A Tip of the Hat

Brenda Siegel the candidate will be remembered, to the extent she’s remembered at all, as a failure. She lost in anoverwhelming fashion to Gov. Phil Scott. She didn’t have much money, she couldn’t afford mass media until the campaign’s closing weeks (and even then, not enough to move the needle). And she lost in what was otherwise a wave election for her Democratic Party.

Consider a post-election VTDigger story about how Phil Scott won the election. The story mentioned Siegel a grand total of once. Maybe that’s for the best because when they did mention Siegel, it was usually in belittling tones. A Digger election night story described her as “a former dance instructor,” which is just ridiculous. In the world of dance alone, it’s ridiculous. She used to run a dance festival, which is a bit more than helping kids pull off their first arabesque.

More to the point, it ignores her years of advocacy in the Statehouse and elsewhere and her effort to build a political career with little support or encouragement, but sure, “former dance instructor.”

In her concession speech, Siegel said “We all need to become brave enough to lose.” And that’s the stone truth. She was the only one brave enough to challenge Scott in 2022. Which alone makes her worthy of respect.

This also applies to Christine Hallquist and David Zuckeman. They accepted the thankless task of challenging Scott. Zuckerman risked a decades-long climb up the political ladder instead of biding his time as lieutenant governor, which would have been the sensible course.

But this post is about Siegel. She stepped into an unforgiving spotlight. She faced up to the task of challenging a governor at the height of his popularity. She formulated an agenda and communicated it in simple, understandable terms.

That didn’t help because everything else was against her. She had an immense deficit in name recognition and didn’t have enough time or resources to close the gap. She had the support of Democratic Party leaders and [some] elected officials, but not all. Plus there are all those Democratic voters who go straight ticket except for governor.

She also suffered from the atrophied condition of the Vermont political press. The race got scant coverage. Even the gubernatorial debates, where she easily outpointed Scott, were largely ignored. Meanwhile, the governor could command attention any time he held a press conference or went to a farm and petted a cow.

Still, I thought she had a chance. I was wrong. And I know why I was wrong.

I’m a creature of the #vtpoli bubble. I write about politics. I follow politics. I think about politics. Generally speaking, that’s a strength. But it puts me out of touch with the electorate. The vast majority pay no attention. Even if they are motivated enough to vote, little thought goes into the process. Most people’s votes are predetermined. The rest, almost without exception, make up their minds based on an impression or image. It’s Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink,” for better and for worse.

Evidence: VTDigger’s gubernatorial debate, the first of the general campaign, has been viewed 3,200 times on YouTube. Roughly 280,000 people cast votes for governor. Siegel did very well in that debate, and nobody saw it.

I, on the other hand, watch the debates, analyze the candidates’ records and positions, and read as much as I can of available campaign coverage. I look at campaign finance reports. I spend time getting a sense of how things are going. To me, and to very few other people, Siegel the 2022 candidate was at least as familiar as Scott the 2022 candidate. To everyone else, Siegel was an unknown and Scott was a Nice GuyTM.

More about Scott’s image in an upcoming post. Suffice it to say that given the circumstances, Siegel was doomed from the get-go.

Nevertheless, she persisted. She knew all of this, and yet she took on the challenge and willingly poured body and soul into the effort. Running for office is hard. Really, really hard. But she knew that someone had to make the case for a Democratic agenda and against Phil Scott.

This doesn’t come without personal cost. Put yourself on the line, spend month after month traveling, speaking, pressing the flesh and getting too little sleep, all to hear the voters say “Nah.” Scott, meanwhile, sleepwalked to a fourth term. I’m sure the campaign left her depleted, crushed, and wondering what the hell to make of it all and what the hell to do now. She’ll get through it because that’s what she does, but it will take time.

Agree with her or not, she is braver than I’ll ever be. That’s what I’m going to remember.


7 thoughts on “A Tip of the Hat

  1. Bill

    Siegel deserves no respect. If she wanted a political career she should have stated locally, like select board or school board, not state wide offices for which she is NOT qualified. She has plenty of chutzpah, for sure. I wish losing in a landslide would convince her to go away, gain some political bonafides and try again when she would have some credibility. But that’s not likely. I am a strong Dem activist and I would not vote for her. That she was our candidate is/was an embarrassment. That is certainly true. But it’s not surprising. Potential candidates with standing do not challenge incumbent gov. Zuckerman being a rare exception. A mystery to me.

  2. Norm Etkind

    Thanks for writing this piece! Brenda Siegel has demonstrated that she is smart, well spoken, and dedicated to improving Vermont and Vermonters. There are many reasons why Democrats, Republicans and Independents vote for Phil Scott. The dynamics go beyond party lines and agendas.
    Ms. Siegel has established herself as an important entity in Vermont politics nonetheless. In that sense her efforts were not in vain, in fact, she has accomplished a lot.

  3. Lee Russ

    I think she missed a real opportunity by not making real health care reform–universal care, at least for primary care if not overall–a major issue. A very big chunk of the electorate is really struggling with health care, and Scott simply refuses to address the problem.

    She had nothing to lose by being the real health care reform candidate, and might well have attracted a lot votes from the people who can’t afford their deductibles, can’t find a primary care doctor, wait forever for specialist appointments, pay far too large a portion of their income to insurance companies, and think our current “reform” effort in the form of the OneCare ACO is a gigantic crock of commercial grade manure.

  4. Irene Wrenner

    Brenda slept on the steps of the capital for nearly a month to make her point last year about helping the homeless. That’s what I remember. I predict Ms. Siegel’s best political years are still ahead of her.


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