One of the state’s best-known campaign managers has decided to take on a new role in Vermont elections: candidate.
Kate O’Connor, who managed the gubernatorial campaigns of Howard Dean before serving as a top advisor in his presidential run, is gunning for a seat in the Vermont House.
O’Connor, 48, is looking to fill the Brattleboro seat being vacated by five-term Progressive/Democrat Sarah Edwards.
“I was born and raised here and I moved back down to Brattleboro a year ago, so it seemed like perfect timing,” O’Connor said Monday.
O’Connor has spent her professional career advising politicians, and currently serves as treasurer of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s re-election apparatus. She is also a “senior political advisor” to Attorney General William Sorrell’s 2012 campaign.
She also served as campaign manager for Republican Richard Tarrant’s 2006 run for the U.S. Senate, a race he lost to Bernard Sanders.
“The big issue down here is jobs and economic development,” O’Connor said. “We have to plan for a post-Yankee future down here.”
O’Connor faces a tough Democratic primary against Tristan Toleno, a well-known figure in Brattleboro who has already scored an enthusiastic endorsement from the outgoing Edwards.
Toleno, a former restaurant owner who now runs his own catering business, said he wants to bring a ground’s eye view to the development of Statehouse policies dealing with the local foods movement.
“I think Vermont has begun to recognize the impact of the local food-systems movement and I think there’s a lot more work to be done in that area,” said Toleno, a past board president at the Vermont Fresh Network. “We really have only begun to the scratch the surface of total gross sales, and there’s room for policymakers to be thinking beyond just small-scale farmer/producer models.”
Both O’Connor and Toleno hail from local political stock. O’Connor’s father, Timothy, represented Brattleboro in the Vermont House from 1969 until 1981, serving as speaker of the House during his last three terms.
Toleno’s father-in-law, Don Webster, held the same seat prior to Edwards’ election.
O’Connor said that in Vermont, votes are best won through personal conversations.
“Politics in Vermont is retail, whether it’s on the local level or the state level,” she said. “So that’s what I’m going to do — go door to door. My plan is not to spend a lot of money and literally to go door to door.”
Toleno, 40, said he recognizes that O’Connor’s unique professional history might offer her a competitive advantage.
“There’s lots of stuff she has in her background in terms of logistics of running a campaign that obviously I don’t have,” he said. “But I’ve been living here and been active for the last 13 years and I feel pretty confident people have seen the work I’ve been doing, and how passionate I’ve been in local issues. I can’t do anything about her track record and having that knowledge, and I respect her for it. But I’m not afraid.”
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