Deb Billado, a former Essex Jct. trustee and local business owner for three decades, has been named the new Vermont Republican Party chair.
She will serve a two-year term after defeating Michael Donohue of Shelburne and replaces David Sunderland, who didn’t seek re-election after two terms.
Billado owned the village-based Body Shop until it closed last year, served on the board of trustees for 12 years and was recently the Chittenden County Republican Party chairwoman.
Her experience in these positions helped her “fine-tune her leadership skills,” she said Tuesday, which she said will use to help “set the direction of the Republican party.”
Even though Donohue, who is currently the party’s Chittenden County chairman, earned support of several notable state Republicans, including Gov. Phil Scott, Billado said this wouldn’t affect her relationship with the governor.
“I wouldn’t read anything into the outcome of this election,” she said. “The Republican Party is still a strong team.”
Billado said she can’t share the results of the vote, and no count was released after last Saturday’s GOP reorganizational meeting, though Seven Days reports the margin may have been as close as a single tally.
Jeff Bartley, executive director of the Vermont GOP, said both candidates were qualified for the position.
“The state committee made their choice, so we’re going to continue moving forward as we have been the last four years,” he said.
House minority leader Don Turner (R-Milton), who worked with Billado during both her tenure as county chairwoman and her involvement in the Essex Town Republican Committee, said he fully supports her in the role.
Turner said while both candidates offered different traits, Billado’s election illustrates Vermonters believe in those who “work their way through the system and earn their way to the top.”
“People know that Deb has been committed for years to the party and has given her time and money to move the party forward, and I think they rewarded her in the election,” Turner said.
Turner also noted two longstanding issues facing the Republican party that Billado will need to address: filling the party’s coffers to fund elections and finding candidates to back with that money.
Billado believes she can help that cause by refining her party’s messaging to ensure people, especially youth, understand “what Republicanism is and what our core beliefs and values are.”
Her comments come a day after CNN released a poll showing President Donald Trump — the de facto leader of the Republican Party — with a 36 percent approval rating.
Billado said that doesn’t affect her job, though.
“My focus is on the state of Vermont,” she said.
Turner, in his third term as minority leader, said while Vermont offers some isolation from the national landscape, D.C. will always have some influence on state politics.
“A challenge for [Billado] will have to be seeing more the other side, the more moderate to liberal side of the Republican party,” Turner said, latter adding: “There has to be room for all of us.”
Yet Turner said Billado’s work at the county level helped organize many towns that had never done so before, and her remarks after Saturday’s election show she remains focused on bringing people together.
“If anybody can do this, she’s going to do it,” he said.
Talks of a unified state party mimic a national discussion as Republicans grapple with the direction of their party moving forward, spurred by last year’s presidential election.
Billado played a role in Trump’s 2016 campaign, voting for him at the Republican National Convention; serving as the co-chairwoman of his Chittenden County presidential campaign; and, as reported by the Brattleboro Reformer, praising his “passion, vision, brilliance and unwillingness to take no for an answer” during introductory remarks at his speech in Burlington last year.
Still, she challenges being dubbed a “strong” supporter of Trump, explaining she introduced all Republican candidates who came to Vermont during the 2016 election cycle.
“I support the president of the United States as a Republican, and our president today is Donald Trump,” she said. “I support Donald Trump as a Republican.
“If the president was John Kasich,” she continued, “I would be saying the same thing.”
She added she would prefer to “stay on track” with the state party instead of “defaulting to what the press and media and many people want to make a contentious issue.”
Still, she indulged when asked for a brief evaluation of Trump’s time in office.
“He has a very difficult job. A very difficult job. I think everyone knew stepping into it was going to be difficult job,” she said. “I think he’s doing a pretty good job given the circumstances that he has to work with, and I think in the end he’ll do fine. He’ll be fine. His core support group seems to be standing with him and not moving away from him, and that’s important. I think he’ll be successful.”