Candidates spar in final pre-election gathering
BRISTOL — Candidates in two of the most keenly watched legislative races in Addison County sparred one last time in Bristol on Oct. 17, in the last in a series of debates co-sponsored by the Addison County Economic Development Corp., the Addison County Chamber of Commerce and the Addison Independent.
Candidates for the State Senate and Addison-4 House district sought to differentiate themselves on a wide range of topics, including health care, the economy, gun safety and marijuana legislation. An audience of around 40 people listened intently to the candidates’ responses in an effort to get some additional insights prior to casting their ballots on Tuesday, Nov. 6.
The most improbable moment of the two-hour event came near the end, when Paul Ralston — an independent candidate for one of the two state Senate seats representing Addison County, Huntington and Buel’s Gore — essentially endorsed two of his opponents: Fellow independent Marie Audet of Bridport and Middlebury Democrat Ruth Hardy.
“I think the best decision may be to send two women to Montpelier as our senators,” said Ralston, the CEO of Vermont Coffee and a former Addison-1 House Democrat.
But that will ultimately be up to the voters, who will have plenty of choices in multiple legislative and countywide contests on Election Day. Those races include three candidates vying for two seats in Addison-3, the district that represents Addison, Panton, Vergennes, Ferrisburgh and Waltham; four people vying for two seats in the Addison-4 House district that includes Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton and Starksboro; two people seeking one seat representing the Addison-Rutland House district of Orwell, Shoreham, Whiting and Benson; two people vying for Addison County Sheriff; and four people competing for two assistant judge posts at the Addison County Courthouse.
The ballot also includes races for the U.S. House, U.S. Senate, governor and other statewide posts.
Last week’s debate, however, was all about two specific races.
Rep. Fred Baser, R-Bristol, Lincoln Democrat Mari Cordes, Starksboro Democrat Caleb Elder and Monkton Republican Valerie Mullin are the competitors in Addison-4.
Audet, Hardy, Ralston, New Haven Libertarian Archie Flower, Addison Republican Peter Briggs and incumbent Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, are the six local state Senate candidates.
All 10 of those candidates were present at the debate, held at Mount Abraham Union High School. Though incumbent Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, faces no Election Day opposition for his Addison-5 seat, he also participated.
Audience members were invited to submit written questions for the candidates, and the most common concern reflected by those questions was health care.
What follows is a summary of how the candidates believe the state should control health care expenses, along with a brief sampling of their positions on some of the other issues that came up during the debate. The candidates were fairly evenly split on the notion of instituting a $15 minimum wage (implemented gradually over a few years), and a majority agreed Vermont should consider regulating and deriving revenues from potential future sales of recreational marijuana.
All the local candidates involved in this November’s contested races were invited to participate in an Addison Independent Q&A series. Their responses can be found at addisonindependent.com and some of them in this Thursday’s newspaper.
Audet is an owner of the Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport.
“Fueled by my passion for Vermont, agriculture and the environment, I became an engaged citizen,” Audet said. “I spoke honestly and openly about the work I was doing, projects, renewable energy, recycling, nutrition and water quality. And that is how I found my voice; that’s how I grew into the leader I am today.”
She commented on her decision to run as an independent.
“I want the same things that you want — good jobs, affordability, high quality education for our children and a healthy environment,” she said. “I’m simply offering a different way of getting there. Running for Senate is the hardest thing I’ve ever done — next to being a mother and grandmother. It’s also the most important.”
Audet said she wants more competition in the health insurance market.
“The more Vermont has tried to make (health care) better, the more expensive it’s become, the higher our deductibles, and the more challenging it is for us to continue covering our employees,” Audet said.
She believes that since the state has enough Lake Champlain cleanup money to carry through 2020, lawmakers should continue to search for an equitable way to fund cleanup of its waterways.
And she said farmers are doing their fair share.
“We have been assessed 41 percent of the phosphorous that’s in the lake. What you’re not ever told is that agriculture is going to clean up 60 percent of the problem.”
Bray currently chairs the Senate Natural Resources & Energy Committee. He’s seeking his fourth term in the Senate, and previously served two terms as an Addison-5 House representative.
“I grew up in a family that expected every member of that family to be involved in community service,” Bray said.
Bray is bullish on the potential for implementing more health care reforms in the state.
“Every other industrialized country had health care as a right,” he said. “They spend half as much as the U.S. in general providing that health care, and in world health rankings, we’re 37th. So it’s not like we’re spending a lot and we’re number one; we’re spending twice as much and we’re 37th.”
