ST. ALBANS — At the heart of Democratic candidate Brenda Siegel’s run for governor is this philosophy, in her own words: “The people closest to a problem are the most qualified to solve that problem.”
Siegel describes herself as a low-income single mom. So the fact her campaign’s two core issues are how governmental action affects people living on a lower income and a lack of diversity in Vermont’s government isn’t surprising. Both are problems to which Siegel says she is close.
Siegel lives with her son in Newfane, a 1,700-person Windham County town near Brattleboro. Both lost all their belongings in Tropical Storm Irene.
Siegel became involved in volunteer efforts to rebuild her community. She said her first instinct was to tie together the community’s existing resources. Arts were most prominent there, Siegel said.
The economic potential was there: Siegel said 3,000-5,000 people from as far away as Singapore or Hong Kong come to the Brattleboro every year. Brattleboro has “more [visitors] from California than from northern Vermont,” she said.
The question was how to use the arts to drive these people into local stores and restaurants. Siegel’s answer was the Southern Vermont Dance Festival, now an annual event. Siegel is still listed as an artistic director and choreographer on the festival’s website.
She said festival organizers worked to ensure attendees stayed in local hotels, ate in local restaurants, made plans for return visits. In some cases, Siegel said, visitors even decided to move into the community.
“That’s how we build our economy. That’s how we build our Main Streets,” Siegel said. “That’s what works in a small state like Vermont.”
Siegel doesn’t just teach dance. She said she’s also taught political classes across the state, supervised after school programs and organized workshops on civic engagement.
Siegel seems to already be an example of civic engagement. She said she spends about half of any week in the State House building legislative relationships “on different ends of the spectrum” and participating in legislative workshops.
She volunteered with the Root Social Justice Center in Brattleboro, advocating for racial justice, and for the Women’s Action Team, advocating for gender justice, and for the Putney Huddle, advocating for both plus economic and immigration issues.
She interned with Bernie Sanders’ Washington office when she was in her 20s and Sanders was a U.S. House Rep. She also campaigned for Sanders’ presidential run in six states.
“I believe that my history has been more progressive and more consistent than the other candidates,” Siegel said.
She’s not a one-issue candidate. She said her focus in on “interconnecting all of the issues.”
“We can’t just be working on environmental justice,” Siegel said. “If we’re working on environmental justice but we’re not working on economic justice, we’re not working on environmental justice. The same is true for racial justice. If we’re working on racial justice, but not environmental justice, we aren’t working on racial justice — or gender justice, or criminal justice, and the list goes on.
“We have to make sure our next governor really understands the interconnectedness of all the issues.”
Siegel said it takes interconnecting the population to interconnect these issues.
“We have to allow access to leadership positions for people that have, in the past, been marginalized, and not allowed into the normal funnel of the legislature… and instead, we allow new people into leadership at every single level.”
Positions of power have not traditionally been equally available to people in poverty, people of color and immigrant communities, Siegel said. Reversing that, she said, means our government “not just have a seat at the table for those voices, but invite those voices to the table… When people don’t see people like themselves in different positions then it is harder to go after those positions.”
That’s a feeling with which Siegel said she identifies.
“I’m not reflected in our government,” she said. “Not locally, not nationally and not statewide,” even though “there are a lot of single moms in our state.”
Siegel said her administration would “have someone who understands that struggle, who understand what it’s like to not have the money to pay your electric bill, who understands what it’s like to have to do all of the work of parenting on your own.”
Not that Siegel suggested building a government of single moms. She suggested a government of people living in the situations our administration is tasked with addressing, for example, low income — despite administrators’ unfamiliarity, in Siegel’s view, with what that is like.
“Our government is accessible in a lot of ways to a lot of voices,” Siegel said. “But you have to be able to get to Montpelier.”
Those who are often directly affected by administrative actions can’t afford transportation or, in maybe even more cases, the time to visit the State House and testify. Siegel said her government would reach out rather than just making itself available for others to do so.
The Messenger asked Siegel why, without any experience as a political official, she decided to run for governor rather than, say, the Vermont House or Senate.
“I don’t think of the Governor’s Office as the top — I see it as another branch of government,” Siegel said.
She said it’s important to place previously marginalized voices “into the fold” now rather than leaving them to work their way up for time’s sake, specifically because the Trump Administration’s actions require urgent responses.
“If we do that then it’s going to be 10 or 20 years before we ever hear a marginalized voice in leadership,” Siegel said, “and we just can’t allow that to be, not with what’s happening in our national situation right now.”
Siegel advocates for a $15 an hour minimum wage.
“When people have more money in their pockets, they can spend it in our stores and our restaurants,” she said, an assertion she said her experience with the Southern Vermont Dance Festival validated.
Siegel said focusing on businesses rather than potential customers and not directly addressing poverty ultimately hurts businesses.
“Wealth does not trickle up, and poverty does, in fact, trickle up,” she said. “And what we’re doing by not solving these problems is we’re allowing that poverty to continue to trickle up and hurt our economy and hurt our businesses and hurt our schools and hurt our families.”
The Messenger asked Siegel to respond to assertions that the wage hike could hurt small businesses. Siegel said the hike wouldn’t work “if it’s one business doing it alone.
“However, [raising the wage] over a period of time” — the wage raise bill Gov. Phil Scott vetoed gradually increased the minimum wage over six years — “allows businesses to prepare for it, and then all the businesses are paying $15 an hour, and a lot of families are now making $15 an hour, which means they now have money that they can spend in our stores and restaurants.”
She said raising the wage could reduce taxpayers receiving earned income tax credits, meaning greater tax revenue. And it could keep money in Vermont. Siegel said families in her area drive “across the river” to New Hampshire for cheaper shopping.
Siegel said she would end the “false divide” between businesses and customers. “We need both to have a successful state and a successful economy.”
The day after Siegel announced her candidacy for governor, her nephew died of a heroin overdose. His father — her brother — died of the same 20 years prior.
“He had been sober for a year,” Siegel said, of her nephew. “I watched the system fail him.”
Siegel suggested paying for stronger medical attention to opioid addiction by taxing and regulating marijuana. She said even a conservative estimate of revenue marijuana regulations could raise, $25 million, would pay for action Siegel laid out in a plan endorsed by Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George.
The plan’s first part is harm reduction, including clean needle exchange, free Narcan treatment medication, fentanyl testing strips and mobile harm reduction units for rural communities.
The plan’s second part is treatment courts in every county. Siegel said, in her experience, the outcome of medical attention in counties with treatment courts is far superior than in those without.
Vermont’s primary election is Tuesday, Aug. 14. Absentee ballots are now available.