BURLINGTON — Kiah Morris, a former Bennington state representative who ended her re-election campaign in 2018 after incidents of racial harassment, has been named head of Rights & Democracy.
Morris, who now lives in the Burlington area, served for two years as Vermont movement policy director for the progressive advocacy group.
As executive director, Morris will lead RAD and its nonprofit sister organization, the Rights & Democracy Institute, in Vermont and New Hampshire. She will also lead the organization which works alongside national partners like People’s Action and the Center for Popular Democracy.
“Kiah was part of my inspiration to launch Rights & Democracy in the first place,” James Haslam said in a statement. he founded the organization in 2015 and now works with his national partner organization, Race Forward.
“I knew we had to organize on a lot of cross-cutting issues, but we also had to bring people to the decision-making tables who really understood the issues our communities faced and would champion grassroots movements for human rights and democracy,” Haslam said. “She’s already done an amazing job building RAD.”
He said Morris “is a natural candidate for the next phase of this mission, especially given her service in the General Assembly as a state representative. [from 2014 to 2018] as Bennington County’s first elected African American and person of color, and the second African American woman to be elected to the Legislative Assembly in Vermont history.
Haslam added: “His groundbreaking legislative achievements include the adoption and defense of low-cost or free contraception for all; the removal of statutes of limitations for sexual assault; fair and impartial policing standards; and the creation of a multi-sectoral panel to address racial disparities in Vermont’s criminal and juvenile justice systems.
“The work of Rights & Democracy is a labor of love from people of all backgrounds, identities and places in Vermont and New Hampshire,” Morris said. “Over the past seven years, RAD has become a leading political and organizing home for those passionate about building a healthy, fair and accountable multiracial democracy that works for all of us. I am so excited about the opportunities before us to make our vision a reality in both states as we reach new heights.
RAD, which has a chapter in Bennington, will focus on growth in 2022, at the community and state levels, according to the release.
Morris’ former position will be filled by Dan Fingas, who served as RAD’s Vermont organizing director.
Morris ended his 2018 campaign for a third term this fall, after reporting numerous incidents over two years of racially motivated harassment, mostly online.
Chief among them were complaints of harassment from acknowledged white nationalist Max Misch of Bennington. He posted a vulgar racist cartoon and message aimed at Morris on Twitter in 2016 and later admitted to “trolling” her online and at public events.
After investigations by local and state authorities, Attorney General TJ Donovan announced in January 2019 that, although Morris had been racially harassed, the incidents had not risen to the level necessary for a criminal complaint, given free speech protections in the US and Vermont constitutions.
The situation involving an African-American Vermont lawmaker was soon brought to light by state, national, and possibly international media.
Although he was not charged with the harassment incidents, Misch was later arrested for alleged possession of high-capacity firearm magazines that were made illegal in Vermont under legislation passed in 2018. He allegedly purchased two 30-round rifle magazines in New Hampshire.
Those and other charges — including disorderly conduct and alleged violations of his release conditions — are still pending in Superior Court, after an unsuccessful firearms law challenge by Misch, which was dismissed l year by the Supreme Court of Vermont.
Morris and her husband, James Lawton, sold their Bennington home in 2020 and moved to the Burlington area.
In April 2021, the Bennington Select Board mediated a complaint by the couple to the Vermont Human Rights Commission that Bennington police failed to adequately investigate their complaints of racial harassment.
The settlement included a payment of $137,000 to Morris’ family and a formal apology from the Select Board.
The incidents involving Morris also led the Select Board to contract for a review of the police department’s policies and procedures by a team of consultants from the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Its report recommended a citizen review of all police policies and procedures and considered the creation of a civilian police oversight board. These steps have been initiated by the select committee and are in progress.
The select committee is expected to vote on a citizens’ task force’s proposed format for a civilian police review board at its March 28 meeting.