By Greg Sukiennik, Brattleboro Reformer
MONTPELIER — The current state of campaign financing and media coverage of elections in Vermont makes it harder for disadvantaged and marginalized residents to run for office, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor Brenda Siegel said Tuesday.
Speaking in front of the Statehouse and live on her campaign Facebook page, Siegel, of Newfane, said the primary race, in which she’s running against state Senate President Tim Ashe, Assistant Attorney General Molly Gray and State Sen. Debbie Ingram, is stacked in favor of candidates with resources and power.
“I right now am in a race that exemplifies what access does in politics. We have two candidates with privilege, one with tremendous access, and two who have marginalized life experiences. Privilege has played out in ways in this race that I could have never imagined,” Siegel said. “I think it would be hard for anyone to look at this race and say it’s a level playing field.”
Asked which candidates she deemed privileged, Siegel declined to specify. “My point is about how this race exemplifies privilege,” she said.
A second-time statewide candidate — she finished third for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018 — Siegel was critical of media coverage of elections and campaign finance, saying the headlines and stories devote attention to people who are succeeding at fundraising. That in turn conveys a message that candidates who aren’t as successful at raising money are less worthy of time and attention, she said.
To address this, Siegel called for public financing of campaigns and called on the media to devote equal access to all candidates for office rather than focusing coverage on candidates being considered most viable. “Let Vermonters decide who they support,” she said.
“It’s unsurprising that anyone who has resources can do TV buys or multiple mailers,” Siegel said. “People with access have access, and people who don’t are kept out.”
She also said candidates and the media need to be cognizant of privilege, and included herself among those who need to be cognizant of those advantages.
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A true public finance system would put the focus back on the candidates’ views and ideas and provide a seat at the table to marginalized Vermonters who otherwise would not be able to participate in government, she said.
“Everyone on this race has a right to be in this race. We would get more powerful outcomes if we had more powerful tools,” she said .
Gray, a first-time candidate, has raised $212,680 as of Aug. 1, according to the secretary of state’s campaign finance database. Ashe has raised $109,031, Ingram $68,723, and Siegel $64,099.
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Siegel, like Ashe and Ingram, has dipped into her own pockets for the campaign, loaning it a total of $7,500 as of Aug. 1. Ashe has loaned himself $10,000 and Ingram has given her campaign $48,765, both as of Aug. 1.
Siegel also criticized the media’s coverage of Ingram’s campaign for focusing on her 2017 arrest on a drunken driving charge. Siegel questioned why stories about Republican lieutenant governor candidate Scott Milne, who in 2014 publicly acknowledged past alcohol and drug arrests, didn’t offer the same focus.
“Debbie Ingram has been treated much worse than I have,” Siegel said. “[Ingram] and I don’t agree on everything but the respect runs deep and she deserves better treatment.” Ingram declined comment Tuesday when asked about Siegel’s statement.
(In a recent story on the race, the Brattleboro Reformer and Bennington Banner briefly reported Ingram’s past arrest, and her subsequent apology, in context with Ingram’s desire to be a role model and her willingness to discuss the incident publicly.)
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Ashe agreed with Siegel on the need for campaign finance reform, saying he’d supported a measure that passed the state Senate but did not pass the state House of Representatives.
“I think it is a real problem when the organized donor class gets behind a single candidate,” Ashe said. “If we can move towards public financing of campaigns it will clean it all up and get the appearance of conflicts right out of the way.”
As to his own background, Ashe said, “My mother was a schoolteacher and my father was a probation officer. I don’t have family connections or connections to money, and while I have a very supportive family, I’ve busted my butt for everything I’ve got right now, putting in 16 years of public service. “
Gray’s campaign manager, Samantha Sheehan, defended her candidate.
“I’m not sure who Brenda is talking about. What I can tell you is Molly is hardworking, compassionate, and committed to serving Vermont,” Sheehan said. “We have run our campaign in the way that Molly intends to serve as lieutenant governor, by putting Vermonters first, working collaboratively, and championing the issues most critical to supporting families and rural communities in every corner of the state.”
Sheehan also noted that Gray has donations from more than 800 Vermonters in all 14 counties of the state, and on Tuesday was endorsed by the Vermont State Employees Association.
Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at [email protected]
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