The recent VPR-Vermont PBS poll found very little name recognition for the Democratic gubernatorial candidates running in next week's primary election.
Brenda Siegel thinks that might a good thing.
Siegel has never run for a statewide or even a local position.
But she believes Vermonters are ready to elect an outsider to the state’s highest office.
“As a single mom I have the resolve and the endurance to really push through some pretty serious challenges,” she said during an interview at her campaign headquarters in downtown Brattleboro.
“The strongest leaders that I know in the Brattleboro community and across the state, and across the nation, often come from very different backgrounds. And they’ve taken whatever their life experience has been and turned it into really strong action and have been more successful than people who haven’t had to face those things in their lives.”
Siegel is 41-years-old, and some of what she’s faced, she says, has spurred her on to seek the Democratic nomination this year.
More from Vermont Edition — Brenda Siegel On Her Run For The Democratic Nomination For Governor [June 21]
About ten years ago Siegel’s brother died of a heroin overdose.
And then earlier this year her brother’s son, who Siegel was very close to, also died from an overdose.
Any candidate, from any party, would likely put Vermont’s opioid crisis at the top of his or her list of issues that need attention.
But for Siegel, having two close family members die of overdoses proved to be a strong motivation to running for governor this year.
“Definitely right after my nephew passed away I did not think that I would be able to go forward,” she said. “The heartbreak was really significant. And ultimately when I decided I would still go forward, I was probably more sure that it was the right decision.”
Siegel grew up in Brattleboro. After college, she interned in Washington D.C. with then-Congressman Bernie Sanders.
When she got back to Vermont Siegel focused her political work on social issues around Windham County.
She worked with local groups on priorities like healthcare, homelessness, women’s issues and poverty.
She said she learned that you have to get down at ground level and meet the people who are suffering; listen to them, and engage them in the solutions.
And if she’s the next governor of Vermont she promised to do just that.
“I think a lot of times we make a mistake when we’re talking about issues of poverty, homelessness, opiate use disorder, and all of those issues,” said Siegel.
“We don’t stop and listen to what the needs actually are from the mouths of the people who are experiencing the problem. We know that when the people closest to the problem are engaged in solving the problem, that’s when we see the problem get solved.”
And so Siegel said she’s got what it takes to begin to solve those problems.
Siegel is executive director of the Southern Vermont Dance Festival, and she said she pieces together other part-time jobs like working with kids at a ski area and in education.
Siegel said there’s a national pushback on politics as usual, and a hunger for authentic leaders.
And the governor’s race in Vermont, she said, could be ground zero for the next upset in voting out an incumbent.
“What I think we want to see in Montpelier is a change,” she said. “We want to see our leadership begin to come from grassroots organizing. There are a whole lot of people who have never been allowed into the funnel that normally results in executive leadership within the state. So if we’re serious, especially on the Democratic left, that we want to change that, and that we want to change the system, then we have to begin to allow people with those marginalized voices to come in at different levels of leadership.”
Political experts say whoever can get their base motivated to vote in the primary will probably become the Democratic nominee.
And in a race with no clear frontrunner, Siegel thinks she’s got a shot.
Vermont’s 2018 primary election will take place on Tuesday, Aug. 14. The Vermont Secretary of State’s website has election-related information regarding voter registration, where your polling place is and more. Find VPR’s candidate interviews and profiles here.