The leader of Vermont’s senate says a bill proposed to break up Chittenden County’s six-seat district would create a more direct relationship between local voters and their state senators.
“The reality is that having the largest senate district in America does not serve the voters well,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P), who sponsored the bill.
The Vermont Senate has 30 members representing districts that mostly correlate to county boundaries. Chittenden’s district represents a fifth of the body and holds twice as many senators as the next closest county; most rural counties have only one member.
The bill, S.11, would cap senatorial district representatives at three members starting with the 2022 election. All six Chittenden senators voiced support during a floor vote earlier this month.
Explaining his rationale, Ashe said Chittenden senators represent a combined population of more than 120,000 people, bringing with them thousands of phone calls, emails and letters every year. And while some state legislators around the country have a staff to help keep up with the onslaught, legislators here are on their own.
“One person with no budget can only get spread so far,” Ashe said.
It’s not the first time legislators have tried to shake up the district known by some as the “Chittenden six-pack,” but Ashe said his bill departs from predecessors by not prescribing how the new district should look. Instead, it puts off the change until the 2022 election so that the state’s Legislative Apportionment Board has time to craft new political boundaries.
That board, which includes two members each from Vermont’s three major parties and a chair appointed by the Vermont Supreme Court’s chief justice, offers a recommendation to the house and senate based on the 2020 census.
Ashe said he’s heard no pushback from his fellow senators and expected little resistance from the House, explaining the two bodies don’t usually get involved in the other’s redistricting efforts.
Critics of the Chittenden district argue the six-seat behemoth amounts to protection for incumbents, forcing challengers to spend large sums of money to compete; as Seven Days reported earlier this month, it’s been nearly 20 years since the last time a Chittenden senator ran for reelection and lost.
So news of the bill’s advancement was welcome news for former Essex Jct. representative Paul Dame, who last year lost a bid for a seat in the Chittenden senate district following a successful write-in campaign during the primary. Dame believes smaller senate districts would encourage more participation in the civic process, pointing to the 2018 campaign of Republican challenger Alex Farrell, who led all fundraising efforts but was unable to overcome the incumbents.
“With smaller districts, it’s easier for people to campaign and connect with their community,” he continued. “That has the effect of encouraging more people to run, and I think that’s always healthy for our electoral process: The more competition leads us to pick a better option.”
He said the bill is also good news for Essex, which currently has no direct senatorial representation despite being Vermont’s second-most populous municipality.
“Not having somebody who lives here and is acquainted with what makes Essex different, it’s tough for us to be represented,” Dame said. He’s now waiting to see how many districts pop up in Chittenden’s wake, believing the county needs at least three separate districts to ensure voters have a senator who feels close to home.
How that all shakes out is also a source of concern for Don Turner, the former Republican lawmaker who served as House minority leader during last redistricting effort a decade ago. He said three of the district’s six senators now live in Burlington, while his town of Milton – historically a more conservative community compared to others in Chittenden County – “really has no say in the senate right now.”
“We have very little occurrence where senators even come to Milton at any time during the year,” Turner said.
So while Turner was “pleasantly surprised” to see Ashe’s proposal, he still worries the Democrats could gerrymander two liberal leaning districts to protect their newly acquired supermajority.
He sees the fairest way to break up Chittenden is through single-seat districts within the county, giving each senator an equal proportion of the population. That’s similar to a plan legislators shot down during the last redistricting effort, and Turner acknowledged it’s highly unlikely it will ever happen.
Still, Ashe said it’s too early to conclude that breaking up the six-pack will inevitably mean just two districts.
“We might be talking about completely different numbers of senators when the 2020 census comes in,” he said, suggesting population growth could warrant an additional senator or the shifting of a Chittenden County town into another district outside county lines.
As for how his bill might impact the party in power, Ashe said his Chittenden colleagues are more focused on “doing the right thing.”
Turner won’t be convinced until he sees a fair redistricting result. Otherwise, he said, the bill “hasn’t changed anything other than making Tim Ashe look like a hero.”