BRATTLEBORO—While the candidates outnumbered the members of the public, those who did come to the Green Mountain Chapel on Oct. 17 got to take part in a sort of open mic night for democracy.
Seventeen candidates from across the political spectrum came to the event, which was organized by Pastor Bill Steele of Green Mountain Chapel and Richard “Rick” Morton, chair of the Windham County Republicans. Each person got four minutes to speak their piece.
Steele admitted he was nervous about having a candidates forum in his church, given the federal election laws that prohibit religious organization from making endorsements.
“We’re not here to tell you how to vote, or who to vote for,” he said. “We just want to give a chance to all the candidates to share what’s in their hearts with us.”
The candidates wrote their names on note cards, the cards were shuffled, and then Steele drew them one at a time. First up was Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, the Progressive/Democrat candidate seeking a second term.
Difference in philosophies
The contest for lieutenant governor is one of the few statewide contests that is competitive. Zuckerman is facing a challenge from Republican state Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton.
Zuckerman said that, over his long political career, he has worked on “economic justice for working people, clean water, for a planet and a state and a climate that we can live in.”
As an organic farmer and small businessman, Zuckerman said he was aware of the challenges of trying to balance policies that are good for business owners with those that are good for the environment.
Standing inside a church, Zuckerman said he couldn’t help but think that all of the major religions of the world share the same basic principle — “making sure that the downtrodden are cared for by the community.”
He said that everyone deserves “shelter, healthy clean water, healthy clean food, and, ultimately, basic health care” and that, in a nation as wealthy as ours, “nobody should be out in the street and nobody should be wanting for food.”
Zuckerman called the post of lieutenant governor “a curious position ... you’re basically the town moderator of the Senate and it’s a 30-member town meeting every day.” As a result, he said that ensuring everyone is heard is his main job.
Turner said he is a fourth-generation Vermonter who has been a real estate agent and fire chief in Milton, as well as a state rep. But he said it was a recent stint serving as Milton’s interim Town Manager that “renewed my faith in government.”
“Serving in the minority in the Legislature my entire 12 years, it’s become a little frustrating trying get things done,” he said. “I like to get things done, and as Town Manager I was able to do that.”
Even though Turner has been the Minority Leader for the past six years, he said he chose to run for lieutenant governor because he felt it was time to leave the House, and that “I still believe I can make a difference for Vermont.”
Fiscal responsibility is Turner’s main issue. He said the state “is spending too much and raising taxes, and working people can’t afford it.”
Alternatives for governor
Emily Peyton is the Liberty Union candidate for governor. She called herself “particularly unsuited for politics,” but said her desire to see a fairer, more equitable society prompted her to enter the arena.
“It’s so wrong that we don’t have leadership in the Statehouse that will lead us to stand up to the egregious crimes against the people by government,” she said.
Trevor Barlow of Cavendish is an independent candidate for governor. A native of Springfield, he remembers growing up in a small town where three major machine tool shops were humming night and day and prosperity was taken for granted.
He said that local control of governance is his top issue, and spoke of the “enormous distrust” people now have for state and federal government, and how small communities need to be empowered to make their own decisions.
Peyton and Scott are running against incumbent Republican Gov. Phil Scott of Berlin, Democratic candidate Christine Hallquist of Hyde Park, independents Charles Laramie of Fair Haven and Chris Ericson of Chester, and Earth Rights Party candidate Stephen Marx of Strafford.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is running for his third term, and attracted eight challengers willing to take him on.
Zupan, the Republican candidate from Manchester, said he is running because he thinks Sanders has spent too much time running for president and campaigning for other politically progressive candidates around the country, and has spent too little time representing Vermont.
“The people of Vermont deserve a full-time senator,” Zupan said.
While he praised Sanders for putting issues such as health care and economic opportunity on the front burner, Zupan made it clear that he strongly disagrees with Sanders on the approach for solving the nation’s problems.
“The best solutions don’t come from government,” Zupan said. “The best solutions come from the free expression, creativity, and the unbridled participation in the economy of the genius and ingenuity of individual Americans.”
In an interview earlier in the day with The Commons, Zupan said he supports what he calls “free market solutions” to providing health care, adding that socialism has never delivered on its promises.
Bruce Busa of Readsboro is running as an independent and a strict Constitutionalist. He believes the current people in government have strayed from the original intent of the document written by the founders of our nation.
“I live under the Constitution of the United States of America and it tells me what I can do,” he said. ”The Bill of Rights tells me what I can’t do, and the Declaration of Independence tells me why — because these rights are endowed to us by our Creator, and that’s not me.”
The preamble of the U.S. Constitution is his campaign platform, he said, and he blames our nation’s ills on the “secular humanistic progressive socialism movement that really is at the root at the disrespect for people’s lives.”
Brad Peacock of Shaftbury is running as an independent. He said he grew up in poverty in a broken home. Today he is a farmer, but the shame and stigma of being poor in Vermont has never left him.
“When I look at the politicians in Washington, I don’t see a lot of working class politicians. I see a lot of wealthy people who had a very easy life,” he said. “You wouldn’t send a lawyer to fix a leaky faucet, why do we send millionaires to represent the working class.”
He spoke of being a fourth-grader with strep throat, afraid to tell his parents about it because he knew they couldn’t afford a doctor. The infection eventually spread through his body, attacked his kidneys, and nearly killed him before he was finally hospitalized.
“This is something that families shouldn’t have to go through,” he said.
