BENNINGTON -- Four people are vying for the Democratic party nomination for state representative in House District 2-2, but only two will make it to the general election. In the running are: Brandy J. Reynolds, Kiah Morris, Jim Carroll, and Joann Erenhouse. Each sat for an interview with the Banner about their candidacy and what they hope to bring to the legislature.
Reynolds said she grew up in Bennington, went through its school system, and the challenges she has faced in her life make her able to understand the needs of those who are struggling.
"I had a baby directly after high school and lots of college acceptance letters went into the garbage, basically," she said.
That did not stop her from getting a college degree, but it was not without challenges. She said she has been sober from alcohol addiction for 15 years, and at one time had to rely on public benefits.
"I found out how hard it really is to climb out of that hole," she said. "I continued with my education and I found out it's very difficult to get a degree when you are a mom."
She said rather than hide her skeletons, she's chosen to dance with them. Her experience with recovery has led her to feel that those struggling with addictions need more time in rehabilitation.
"It's almost like they're being set up for failure," she said. "In Vermont, we just don't have enough beds, we don't have enough of the recovery centers to handle peoples' addictions fully.
On health care, Reynolds said the state needs to work on its own system to avoid the harmful effects of "Obamacare," which she said was a bad compromise that benefited insurance companies.
"I am an advocate for single-payer, big time," she said. "A lot of people say it's going to cost me votes being public about that, but I'm willing to lose those."
She said a single-payer system would be more affordable than what we have now, which is less an insurance system and more of a third party payer system.
Reynolds has worked at the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, sold books online, worked in social services, and now does odd projects such as database building.
"My skill sets are being able to convince people it's really in their best interest to help us as much as it is to help themselves, because if you do work as a team everyone's going to win," she said. "People tend to like me, I'm not adversarial."
Morris moved to Bennington six years ago and started a family.
"I had a fantastic job in Chicago, which I loved, then they did 10 percent layoff across the board," Morris said.
She came to Bennington on vacation and got involved with the Project Against Violent Encounters, first as a hotline worker then as a paid domestic violence advocate.
"This community has been incredibly welcoming to me from the very beginning," she said. "I was asked by a number of leaders in the community to run for office in some capacity."
She got involved with the Impact Center program then the Emerge Vermont program. Both are involved in teaching women to get involved with politics. Morris said she met many leaders through these programs and wants to make politics more accessible for those who might face obstacles in running.
"It's more of a commitment for everyone in my family for me to be able to do this, but this work is important and we have to come with that kind of mindset, thinking how are we going to make Vermont sustainable and accessible to the next generation of leaders as we're becoming an aging state and people are going to start retiring from the legislature," she said.
Morris has been involved with the Prescription Drug Task Force, working with groups in both the county's shires to address addiction. "I want to continue that work and enhance that work," she said, adding that agencies dealing with addiction and associated problems are maxed out and can't devote resources to better coordinating. Morris said the legislature needs to earmark funds to assist them in that effort.
Something also needs to be done to make sure those who can get treatment succeed afterward.
"They can't get work here because that stamp of felon, that stamp of addict, keeps them from being able to get even the most baseline jobs, even something as simple as mowing the lawns for the town," she said, adding it's hard to change one's life when homelessness is a concern.
She supports single-payer as a concept, but says the details need to be worked out, namely in the financing. Access to dental care, especially locally, is another concern for her.
Morris said as a legislator she would make local leaders feel supported as they brace for changes in the economy.
Carroll, a Bennington native, obtained degrees in criminal justice and English literature from Southern Vermont College. He spent some years in and around New York City and was the owner of three successful clothing stores. When in Bennington, he would orient himself by looking at Mount Anthony, and in New York City, it was the World Trade Center buildings he used as a landmark.
"Whenever I saw the Trade Center it always reminded me of Bennington, then when they got knocked down I really started to think about home and about the people that had made a difference," he said. "I grew up around people, particularly my parents, who tried to make a difference. They got involved in politics and opened up their home to poor kids, kids that were abused."
He returned to Bennington in 2003 when his parents took ill to care for them, and remained after they passed, opening Jimmy Joe's Curbside Grill in 2007. Two years ago he was elected to a seat on the Select Board, following in his father's footsteps.
He feels he can make a difference in the state legislature using his experience in business and on the board.
