One of the four candiates for the democratic nomination for lieutenant governor is Brenda Siegel. She is founder and director of the Southern Vermont Dance Festival, the chair of the Newfane Democratic Committee and a delegate to the Windham County Democratic Committee. She ran for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018 and was defeated by Christine Hallquist.
VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Brenda Siegel, and their interview below has been condensed and edited for clarity. VPR is seeking interviews with all of the candidates for lieutenant governor.
Brenda Siegel: There is incredible opportunity in that office to build power on the ground, and that means going into each and every community, especially frontline communities and forgotten communities and making sure that folks have the tools that they need to use their voice in our democratic process.
And the other thing is that the [Senate] committee on committees that I think is an underrepresented role of the lieutenant governor, being on the committee on committees, because if you spend a lot of time inside the Legislature advocating, you know that the makeup of those committees matters quite a lot.
Mitch Wertlieb: How do you think you could work effectively with a governor from a different party?
What a lot of people know about me is that I'm very outspoken. What a lot of folks don't know is how much time I spend inside our Legislature talking to people who don't necessarily agree with me. One example of this is H.162, which is a bill to decriminalize buprenorphine. I spent two years advocating for that bill. I had many conversations with the Republicans, both in House Judiciary and in House Human Services.
And just before COVID struck, it moved out of House Human Services and it passed unanimously: Progressive, Democrat and Republican. And in large part — it wasn't me alone, and I really want to be clear — the part of those conversations were sitting down with Republicans and having many conversations along the way with the governor's administrators.
You just brought up that word that's become such a part of life now, that's COVID. Given the massive economic shock that the state is suffering from this and will suffer in the days ahead, how do you think we can rebuild or recover while keeping Vermonters safe at the same time?
We have an opportunity right now to build better out of this crisis. What COVID did was highlight crises that people across Vermont have been facing for generations. And I've spent the last nine years working on a project in Brattleboro. It's based on creative economic principles. And I think one of the things that we can do is go into each and every community and figure out what kind of creative economic principles would help to drive those local economies.
Because no matter what's coming, we're not going back to what it was six months ago, nor should we want to, because six months ago, people were in tents, sleeping and freezing. We do not want to live in a Vermont like that. I believe that while this has been a huge crisis for so many families, it's also our opportunity to really build better out of it.
COVID-19 is a health crisis, of course. And there's another crisis going on in America right now. As you know, protests are continuing nationally and here in Vermont against racism and police brutality... Would you push for any changes in how law enforcement is done in Vermont right now?
I do believe in defunding the police. People don't always understand exactly what that means. And what it means is reallocating resources into communities directly impacted by our racist systems. Right now in Vermont, we are in the top five for racial disparities in our prisons. We have enormous disparity in the way that Black and Brown folks get pulled over, especially on our state highways. And we do have an enormous amount of children who get suspended, Black and Brown children who get suspended.
In order to address that, we need to take resources that were allocated to police and move them to communities that are impacted, to mental health services. That doesn't mean not having a system of public safety. It means building a better system of public safety. So many folks end up in our jails just because they have a mental health crisis, just because they had trauma, just because they have black or brown skin. And none of those are reasons that we should feel okay about putting people in prison.
One of the focuses of your activism has been the opioid addiction crisis. I'm wondering how you would use the position and platform of lieutenant governor to address that issue.
So as many folks know, on March 8 of 2018, which was a day after I had decided to run for governor, my nephew died of a heroin overdose. And he was a son of my brother who also died just over 20 years ago while using heroin. I, during that campaign, released a four-part plan to heal the overdose crisis. And since then have gone around the state and country to help move forward progressive drug policies.
So I would continue that similar work, but more importantly, spend a significant amount of time empowering those unheard voices, those in active use, to be part of that solution and be able to bring forth: Why are they not accessing recovery? Because a lot of people are not accessing recovery because of real barriers, like not having health insurance or not having transportation or not having the economic resources to have child care when they need to be at a hub. That's the piece that is missing from our democracy, is the people. And we need to bring the people to the people's house.
It sounds like you're saying there are structural obstacles that are preventing people on the margins from really taking part in government and having a voice. What would you do to bring more of these marginalized people into the decision making process? Because part of what was successful about your run for governor, even though you didn't win in 2018, was that you were able to bring your own story of a single mom, somebody who didn't have a big voice in government having that voice heard. How did you do that? How would you get other people to be able to do that?
Right. So I always love to be really clear and transparent that I grew up in an upper middle class family. I have tools in my belt that are from that upbringing, even though I reached poverty as an adult and have struggled financially immensely for the last 20 years. And it has impacted me and my son greatly.
But we need to give all people those tools. It isn't ever OK for someone to believe they don't have a voice, because even though I had those tools, even though I had already interned in Bernie's office in D.C., even though I had finished college, all of those things, as soon as I was alone with a baby and struggling financially, I believed that my voice did not matter.
I don't want to live in a world like that. I want to make sure that the Black and Brown folks who we have been holding down for so long, the Indigenous peoples whose land we have stolen, that all folks understand that they can step into their own power, just as I did in 2018 and amdoing again now. That your voice matters and that we can make change and significant change.
But we do have to have the tools do it. We do have to know how to push back when the media isn't covering us. And what is the most effective tool to talk to legislators? There's a lot of legislators who would love to hear from more people on issues like minimum wage. Who they hear from are the people who don't want it because those folks tend to have a lobby, whereas the people don't have a lobby. And so we need to become our own people's lobby.
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Vermont’s primary election is on Aug. 11, so VPR is reaching out to candidates in contested races for governor, lieutenant governor and the U.S. House to find out why they're seeking to serve, and where they stand on the issues of the day. Find our full coverage here.