Six people are running for the two seats representing Montpelier in the Washington-4 district of the Vermont House, five Democrats and a Progressive. The field of candidates opened wide when news broke that both incumbent candidates will not be running. Longtime Rep. Warren Kitzmiller’s death two weeks ago shook this small city, which he represented for 22 years. He had announced his retirement earlier this spring, as had Rep. Mary Hooper, who had served seven terms.
The candidates for the Washington-4 district are vying for legislative seats that have had strong incumbents running for more than a decade, until now. The youngest candidate, Merrick Modun, 17, a student at Montpelier High School, said he will be 18 when the legislature goes into session in January. Two candidates — Conor Casey and Kate McCann — have been campaigning together, with joint ads and signs peppering the city.
In addition to Merrick Modun, Montpelier City Councilor Conor Casey, and Kate McCann, the other candidates are Ethan Parke, Ken Jones, and Glennie Fitzgerald Sewell, the sole Progressive candidate. Although Sewell doesn’t face competition in the upcoming August 9 primary election; The Bridge has included him in the candidate interviews below.
The Bridge asked each candidate the same questions; their answers are below, in alphabetical order by last name.
Tell us about yourself and your priorities:
Conor Casey (CC): I’ve spent my entire career working for progressive causes — as an intern in the office of Senator Ted Kennedy, a political director for VSEA and NEA in Connecticut, heading the Vermont Democratic Party, and most recently as the executive director of GunSense Vermont. With over a decade of experience working in the Statehouse, I’ll be ready to hit the ground running. Having served on city council, I know that our community needs more housing, better infrastructure, and increased services for our most vulnerable residents.
Ken Jones (KJ): I have been a resident of Vermont for 35 years. I have supported the state government for 30 years with the past 14 as a Vermont state employee in economic research and policy analysis. My top three priorities are:
(1) Increasing housing availability through renovation of currently underutilized commercial and retail properties; (2) Climate change by adding more substance to the structure of the Climate Action Plan; and (3) Equity issues by exploring options for all state legislative action.
Kate McMann (KM): I am a mother, teacher, and small business owner. I teach math at U-32. I am a National Board Certified Teacher, the 2017 Vermont State Teacher of the Year, a 2015 recipient of PAEMST, an Albert Einstein Fellow (2018–19), and a local leader in the Washington Central Educators Union. My priorities are safe and healthy public schools, reproductive justice, and the environment. Recently, I worked on the legislative task force to find reasonable and sustainable solutions to the pension problem.
Merrick Modun (MM): I am a 17-year-old student at Montpelier High School. I’m running to represent Montpelier because we are at a crucial turning point for our community, state, and nation. We face a diverse array of challenges, but for me, the three issues driving this campaign are climate change, affordable housing, and our shrinking workforce. Along with my experience on the MRPS School Board and Complete Streets Committee, what I bring to the table is a fresh, energetic, and unique perspective.
Ethan Parke (EP): I’ve lived in Montpelier since 1992. Before that I was a dairy farmer in the northeast kingdom. I grew up in Middlebury. I graduated from UVM, and I have a masters from Johnson State. I recently finished a career with the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, helping conserve land all over the state. I was elected several times to the Montpelier Parks Commission. I believe Vermont and the U.S. should join the rest of the developed world and publicly finance universal health care.
Glennie F. Sewell (GS): I attended Middlebury College Bread Loaf School of English, back in 2005. I am ethically connected to healthcare access and fair housing considerations. I met with a state representative on these issues in 2011. There is a clear need for codification of bodily autonomy, privacy, rights to medical decisions of and for our family members; reproductive and birth control rights, which is inclusive of sex and gender equality, marriage equality, including Trans rights; and other legal partnerships between consenting adults.
What are your thoughts about Proposal 5, the Right to Personal Reproductive Autonomy Amendment to Vermont’s Constitution?
