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One woman funding Vt. super PAC

BURLINGTON, Vt. — She is one conservative trying to have a big impact in left-leaning Vermont.

Lenore Broughton, 74, has nearly singlehandedly funded a new super PAC called Vermonters First, a group that has been running ads supporting GOP candidates and opposing Governor Peter Shumlin’s push for a single-payer health care system.

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There are big donors to conservative candidates around the country, but Broughton’s foray into electoral politics is unusual in this bastion of liberalism.

Vermont has among the highest percentage of residents of any state who identify themselves as liberal, according to exit polls. In 2008, it was the first state to report its electoral votes would be going to Democrat Barack Obama. And Burlington’s former mayor, Bernie Sanders, is known as the only small-s socialist in the US Senate.

In front of Broughton’s graceful Victorian home this week were campaign banners supporting Randy Brock, the long-shot Republican candidate for governor, and a rarely seen sign supporting John MacGovern, the Republican given no chance in his bid to unseat Sanders.

In a brief interview at her front door, Broughton would not say what motivated her to donate $682,500 this year to Vermonters First. The money represents nearly all of the $684,861 raised by the super PAC as of Monday.

Told that people were wondering about her motives, she said, ‘‘They just have to go on wondering.’’

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But the seeds of her activism were sown nearly seven decades ago.

Broughton’s maternal grandfather was Sewell L. Avery, who had a high-profile battle with the federal government in 1944.

Avery was a Chicago industrialist who rose to fame as president and later chairman of the US Gypsum Co., the construction materials giant that today is known as USG and makes Sheetrock-brand wallboard.

In 1931, he was asked by J.P. Morgan & Co. to assume the chairmanship of Montgomery Ward & Co. at a time when the department store chain and mail-order house had been hit hard by the Depression and was in danger of being absorbed by its larger rival, Sears Roebuck & Co.

Avery turned Montgomery Ward’s fortunes around despite the terrible economic conditions and developed a reputation as a tough businessman who fought with other executives, board members, and unions.

In 1944, he defied an order by the US government’s war labor board to settle a dispute with a union, and President Franklin Roosevelt ordered a government takeover of Montgomery Ward. Avery called such government intervention in private industry ‘‘un-American.’’

The confrontation reached its climax when then US Attorney General Francis Biddle arrived at Avery’s office with a contingent of Army soldiers, two of whom clasped arms as if to form a seat and carried Avery out.

‘‘Pictures of the poised, imperturbable, and immaculately groomed executive being carried by two husky, helmeted soldiers were among the most widely circulated news photos of the decade,’’ the Chicago Tribune wrote in Avery’s 1960 obituary.

The experience helped to cement the conservatism of an already conservative family, said Broughton’s former husband, T. Alan Broughton, a poet, writer, classical pianist, and retired University of Vermont English professor.

‘‘It doesn’t come out of the blue,’’ he said of his former wife’s political leanings. “These concerns have been handed on through the generations.’’

Avery left another legacy: a fortune valued by the Tribune in 1961 at $16 million. That would be about $124 million in 2012 dollars.

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