Endorsement Alert In Vermont: Tanya Vyhovsky

A Working Class Candidate And A Renter In The State Senate

There are 7,383 state legislators in the country— 1,972 state senators and 5,411 state reps. Until today, Blue America had endorsed a dozen out of these 7,383.

Today we endorsed another, incumbent state Senator Tanya Vyhovsky. We didn’t just endorse her because she’s a brilliant dedicated progressive, which she is. We endorsed her, for another reason as well— a reason we look at whenever we put a candidate on this page— is ether a chance they will be a future governor or congressmember or U.S. Senator or president? It doesn’t take long to happily realize the answer is a resounding YES in Tanya’s case.

Probably a bit to his left, this DSA member is Bernie’s state senator, in the central Chittenden district that includes most of Burlington, all of Winooski, a bit of Colchester, all of Essex Jct, and most of Essex Town, one of if not the most progressive districts in the state with zero Republicans elected to represent it at any level that is partisan, the representation is comprised of Democrats and Progressives (Vermont is one of the only if not the only state with 3 major parties— Democrat, Progressive and Republican and the ability to run “fusion” under multiple party labels)

Her opponent is one of those fake Democrats we’re always warning people about, Stewart Ledbetter, a retired local TV anchorman from a very active Republican family and is known in his social circles as a conservative and a Republican. But he decided to not run in the Republican primary, and filed to run as a Democrat instead. His first campaign finance report filed on July 1 shows he raised $48,189, far more than any candidate has raised for a primary in this district in this decade at least, including when the district was twice as big (except for one other candidate who is married to one of the largest landlords in the state and is in a different district now). Most of Ledbetter’s contributions came from landlords who are well known for buying buildings with long-term low income renters, no-cause evicting them, doing surface renovations, and in some cases doubling the rent charged for those apartments. One of his donors, Mark Bove, is notorious for his code violations and eviction of renters who complain. Most candidates in this district have a handful of $1000+ donations, but Ledbetter’s campaign finance report shows that 82% of his donations listed were at least $1000. Only 5% of his donations were under $100. Many of his donors— a list that is a who’s who of Vermont’s wealthiest families— give exclusively to Republicans and 4 of them ran as Republicans themselves. At least 11 of his donors have assets in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Four of them have made multi-million dollar gifts to local colleges and nonprofits large enough to have buildings named after them. None of those families are known for their support of the democratic party, to put it mildly. How does a local anchorman get access to that kind of money?

There’s a reason I’m spending all this time telling you this. And that’s because of Tanya’s focus on Vermont’s affordable housing crisis. I suspect after you read it, you will be moved to contribute to her campaign, as I was. You can do that here.

I Never Saw Working Class People in Elected Office and Now I Know Why

-by Sen. Tanya Vyhovsky

Growing up in a single parent working-class household, no one ever told me going into politics was an option. It wasn’t even a thought. The systems were not made for us and the odds were always stacked against us. I was one of those kids who had to work a job so that I could afford gym clothes. When my high school teachers recommended I take college classes, I worked extra to afford those too. When I made the decision to go to college, I took on enormous debt to do so, worked incredibly hard, and graduated with a dual major in psychology and biology. I assumed that my degree would give me financial security, but I discovered that now that I was no longer eligible for my parents’ health coverage, I was uninsurable because of pre-existing health conditions. Moving back home to Vermont after college was a nightmare. I realized quickly that I had to choose between food and rent or medical care. I was so furious that any human being had to make choices like this that I got involved with a local campaign for health care as a human right. As I continued to work in the nonprofit sector I saw more and more stories every day about how the systems of care in our country were failing the very people who needed them most. 

I didn’t realize when I decided to go to graduate school for social work that I’d be digging deep into the historical policy choices that got us here, and I’m grateful for that education. As someone who has connections to policy choices in other countries, it was clearer and clearer each day that it did not have to be this way and that the majority of people “representing” me, families like mine, and the clients I work with in my social work practice were out of touch with the realities of trying to get by in Vermont (and around the country). In 2018 after a short church basement discussion with Senator Sanders, it hit me that the fact that I did not see myself, a young renter and social worker, represented in our statehouse was not a reason to stay outside of politics, but one of the most important reasons for me to choose to run for office. That summer I launched a campaign for the Vermont House of Representatives and came close to unseating a long-time incumbent Republican, but when I ran again in 2020 I won that seat. I became one of a small percentage of renters and working class people in the Statehouse and a loud voice for those who have so often been unheard in the process of making policy that impacts them the most. 