"With no offense to any of the current people up in Montpelier, I think there's a very high percentage of people who are not working class. On a daily basis, I'm working. I'm meeting working people and I'm hearing their concerns. I just think that that's under-represented in Montpelier. To be up there, you got to be pretty well off, or have a job that affords time away," he said.
Carroll said he tried to create a livable wage locally, but it's clear that to do things like that one has to be in Montpelier.
"Frankly, I'd like to try my hand at bringing home the bacon to Bennington, money for projects," he said. "I'd like to see the town take advantage of the governor's program on solar energy. We got so many buildings here that are owned by the town that could have solar collecting panels on them, and we could sell that electricity back to the power company, and I'd say put that money right toward property taxes. We could lower property taxes that way, and I'd work to find money or grants to get that done."
Property tax relief is key, he said, and driving it is the cost of education. Solutions have been proposed, but something needs to be done as property taxes are the main complaint he hears, said Carroll.
He said single-payer health care is a good idea, but without a plan on how to pay for it, there are concerns.
"If we were to pass it as proposed, we'd have almost a $5 billion budget and we'd be the most heavily taxed state in the country. The devil is in the details. The governor hasn't talked about how he's going to do it," Carroll said.
Members of the board have borne much of the public's ire regarding a proposed housing project on Silver Street. Carroll said he attempted to offer a solution at one meeting, but was shouted down by the public and fellow board members. How this will affect his bid for the House is unclear, but he hopes people will recognize he has been trying to find a solution that fits both sides.
Had he been able to finish expressing his idea, Carroll said, he would have suggested the neighbors buy the property so they could control it, because as it stands now there's nothing stopping a developer from building more or less whatever they like there. He said he has encouraged Shires Housing, which is proposing the development, to shift its focus to rehabilitating Pleasant Street, which Carroll said has long been recognized as a blighted area. Shires Housing, he said, has done good work in other places and this way would be better received.
Carroll said he would also support more treatment options for those with drug addictions, as demand for drugs needs to be addressed. He said such efforts will take time.
Erenhouse is director of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, a position she's held for nine years. She grew up in New Jersey and in 1979 came to Pownal, where she purchased a farm and grew Christmas trees. A graduate of Oklahoma Law School, Erenhouse has raised two children.
A licensed Vermont attorney, Erenhouse created the Adult Rural Education Outreach Program, which allows all libraries in Vermont to offer a free lecture on any topic by an attorney practicing in their area. Aside from her law degree, Erenhouse has a degree in architectural engineering and early childhood education. She also has business experience having worked for an import/export firm.
"I have a lot of business experience to bring to the table," she said.
As chamber director, many of her skills cross over into the position of a state representative, Erenhouse said. She has good relations with delegates and has worked to bring groups and individuals together. Her background as an attorney would give her insight on legislation as well.
"I've fought for Bennington from the local standpoint, and will probably always do that. What I'd like to be able to do is bring my passion, my knowledge, my experience, my dedication, and my hard work for Bennington up to Montpelier, and fight for them and make friends, build bridges, create alliances that will give Bennington the kind of respect that our chamber of commerce has gotten throughout the state over the past few years," she said.
"I'm interested in early childhood education," she said. "I think there's a real gap, because so many families have two parents who have to work."
In the legislature she would be interested in working to develop an early childhood education system that works for employers, families, and children.
Erenhouse said she volunteered to be a navigator for Vermont Health Connect, not because she liked the system but because she wanted members of the chamber to have easy assistance with it. Working with it, she saw first-hand the problems that came with its roll out.
"What I would propose when these things come to the chamber, when somebody proposes an idea, take a step back. Look at what's being presented, where did the idea come from, get some background from it, learn how it was derived, and then talk to the professional people who are actually going to have to implement this in the long run," she said.
On the issue of single-payer, Erenhouse said the unknown cost is a concern. "Who's going to pay for this is the big question that nobody seems to want to answer," she said. "They're quick to give you programs to jump into and very slow on the analysis of who's going to pay how much, and I'm not real happy on that process."
She said she would also like to see veterans needs be and foremost on the state's agenda, as Vermont sends a higher percentage of its citizens to war than other states.
Primary elections are on Aug. 26. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Bennington Fire Facility on River Street.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.