Greg Dennis: Passions running high in State Senate race

Call it the Trump Effect.
As political passions run high approaching the national midterm elections, some of that tension seems to be drifting into our normally low-key legislative races. Ground zero for that is the race for our county’s two State Senate seats.
Chris Bray, a Democrat and chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, is running for re-election. The second Democrat in the race is Ruth Hardy, an East Middlebury resident who leads Emerge Vermont. That organization “recruits, trains and provides a powerful network to Democratic women who want to run for office.”
Notable among the other four candidates is the high-profile slate of Marie Audet, member of a leading local farm family, and Paul Ralston, who previously represented Middlebury for two terms in the House of Representatives as a Democrat. Now Ralston is running alongside Audet as an independent.
Republican Peter Briggs, an Addison resident, and Libertarian Archie Fowler, of New Haven, are the other two candidates.
Despite Ralston and Audet’s adoption of the “independent” label — which has from time to time had strong political appeal in our legislative races — they have aligned themselves with our solidly Republican governor, Phil Scott.
The governor is attending an Oct. 2 fundraiser for Ralston and Audet at Champlain Valley Equipment in Middlebury. Ralston was quoted by John Walters, the Seven Days political columnist, as saying he supports Scott but won’t accept the governor’s endorsement because “we’re independents. We’re not accepting endorsements.”
Ralston’s shift from Democratic to independent status has raised more than few eyebrows. Local Democrats also worry that he and Audet may not provide strong support to implement and pay for state regulations regarding polluting runoff from dairy farms, municipal systems and other sources.
The state faces a federal order to ease lake pollution, and Bray led Senate efforts to pass the Vermont Clean Water Act. Scott’s staff, by comparison, has actively worked to weaken proposed regulations to further implement the act, and the governor has been cool to adequately funding the cleanup.
As I prepared to write about the State Senate race, Ralston’s response to my email inquiry caught me by surprise. (I should note in fairness that I emailed Audet and Ralston this past Monday evening in hopes they could respond before Tuesday noon— a tight timeframe for busy candidates who also help run local businesses.)
Here’s our exchange. First, here’s my email to Ralston to better understand his positions.
“Hi, Paul —
“As you may know, I’m a contributing columnist to the Addy Indy. I’m fact-checking a couple things and hoping to hear from you tonight or early Tuesday. I may write about your Senate race and I have a noon Tuesday deadline.
Please clarify for me whether you oppose or support:
– Gov. Scott’s veto of $15/hour minimum wage.
– His veto of paid family leave.
“You previously ran and was in the legislature as a Democrat. What happened?
“ALSO — You are widely viewed as opposing current state regulation of farm runoff and wanting a more farm-friendly policy and regulations. Is this accurate? How do you propose to have Vermont meet and pay for EPA requirements to clean up Lake Champlain, if you oppose current regulations to control runoff?
“Thanks for any quick thoughts you have on these questions, preferably by email to help me quote you accurately.
“Hoping you can get back to me very soon. Thanks.
– Greg”
And here’s Ralston’s response:
“Just got your email. It’s late and I have a busy day tomorrow, but I’ll try to make your deadline.
“I know you are predisposed to oppose my efforts. I don’t know why that is, but from your past writing about me — mean and wrong writing that drew a published rebuke from Middlebury’s liberal elite — I admit I don’t see your inquiry as a disinterested journalist pursuit.
“Your email shows your bias, and your statements/questions are ‘gotcha’ simplifications of complex issues or factually incorrect. As a columnist, you may have more leeway than a reporter, but facts are facts, and innuendo brings no credit or credibility.
“I am currently writing responses to a series of questions posed by the Editor of the Addy Indy about legislative priorities for the next legislature, a series that starts this week.
“Hope to connect with you soon.
Paul Ralston”
(I didn’t receive a further response from Ralston before I had to file this column. I sent a similar email to Audet. See below for her response.)
The local Senate race is also notable because of the formidable candidacies of two well known women.
Ruth Hardy has been a local school board leader for some years, was a legislative analyst on school funding, and has run Emerge Vermont since 2015. That group’s alumnae include Mari Cordes, a House candidate for the district encompassing Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton and Starksboro.
Marie Audet was born and raised on a Middlebury dairy farm and resides at Blue Spruce Farm, her family’s farm in Bridport. Blue Spruce was the first to join the Cow Power electricity setup. The farm also has a large wind turbine, though Audet opposes wind power on ridgelines.
Audet’s email response to me on the water issue said, in full:
“Hi Dennis, I am so glad you reached out. In no way is there truth to a statement that I am opposed to water quality regulations.
“I am on record stating the RAPs (Required Agricultural Practices) are the pathway to clean water. I agree 100% with the ‘all in’ approach. The culture of clean water drives our daily decision-making on the farm. We invest in practices and technology, beyond what is required by law, because they help insure that nutrients stay on the farm. We have been transparent throughout.
“There is a ton of information available to you; we are engaged, and we are the boots on the ground doing the work. You could contact the former Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets, Chuck Ross. He had the tough job of engaging the Ag Community about the new water quality regulations while he was in office.
“If elected, I will engage in finding solutions for needed funding. Agriculture is charged with 40% of the problem, yet agriculture is 60% of the solution. Why? It is the least expensive option with the biggest positive impact.”
Thanks, Marie.
With more than a month left before the Nov. 6 election and early voting having already started, this race can be expected to generate a significant amount of attention in the next six weeks. Stay tuned.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other week and is archived on his blog at gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis.

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