After being elected and thinking that seat would give me the power to make the changes I knew my community needed, it came as a painful shock to realize that the system still was not set up for me. I’ve seen at every turn that I have to work twice as hard to get into office and stay there as people with access to wealth. I am self-employed and have to keep working while serving in office from January through May, meaning that I don’t have the luxury of days off to do the research, policy drafting, and constituent work that this office requires. I have to fit everything in between essentially two full-time jobs. And every other year I also have to manage a heavy campaign schedule straight through November. It takes a lot of sacrifice to do this as someone who cannot live on the $14,000 a year that legislators are paid and needs health coverage that legislators don’t have access to. This system was made for people who don’t have to worry about these realities and it takes a lot of work to get here and I am learning it takes even more to stay here. I don’t have a group of family members who can make maximum donations to my campaign and start me off with a substantial pot of money. I’m not surrounded by friends who will give five figures worth of donations in a week. My campaigns are truly grassroots, and not just because I don’t believe corporate donations are ethical, but because my family, friends, and community are all people who can’t give a lot but will show up to door knock, write postcards, hold signs, and cheer me on. When I ran for my senate seat in 2022, I raised just under $22,500 almost exclusively through small donations. I had 141 contributions to my campaign and 120 of them were under $100. I’m proud of that hard work. The people who come out to support me are amazing and I’m honestly honored to get to represent them. 

During my time in the Statehouse, as hard as it has been, I have seen that my voice matters. I often find myself in committee or the chamber asking questions based on my own life experience that nobody else in the room had considered. It is in those moments that I remember why I work so hard to be there. As one of only two renters in the Senate, I have fought hard for renters’ rights and tenant protections, and all too often have been a lonely voice in opposition to cutting housing subsidies, or ending emergency housing. I do not come to the table with a list of landlords and power brokers behind me, but I have the power of my grassroots supporters and my own experience. The fight for me is that much more real because I know the people relying on me cannot simply wait until next year. I have brought grassroots organizing to the statehouse with an inside outside strategy that has won fights that the seasoned lawmakers told me were unwinnable. 

This insight and connection has made a huge difference when it came time to fight for the ballot measures the communities I serve had passed for Just Cause Eviction protection. I have been adamant since the first charter passed in 2021 that my committees would hear from not just commissioners and housing advocates, but from actual renters who had been evicted without cause. We packed committee rooms full of renters who had experienced no cause evictions and email inboxes full of stories, and we moved forward in this discussion. I wanted my fellow senators to hear their stories directly and not just summarized in some report. Unfortunately the Governor ultimately vetoed the bill and the votes to override were not there. Since then I have helped organize other communities to pass similar charter changes and I will be one of two senators serving on a statewide landlord tenant law advisory committee this summer. 

My time in office has shown me that the way things have always been done do not work for people like me and that they were never meant to. For too long we have referred to these systems as “broken” when in fact they are working exactly as they were designed to. They are working for the people they are meant to protect while more and more of us get left behind. While it has been painful to learn that even as a Senator I often stand alone inside that building in the fight for everyday people, I have come to realize that I don’t have to accept the status quo. When the state considered gutting teacher and state employee pensions to save money, I stood up and said no. At first I was the only one doing so, but I worked with every teacher and state employee that I knew to organize outside the building to support the work I was doing inside. My days as a community organizer have served me well in pushing back against power structures and changing the status quo. Together we organized such an outcry that in just 9 days a plan that had been passed down from leadership was dead.

Being one of a few renting and working class Senators of course comes with stress, and I am always at greater risk because I don’t have the security of owning my own home and can be evicted for my advocacy for tenant rights. Knowing this fear first-hand is part of what fuels my fight for the people of Vermont in a different way than some of my colleagues. I am not just standing up for what is right and able to go home and live in comfort if we don’t succeed. I am standing up for my safety and the safety of my peers. In the Senate there are just 30 of us and one vote can make a huge difference. A lot of bills have come down to just one vote. It happens almost daily, even in the quieter moments when other legislators and I are having discussions in the hallways, I always find myself making points based on my lived experience that they had never considered. It’s hard, but it’s worth it, and I can see things already that are better because of points that I have made and laws I have worked to pass. I am also so encouraged that I am seeing more and more grassroots candidates from diverse backgrounds starting to run. We need to encourage and support this. With enough of us here that have lived the failures of the status quo, change is more than possible— it is inevitable. 

No one knows more than Blue America how important it is to support the Democratic “Farm Teams” in all 50 states, so they can learn and grow and become more “Bernie-like” candidates representing us in Congress. If you can, please consider supporting Tanya Vyhovsky for Vermont State Senate, here.


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