Sianay Chase Clifford

Sianay Chase Clifford, a social worker and veteran political staffer in running for the U.S. House of Representatives. 

ESSEX — The daughter of refugees from the Liberian Civil War, Sianay Chase Clifford found her shine as a cheerleader at Essex High School.

“I loved being on that team and found that’s where my leadership skills could thrive,” she said, seated at Uncommon Coffee in Essex.

And though Chase Clifford grew up in a home where money was tight, she said there was also a lot of love.

“I think that’s where I got my social work spark,” she told the Messenger. “From a young age, I wanted to help my family process what had happened to them. I was able to connect with people in a different type of way.”

A certified social worker and veteran political staffer, Chase Clifford is taking those skills and experiences with her on her campaign to be Vermont’s first U.S. Congresswoman. She faces Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, Vermont Senate President Becca Balint and Dr. Louis Meyers in the Democratic primary this August.

“I truly never thought I would run for office, particularly because it's not something someone like me is usually encouraged to do,” she said.

If elected, Chase Clifford said she knows what would be asked of her because she previously worked as an aide to Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts). That was an eye-opening experience she said, as it showed her just how out-of-touch most congressional leaders are with their constituents.

Legislators don’t understand what everyday Americans are facing, she said, and lack an understanding of the urgency in which things like healthcare and climate policy need to change.

“We need more folks who are going to be willing to take it to the mat, on not just easy issues but on every issue that’s essential to the wellbeing of working families,” she said.

Tough competition

In the Democratic primary, Chase Clifford faces competition from two arguably more well-known women, Balint and Gray. Both have the benefit of having already been elected to political office.

When asked how she’s dealing with that, Chase Clifford was honest, and said it’s been a tremendously difficult challenge.

“Our election system really does not favor people who don't have deep, deep, deep political connections,” she said. “If you're not, you know, able to raise $100,000 on day one, you're kind of disregarded in our political system.”

Chase Clifford acknowledged that she could have perhaps gained more name-recognition by running for state office first, but said she is taking the federal leap because Vermont has a chance to send not only a woman, but a woman of color to D.C. for the first time.

“There is so much at stake,” she said. “I feel like this is the place where my voice is needed the most.”

And though if elected most of her work would take place in Congress, Chase Clifford said she still views the position as a “local” one. She would plan to spend as much time as possible in Vermont, and her staff would be made up of Vermonters, not of the typical “Ivy League set.”

“Sometimes members get a little lazy and hire folks who've just been on the Hill for a really long time, but we have to envision something else,” she said.

Achieving ‘Medicare for all’

Even though fixing the healthcare system in the United States will be a “logistical Everest,” Chase Clifford said she is committed to working toward “Medicare for all.”

Right now, she said advocacy groups come to Capitol Hill to pitch to legislators bills around making a particular issue more affordable, like Alzheimer’s or pregnancy.

“We're going to be legislating like that for decades, until we completely duct tape the system,” she said. “But if we all got around to this idea of universal health care, we could get there faster.”

The first step, she said, is to change the story. When the Obama administration was marketing the Affordable Care Act, many Americans came away not understanding why they were paying for other people’s healthcare, she said.

“There was a lot of racism and xenophobia built into that,” she said. “People said they didn't want to pay for x, y and z people, but everyone has a healthcare story, and we need to explain that paying into the system will lower the cost for everybody.”

The next step could then be to provide a piece of care, like vision, universally. This way, a new system would be created piece by piece.

Saving the planet while supporting agriculture

The Farm Bill, which supports farmers, ranchers and foresters through a variety of safety net, farm loan, conservation and disaster assistance programs, will need to be reauthorized in 2023, and Chase Clifford thinks this is a good opportunity to wrap in climate resiliency initiatives.

“It’s must-pass legislation because it has billions of dollars that go to our agricultural economy,” she said. “We tend to think so much in silos, but climate policy needs to be part of everything we do.”

While the Farm Bill that was passed in 2018 included lots of incentives for industrial and factory farms to make environmental changes, Chase Clifford would like to see more policies and programs this time around that reward small farms that have been doing regenerative work for generations because they have to.

Small, family-run farms don't have the capital to move on to the next 1,000 acres when they've destroyed theirs, she said. Existing Farm Bill programs that encourage carbon capture and prioritize water quality should also be further funded.

“We can do the things we need to do to combat the climate crisis, but folks are still not seeing the urgency,” she said. “We're not talking about down the line and generations to come. We're talking about the next five to 10 years of irreversible climate damage.”

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