Home News and Features Candidate Interviews: Washington 5 and Washington 6

Candidate Interviews: Washington 5 and Washington 6

As voters gear up for the upcoming August 8 primaries, The Bridge will be interviewing candidates running for statewide offices throughout the summer. In this issue, we focus on two rural districts in the Vermont House of Representatives: Washington 6 with one seat representing Calais, Marshfield, and Plainfield; and Washington 5, with one seat representing East Montpelier and Middlesex.

The Bridge has interviewed all the candidates registered with the office of the Vermont Secretary of State, asking each of them the same questions. Their responses are below.

Washington 5: Middlesex, East Montpelier

Three Democrats are running for the one seat in this district: Zachary Sullivan and Ela Chapin, both of East Montpelier, and Theo Kennedy of Middlesex. Four term incumbent Democrat Kimberly Jessup is not seeking reelection.

Tell us about yourself and your priorities. 

Ela Chapin. Courtesy photo.
Ela Chapin (EC): I grew up in Calais and now live in East Montpelier with my husband, Simeon, and our two children. I will represent our two-town district with integrity, focused on issues that affect working families and community resilience. My early career revolved around education and leadership development. For the past 15 years, I have provided leadership at the state-wide level here in Vermont to increase the viability of small businesses and resilience of rural communities, particularly in the agriculture and forestry sectors. I have significant experience and skills to bring to the Statehouse. Meet me at elachapinvt.com!

Theo Kennedy. Courtesy photo.
Theo Kennedy (TK): I am a married father of four, a business owner, a Middlebury College graduate, an attorney with a master’s in public health who has worked in the public (education, healthcare, utilities, human services) and private sectors. I have a volunteer life in health, disability rights, local government, and the arts. My priorities include meeting our climate goals in efficiency, transportation, and renewables while growing jobs, and affordable health care through eliminating benefit cliffs, lowering drug prices, and universal primary care. Government requires listening, consensus building, and sustainable outcomes while equity and fairness must inform all of our work.

Zachary Sullivan. Courtesy photo.
Zachary Sullivan (ZS): I am a parent of two young children, the husband of a teacher, and I work in health care and health policy, with degrees in math and public policy. I believe that in order to sustain thriving communities, we need to ensure that housing is affordable, that high-quality child care is available, and that our schools are strong. We need to enable everyone to transition away from using fossil fuels, offering a hand up to those who can’t afford the up-front costs of that transition. We need to ensure that our healthcare system is accessible to all.

What are your thoughts about Prop 5?

EC: I am fully supportive of protecting reproductive rights as a personal choice and Proposition 5. I appreciate the comprehensive and robust process that it takes — including the decision required by voters — to amend our state constitution. I will work on strengthening access to quality health care and the affordability of health insurance for all — this is critical to the health and resilience of our communities.

TK: I am thankful that Prop 5 will be on the ballot to amend our state constitution. The Supreme Court’s apparent willingness to overturn Roe is unacceptable. This is about the rights of women and people with uteruses to make their own decisions and also about every individual’s privacy and autonomy. Due process protects all of us from undue governmental intrusion into fundamental personal issues and decisions and must be limited.

ZS: I support and will vote for Article 5 in November. I believe that, while Vermont law is already very strong in protecting reproductive rights, Article 5 will make those protections more durable and will potentially help to protect Vermont health care providers if states that are restricting access to abortion attempt to write laws preventing their citizens from seeking care in other states.

Are there any ways you’d like to see Vermont’s gun laws changed?

EC: Vermont lawmakers have the ability to ensure our schools and communities are safe by continuing to collaborate on common-sense gun restrictions. There is room for further legislation that adheres to the Second Amendment and also keeps guns out of the hands of dangerous people. This is a critical tool — but not the only one needed — to address public safety and gun violence.

TK: Vermonters understand that balancing lawful, responsible gun ownership with public safety is reasonable and necessary. By expanding background checks, prohibiting sales to minors, prohibiting large capacity devices and bump stocks in 2018 and more recently with bans on firearms in hospitals, allowances for emergency risk protection orders, and extended waiting periods, the legislature has accomplished meaningful progress. Although further changes in gun laws are not currently my priority, there’s still room for change.

ZS: First, we need to treat gun violence, and particularly gun suicide, as a public health problem. Waiting periods to purchase firearms can help decrease suicides, and the change in approach will likely yield other solutions. We also need to require more accountability and responsibility on the part of gun owners, particularly by making gun owners liable for their own or others’ misuse of their weapons if they were not stored securely.

Real estate prices in Vermont have increased significantly in the past couple of years, and the housing inventory is low. Do you see a solution in the legislature to make homeownership affordable to Vermonters?

EC: We need more housing and more housing that Vermonters can afford. There is a great need for ongoing investments in workforce housing, affordable housing, and tools to support home ownership. I serve as a committee member for a regional workforce housing investment fund and worked alongside the housing team at the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board; I understand how it takes all the tools available — including public and private investments in housing — to effectively address the gaps. 

