gas, and it can be renewable natural gas. I’m very excited about our county being able to be the locus of this new availability of a renewable energy.”
And that renewable energy, Ralston noted, can also heat homes and fuel manufacturing facilities.
“Those new potential sources of (renewable energy) need to be championed; they need strong, effective voices in Montpelier,” Ralston said. “We’re not the ‘talkers,’ we’re the ‘doers.’ And we believe that together, we can drive that message home.”
Audet has already done some talking in Montpelier about agricultural issues. She’s a founding member and vice president of the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition, an organization that helps farmers adopt agricultural practices that improve economic resiliency and environmental stewardship. She currently serves on Gov. Phil Scott’s Climate Action Commission.
Addison County farmers, according to Audet, have spent more than five years implementing innovative technology to increase their crop yields while improving manure management practices. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has ordered Vermont to clean up its waterways (including Lake Champlain), and Audet believes the farm community is doing its part to make that happen.
“Only part of the story is being told,” Audet said. “We’ve evolved as technology has evolved. People aren’t aware we’re leading the charge.”
Audet promised to give farmers a louder voice in the Statehouse if she’s elected. And Ralston vowed to join her in that endeavor.
“We think this district has an important role, and we think the rural sector is just as critical to Vermont as its population centers,” Audet said.
“Paul and I both recognize that in order for Vermont to thrive, we need a really healthy Chittenden County,” she added. “But what I realized going to Montpelier on and off during these past several years is that Chittenden County is extremely well-represented. They occupy more than one-third of the House and Senate seats. We need some strong representation for the rural economy of Vermont.”
KEEPING ’EM IN VERMONT
Ralston and Audet are learning during their campaign that area residents, among other things, want good jobs close to home. That will mean giving developers more incentive to create lower-cost workforce housing, Ralston noted.
“We have to start pushing on housing,” he said. “It is organically not meeting the need.”
Two weeks ago, Audet said she found 694 Vermont-based tech jobs advertised on one website, indeed.com. She lamented the fact that quality jobs are going unfilled as more young Vermonters leave for opportunities in other states.
“What we need to do is get our education system to meet the needs of the businesses,” Audet said. “If we can grow the skills of Vermonters, we can grow the economy, have healthy businesses and we’re going to have better wages and benefits. It all fits together like a nice puzzle.”
Ralston agreed, adding Vermont should help its tech centers provide training for a new generation of jobs. And he believes better childcare services will be key in allowing young parents to access that training.
“We don’t have all the answers, but we want to dig into this,” Ralston said.
The two independents want the state Senate campaign to be about ideas, and who’s going to follow through on them.
“It’s not like these are new ideas,” Ralston said. “But legislators need to make them happen. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. You have to have well-informed, energetic, almost aggressive pursuit of these goals to keep them in the forefront of the decision making the state makes on an annual basis about where we’re allocating our resources.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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