Chittenden North Senate primary pits 2 often-at-fault Essex Democrats against each other

Irene Wrenner, left, longtime local activist and former Essex Town nominating committee member, and Rep. Leland Morgan, R-Milton, right, run for the new North Chittenden Senate seat in Vermont. Courtesy pictures

Two Essex residents who have stood up to controversial local issues are vying to represent their hometown and three other communities in the state Senate.

Irene Wrenner and Brian Shelden face off in the Democratic primary for the new single-member Senate district of Chittenden North, which includes part of the city of Essex, all of Milton and Westford in Chittenden County and all of Fairfax in Chittenden County. Franklin.

The winner of the Aug. 9 contest is set to face Rep. Leland Morgan, a Republican who has represented Milton and the five Grand Isle County towns in the House since 2019.

The race will be watched closely: After the splintering of the solidly Democratic six-member district of Chittenden in redistribution this year, the new district represents the region’s best chance for Republicans to clinch a Senate seat.

Both Shelden and Wrenner have spoken out in years-long debates on local governance. They clashed over whether or not to combine the governments of Essex Town and what was, at the time, the village of Essex Junction. This merger never took place and on July 1, the village became an independent city.

Wrenner, who served on the Essex Town Selection Committee from 2007 to 2019, said she supported the combination of town and village government for more than a decade but opposed it more late because she thought the proposals were unfair to people living outside the village.

Her advocacy on the issue made headlines in 2019, when she sang an Essex-themed version of Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath” at a selection committee meeting. Wrenner’s rendition included the phrase “Slow down that fusion train.”

Shelden, who chairs the Essex Democrats and headed the city’s economic development commission, campaigned for a merger for years, heading a political action committee called ‘One Essex’ . He said in an interview that having a single, unified community has “always made more sense” to him.

The merger debate wasn’t the only time the two candidates found themselves at odds.

In 2020, Wrenner and another local resident, Ken Signorello, successfully lobbied for a public vote on whether to change the composition of the Essex Selectboard from five members at-large to six members, three of whom would be from the village , and three from the city outside the village. They argued that this configuration would prevent either side from having disproportionate power.

Shelden opposed the “three plus three” plan, creating an organization called “Don’t Gerrymander Essex”. A six-member selection committee would be “a recipe for gridlock,” he said at the time, arguing that it would pit the village against the rest of the city.

Voters approved the plan by a wide margin. But it was never implemented because the legislature, which must approve changes to the charter, did not act on the proposal.

Beyond Essex

Both candidates acknowledged that although they spent years involved in Essex politics, they had to spend time knocking on doors, speaking to officials and attending meetings in the other three towns of the new Senate District to strengthen their campaigns.

Over 80% of the district’s population lives in Milton, Westford or Fairfax.

Wrenner and Shelden seem to have the most in common on statewide issues. During a televised forum in June, the two candidates gave similar answers to questions on topics ranging from gun control to the environment.

Both said “health care is a human right” and argued that the state must do more to support healthcare workers during the pandemic.

During the forum, Shelden highlighted the importance of housing among residents of the district. He said he would support reforms to Bill 250 to make it easier to build new housing across the state.

Wrenner said one of her goals as a state senator would be to “protect the rights of our most vulnerable citizens.” She said the record number of deaths from opioid overdoses in Vermont last year was the reason she supported the revision of H.728 – a bill opposed last month by Republican Governor Phil Scott who reportedly created a feasibility study on opening an overdose prevention site.

Wrenner argued that she is more qualified to serve in the Legislative Assembly because she, unlike Shelden, held elected office. She said she had never missed a meeting in her 12 years with the Essex Selectboard.

“I expect people in the Senate — just, as a voter — to have some insight into policymaking and budgeting from within government, local or state,” he said. she declared. “It’s just a bar that I have set in my mind.”

Shelden ran for the Vermont House in 2020 but lost in a three-way Democratic primary.

Earlier this year he launched an unsuccessful written bid for a one-year seat on the Essex Selectboard. The only candidate on the ballot, Ethan Lawrence, had been accused of making “bullying” comments online and spreading disinformation about Covid-19.

Shelden maintains that although he was not elected, he gained experience in politics by soliciting a successful redistricting effort in Texas, as well as knocking on candidates’ doors there, in Ohio and in Virginia.

