Lewis Mudge, right, conducts interviews on village attacks

Lewis Mudge, right, conducts interviews on village attacks in the Ouaka Province, Central African Republic.

Lewis Mudge describes himself as an optimist, an amazing feat of psychological resilience given the nature of his work in the last decade.

He’s been shot at, kidnapped, heard first-hand accounts of villages being burned out and raided and has seen the bodies from the aftermath, and he’s interviewed warlords and rebel leaders accused of committing these acts — coming face to face with horrific war crimes, some of which have resulted in international criminal trials at the Hague.

“I’ve been in some sticky situations,” he said.

Now Mudge wants to bring that experience to the Statehouse as he runs for a seat in the newly created Chittenden Southeast Senate district.

His work with Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization that investigates and reports on abuses in dozens of countries across the globe, centers around central Africa, a region that has been mired in violent political conflict for decades.

For much of his professional career, his job has been “us with notebooks out in the field, documenting what group perpetrated what act against civilians ... to bear witness, to document and to follow a prescribed methodology in that documentation.”

So nowadays, when he has discussions with Charlotte voters on some of the state’s and the country’s most-talked-about issues, be it climate change, gun control or civil rights, he can’t help seeing a path forward.

If good work can be done in such a chaotic political climate, then surely progress can be made within relatively stable democratic institutions, he said.

He’s taken a step back from his work with Human Rights Watch in recent years. He now oversees these teams instead of conducting field work — “young men’s work,” he said.

His teams operate in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.

These days, instead of documenting war crimes, he’s overseeing the parameters of new special event and food truck ordinances and working late nights as one of Charlotte’s selectboard members.

He hopes to expand that work this summer by making a run for one of the five new seats in the new Chittenden Southeast Senate district. The new district, along with Charlotte, includes Hinesburg, Shelburne, St. George, Williston, Richmond, Bolton, Jericho, Underhill and South Burlington.

“Professionally, I can try this new thing,” he said.

Mudge was born and raised in Massachusetts but has familial ties to Vermont — his grandfather lived in the Upper Valley and his father lived in Thetford.

He went to school at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and worked briefly with Habitat for Humanity. He never envisioned himself working in the international sphere, let alone traveling to Africa.

“Then, 9/11 happened, and I felt a call to service,” he said. “But mine was never going to be in the military, although I’ve come to respect the military — I’ve worked a lot with (United Nations) peacekeeping missions and I’ve been in a lot of live combat situations, so nothing but respect.”

Instead, he joined the Peace Corps at 23 and went to live in the small South African country of Lesotho in 2002, at the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic when South Africa was one of the most afflicted countries in the world.

There, he worked with a nun and helped build an HIV/AIDS center that still stands today. He’s on the center’s board of directors and still chats weekly with the nun.

He came back to Vermont for a bit, and then went to the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and earned a master’s degree in international politics. After graduating, he lived in Manhattan and worked in finance for an Australian investment bank, the Macquarie Group.

“But I knew it wasn’t for me,” he said. “My heart wasn’t into it.”

So he went back to Africa, this time to the Congo, where he used his contacts in London to begin freelance work.

He worked as the field manager for Interactive Radio for Justice, an organization dedicated to creating local radio programs that concentrated on international criminal court proceedings, before joining Human Rights Watch.

It was in Africa where he met his wife, and where two of his three children were born. But he’s slowly started to shift toward a quieter life. He moved to Charlotte in 2016 and later won a seat on the town’s selectboard.

Chittenden County’s new district provides a unique opportunity for the smaller towns in the area, Mudge said, giving a more prominent voice to these towns “who have been living in the shadow of Burlington” under the previous district layout.

Chittenden County was forced to break up its six-seat at-large Senate district after this year’s redistricting. The other Senate districts include Chittenden Central with three senators and Chittenden North with one.

And with the historic turnover in the Statehouse, he sees an opportunity to provide a “fresh perspective” in the Legislature, with more people who might be on the “front end of their mortgages,” as the housing and homeless crises continue to grow.

He’s up against three incumbents, Thomas Chittenden, Virginia Lyons and Kesha Ram Hinsdale, as well as newcomer Steve May.

“If I lose, I lose,” he said. “But at least I took a crack at it.”

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