CC: The overturn of Roe v. Wade is a despicable turning point in our nation’s history and we can expect this far-right Supreme Court to continue eroding our freedoms. By passing Prop 5, we can ensure that all Vermonters are afforded personal reproductive liberty, even as other states adopt draconian laws that ban abortion. As we’ve knocked doors, my running mate Kate McCann and I have been heavily emphasizing the importance of Prop 5 to voters.
KJ: With the disturbing reversal of Roe v. Wade recently taken by the U.S. Supreme Court, Vermonters need to formalize our support of a woman’s right to choose by authorizing Proposal 5. An overwhelming show of support to pass this November’s initiative is a strong message that Vermont stands for reproductive rights.
KM: Reproductive decisions between a person and their health care provider should be considered a constitutional right here in Vermont and across this nation. Safe abortion access and the right to make decisions about our own bodies is what democracy and equality looks like for women, girls, and gender-diverse people. Politicians should not have the power to deny vital healthcare to those seeking services.
MM: I was with my peers on the streets before and after Roe’s overturn — fighting for reproductive rights and equality. I unequivocally support Prop 5, and I think that we must do everything we can to ensure it is passed this November. The right to privacy is under attack, and here in Vermont, we need to codify LQBTQ+ rights into our state constitution as well.
EP: I support Prop 5, and in the wake of the outrageous Supreme Court decision, we need legislation to make Vermont a safe harbor state where women from anywhere can get the care they need in complete privacy and confidentiality, and providers can practice without fear of extradition to states that have passed these draconian laws that disrespect women and threaten their health.
GS: In reading ‘Sec. 2. Article 22 of Chapter 1, I question specific syntax for this Constitutional Amendment: Why leave the door open for a “compelling State interest”, without defining what a ‘compelling interest’ is and the conditions under which the state would have such? What could possibly give the state rights to limit reproductive and bodily autonomy? This gives the appearance of a conspicuous loophole.
Are there ways you’d like to see Vermont’s gun laws changed?
CC: As the executive director of GunSense Vermont, I spend every day fighting for common sense gun laws. Last session, we banned guns in hospitals and extended the time to complete background checks — but it isn’t nearly enough. We need to ban assault weapons, implement waiting periods, close the “Charleston Loophole,” expand extreme risk protection orders, and require safe storage in homes. Vermont is not immune from gun violence.
KJ: I have a great deal of respect for the majority of gun owners in Vermont. I will work towards a clear objective of reducing gun violence with the participation of those gun owners who share that objective. One part of a Vermont strategy should be an appropriate restriction on the ownership and use of assault weapons.
KM: Children are our greatest resource. We can make schools safer by increasing the maximum waiting period to 30 days for people purchasing guns to allow for more thorough background checks — reducing the Charleston Loophole. We should join Massachusetts to legislate safe gun storage. Vermont’s domestic violence and suicide rates continue to be higher than the national average. Common-sense gun laws like mandating guns be stored locked and unloaded can help lower these rates.
MM: As a student, I have seen first how Buffalo, how Uvalde, and how so many other shootings have affected my peers. And when Montpelier High School and other places around the state are receiving threats, it is clear we are not doing enough. Vermont’s gun laws need to change. We need an assault weapons ban. We need permits and registration. And we need expanded background checks. And this needs to happen now.
EP: Other countries think we have lost our minds, and we have, when it comes to guns. Our children should not have to fear for their lives at school. Because Congress won’t do it, states need to pass assault weapons bans and if I’m elected I will sponsor such a bill and do my best to see it passed. Other measures deserve consideration, but an assault weapons ban is the most important in my view.
GS: We need to keep asking the question: Why is there a need for a military-style weapon for hunting? What self-defense is feared so much that one feels they must have at their fingertips the need to annihilate human life, in bulk, something far beyond merely defending one’s home. In our nation, there is rarely the need to defend our home with high-capacity military weapons. That is why we have a “well regulated militia,” as in the Vermont State Militia/U.S. Military, something that didn’t exist in the beginning days of this nation.
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?