TK: There is not a solution, and it takes time for the aggregate of solutions to accomplish change. New federal money has enabled Vermont to commit millions to affordable housing; rehabilitation of existing stock; new housing for homeless and middle-income individuals; shelter beds; mortgage, utility and property tax assistance; and to helping contractors with building costs. There are also solutions such as inter-generational housing, accessory-unit permitting, single-room occupancy, and ‘Housing First.’ All of these must be available.

ZS: We need to increase the supply of housing. Allowing greater density, smaller lots, and more multi-family dwellings would help, but in many rural communities there is little infrastructure to support this (particularly for wastewater treatment capacity). The legislature could incentivize infrastructure development for sewer connections or community septic systems either through direct funding or by changing regulations (i.e., allowing land in current use to be used for community septic capacity).

Washington 6 – Calais, Marshfield, Plainfield

The two Democrat candidates running for the seat are Bram Towbin, a flower farmer and former chair of the Plainfield Select Board, and Marc Mihaly, of Calais, former president of the Vermont Law School. There are no Republicans running for this seat. Incumbent Janet Ancel is not running again.

Tell us about yourself and your priorities.

Bram Towbin. Photo by Erica DaCosta.
Bram Towbin (BT): I’m a former local government official who respects those who get their hands dirty, who refrain from making policy until they understand what is going on at the ground level. I believe to be a good legislator you have to drive down bumpy Class 3 roads and talk directly to the road foremen about the increasing challenge of sourcing gravel.

State solutions, often created in good faith, sometimes force real hardship for small towns. I support cleaning up Lake Champlain, student funding equality, and many other noble goals. But I take issue with smaller communities doing the heavy administrative lifting while more powerful towns pay less of the cost. We are facing increasing challenges that require the full cooperation of everyone involved in the process. Top-down/Chittenden County solutions are not designed for small municipalities with limited staff, volunteer committees, and overwhelmed select boards. Our issues are very often not represented. When was the last time you heard a state official speak about the fact that Emergency Dispatch costs for Calais, Marshfield, Plainfield have gone up 280% in a decade? When did you ever hear a state official utter the phrase, “Let’s change that requirement as it is too much of an ask of the town clerk?”

Marc Mihaly. Courtesy image.
Marc Mihaly (MM): I live on Marshfield Road in East Calais with my wife, Christy, an author of books for children. We have three children. Vermont has been our home since 2004. I was dean of the law school and proud to be on the Calais Select Board.

We have work to do yet to ensure that rural Vermonters thrive. For that we need committed and serious representation in Montpelier to improve the rural economy, to make sure our local schools succeed, to bring broadband to everyone, to make childcare a priority, and to address climate change in a way that benefits all Vermonters. 

What are your thoughts about Proposition 5, the “Right to Personal Reproductive Autonomy Amendment” to Vermont’s Constitution?

BT: This issue touches me personally as I have had family members who, during the pre-Roe era, died at the hands of underground abortion providers. This is a decision best made by a woman, her family, and her doctor. In an era where the federal government is retreating on upholding basic protections for women, I fully support enshrining reproductive right protections in our state constitution. 

MM: I strongly support Prop 5. Reproductive rights for women should be enshrined in the Vermont Constitution. Decisions about whether and when to have children belong with the individual, not the government. Those who support the “right to life” have the clear ability to take account of that view in their own lives, but I don’t believe they should use the law as a tool to impose their views on others. 

Are there any ways you’d like to see Vermont’s gun laws changed? 

BT: Half of all Vermont homicides in the last decade occurred in domestic abuse situations; of those, 50% involved a firearm. Domestic abusers make up 60% of those who perpetrate mass shootings. Current Relief from Protection Orders do NOT automatically require firearm bans. There is a compelling interest to safeguard the victim, even if this means taking the extraordinary step of restricting access to guns. As Judge Scalia says in the Heller decision: the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. 

MM: Vermonters have the right attitude about guns — adults should be able to own guns to hunt and for recreational use, and it’s up to those adults to ensure they’re kept in safe places, and to teach their older children gun safety. It’s the government’s job to ensure that felons and people with mental issues can’t own guns. I believe that automatic weapons have no place in a civilized society except in the military and police. 

Real estate prices in Vermont have increased significantly in the past couple of years, and the housing inventory is low. Do you see a solution in the legislature to make homeownership affordable to Vermonters?

BT: My spouse works for a social service agency and regularly speaks to people who are employed but sleep in their cars. There are no quick or easy solutions to a crisis born of external national trends combined with extremely low housing inventory. Local Vermonters are competing with out-of-staters who are attracted to Vermont’s natural beauty. Many are being displaced as landlords look to cash-out after suffering greatly during the COVID crisis. If we throw environmental protections aside we risk losing what makes Vermont, Vermont. We must CAREFULLY reconsider land-use regulation and encourage densification near transit hubs. Preserving our open landscape is important and this priority can co-exist successfully with concentrated development, preventing sprawl. 

MM: We need to work with our land use and environmental regulation to make it easier to build new housing in our village centers. Our towns need grants and loans to create the water, septic, and, if appropriate, the sewers necessary to support that housing. The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board is doing admirable work with low-income housing, but they need more funding and more opportunities to put that funding to work.