BRATTLEBORO — Traditionally, voters in Guilford have organized a “meet the candidates” night at the Broad Brook Grange hall, where the folks running for town offices would introduce themselves to voters.
COVID-19 and ongoing renovations to the Grange Hall have disrupted that tradition.
Instead, a different sort of event took shape on Feb. 17 at the Vermont Marketplace, the former Outlet Center, on Canal Street. And, by design, only two of the four candidates for the Selectboard were present.
Lynn Latulippe King, who is running for the two-year seat against incumbent Zon Eastes, and Jason Herron, who is running for the three-year seat on the board against incumbent Michael Becker, spoke to a group of about 35 people.
Neither Eastes nor Becker were invited to attend.
In introducing the candidates, Connie Burton, who is helping collect donations for the two campaigns, said that although Latulippe King and Herron were sharing in the staging of the event, “it doesn't necessarily mean they are a package deal. They are both their own individual person and running their own individual campaigns.”
The candidates did, however, share ample common ground.
Both Latullipe King and Herron support limited government and say they want to closely scrutinize town spending. Both said they want to be more inclusive and get more residents involved in town government. Both touted their ties to Guilford, their love of the land, and the need to preserve it.
Both were critical of the current Selectboard, particularly their decision, done with little public input, to summarily dismiss the Planning Commission and replace it with a new, smaller board.
And according to state campaign finance disclosures filed this week, both campaigns share a treasurer, procured printing and yard signs from the same vendors, and spent the same amount - down to the penny - to send their respective mailers through the Brattleboro post office.
The 'new candidates' speak
Now a teacher, Latulippe King said she “grew up a farm kid, and proud of it.” She was one of the Planning Commission members who was dismissed. After serving nearly four years, she called the board's actions “shameful” and “disrespectful,” and promised that every resident would be allowed to have a say in decision-making and that she would be accountable to all residents, whether or not they agree with her.
Latulippe King also emphasized the need “to know where the funds are going and what are we supporting.”
As an example, she contrasted the $6,300 requested on this year's Town Meeting warrant for Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS) with the $350 requested for Meals on Wheels.
“I want to question how we can better help our people and still support the causes the community wants,” she said, adding that she sees the objectives of a Selectboard member as “to focus on needs in order to keep our taxes down instead of paying toward unnecessary wants.”
Herron, a maple sugar producer and tree farmer, said he “hates politics” and ”had no interest whatsoever about being in politics.”
He said the issue of term limits for federal elected officials got him interested in the political process, which led to his taking a deeper dive into the U.S. Constitution and a movement called the Convention of States Action (COSA), which in turn inspired him to run for the Selectboard.
As described on its website, COSA is “a grassroots network of over 5 million supporters and volunteers, representing every state legislative district in the nation.” It seeks to “restore a culture of self-governance in America and to curtail federal overreach.”
To do so, COSA is advocating a “limited Article V Convention to propose constitutional amendments that impose limitations on the size and scope of the federal government, including a balanced budget requirement and term limits for federal officials.”
Those principles include limited government at every level.
“Our Selectboard is going about doing what they want to do, when they want to do it,” Herron said. “And it's very clear that they couldn't care less about someone else's opinion when it came to something they disagreed with.”
“Our Selectboard just wants to spend more money and borrow more money,” he continued. “There's a problem here, and we can't just fix this with spending and think the federal government is going to give money and suddenly our problems are going go away.”
Citing an article on this year's Town Meeting warrant seeking more than $1 million for a renovation and expansion of the town library, he said that “we're not getting a straight answer” about anything involved with the project.
“All I really want to do is inform the public,” he said. “I'm not looking to change anything. I just want you to be aware of what's going on. We need to have a dissenting view in that room.”
Dana Berry, director of the nonprofit Community Collaborative for Guilford, asked the candidates if, as members of the Selectboard, they would sign a letter of support to establish an early education center in town in collaboration with Guilford Cares and other nonprofits.
While Berry made it clear that were not seeking town funding, only a letter of support that could be used in seeking grants for the project, Herron immediately turned the question into a philosophical debate on whether public money should be used for a day care center.
