BRATTLEBORO — Sara Coffey says collaboration is her superpower. It's the strength that made her confident enough to run for office, she said.
Coffey is running as a Democrat for Windham-1, which is made up of Vernon and Guilford, on a platform of education, creative workforce development strategies, stewardship of agriculture and pushing for affordable housing and healthcare.
The seat is currently held by Mike Hebert. When rumors started circulating about his retirement people reached out to Coffey to run and she joined the 2018 Emerge Training Program, a program that teaches a woman how to navigate and run for legislative positions in Vermont.
"I think the Women's March inspired a lot of people, including me to become more engaged," she said.
Coffey was inspired by the work she did as executive director of Vermont Performance Lab, a performance laboratory for creative research and community engagement. It's all about diving into big conversations on a community level through performance. But talking about issues wasn't enough for Coffey. "I wanted something more direct," she said. "I wanted to be more politically overt."
The Emerge program showed her that the experience she'd gained as an arts manager was necessary to be a politician, at least in Vermont. She said she thought that she might have to give up her work with VPL before she announced she joined Emerge. Now she realizes that VPL only further helps connect her to the issues facing Vermont communities. "Through my work with Vermont Performance Lab, I've been able to participate in regional and national conversations about arts and culture," she said. Art itself also lends itself to politics, she said. "The arts have always been at the leading edge of civic engagement," she said.
In other legislatures, Coffey admitted she wouldn't have this privilege but Vermont's legislature would allow her to keep working. That will help her keep connected with the community, she said. "It keeps us [representatives] grounded in our reality," she said.
Coffey, who lives in Guilford, said her love of Vermont communities also inspired her to run. In rural communities, Coffey said, Vermonters are used to coming together through Town Meeting Day, or through their schools. "We are able to be in civic dialogue in a way that's missing or, I think people are craving, in other parts of our country," she said. "There's a strength to our small rural communities." Guilford itself has a reputation for collaboration. A lot of people in Guilford are active volunteers, she said. In particular, she loves the Guilford Community Store. "It's a place where people can come together," she said.
Coffey's been doing her homework about the other town she would be representing, Vernon. "I very quickly fell in love with that community," she said, though she admitted she's still getting to know Vernon. She also commended Vernon's "beautiful" community vision process which includes a village center. She believes the village center will help connect Vernon more with Guilford and with Windham County in general.
Though Coffey loves Vernon, she knows it will be challenging to win over its residents. It's been a while since Vernon has been represented by a Democrat. Hebert even wrote a letter to the Reformer asking voters to write in 23-year-old Patrick Gilligan on the Republican ballot.
Coffey, who is the only candidate on the ticket, said she's been able to speak to Democrats and Republicans alike. Despite differences in national policy, she said a lot of Vermonters seem to want similar things on a local level. "I'm running as a Democrat but I've had some strong Republicans who are really supportive of my campaign," she said.
The important thing for those constituents, she said, is having someone who will work hard for them. Coffey said she intends to do just that and describes herself as a "worker bee."
"I'm excited that there are differences of political opinion," she said of her potential district. "I think right now we need to come together and find our common ground."
For Vernon, that common ground seems easy to find.
The decommissioning of Vermont Yankee is one of the most central issues for the community, Coffey said. The town has been looking to replace the economic power Vermont Yankee once had. Coffey thinks diversifying the local economy could help.
"Vernon's really interesting," she said, adding that residents want to hold on to their traditions but they're also really open to creative ideas and thinking about their future. "This is a town that's going to be able to creatively re-imagine its future," she said.
Coffey's also passionate about policies for farm families. Farms are an important part of the working landscape for both Vernon and Guilford, she said. Some policies regarding farms are out of touch with farmer's perspectives, she said. "They don't know how to lay down manure," she said of policymakers.
Like many of Coffey's issues, she sees multiple sides and room for conversation when it comes to farm policies. While some farmland may be right for solar panels, she said, "of course we want a green future, but we also don't want all of our open farmland covered with solar panels."
Farm policies aren't just about protecting Vermont's dairy industry, she said, noting that farms are an important part of Vermont's landscape and tourist economy.
Despite Vermont's many strengths, Coffey acknowledges that there are unique challenges to living somewhere so rural.
"We're experiencing some real challenges with our economy," Coffey said.
In Windham County, in particular, there's been a lot of talk from local businesses and organizations like Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies about retaining youth in the area.
Part of building a strong Vermont economy, Coffey believes, is through education. "We need to strengthen our education system, not weaken it," she said. In Vermont, she said funding education can be hard because of the small population. "We're a rural state," she said. "We need to be thinking differently about how we educate our kids." That thinking has to start with education funding, she said.
"We're dealing with an opioid crisis and teachers are often our first responders [for children feeling the effects of that crisis.]" She wants to make schools a community hub by bringing social services into schools. "Some people might cringe at that," she said. "But what I've been hearing all this year is how disconnected our human and social services are."
Coffey doesn't pretend to have all of the answers, but said her strength lies in collaboration and listening to others. "A lot of people feel left out, and ignored and behind," she said. "We need everyone to have access and opportunity and frankly the American dream. We want everybody, not just the privileged few."
Harmony Birch can be reached at email@example.com, at @Birchharmony on Twitter and 802-254-2311, Ext. 153.