Progressives get support from rural voters

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(Host) Vermont’s Progressive Party was born in Burlington, but now it has more members elected to the Legislature from rural areas around the state. Progressives won six seats in the Statehouse in last Tuesday’s election. The newly elected representatives say they won because they worked on issues that affect working men and women in Vermont.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) Chris Pearson, the executive director of the Progressive Party, says his favorite Vermont political myth is that his left-leaning organization only has support in Burlington or Brattleboro. He points to the strong showing in rural areas for Independent Congressman Bernie Sanders and for Anthony Pollina, who ran as a Progressive candidate for governor and lieutenant governor.

(Pearson) “Both of them do very well in the Northeast Kingdom, traditionally a Republican area. But more than a Republican area, this is a lot of working class people in rural communities. They don’t have a lot of money. They don’t have a lot of jobs. They’re desperate for health care. They’re desperate for real reform in Montpelier.”

(Zind) Winston Dowland is chairman of the Board of Selectmen in Holland, in the upper reaches of the Northeast Kingdom. The 62-year old is state commander of the Disabled American Veterans and considered himself an Independent until he met Pollina during the 2002 campaign.

(Dowland) “I said, I like this guy. He stands for what I believe in, other than any party. And I think the people in my area didn’t care – Republican, Democrat or Progressive.”

(Zind) Dowland beat Nancy Sheltra, a longtime Republican representative from Derby, by 14 votes. Sheltra has asked for a recount.

Dowland’s success in the race had much less to do with party affiliation than from his work in the community, both in town government and on veterans’ issues.

(Downland) “I think people knew I was ‘come to, get done’ guy. If I say I was going to do it, I was going to do it.”

(Zind) Sandy Haas lives in Rochester, where she has a solo legal practice and runs a bed and breakfast. She beat Republican Henry Holmes. Her success came the old fashioned way: she drove the back roads to visit and re-visit the 1,800 homes in her district.

(Haas) “I was running on universal health care, support for small business and moving to a tax that is more progressive rather than regressive. That is, moving to a tax that is more income-based and less based on property tax. And all of those were issues that appealed to people. I think out of the 1,800 houses that I visited there were only two or three that did not agree that we need to go to universal health care. And nearly everyone in our district is unhappy about property tax.”

(Zind) In the Northeast Kingdom town of North Troy, dairy farmer Dexter Randall has been a longtime activist on farm issues. He’ll take over the seat left formerly occupied by Democrat Bobby Starr, who ran successfully for the Senate. Like Starr, Randall says he’ll focus on ways to help family farms.

(Randall) “My real, real heart issue is agriculture, undoubtedly. And I would like to see farmers have ability to make a fair living wage. And I would also like to stop, to stem the flow of farm businesses being closed down.”

(Zind) Randall says Montpelier can help farmers with incubator-type operations to foster new, food-related businesses. He says that if farmers can make more money and stay on the land, everyone benefits, including the state’s tourism industry. Like Randall, all three of the Progressive legislators plan to focus on pocketbook issues in their Statehouse work.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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