MANCHESTER — Seth Bongartz, a Manchester Democrat and former director of Hildene who served a total of six years in the Legislature, announced his candidacy Wednesday for one of the two Bennington-4 district seats in the Vermont House.
Bongartz’s entry into the race as part of a joint campaign with incumbent Rep. Kathleen James, D-Manchester, sets up a potential challenge to longtime state Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, in the Democratic primary, scheduled for Aug. 11. It comes a few weeks after Browning made a controversial quorum call on the House floor on a proposal allowing remote voting, bringing lawmakers back to the Statehouse for a vote.
“It did,” Bongartz said when asked if Browning’s move, which drew harsh criticism from within her own party as well as some praise across the state, prompted his candidacy. “It was part of it. I was already thinking of running. It’s what made me realize that it’s time for a change.”
Browning’s procedural move, the day Gov. Phil Scott’s “stay home” order took effect, led to House Speaker Mitzi Johnson removing Browning from the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
James, who was among House Democrats critical of Browning for the quorum call, called Bongartz’s candidacy “fantastic news” in a news release announcing the campaign.
“When the current pandemic dissipates, the people of this area, the county and all of Vermont are going to face a serious economic challenge,” Bongartz said in a media release. “We need legislators who can, on the one hand, provide leadership and, on the other, work collaboratively with others to get things done. I have done both of these things my entire adult life.”
James and Bongartz announced they will run a shared ticket in the same manner as state Sens. Dick Sears and Brian Campion, who represent Bennington County.
After he told her of his decision, Bongartz said, James suggested that they run together.
“I have real respect for [James]," he said. "I have watched how hard she works and how connected she is to colleagues and people here.”
“I think it’s important in the aftermath [of the pandemic] that we have a united county delegation to make sure that as recovery efforts are put together, this county is fully included,” he said.
James said she has known Bongartz since their work together on the Manchester School Fund in the early 2000s, and had long been impressed with his leadership abilities.
“He is a highly respected community leader. When I heard he was seriously thinking about running I was excited,” james said Thursday. “Setting aside any political dynamics, Seth is the kind of person who would do a great job of representing our district and our county in the Legislature, period, full stop.”
Bongartz said he was not prompted into running by anyone but himself.
“Nobody reached out to me. I made the first move,” Bongartz said. “I just really began to think about the need for very strong representation from this district in the aftermath of the pandemic. … I really began to think about the skills necessary for the role. and that I really could play a role and I could be helpful.”
Bongartz, who retired as president of Hildene at the end of last year after 18 years at the helm, is chairman of the Burr and Burton Academy Board of Trustees and The Manchester Community Land Trust. He served three terms in the legislature in the 1980s before focusing on his law practice, and then on transforming Hildene from a house museum into a world-class travel destination and educational institution.
“I have watched and admired Seth’s work for many years and there’s probably nobody with whom I would rather serve in the legislature,” she said. “He gets things done and now more than ever, we need people who get things done.”
James and Bongartz made no mention of Browning in their joint announcement.
Browning has not formally announced her candidacy for re-election, but has said she intends to seek the speaker's chair if she returns to Montpelier.
"Election competition and voter choice are the essence of democracy," Browning said Thursday by email. "I hope that the voters of the Bennington 4 district will continue to value my independence and the knowledge and skills that I put to work for them. But at this time I am not campaigning, I am working to ensure that community members can get the help that they need at this difficult time, and to try to keep track of how the state will structure its budget so that we can take care of urgent needs and use federal assistance in the most effective way. "
Asked about the campaign, she said, “I really am focused on my legislative work at this time, not campaigning, but I will say that it may be important to the voters in this district to have two representatives with different skills and perspectives to represent them, not twins.”
Browning and James both said they will not be campaigning right away, given the task ahead of them in the Legislature dealing with expected budget shortfalls — especially in the Education Fund. And James and Bongartz said they’d follow all COVID-19 health guidelines once the campaign gets going.
Under legislation passed by the Vermont Legislature and signed by Gov. Phil Scott, candidates will no longer have to gather petition signatures for the state's primary elections in August and the general election in November, Secretary of State Jim Condos has said. But candidates will still have to file financial disclosure statements, he said.
Will it be awkward between James and Browning at the Statehouse, considering that the James-Bongartz campaign, if successful, would send Browning home?
“I am sure that Representative James and I can work together on behalf of our constituents during this difficult time,” Browning said.
Posed the same question, James said: “It doesn’t impact my ability to serve our district at all.” “I’m in touch with my legislative colleagues all over the state literally every day about how we move forward as a legislative team,” she added.
Bongartz was elected to represent Manchester in 1980 and 1982, before the state electoral map was redrawn, leaving after two terms to attend Case Western Reserve Law School. He returned to politics in 1986, winning election to the state Senate, but left after one term to devote time to his family. He made one more run, losing a state Senate bid to Fred Ehrich in 1996.