13-year-old candidate aims to unseat governor
PUTNEY, Vt. (AP) — Vermont gubernatorial candidate Ethan Sonneborn, 13, of Bristol is making the rounds and making his pitch — but no matter what happens during the election, he plans to use the campaign as a way to continue fighting for the issues he holds dear.
“I’ve talked about creating a PAC (political action committee) to engage young people in the process,” the Democrat said when asked what he would do if he lost the race. “Really, what I’d like to do is remain an activist.”
Sonneborn was asked to talk about his campaign at the Putney Public Library during a visit Feb. 11. Putney Huddle, a progressive group whose mission is “to extend and strengthen our rights and values,” hosted the event. About 20 attendees came to the meeting.
Sonneborn told the Reformer he learned in April of “a loophole” in the Vermont Constitution that says candidates must have resided in the state for four years but has no age restrictions. He announced in August he would be running in the November 2018 election.
“I had a lot of frustration with national politics and decided to take action at a local and state level,” he said, crediting the violence in Charlottesville, Va., being his primary motivation. “I saw a woman die, and I saw the president of the United States refuse to condemn her killer.”
Sonneborn said he would like to create a new version of the state’s health insurance exchange, Vermont Health Connect, with “at least a public option — although ideally, universal health care would happen at the federal level.”
He wants to find ways to entice college graduates to stay in the Green Mountain State instead of leaving to work in places like New York or California. And he believes Vermont needs to take a stronger stand on climate change.
Sonneborn finds skepticism about his age and lack of experience to be less intense than he imagined when he first started mulling over the idea to run. Gov. Phil Scott, he said, “thinks it’s pretty cool what we’re doing and is not supportive because it’s his job I’m gunning for. He thinks it’s an interesting idea and he’s glad young people are getting engaged.”
Sonneborn said a group of four or five fellow eighth-graders help to develop his political strategy, several volunteers are lined up to knock on doors and make phone calls, and a few adults are also helping.
“I think there’s a real doubt about what it says about Vermont that there’s a 13-year-old running for governor,” he said. “I think there’s sometimes an impression, especially with older and more conservation people, that I’m an embarrassment to Vermont. But I think I’ve done a pretty good job of dispelling those in my campaign.”
If anything, Sonneborn hopes his run for governor might spark more civic engagement among Vermonters.
“Everyone has an opinion but it’s groups like this that make it happen,” he told Putney Huddle. “We can’t just say that we care about these issues, we can’t just say that we think that we should be standing up for the people who can’t protect themselves. We actually have to do it and I think that if we really want to take action here in Vermont and all across the country, we need to not just take action but also to not take action quietly. We need groups like these to be spreading their message as loudly as they can because for a long time in America, lawmakers haven’t heard us. And I’ll concede that doesn’t happen much in Vermont but it’s still very much a problem.”
State Sen. Jeanette White, of Putney, asked Sonneborn whether he would support legislation being discussed that would require high school students to take the same test new citizens must take.
“I think the citizen test has some elements that are questionable,” he said, leaning towards opposing the bill that he had only skimmed through.
Dr. Dan Freilich, who hopes to unseat U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, also spoke at the meeting.
“It’s amazing you’re running as a 13-year-old,” Freilich told Sonneborn. “Kudos.”