Jon Svitavsky of Bridport is also running as an independent. He said he has been a social worker all his life and has never run for public office. He founded the first long-term homeless shelter in Burlington in the early 1980s, when Sanders was mayor of the city.
“Bernie opposed my shelter,” Svitavsky said.
Svitavsky called himself “a responsibility Democrat” and that “I lean strongly toward compassion, but personal responsibility is not a political issue, it is a human issue.”
He also slammed Sanders for saying during his 2016 presidential campaign that there was no difference between Democrats and Republicans.
“Every time I look up,” Svitavsky said, “I see Democrats fighting for everything from Social Security to women’s rights to health care, and I see Republicans siding with corporations and the rich. I don’t want to see him split the vote again.”
Others running for U.S. Senate include Liberty Union candidate Reid Kane of Hartford and independents Folasade Adeluola of Shelburne, Russell Best of Burlington, and Edward S. Gilbert Jr. of Barre Town.
Anya Tynio of Charleston is the Republican candidate for Congress. Along with independent Cris Ericson and Liberty Union candidate Laura S. Potter of Charleston, they are challenging six-term incumbent Democrat Peter Welch.
She said her three main campaign issues are “the economy, agriculture and, most importantly, Constitutional rights with an emphasis on the Second Amendment.”
Tynio said her support of gun rights is not about firearm ownership as much as “needing to preserve the Constitution as it was written” and making sure new laws don’t infringe upon the original intent of the Founders.
State Senate challengers
• Incumbent state Sens. Becca Balint and Jeanette White, D-Windham, are being challenged by Republican Tyler Colford of Whitingham, Liberty Union candidates Aaron Diamondstone of Marlboro and Jerry Levy of Brattleboro, and independent Beverly Stone of Brattleboro. Colford, Stone, and White were at the forum.
White, of Putney, has been in the Senate for 16 years and she “has made everyone in Windham County angry at her at least once,” but she “has loved every minute of it.”
White said there are a lot of issues the Legislature has to deal with, but the two biggest are “taking care of the most vulnerable in the community and “protecting the very foundations of our democracy.” The latter issue, she said, is why she chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee.
Stone said that “untangling the mess” in Montpelier and Washington requires politicians “to put we, the people, ahead of party lines and ahead of corporate interests.” That is why, she said, she is an independent.
She said she wants to see more affordable health care in Vermont by ending the duopoly of Blue Cross-Blue Shield and MVP Health and opening the market to more competition.
She opposes Act 46 “because kids don’t need to spend more time on buses,” opposes a mandatory minimum wage “because it would put additional hardships on small businesses,” and wants to see a smaller state government with more local control over spending and policy.
Colford said he also opposes Acts 60, 68, and 46, and wants to see more local control over school funding. “The more hands that money passes through,” he said, “the less it reaches the places where its needed.”
That philosophy is consistent with Colford’s view that state and federal government needs to be reduced in size, and that privatization of government services would deliver them more effectively.
State Rep. hopefuls
Patrick Gilligan, a Republican from Vernon, is running in the Windham-1 House district representing Vernon and Guilford. He and Democratic opponent Sara Coffey of Guilford are seeking the seat being vacated by Mike Hebert.
Gilligan said he supports putting a natural-gas-powered electric generation facility on the site of the former Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
In general, he advocates making government smaller, cutting taxes, and repealing Act 46 to give small towns a chance to keep their local schools.
The three Brattleboro state reps are all running unopposed this year.
Democratic newcomer Emilie Kornheiser is running for her first term in the Windham 3-1 district. She said she learned a lot about her district through door-to-door canvassing of the neighborhoods and believes that democracy works better when people feel that they are part of the process.
“I want this process to be more inclusive,” she said, “meaning more people feel engaged and involved and interested in conversations like we’re having today, and more people are willing to be engaged.”
She sees herself as someone who is trying “to bridge the gap between business interests and human interests” and bring about change.
Progressive Mollie Burke is running for her sixth term representing Windham 3-2. Transportation issues are her main focus, and she said she will continue to push for more public transportation and safer streets and roads for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Keeping young families in Vermont is another issue, and she said she supports raising the minimum wage, paid family leave, and subsidized child care as a way to improve the lives of working Vermonters while also boosting the state’s economy.
“It’s just unbelievable that we couldn’t even pass six weeks of paid family leave [in Vermont] when other countries manage to have a year or more,” she said.
Democrat Tristan Toleno is seeking his fourth term representing Windham 3-3. He noted that many of the candidates talked about the importance of community. He believes that interdependence — how we depend on each other to govern — is central to the way he approaches problems.
“I’m a total geek and I am fascinated by public policy, but what motivates me most of all is the belief that we will all flourish when prosperity is shared, when we are connected with one another, and when we learn and lead with generosity.”
Rick Morton of Brattleboro is the Republican candidate for State Treasurer, and he quickly addressed the issue that has arguably overshadowed every other issue in the campaign.
Putting on a “Make America Great Again” hat, Morton said he supports President Donald Trump.
“I was a wary Trumpist,” he said, referring to a op-ed he wrote for the Voices section of The Commons in 2016.
“But I have come to understand that his style and his personality grates on people and may make them afraid, but he is accomplishing a lot of things that I as a person really can support” as an evangelical Christian, he added.
“Protecting people at all stages of life,” Morton said, was what got him into politics. But he said that bringing balance to state government is why he is running for State Treasurer.