Can a tie-dye-shirt-wearing veggie farmer break the GOP grip on Rutland?
CASTLETON – Greg Cox stood alone on a narrow patch of grass surrounded by pavement and stop-and-go traffic last Wednesday afternoon. The 67-year-old West Rutland vegetable farmer, wearing a thick sweater and worn pants, waved his green and white campaign sign at those passing by.
There was barely enough turf for a lawnmower, let alone one of his tractors. It was also a little too chilly for him to be short-sleeved in one of his trademark tie-dye T-shirts.
Cox, with his signature bushy hair and mustache, is well-known for his work in growing Rutland’s farmers market and agricultural economy, so much so he earned the award as the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce Businessperson of the Year in 2016.
On Wednesday, Cox was letting motorists at the interchange of routes 4 and 30 in Castleton know he’s running for one of three state senate seats from Rutland County.
A busier and much more popular spot for state senate candidates to do a sign wave is about 20 minutes east, at the corners of routes 4 and 7 in Rutland City, the county’s most populous community by far.
However, Cox said he chose this location Wednesday on the advice of a past state senator from the county.
“Bill Carris told me about this spot,” Cox said, referring to the last Democrat to win a state senate seat from the Republican stronghold of Rutland County.
Cox then talked about how the vehicles flowing through the two highways had travelers heading to and from Castleton, Poultney and Fair Haven, as well as other points on the western side of the county, a constituency he hopes to tap into.
Carris, a three-term state senator, last won election to a state senate seat in 2012. He was the first Democrat to get a seat from the county after passage of the civil union bill in 2000, which saw backlash against the law’s backers in conservative areas across the state.
This past legislative session, three of the seven GOP members in the 30-person state Senate hailed from Rutland County. Now, Cox, owner of Boardman Hill Farm in West Rutland and president of the board of Vermont Farmers Food Center in Rutland, is seeking to become the next senator with a “D” next to their name to represent the county in the Legislature’s upper chamber.
And, while there’s no polling data to backup the claims, some think he has a pretty good shot.
“He has signed on to be a Democrat, but honestly, he is more of an independent,” said Julian Fenn, chair of the county’s Democratic Party. “He has an agenda that appeals to people across parties.”
Illustrating Cox’s cross-party appeal, he was recently featured in a book on aging hippies in Vermont and feted by the region’s largest business group.
The Democrats didn’t even have a candidate for state senate on the primary ballot back in August.
Several factors appear to be at play that could help the party catch up after its slow start to the countywide campaign, not the least of which is only one incumbent left running in the three-seat race.
And even if a “blue wave” bolstering Democratic candidates in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election doesn’t occur, Fenn said just a small ripple could produce enough to send down ticket candidates over the top.
Cox is making his first run public office.
“Nobody really knows my politics,” he said. “I had Republicans trying to get me run to as a Republican. I had Dems and Progressives, also trying to get me to run.”
He started his campaign as an independent, but eventually agreed to run on both the Democratic and Progressive tickets.
“I was up front up with them. I told them, ‘I do not wear a team T-shirt, I am not representing a party,’” he said. “I really believe that parties are, in fact, one of the biggest, if not the biggest, problem in politics.”
Cox added, “I just want to represent people in Rutland County and break down some of that crap.”
He said he’s campaigning with a focus on small business, and further expanding Vermont’s agricultural economy and brand.
He talks of providing more incentives to Vermont-based startups and “emerging local companies,” while assessing impact fees to out-of-state franchises and multinational corporations, such as Starbucks, which recently announced plans to open a shop in Rutland.
The Rutland County Senate race features six major party candidates vying for three seats. Only one incumbent is on the ballot — Republican Brian Collamore, a local radio personality running for his third term. Former Rutland Town state representative James McNeil, a downtown Rutland businessman, and Ed Larson, a retired member of the Rutland Police Department and past city alderman, earned the party’s two other spots on the general election ballot.
On the Democratic side, the candidates include Cox, who initially planned to run as an independent; Cheryl Hooker, a former member of the both the state House and Senate, as well as a past member of the city Board of Aldermen; and Scott Garren, former chair of the Rutland County Democratic Party, who also ran for a state Senate seat in 2016.