He also thinks his years of business experience in software development — which involves listening to “all parties and determining what is the best way forward” — would help him be an effective legislator.

Shelden grew up in Essex and graduated from the local high school before leaving to study computer science at Ohio State University and Cornell University. He returned to the county town of Chittenden in 2019, he said.

Wrenner is also a graduate of Cornell, where she studied industrial and labor relations. She grew up in New Jersey. She has worked in human resources, technology and communications, she said.

brawl in print

Although Wrenner is no longer in post, she has remained active in local discourse through the Essex ReTorter, a publication she and Signorello launched in 2020. The name is a play on the town’s local newspaper , the Essex Reporter.

The RetorTer publishes articles – many written by Wrenner – online and in a monthly print edition. Wrenner said the publication fills a gap in regular Essex government coverage and aims to hold city officials accountable. The Essex Reporter stopped publishing a print edition at the start of the pandemic.

Although her photo and biography are still featured prominently on the outlet’s “About Us” page, Wrenner said she outsourced ReTorter’s operations to an interim editor during her campaign and she will not would not return to the bar if she won the seat.

Signorello praised Wrenner’s work at the ReTorter. “She’s a very dedicated, conscientious and hard-working person,” he said, “who listens to her constituents and acts on what she hears.”

But some Essex residents point to what they see as a longstanding bias against Shelden in the pages of the ReTorter.

Essex Junction resident Alexis Dubief said the publication “promotes division”, pointing to two cartoons ridiculing Shelden which were published in February.

In one of them on Shelden’s election campaign, he is portrayed as the head of a Trojan horse, bringing a “village agenda” to the town of Essex. Another cartoon portrays Shelden as the Wizard of Oz, saying, “Never mind my background!”

Wrenner acknowledged that the cartoons, drawn by a contributor, were not flattering, but she maintained that the content was based on fact. She said she decided to publish the cartoons before she considered running for the state Senate and before she knew Shelden would be her opponent.

Shelden called the ReTorter a “political blog,” but declined to comment further on Wrenner or the publication.

“We have to stop attacking people we don’t agree with,” he said. “I don’t believe in knocking down your opponents. I believe in listening to them, determining what will work for everyone and moving forward.

Wrenner said the ReTorter works with a proofreader who ensures the publication’s articles are unbiased and well-written. Still, she said, no one working at the ReTorter is a trained journalist, and she encouraged those concerned about her coverage to reach out.

“We definitely took to heart when people said we were being too hard on someone. I completely understand that,” Wrenner said. “We learn this from scratch.”

Some have also complained that Wrenner made inappropriate efforts to deliver the free publication to people’s homes, a charge Wrenner disputes.

According to Adam Newhard, another local resident, locals were disturbed to see Wrenner drop off copies of the ReTorter in their garages.

Newhard also said that after another resident, Tim Miller, posted in a Facebook group that he enjoyed using the ReTorter as kindling, Wrenner brought a box of printed copies to his house with a note that said, “Happy ignition, Tim! Hope this saves you a few steps.

Wrenner acknowledged that she had gone to people’s garages to deliver the ReTorter, but said she would only do so if their door was obstructed in some way. She also confirmed the “fire-starting” incident and said she felt her response to Miller was appropriate.

In a post, she pointed to what she sees as a similar situation where, in February, Shelden left a note on her door with a flyer for her written campaign. The note was addressed to Wrenner and read, “Every time you mention my name, I get 5 votes.”

In this and other talk of Essex issues, Wrenner said, Shelden “worked hard over time” – including before she and Signorello founded the Essex ReTorter – “to demonize me me and my achievements”.

Shelden confirmed he wrote the note to Wrenner earlier this year, saying it was “in response to Ms. Wrenner’s very negative public attacks on social media against me and others.”

“These attacks, while building my support, were ruining the city’s political environment,” he wrote in an email. “I thought if she realized her tactic was backfiring, she could tone it down for the good of Essex.”

Wrenner considers herself an activist, she said, which sometimes means people disagree with her actions or find them offensive.

“I am definitely, some would say, a lightning rod. I’ve done enough things that upset enough people,” Wrenner said. “No matter what, I’m always going to be an activist – no matter what happens in this election.”

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