In the category of “Get your popcorn ready,” no state Senate race is likely to outdo the contest shaping up in the newly-created Chittenden North district, a.k.a. “The Democrats’ Gift to the VTGOP.” The Democratic majority who controlled redistricting managed to create a new district out of Chittenden County that seems to have a pretty strong Republican lean. Chittenden North includes the strongly Republican towns of Milton, Fairfax and Westford, plus most of Essex, whose internal politics are as fraught as a Montague-Capulet family reunion.
The declared candidates are Rep. Leland Morgan (R-Milton) and Democrat Irene Wrenner. In addition, potential candidate Brian Shelden has yet to declare — but he has set up a website for a Senate candidacy and filed a campaign finance report in March detailing more than $4,000 in donations. Those would seem to be rather outsized hints. Shelden is chair of the Essex Democrats and a former candidate for House and Selectboard.
Before we get to the particulars, I must point out the half-hearted job done by VTDigger in its story “2 early contestants join race for new Chittenden North state Senate district.”
Should be “Two,” not “2”, but that’s a detail. The real problem is that the story gave an incomplete and misleading account of Wrenner’s community activism and didn’t discover Shelden’s proto-campaign at all. In addition to missing the Shelden for Senate website, Digger also missed Shelden’s campaign finance filing. This seems to be yet another case of going through the motions on a rote article about a developing campaign. Really, people, if you’re going to produce these pieces, put some effort into them. In the age of The Google, it shouldn’t be that hard.
Back to the race itself. Assuming Shelden is a candidate, the Democratic primary may produce more fireworks than the collective Fourth of July festivities in all of Vermont because Wrenner and Shelden have serious beef.
Meanwhile, Morgan can sit back and chuckle. The makeup of the district seems to give him the edge to start with. And the Democratic primary may splinter the party base; there are plenty of Essexians who support either Wrenner or Shelden and wouldn’t be caught dead voting for the other. (Some of ’em will cross the aisle and vote for Morgan out of spite for the Democratic winner.)
Now, let’s talk Wrenner/Shelden beef.
The VTDigger article depicted Wrenner as a wacky sort whose activism has been expressed in stunts like singing an altered version of a Jethro Tull song at a Selectboard meeting and distributing condoms outside a voting location in a middle school in protest of, um, plans to merge Essex Town and Village?
Here’s what Digger failed to mention. Wrenner is co-founder of The Essex ReTorter, a website aimed at redressing an alleged imbalance in coverage by the Essex Reporter, the local weekly. Wrenner uses the ReTorter to post somewhat literate stories reflecting her opinions about local issues, to whit: in favor of splitting town and village, skeptical of equity education in the Essex-Westford schools, and antagonistic toward Brian Shelden.
The ReTorter posted a piece announcing Wrenner’s candidacy. It wasn’t written by her, mirabile dictu, but it did give a sanitized version of her activism. And yep, it fails to note Shelden’s obvious actions toward a Senate camapign of his own.
Thumbing through the ReTorter’s archives, we find oddly incurious stories about Liz Cady, the very controversial and vocally anti-critical race theory member of the Essex-Westford school board. The ReTorter has covered Cady’s public “forums” as if they were purely educational efforts, which is exactly what Cady would have you believe. We also find friendly coverage of Wrenner’s public involvements and critical pieces about her opponents, and articles that overreach in pursuit of alleged misbehavior by her enemies.
Any time Shelden sticks his head above the foxhole, you can be sure the ReTorter will be there to take a shot. Shelden’s write-in candidacy for a Selectboard seat was depicted by the ReTorter as an aggrieved partisan trying to buy his way into a nonpartisan position. His campaign spending was described as “outsized” by the ReTorter. Granted, Shelden did spend quite a bit of money trying to boost his name recognition as a write-in, but that kind of overt editorializing doesn’t exactly fit the dictionary definition of journalism.
In February of 2021, the ReTorter posted a piece about a campaign finance complaint filed with the Attorney General over alleged failure to file reports on time by “One Essex,” a pro-village-and-town-merger PAC supported by Shelden. The headline accuses One Essex of being “negligent.” Not mentioned is exactly who filed the complaint, which makes one suspect that it might have been Wrenner herself, or the fact that complaints get filed all the time and don’t mean all that much. The penalties for filing late or failing to file are, ahem, NOTHING. There are no penalties.
A few months earlier, the ReTorter covered a campaign finance complaint filed by Shelden against a PAC associated with Wrenner. This time, the ReTorter glibly dismissed Shelden’s complaint (in fact, the URL for the article calls it an “unfounded complaint,” which likely means that wording was in the original headline) and quoted Wrenner and friends at some length.
The ReTorter’s coverage, in short, is exactly what you’d expect from an activist with partisan interests on local issues.
Anyway, the point is, a Wrenner-Shelden primary would be catnip for those who root for chaos in our politics. Should be fun. But the result, either way, may be nothing more than a precursor to a November coronation for Leland Morgan.