BRATTLEBORO—The five candidates for Windham County’s state senate seats agree on many of the big issues facing Vermont. The differences rest in the details of their proposed solutions.
The candidates met with voters and answered questions on Oct. 28 as part of a Citizens’ Breakfast event at the Brattleboro Senior Center.
Incumbent Democrats Becca Balint of Brattleboro and Jeannette White of Putney are running against independent David Schoales of Brattleboro and perennial Liberty Union Party candidates Aaron Diamondstone and Jerry Levy, both of Brattleboro.
Big-picture issues like creating a healthy economy, ending poverty, health care reform, and education were all musts for the candidates. The “hows” of solving the big issues — such as where to focus efforts and how to allocate resources — is where the candidates differed.
The candidates opened the gathering with personal statements. Questions from the audience followed.
Reasons for running
Educator, spouse, and mother of two, Balint compared her first two years in the Senate to her jazz classes.
Balint said that sometimes people’s efforts flowed, sometimes they clashed, but moving forward together always required “constant, deep listening.”
In a separate interview, Balint described herself as a “policy wonk” who loves working across disparate groups to develop strong legislation.
Fair and impartial policing is one initiative she feels passionate about. Balint told the audience she is one of two senators serving on a task force to improve outreach and racial justice within law enforcement.
Aaron Diamondstone said he’s running less because he thinks he can win and more to help build other political options for voters.
The state’s political process is “lacking,” he said. He wants his candidacy to provide voters with an alternative political party.
“I don’t believe in the word ‘profit,’” Diamondstone said.
Profit to Diamondstone mean two things. For profit to exist, he said, either it must come at the expense of workers not earning fair wages, or the profiteers must not have paid the true cost of the product.
As an example, Diamondstone pointed to the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon. The plant’s owners made their money, he said, but the community will be left with the nuclear waste.
“So I think of capitalism as a failure,” he said.
Youth, education, inequality
Levy said that, if elected, he would dedicate himself fully to serving the people of Windham County. Levy is a teacher, actor, and musician.
Levy wants to focus on youth, education, and income inequality, if chosen to go to Montpelier, and he shared a number of ideas to reduce income inequality in what he called “a civil way.” For example, he would advocate for a state bank aimed at raising funds for human services.
“We have to get beyond market forces and instead of asking ‘What can we afford?’ ask, ‘What do we need?’”
For his part, Schoales said of public service, “It gives meaning to my life.”
As a kid, Schoales said, he served the community by shoveling the church steps and sidewalk. As an adult, he has served seven years on the school board, four on the Brattleboro Selectboard, four years on the Solid Waste Management board, and multiple other organizations.
According to Schoales, he lobbied former Senator Peter Galbraith to change the state rules around solar arrays. The changes opened the door to the 5-megawatt solar array slated to sit on Brattleboro’s capped landfill. Schoales said that, once completed, the array will bring in at least $2 million to the waste management district over 20 years and help towns reduce their electricity costs.
“I’m good at getting things done,” he said.
Identifying as an independent
In a separate interview, Schoales discussed his reason for running as an independent.
Independent status felt natural to Schoales, who said he never affiliated with a single party.
Party members tend to vote alike rather than build individual and informed opinions, Schoales said.
He felt this opinion has been confirmed under the Shumlin administration and pointed to Act 46 as one example. The Legislature approving changing the commissioner of education — an independent position — to a secretary of education — a cabinet member appointed by the governor — was another example.
“The secretary is no longer an independent voice for education,” Schoales said.
In that interview, Schoales also said he decided to run because he was frustrated with White. In his opinion, White proved unresponsive to constituents. He cited multiple attempts to speak with her about the school governance bill, Act 46, which included a trip to Montpelier.
When asked later why she hadn’t returned Schoales’ calls, White expressed surprise. She said she hadn’t realized messages had gone unanswered. White added, “I can only apologize.”
White has served 14 years in the statehouse.
She said that the longer she holds office, the more she treasures the opportunity.
After 14 years, she joked, she has probably made every person in Windham County angry at least once.
Solving complex issues keeps her coming back to Montpelier, she said. She described herself as a voice for civil discourse.