“I don't think a municipality should cover that cost,” he said. “Why can't private businesses open day cares and parents send those kids to those day cares?”
“Because it doesn't work in education to do that,” piped up a voice in the back of the room. “That's why we have public schools.”
“It has nothing to do with tax money,” Berry said of her question. “It has nothing to with anything but support. It's not about the library. It's not about those [other] programs. It's about providing direct services to our children and families, and our elders.”
“If there's no public money involved, why are you talking to me about it?” said Herron. “I'm running for public office. If there's no public money involved, how am I involved in this?”
Herron also used the question as an opportunity to express his opposition to having the federal government involved in education, calling such intervention a “one-size-fits-none” proposition.
Resident Georgia Smith asked both candidates “what you think is going right in Guilford.” Neither quite answered that question and instead continued to focus on the shortcomings of the current Selectboard and the values of transparency they would bring if elected.
A question raised by resident Betty Frye about the $6,300 appropriation for SeVEDS turned into a debate of funding nonprofits. Herron took the stance that while private support of charity is appropriate and desirable, government support of any nonprofit is not.
“I don't think the government, or a municipality, should be funding with public funds nonprofits, period,” he said. “We should lower our tax rates so we can choose which individual charities we want to donate to, instead of having our municipalities choose for us.”
On the level?
While The Commons received no advance notice of the Feb. 17 event at the Vermont Marketplace from the Herron and Latulippe King campaigns, Skye Morse, a Guilford resident, sent an email to dozens of townspeople earlier that day that questioned the rationales for Herron's candidacy.
Morse wrote that Herron “is running at the urging of (and with funding from) attendees of the 'Constitution Alive!' constitutional study group which he leads. My fear is that this is a right-wing bid to influence our next round of federal elections by controlling local governments.”
In an email to The Commons, Morse amplified that point.
“I have noted that there are candidates for Selectboard in other surrounding towns who cite adherence to the Constitution as one of the driving forces behind their entry into politics. Do not be fooled. This is a dog whistle for the white supremacist movement.”
Morse called attention to Herron's funding of color print mailings and yard signs as examples of right-wing influence infiltrating local politics by way of a well-funded campaign.
“This screams of an organized bid by external players to control local and national elections at the grassroots level,” he charged.
“None of these tactics have been used in the past, nor were they necessary in a small town where we have always met our Selectboard and school board candidates at pre-Town Meeting,” Morse wrote.
“This sets a new tone, and alerts this citizen to the enhanced importance of protecting our local government in the aftermath of efforts across the country to disrupt and usurp voting rights and calls to seize ballots,” he added.
Herron said at the Feb. 17 event that he is a district captain for COSA in Vermont and led courses locally on the U.S. Constitution. He said COSA “is the solution to all our problems” with government overreach and sees his candidacy as “an opportunity to influence and educate our representatives on the principles of our Constitution.”
At the Feb. 17 event, Herron was asked by an audience member about where his support came from. He said that a person from Vernon, whom he declined to identify, helped pay for the signs and flyers for his campaign.
A Feb. 20 campaign finance filing with the office of Secretary of State Jim Condos by the Herron campaign disclosed $1,672.15 in campaign spending: $475 for yard signs, $690.15 for brochures, and $507 for postage.
Latuilippe King's filings similarly total $1,671.08: $475 for yard signs, $689.08 for brochures, $507 for postage.
Both campaigns used the same vendors.
The Herron campaign reported no donors or donation income. The Latuilippe King campaign reported a $475 donation from Dale L. Gassett of Vernon.
Nancy L. Gassett of Vernon is treasurer of both campaigns in the filings. On Monday, Burton clarified her role as helping Gassett as “designated collector of contributions.”
Herron, the son of former Entergy Corporation president and CEO John T. Herron, also told those assembled in Brattleboro that his parents have chipped in some money.
As for the fliers and signs, Herron said they were a way to get out the word about his and LaTulippe's candidacies.
“We didn't do it for fame and glory,” he said. “We did it for you.”