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Eddie Cutler of Westminster.

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Windham-4 candidates differ on guns, but want to focus on other issues

Energy siting, Act 46, and carbon tax are among topics cited by incumbents and their Republican challengers

BRATTLEBORO—The Windham-4 House District race features two leaders of a statewide gun-rights group and two incumbents who’ve received public support from a gun-control organization.

Nevertheless, each of those candidates is insisting that gun regulation — though a hot topic in Vermont politics — is not a central issue in their campaigns.

Rather, Democratic Reps. David Deen of Westminster and Mike Mrowicki of Putney are touting their experience and expertise on topics like environmental regulation and human services. In total, they’ve served in Montpelier for nearly four decades, and Mrowicki said that’s a major benefit for his constituents.

“I wouldn’t have my car fixed by somebody who had never worked on a car before but thought they had some good ideas,” Mrowicki said.

Republican challengers Eddie Cutler of Westminster and Bonnie DePino of Westminster West don’t mind playing the role of upstarts, jabbing at the incumbents for what they say is a history of heavy-handed tax and regulatory policies.

“I’m a strong constitutionalist who doesn’t want to shove his ideas down other people’s throats,” Cutler said.

Environmental themes

Deen is the dean of the Windham County legislative delegation. After serving in the state Senate for two years in the late 1980s, he has spent the last 26 years representing the Windham-4 District, which includes the towns of Dummerston, Westminster, and Putney.

Deen is chairman of the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee.

“One of the biggest things that I am concerned about is, in 2015, we passed the most far-reaching clean water act as a single bill in the history of the state of Vermont,” Deen said. “We have just completed the first year of implementation. We have a lot more that needs to go right over the next five to 20 years in terms of that bill’s impact on clean water.”

Mrowicki, who is seeking his sixth term representing Windham-4, serves on the House Human Services Committee and is interested in a wide range of social issues. But he, too, often returns to environmental themes.

“I think all of us will be looking at global warming as the issue of the decade,” Mrowicki said.

If Cutler and DePino have public visibility, it’s due to their affiliation with the gun lobby. Cutler is a founder and current president of Gun Owners of Vermont; DePino is a board member of that organization and also is married to the group’s vice president.

Differences on gun regulation

Gun regulations — given their prominence in this year’s governor’s race and as an ongoing legislative issue — provide one window into the Windham-4 campaign.

Both Deen and Mrowicki last year were supporters of S.141, legislation designed to keep guns away from those with severe mental illness or certain types of criminal convictions. Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the bill, but only after a provision calling for universal background checks for gun purchases was stripped from it.

Gun Sense Vermont, a group that supports stronger background checks for gun purchases, has contributed to Mrowicki’s re-election campaign this year. The group’s treasurer also has authored a letter supporting the incumbents.

Deen sees no disconnect between his interest in outdoor and hunting issues and his interest in stronger gun regulations. He blames National Rifle Association lobbying for his loss in his 1988 Senate re-election campaign, and he says he doesn’t identify with the group’s ideals.

“By the time I hit college, they had just gone off the rails for me ... I quit the organization,” Deen said.

Cutler, as a leader of Gun Owners of Vermont, fought against S.141. And DePino said she doesn’t believe universal background checks are necessary.

“I believe that our [state and federal] Constitutions ... give us the right to bear arms,” DePino said. “It doesn’t put restrictions on us, because our forefathers wanted us to be able to protect ourselves against tyranny.”

Key issues

But both she and Cutler bristle at the notion that gun rights are a defining issue in Windham-4. Rather, they and the incumbents outlined three key issues that show their differences.

Energy siting: With proposed wind turbines creating controversy in Windham County this year, both Cutler and DePino are arguing against any further large-scale wind and solar development.

DePino doesn’t think the state’s carbon footprint warrants such projects. And both she and Cutler believe the impact of major solar and wind development will be overwhelmingly negative.

“I don’t have a problem for somebody to put up a solar panel or a small windmill, but I don’t want to see our [towns] covered with them,” Cutler said.

Neither Mrowicki nor Dean are calling for such a moratorium. However, both say an energy-siting bill passed this year — while a positive first step — doesn’t go far enough to mandate more local input in the process.

“On that issue, we still need to do some work to put town and regional plans back in play as the shapers of energy [policy],” Deen said.

Mrowicki wants to see an emphasis on conserving energy. “I’m not so sure we need [large turbines] here, if we go back to that low-hanging fruit, which is conservation and efficiency,” he said.

• Act 46: Both Deen and Mrowicki say they believe it may be necessary to amend the 2015 law, which pushes for school district consolidation statewide to save money and boost educational equity.

Even with some mergers under way, “the remaining districts are finding there are a host of complications slowing down the process, including interpretations of the law by the Agency of Education that appear more stringent than the intent of the law,” Mrowicki said.

Cutler and DePino say they would fight to repeal Act 46 entirely. DePino argues that the law undermines local control without improving educational outcomes or saving money.

“We’re handing the education of our children over to a bunch of bureaucracies without any [future] input from the communities or the people elected to our school boards,” she said.

• Carbon tax: Deen and Mrowicki are in favor of a carbon tax as a means to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. The idea, Deen said, is that “you tax what you don’t want — carbon emissions — and you use the proceeds from that tax to lower or eliminate taxes on what you do want, like homes for Vermonters.”

The Republican candidates are adamantly opposed to a carbon tax. Cutler said the state’s tax burden on those with fixed incomes is a prime reason he entered the race, and DePino is skeptical of Mrowicki’s assertion that carbon tax proceeds could be used to lower Vermont’s sales, property, and income levies.

“They’ll tell you that they’re going to do it, but they won’t do it,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #380 (Wednesday, October 26, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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