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april 09-16, 2008

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» sevendaysvt.com

Rocking the Vote? Vermont’s youngest House rep is ruffling Prog feathers

RACHEL WESTON

n a recent weekday evening at Vermont College in Montpelier, former Governor Madeleine Kunin discussed her new book, Pearls, Politics, & Power: How Women Can Win and Lead, before a mostly female audience STORY of about 70 people. After her speech, MIKE a microphone was passed to a woman IVES in one of the front rows. Did Kunin have any advice for IMAGES female political hopefuls disillusioned JEB WALLACE- by a gender-biased media? Cultivate chutzpah, replied the exBRODEUR guv. It’s easy to go door knocking, Kunin explained. But to really make it in politics, “You have to have something inside you that can withstand any criticism.” “Don’t give up,” Kunin added after a pause. “Come see me.” One young woman sitting a few rows back, wearing pearl earrings, pink pants and a blue velvet blazer, had already taken that advice. In the fall of 2005, University of Vermont graduate student Rachel Weston enrolled in Kunin’s course about women, leadership and politics. A year later, at the age of 25, she became one of 11 House representatives serving Burlington — and later ended up in Kunin’s book herself. The Old North End resident is still the youngest member of the Vermont chamber, by nine years. Despite her inexperience, Weston is now beginning to make waves in insider circles. While the freshman rep has gone largely unnoticed by the Vermont press since first landing in Montpelier over a year ago, she recently inspired a heated correspondence between Vermont Democrats and Progressives, as well as a string of commentaries on Green Mountain

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Daily, a leading Vermont blog. Moreover, at least two prominent Progs suggest Weston is unwisely stirring up political waters in left-leaning Burlington, a city long recognized as a battleground for the two rival parties. It all started at a house party in Montpelier. During an informal Q&A session with Progressive gubernatorial candidate Anthony Pollina some weeks ago, Weston asked: Would Pollina, who had been requesting to speak before the Democratic State Committee, support hypothetical Progressive challengers over Democratic incumbents in local races? “It wasn’t really an original question,” recalls Weston, who asked it partly because she says she wants Vermont’s “left” to establish a vetoproof majority in the House this fall. Democratic House Majority Leader Carolyn Partridge (D-Windham) says Weston was simply giving voice to a general concern shared by Democratic Party faithful. Whatever the motivations behind it, Weston’s casual query informed major political developments. After she summarized her exchange with the Progressive guv-hopeful for the Democratic State Committee, party chair Ian Carleton sent a letter to Pollina putting off a formal committee decision on the latter’s speaking request until June. Pollina wrote back to say his “short answer” on the Dem/Prog question was “no” — he would not support Progressive challengers over “progressive-minded” Democrats. But he also noted that the Democrats had already fielded a challenger in a Burlington district with two Progressive incum-

bents — Progs he will support. The Democratic challenger is Kesha Ram, a UVM senior who happens to be a close friend of Rachel Weston. Ram is running in the Chittenden 3-4 district against Progressive incumbents Chris Pearson and David Zuckerman. Zuckerman, a vegetable farmer who chairs the House Committee on Agriculture, says Weston is “playing hardball in a naïve way.” He wasn’t at the house party in question, but says that Weston’s “mischaracterization” of Pollina’s words has “delayed momentum” to beat Republican Governor Jim Douglas (who was elected to the Vermont House straight out of college: Middlebury, in 1972). By supporting Ram in Burlington, Zuckerman adds, Weston may be undoing some of the political goodwill he claims exists between Burlington Dems and Progs. One Green Mountain Daily blogger put Zuckerman’s concerns more succinctly: “If in fact Rep. Weston is undercutting Progressive incumbents, she may not be as pure in heart and motive as it first appeared.” Weston isn’t a hardballer by nature. It wasn’t until she’d taken Kunin’s leadership class that she considered getting involved in politics. The daughter of a nurse and a former telephone lineman, the Massachusetts native gained some experience in community organizing as an undergrad at UMass Amherst. Weston decided to attend UVM’s graduate program in public administration partly because it was housed under “Community Development & Applied Economics,” not political science.

At the suggestion of Kunin and her friends, Weston began thinking about running for the House during her last semester at UVM, in the spring of 2006. So when she got a call from House Democratic incumbent Jason Lorber while writing a paper on campus, it only reinforced her political ambitions. “Jason called me up one day and was like, ‘Would you ever think about doing this?’” she recalls on a recent evening in her second-floor Pitkin Street apartment. “I was like, ‘OK, I’ll think about it, but I have to finish school!’” That fall, Weston and Lorber, a California transplant, ran against Progressives Heather Reimer and Kathy Valloch. The latter candidates, both experienced community organizers, were “better qualified” for the post than was Weston, according to former Progressive House Rep. Steve Hingtgen, who once held Lorber’s seat. But after knocking on roughly 3000 doors and recruiting young voters through Facebook, Weston won almost 2000 votes in the election. She and Lorber claimed two-thirds of the total vote. “Rachel is a breath of fresh air,” says Dem leader Partridge. In addition to teaching her older colleagues new campaign strategies, Partridge says, Weston has been a vocal addition to the House Committee on Natural Resources & Energy. Back in July, the young rep slammed Gov. Douglas’ energy policy in a Burlington Free Press op-ed. Weston is also an inspiration to UVM students, says current student body president and Vermont House hopeful Kesha Ram. The two women

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