TOWNSHEND—A forum of the four Democratic candidates for State Senate kicked the 2014 election season into gear.
About 50 people filled the small first-floor meeting room of the Townshend Town Hall the evening of July 24. The candidates answered questions on healthcare reform, school consolidation, energy policies, economic development, and campaign finance.
Incumbent Sen. Jeanette White of Putney and newcomers Becca Balint of Brattleboro, Joan Bowman of Putney, and former state Commissioner of Agriculture Roger Allbee of Townshend spoke before an attentive audience.
The candidates came armed with stories, personal anecdotes, and passion for Vermont.
The four are vying for two prize slots in the state Democratic primary, Aug. 26.
The Senate race is the county’s only contested primary race. Candidates Aaron Diamondstone of Marlboro and Jerry Levy of Brattleboro will appear on the Liberty Union primary ballot. Mary Hasson of Brattleboro is running as an independent.
The Republican Party does not have a primary, and does not have a candidate for Senate.
Armchair quarterbacks at Thursday’s forum mused that a contested primary was as important as the election. Given the Democratic Party’s strength in Windham County, the winners of this primary likely would win the November election.
Moderating the forum was outgoing State Sen. Peter Galbraith, who led with this question: If elected, “What is it that you want to accomplish?”
Allbee, who grew up in Brookline, answered, “We need to grow jobs in Windham County.” He pointed to his experience as agriculture commissioner in the Douglas administration in helping to bring Commonwealth Dairy to Brattleboro and Big Picture Farm to Townshend.
Attracting or keeping companies and workers, however, was one puzzle piece, Allbee said, adding that ensuring the county has the environment, culture, and quality of life that people want to call home comprises the bigger picture.
Balint, an educator, consultant, and newspaper columnist, said she decided to run for the Senate because the lingering impact of the 2007-08 economic collapse continues to put the squeeze on the middle class.
She wants to tackle issues around rising property taxes and workforce development. Building coalitions, listening deeply to the details of people’s concerns, and finding where opposing concerns overlap were skills Balint claimed for herself and Vermont.
Balint related a memory from the day she and her wife moved into their new Brattleboro home. Her feelings of excitement dissolved when she spotted an anti-civil-unions “Take Back Vermont” sign at her neighbor’s.
Yet, a few years later when the same neighbor came to her for help, Balint said she helped him. “We are Vermonters and we do not let our political differences come between us,” she said.
Healthcare Navigator and business consultant Joan Bowman said she had not written an introduction. She opted to speak from her heart.
“I want to see single-payer [health care] enacted,” said Bowman, who added she also wanted to create an incubator space to foster entrepreneurs.
After some prompting from Galbraith, White confirmed that in fourth grade during the 1952 election, it took three teachers to pull her off a classmate who had had the gall to praise then-vice presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon.
“I do think I’ve learned better techniques,” she said.
White spoke of her 12-year legacy in the Senate, including pushing a change to the Vermont Constitution that allows 17-year-olds to vote in a primary if they will turn 18 by November’s general election.
For strengths, White pointed to her ability to look at all sides of an issue, build relationships, and find the solutions that serve all Vermonters.
All the candidates supported the state’s healthcare reforms and moving to a single-payer system. None, however, had concrete plans for financing the new system but thought a combination of payroll and income tax possible.
“Anyone who goes to a doctor or goes to a hospital knows how complicated health care is,” said Allbee, currently the chief executive officer of Grace Cottage Hospital in Townshend. “I think we all know something has to change.”
Balint said that moving to single payer-financed health care will create a different relationship between the people and their state government. It will require an emotional and psychological shift, she said, and she hoped people would prevent their emotions from interfering in larger decisions.
Bowman, with humor and directness, informed Galbraith that she did not agree with his characterization of the rollout of Green Mountain Care as “a debacle.”
The candidates were slightly divided on mandatory school district consolidation.
Allbee, Bowman, and White opposed mandatory consolidation as outlined in an education bill that did not make it through the Legislature during the recent session.
“Flat out, I’m against it,” said Bowman. “I believe we need to keep local control of schools.”
Balint called the discussion “a red herring.”
“[Consolidation] is going to happen because we have a declining school population,” Balint said.
Instead of sticking our heads in the sand, she said, Vermonters should keep kids at the center of the equation ensuring they receive the services they deserve regardless of where they live.
White asked a bigger question of education in Vermont: “Are we getting what we’re paying for?”
The candidates also agreed that to meet Vermont’s energy needs, increased use of solar and wind power, along with weatherization of homes and other conservation measures, deserved consideration.
Local communities that may host a commercial energy project also deserved a voice in the Public Service Board’s permitting process, agreed the candidates.
Balint and White would stop short of granting towns veto powers over the PSB’s authority to site an energy project in a particular town. White said giving individual towns veto powers might set a harmful precedent.
The issue of a commercial wind project affecting the towns of Windham, Grafton, and Townshend inspired a few loud comments from the audience.
White said that developing energy installations needs balance. While she didn’t want all ridgelines in Vermont covered with wind turbines, she said that some ridgelines may be sacrificed for the common good.
Constructing solar panels on prime agricultural soils is foolish, she said, then added that Vermont needs to become more engaged with ISO New England, the region’s energy distribution utility.
White and Galbraith re-enacted a little of their legislative argy-bargy when Galbraith asked the candidates whether they would vote to ban direct corporate contributions to candidates.
The short story: Last year, Galbraith supported a bill to ban such contributions. White did not. The Senate also supported banning corporate contributions. Later it reversed its decision.
“Absolutely,” said Allbee. Bowman concurred. Balint said she would support changing corporate donations if the state also closed a loophole that allowed wealthy candidates to give unlimited amounts to their own campaigns.
White said the issue remained complicated. Banning corporate contributions could increase the number of political action committees (PACs) and also decrease transparency.
Candidates even had an opportunity to state why they chose to run on the Democratic ticket.
White answered, “The Democratic party is where my heart is,” then reminisced about her parents’ involvement in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in her native Minnesota.
Balint said her father emigrated to the United States from Hungary. Her grandfather died in the Holocaust. According to Balint, her father told his children, “We vote. We always vote because we can.”
Her father’s experience instilled in Balint a belief in the promise of democracy. She said that to her the Democratic Party represents the party that cares for the people with the least power.
Bowman said she has always been a Democrat, going back to her days growing up in Michigan.
Allbee had a different story. In the 2004 election, he said that he ran as a liberal Republican in the vein of George D. Aiken and Robert H. Gibson. In this election, however, he changed to the Democratic Party because today’s Republican Party “no longer has room” for people like him.
When asked what actions they would take to make doing business in Windham County easier, Balint, a member of the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies Workforce Committee, stressed workforce development and school systems that provided employment routes.
Bowman said young people and entrepreneurs need an incubator space and sources of business capital. White said the county needs a loan and grant program with creative payback structures.
Allbee said Windham County’s new jobs will come from innovators, and that businesses here need a coordinator they can turn to for step-by-step assistance through the whole start-up process.
The Windham County Democratic Committee hosted the forum. The next forum is Thursday, July 31, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Bellows Falls Opera House.
A third forum is planned for Windham. The final forum is set for Brattleboro, Thursday, Aug. 21. More details about these final two forums will be released in the coming weeks.