BRATTLEBORO -- Both Kate O'Connor and Tristan Toleno are making their first run for the Vermont House of Representatives.
But both Brattleboro Democrats, who will face off in the Aug. 28 primary, are campaigning on their experience.
It will be up to the voters in Brattleboro's District 3 to determine which type of experience matters more: Is it O'Connor's quarter-century of political work at the state and national levels, or is it Toleno's business ventures and community involvement?
"I know how the executive branch works," O'Connor said. "I know how the departments and agencies work. I know how the legislature works."
Countered Toleno: "I don't think that her experience is fundamentally better than mine. I have been deeply embedded in this community and very active on a huge range of issues."
The door opened for the two challengers when incumbent Sarah Edwards, a Progressive, decided to not seek another term after a decade in office. No Republicans entered the race, meaning the winner of the Democratic primary has a clear run to the House seat.
The campaign recently has featured dueling endorsements: Edwards backed Toleno, citing "his energy, enthusiasm and smarts" as well as "roots, connections and commitment to our community."
Writing on behalf of O'Connor was former Gov. Howard Dean, who pointed to his longtime aide's governmental prowess.
"I can affirm her expertise navigating all branches of
O'Connor -- the daughter of Timothy O'Connor, who was Vermont's first Democratic Speaker of the House -- is banking on her political resume. It stretches back to her first job with the 1988 campaign of Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin, for whom O'Connor worked as a scheduler and field coordinator.
Kunin did not seek another term in 1990, when O'Connor got involved with Dean's re-election campaign for lieutenant governor. Dean became the state's chief executive the following year after the death of Gov. Richard Snelling, and O'Connor stuck with him.
Dean dubs O'Connor "one of my most-loyal and longest-serving aides."
That included Dean's unsuccessful run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. O'Connor penned a book about that campaign titled "Do the Impossible."
Since returning to reside in Brattleboro, she has stayed involved in politics: O'Connor advised Democrat Peter Shumlin in his successful 2010 gubernatorial run and still serves as Shumlin's campaign treasurer.
She also is an adviser to the re-election campaign of Democratic state Attorney General William Sorrell.
O'Connor acknowledges that it's a different experience being a candidate.
"It's the first time I've actually knocked on doors and said, ‘Vote for me,'" she said.
And she's knocking on plenty of doors, talking to voters about issues including housing, wages, broadband expansion, health care and economic sustainability.
"That comes down to getting the jobs that we need in this town," O'Connor said. "How can the state help do that -- that's one of the things I talk to people about."
O'Connor said Brattleboro is seeking a stronger voice in Montpelier. And she believes, with her political experience and connections, that she can provide that voice.
"I have a relationship with the governor. I think that really benefits Brattleboro," she said. "I'm not going up there an unknown entity."
Toleno -- whose father-in-law, Don Webster, represented Brattleboro prior to Edwards' election -- may not be well-known in Montpelier. But he says he has developed strong connections in Brattleboro, and he believes "people are responding to some of the work I've been doing in a positive way."
Toleno's resume includes Brattleboro Civilian Police Communications Committee, Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce board, Landmark Trust (Scott Farm) treasurer, Healthy Communities Coalition and Sunrise Rotary.
The former owner of the Riverview Cafe now operates Entera Catering. He also teaches a culinary class at Kindle Farm and professes a keen interest in food systems.
"We all have a stake in a vibrant agricultural economy," Toleno said, adding that the state still has "a long way to go" in that area. For instance, Toleno said more can be done to promote direct-from-farm purchases.
"There's a huge, available market," he said.
Toleno also is knocking on doors, and he notes deep concern and uncertainty about the local economy.
"A significant chunk of the Northeast economy has recovered faster than we have," he said.
He advocates growth strategies that are more focused on the area's strengths, saying Brattleboro is "in a position to advocate for social and mission-driven businesses as part of that mix."
Toleno said such issues have had him weighing a run for office for some time. But he was not interested in challenging Edwards. With the incumbent stepping aside, and with his business still relatively young, "it became clear to me that this was the right time," he said.
Toleno also counts himself as one of the "very few people who are crazy enough to love policy."
Both candidates, however, have had to take time to answer questions that have nothing to do with policy. Toleno said he's not shying away from questions about the demise of the Riverview in late 2010.
"It was very painful," he said. "And it was informative for me."
O'Connor has found herself answering for her involvement in the 2006 campaign of Republican Richard Tarrant, who lost his bid for a U.S. Senate seat to Independent Bernie Sanders.
O'Connor said she was an "adviser," not a leader, in Tarrant's campaign. And she contends she simply was responding to the candidate's request for information.
"Democrats have wanted Republicans to listen to them for more than a century," O'Connor wrote in a letter to the Reformer. "When one phones you and says he's all ears, why would you pass up an opportunity to educate him?"
The issue does not seem to have affected O'Connor's fund raising. Her campaign has attracted $3,916 in contributions including $1,650 in the most-recent reporting period.
In contrast, Toleno's campaign has brought in a total of $1,739, reports filed Aug. 15 show.
Both candidates downplayed those figures. O'Connor said she has held no fund-raisers and has "not asked anybody for money," while Toleno said trailing his opponent in the cash category means little.
"Neither one of us is going to win this based on whether we raised a lot of money or not," he said.
Residents will be able to vote for either candidate on Aug. 28.
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.