CC: Here in Montpelier we sell fewer than 100 homes a year and have rents that average $1,600 a month. People who work in our community cannot afford to live here. We are at a crisis point and need to get creative. As a state representative, I would explore developing affordable housing on underused state land, working with VCFA to convert vacant buildings, and supporting the work of the city’s newly appointed housing committee.
KJ: I do not promise any single solution to the shortage of affordable housing in Vermont. As stated in priorities, the policies I will promote are based on the renovation of underutilized commercial and retail properties for the purpose of converting them to housing.
KM: We need more funding initiatives designed to increase home availability and affordability, especially for first-time home buyers. Vermont needs to re-examine current land-use policies to ensure they aren’t undermining any of the current initiatives. Limits on density can unnecessarily restrict housing development. We need to ensure real estate professionals, builders, investors, and even financial institutions have a seat at the table and allow local governments to drive their own initiatives from start to finish.
MM: Housing, particularly affordable housing, is so interconnected with other issues Vermont faces. In our state, a vast disparity exists between what we make and what we can afford, driving young people out of the state who are necessary to support our aging population. There is no quick fix to housing, but bottom line, we have to make it easier to build. However, we have to be cautious about increasing density without increasing careless sprawl.
EP: We must continue funding the development of affordable housing to serve working families, the elderly, and special needs populations. We also need down-payment assistance programs, such as offered by VHFA, for first-time home buyers. Vermonters are being outbid for housing by market pressure. I love beautiful homes and the pride that goes into them. The flip side is dilapidated housing stock, failing mobile home parks, unaffordable rents, and homelessness. We can do better.
GS: We must consider not only those who wish to own a home, but those who rent. We should pass regulations on building more, smaller, sustainable, better-constructed homes. Yet, our current economic system precludes families and individuals getting the needed loans and grants to buy homes. Why? Well, the need for unnecessarily high levels of profit proliferates the very banking industry that created the housing crisis. We need to help long-term renters in a similar way.
What’s the most important thing you can do as a state representative related to climate change?
CC: The state’s plan to have 90% of its energy from renewable sources by 2050 is pure fiction if we continue on this path. We need bold action that modernizes public transportation, removes the moratorium on wind power, and adopts better incentives for residents to install solar panels. Under Mayor Watson’s leadership, I’m proud of the work we’ve done on city council to adopt energy standards that exceed state goals.
KJ: I have worked on education about and solutions to the damage of climate change for more than 30 years. There are many actions necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address the increasing damages resulting from climate change. Part of the solution is to promote legislation that leverages private sector dollars for residential and small business building renovation.
KM: I support legislation that incentivizes development in targeted growth areas like downtowns and village centers while continuing to implement protections for our farms and green space. I am interested in legislation that supports centrally located homes with more transportation choices built with green-building approaches and materials by a unionized workforce. Vermont can achieve 100% renewable electricity by investing in the necessary infrastructure to produce that energy while benefiting our local economy.
MM: It is my top priority for Vermont to be a leader on climate action. We also have to be prepared to manage climate effects in our communities. To secure a liveable future for all of us, the single most important thing that I could do is to take charge of enacting a Green New Deal for Vermont. Climate change is a momentous challenge, and it is going to require bold, dedicated leaders to address it.
EP: I look to the Climate Council, which identified transportation as the most important sector. I’m in favor of electric vehicle purchase incentives combined with adoption of upgraded automobile emissions standards. But we need more. We need to maintain generous weatherization subsidies and public buildings should be retrofitted to modern efficiency standards. I feel strongly that protection of forests is one of the best strategies and is often overlooked. Forests take in carbon and breathe oxygen.
GS: Stop hanging on to environmentally unsustainable decisions, like using arable land for biofuels, while food insecurities exist in countless regions. Solar and wind energy is not enough. Keep open the conversation about exploring other means of renewable energy production, not just nonsensically throwing the “green” label onto just anything. Realize that to move away from fossil fuels, we’ll need to use those same fuels in our transition to and creation of an environmentally sustainable world.
Primary elections are August 9, 2022 in Vermont. To check your voter registration status, register to vote, and learn more, go to mvp.vermont.gov.