By Caleigh Cross
Ethan Sonneborn turned 14 on May 24. Last year, at age 13, the Bristol teenager announced his candidacy for governor of Vermont in the 2018 race.
Now he’s competing with James Ehlers and Christine Hallquist for the Democratic nomination in the primary election Aug. 14, and he hopes to go on and win the Nov. 6 election.
“It’s going extremely well,” Sonneborn said of his campaign.
The gubernatorial hopeful meets with as many people as he can, and attends campaign events, limited by the fact that he’s not old enough to drive.
“I am currently pushing for as many debates as we can have,” he said.
Sonneborn says he’s not intimidated by candidates with much more experience than he has.
“If there’s one thing politicians are famous for, it’s not following up on what they talk about. I think it’s kind of hard to feel threatened by a politician,” he said.
Sonneborn’s plan for Vermont includes stricter gun regulations, stronger support for mental health care, and more funding for education. He’s big on supporting Vermont’s recreation economy, and stands behind a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024, although he’s not yet old enough to hold a job, other than being a legislative page, which he was this year.
Sonneborn is one of 800 students at Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School in Bristol and says he favors school consolidation.
“I am of two minds about this,” he said. “I respect and understand and value the Vermont small school situation. Many people, I think, move here because we’re so rustic, and I think a lot of what they picture is their kids going to a nice, small school and living a traditional country lifestyle.
“I also think that we do have to think about not what’s best for people who are moving here, but what’s best for students currently in the system. I don’t think that what’s best for the students currently in the system is going to a school with 10 students,” Sonneborn said.
He attended a much smaller school before going to Mount Abraham, and while “I don’t doubt the quality of the education, I think that you get a wider variety of people and their personal narratives (at larger schools).
“I don’t think I would have done this when I went to a smaller school,” he said of running for governor. “I wasn’t exposed to ideological diversity.”
In fact, it was a school social studies assignment that led him to throw his hat in the ring.
“I was looking for something in the state Constitution for school, and I learned that the only age requirement (for governor) is that you live in the state for four years or more,” he said.
Sonneborn says school officials are doing the best they can, but “sometimes, when we’re talking about governing, we have to look past the money and see who it’s affecting. Schools do need more money.”
His own school is “not up to code, and it has serious funding problems,” Sonneborn said, but he praised his teachers and school administrators.
“The current education funding system is not perfect, and I think it’s going to be very difficult for us to get to a point where everybody agrees that the education funding is the right one,” Sonneborn said.
Tighter gun laws
Sonneborn says new gun laws — which set a minimum age of 21 for buying a gun, and cap magazine capacity at 10 rounds for long guns and 15 rounds for handguns — are “a good building block. It’s where we start, and it’s all about where we go from here.” It’s important, he said, to prevent a school shooting like the one that killed 14 students and three adults in Parkland, Fla. He also supports a ban on assault weapons.
He thinks most people can agree that “it’s important that guns not be in our schools, and that mentally ill people can’t have them.”
Sonneborn says mental illness plays a huge role in the Vermont’s opioid crisis, and treating mental illness would help weaken the stranglehold that prescription drug abuse has on the state.
“Study after study shows that, when people are depressed or anxious, they’re more likely to use drugs,” he said.
To Sonneborn, compassion is at the core of how Vermont can help people struggling with addiction. He supports safe-injection sites and openly available overdose-reversal drugs, such as naloxone.
“I’ve met so many people on the campaign trail who struggle with the opioid epidemic, and have struggled, and are currently struggling,” he said. “There are common themes in all of their stories. They fell into a bad habit, and they couldn’t get help.”
When it comes to marijuana, Sonneborn supports a taxed, regulated system. Come July 1, possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana will be legal for adults 21 or older, as well as possession of up to two mature plants and up to four immature plants.
“Legalizing things is pretty much useless if you don’t regulate them,” he said.
He thinks limiting recreational marijuana use to those 21 and older is the right move.
“People seem to have this conception that I want to legalize marijuana for myself. I absolutely do not.”
He said marijuana use by those under 21 poses risks and “we can’t just assume that they are going to make smart decisions.”
About his own age, though, and prospects for office, Sonneborn is confident.
“I think pretty much everything in my life has kind of been a gradual buildup to a life in politics, and I think that it came earlier than I would have expected five years ago,” he explained.
He says he’s ready to lead the state. “People are looking for a fresh vision, and I’m the candidate who’s offering that. I think that they might be surprised by my age at first. Once they start to understand the common-sense, progressive policies we want to put in place, they realize that this campaign is for real, and that we have good ideas for a lot of things,” Sonneborn said.
So far though, he says the most common questions he gets involve his age. “I personally am sick of it, but I don’t wish people would stop asking me. I think it’s important that voters are informed,” he said.