Why this work?
“Because I love public policy,” White said. She loves bringing people from all sides of an issue together to find a solution that works for Vermont.
“I know some people think compromise is a bad word,” she said — but compromise prevents the “gridlock” that is Congress.
Goals for the state
Among priorities cited by the candidates, Balint said the state must create an inclusive economy and communities. She said Vermont’s population is aging. The state needs to attract more young families. Yet, Balint added, often the needs of the young and the needs of the elders are pitted against each other. This must stop, she said.
“It’s not either/or,” she said.
Diamondstone wanted to expand the practice of nonviolent communication.
“Changes might be painful,” he added.
He asked people in the audience to look at the person next to them and ask, “Is my time really more valuable than theirs?”
Levy discussed changing the education system to better address what he saw as a correlation between youth, poverty, and education.
“Kids going to school should be paid” as a way to connect students’ educational experience to employment.
Levy feels the state’s tax structure is unfair and contributes to inequality.
Pulling people out of poverty ranked No. 1 for Schoales. In his view, it drives almost all issues and costs in the state — specifically educational costs. For example, extra staff must work with children starting kindergarden who don’t have toilet training, he said.
He stressed better coordination of resources starting at the grassroots as a solution. Montpelier and heads of state agencies must do a better job at building remedies from the ground up by including the people delivering the services, he said.
Schoales called for simplifying the delivery of services. People shouldn’t have to spend all day getting benefits.
An issue for all legislators, White said, is balancing the state budget without harming the most vulnerable Vermonters.
At a committee level, White said she would focus on three issues: health care reform, coordinating law enforcement, and “promoting open, transparent, and participatory government.”
In her opinion, democracy depends on transparency and participation.
In a separate interview, White expanded upon her concerns with how Vermont structures law enforcement. According to White, 80 law enforcement agencies exist in Vermont, not including the state police.
Each agency has its own retirement plans, for example, she said. Also, once a person receives law enforcement officer certification, it is very hard to decertify “the bad actors.”
The candidates expressed a range of view on marijuana legalization.
Balint and Schoales support legalization with caveats.
Balint said she still has concerns about the effects of the drug on people 25 and under, whose brains are still developing.
Schoales said he wants to protect small growers and keep monopolies out.
White sponsored a legalization bill last session. She said the bill protected small growers in Vermont. White said her two crucial issues around legalization included keeping pot out of the hands of youth and protecting civil rights.
The young legislative pages serving in the statehouse, she said, told her it was easier for them to get marijuana than alcohol.
Meanwhile, the state sells — and profits — from alcohol, but jails people for marijuana.
She thought last session’s bill answered Balint’s and Schoales’ concerns.
Diamondstone said all actions have unintended consequences. He said he didn’t know what structure legalization should create. Diamondstone, however, stressed that any “extra money” the state received from marijuana should go toward addiction rehabilitation.
Levy said he wanted to learn more about the state’s plan to legalize marijuana.
“It is a civil rights issue,” he said.
The all-payer health care model
The state reached an agreement with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on Oct 26.
According to a news release from the state, the agreement allows Vermont to move from the traditional method of reimbursing health care providers based on fees for service rendered.
Instead, health care providers would receive funds “for focusing on keeping people healthy,” including recipients of Medicare, Medicaid, and commercial insurance.
Balint, Schoales, and White all felt the all-payer model was a good step in health care reform and a good direction for controlling health care costs. But, they said, there’s more work ahead.
Diamondstone and Levy said they needed to learn more about the new model.
When the candidates were asked for a show of hands from those who have followed the secretary of state’s campaign finance requirements, Balint, Schoales, and White all raised their hands. When White saw Schoales’ hand up, she questioned him. He nodded and kept his hand up.
A search of the secretary of state’s public database of required campaign finance filings didn’t reveal any filing from Schoales despite the Oct. 15 deadline. In a Nov. 1 email to The Commons, Schoales said he had called the secretary of state on Oct. 21, and will file “in the next couple days.” He said he has raised $1344 and spent “about $1900.”
Diamondstone and Levy said they don’t take contributions for their campaigns or spend money on them.