With additional reporting by ABBY LEDOUX
Five candidates have so far joined the race for Franklin County’s two state Senate seats, while a sixth is contemplating a run.
On the Republican side, incumbent Dustin Degree is running, as is Georgia Rep. Carolyn Branagan.
Three other women, all Democrats, are gathering signatures on election petitions: former state senator Sara Kittell, Denise Smith and Caroline Bright.
Smith, of St. Albans, was the only candidate to specifically cite the sexual assault case of suspended Franklin County Republican Sen. Norm McAllister as a reason for joining the race.
“I feel very strongly the Senate needs an ethics committee,” Smith said. “There needs to be stronger morals in our state leadership.”
While not directly mentioning McAllister, Bright said, “My No. 1 priority in all this is making sure my town and my county have quality representation in the legislature.”
Kittell echoed this: “I’m concerned there’s some missed opportunities in our representation,” she said.
Bright, a Georgia resident who lost a bid for Senate in 2012, was asked about the possibility of running instead for the House seat Branagan is vacating.
“I had intentionally not run against Carolyn Branagan in the past because I respect her work so much as her constituent,” Bright said.
While collecting signatures for a Senate run, Bright said a House run “holds appeal.” The decision will come down to “what do folks in my town want and need, what do folks in my county want and need,” she said.
State representative of her hometown for 14 years, Branagan ascended to vice chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which considers matters of revenue, taxes and the state’s financial standing.
Branagan said she remains focused on her work in the House until the session concludes in May.
“I take my work in the Statehouse very seriously and want to make sure Franklin County voices are heard in the decisions made there,” she said.
Kittell is not new to Montpelier, either: She previously served 17 years in the Senate and chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee before stepping down in 2012. She tried unsuccessfully to reclaim her seat two years ago, coming in third behind McAllister and Degree.
Kittell is running again in November because, “I love Franklin County, and I know Franklin County,” she said.
If elected, Kittell said her priorities would include economic opportunity, agriculture and addressing the challenges families face that increase the need for human services.
Smith, executive director of Friends of Northern Lake Champlain, spoke of the need to better support families in which both parents work, early childhood education and finding a sustainable source of funding for water quality projects.
With low milk prices, fewer farmers can take advantage of federal funding for water quality work because they don’t have the required matching funds, she explained.
Bright said she would focus on “the three E’s” – education, economic development and equality. A flight attendant for American Airlines, she said she would take a leave of absence for the duration of the legislative session if elected.
At 26, the Georgia native would be the youngest Vermont senator ever.
“I will bring fresh perspective to the Senate, but most importantly, I will bring a fierce dedication to serving the voters of Franklin County and Alburgh,” Bright said in a March 13 press release announcing her campaign. “Over the past few years, I have been alternately disappointed, disgusted and frustrated by our current state Senate representation.
“Franklin County needs trustworthy individuals who are willing to be considerate, to compromise when appropriate and who are able to respect individuals with whom they disagree,” she continued.
Degree, a first term senator and former St. Albans City representative, has functioned as the sole Franklin County Senate representative since McAllister’s suspension in January.
“It’s been an honor to represent Franklin County and Alburgh, through difficult times, and I’m committed to working as hard as I can – everyday – through the end of the session,” he said, citing affordability, job creation, lower taxes and decreased spending as continued priorities.
Dr. Bill Roberts, who ran for Senate in 2014, did not rule out a bid this year, but did praise the number of women in the race.
“Whether I am a candidate or a citizen selecting a candidate is of less important than the expressed interest several very well qualified women this year,” Roberts said, adding he has not “formally excluded participation” in the race.
Franklin County’s other incumbent, McAllister, has not yet indicated whether he will seek re-election. He is facing a criminal trial and a civil suit in the coming months.
Following his arrest last May, he was stripped of his committee assignments and subsequently suspended by his colleagues 20-10 this January in an unprecedented vote after resisting calls for his resignation. Last week, the Senate Rules Committee denied his request for a reconsideration of his suspension.