Bray cited the state’s Dr. Dynasaur health care program for children under 18 as a good model to build on for the rest of Vermonters.
“It’s something we’ve figured out, that we’ve managed well, and helped Vermont to have some of the best health ratings in the U.S.,” Bray said.
As leader of Senate Natural Resources, Bray said, “we need to step up and make a funding commitment” for the federally mandated cleanup of the state’s waterways. He has suggested a small, per-parcel fee to cover Vermont’s share, noting that since everyone depends on water, everyone should pay for its purity.
Fourth-generation dairy farmer Briggs is vice chairman of the Addison selectboard.
“Over the last eight years, I’ve observed an unsustainable pattern of state spending outpacing revenue growth, along with a declining labor force and steadily increasing taxes and fees, placing an ever increasing burden on Vermont’s working citizens,” Briggs said.
He told the audience that single-party (Democrat) dominance of the Legislature has given it a “lack of diversity in its perspectives.”
Briggs joined others in advocating for more competition in Vermont’s health insurance market.
“We only have two options, pretty much, for health care providers,” he said, “and ever since we’ve gone down to two, prices haven’t gone down.”
He’s against the notion of a universal primary care system in Vermont.
“I really question how we can afford it,” he said.
Briggs believes the state should provide businesses with more incentives — such as tax cuts — to stimulate more economic development and job creation.
Young Vermonters who don’t excel in academics, according to Briggs, should be increasingly encouraged to get into blue-collar jobs.
“We could do a lot better with young people and getting them interested in education if they had more opportunities,” he said. “A lot of emphasis has been going to college, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but we haven’t seen the jobs explode for college graduates.”
Flower is a computer technician at UTC Aerospace in Vergennes. He was born and raised in Middlebury.
“I’m running for state Senate to restore the proper relationship between government and the people,” he said. “Montpelier has forgotten it should serve the people, as stated in Article 6 of our Constitution… Montpelier has forgotten its proper role as a protector of our individual and inalienable human rights.”
Flower believes a “free market” health insurance system would dramatically reduce costs and premiums.
“What we see in health care is an absurd amount of overregulation,” he said. “If we cut regulation and allow more competition, we’re going to see quality, supply and access increase, and we’re going to see prices fall.”
Flower would support an amendment to the state Constitution to eliminate the property tax altogether. He supports decreasing taxes as a way of fostering economic development, while making the state more affordable.
“It’s too easy to spend other people’s money,” Flower said. “Montpelier is addicted to it; they treat your wallets like their ATM.”
When it comes to paying for the cleanup of the state’s waterways, Flower said “the polluters” — including municipal wastewater treatment plants — should bear the burden.
Hardy is on sabbatical from her position as executive director of Emerge Vermont. She previously served on the ID-4 and Addison Central School District boards. She said her past school board experience could be an asset in the Senate, which has been grappling with school funding and consolidation issues.
“I’ve stood before my community many times and demonstrated my understanding of policy and finance, ability to explain complex issues, desire to reach compromise and get things done,” Hardy said. “I show up, I work hard, I listen and learn and do what’s right for our community.”
Hardy said health care has surfaced as the top issue of concern among voters she’s spoken with during the campaign. She believes the current system is too heavy in administration, and that converting to universal primary care would place expenses on a more sustainable path.
“I’m in favor of moving toward universal primary care, because if we all had access to care at the primary level, then we would have savings down the road preventing us from having to go to the emergency room or have more expensive, specialized care later on,” Hardy said.
If elected, Hardy said she’d work to make the state’s taxation system more progressive, “so that more people at the higher end of the income level pay more taxes, and those at the lower end pay lower taxes.”
Hardy, in her first run for the state’s highest chamber, is the frontrunner thus far in campaign fundraising in the county.
Ralston, who now resides on New Haven, addressed the criticism he’s heard from some Democrats about his entry into the race as an independent. Some local Democrats are concerned Ralston will pare votes from Bray and Hardy. Democrats have controlled the county’s two Senate seats since 2002.
“Running as an independent, for a number of people, has felt that’s a very disruptive thing to do,” Ralston said. “And I think that’s OK. Vote for me or don’t vote for me; that’s OK. Rest assured that the Democratic Party, regardless of the outcome of this election, will have a firm grip on the Vermont Legislature.”
Ralston believes state and federal leaders should together study more potential health care fixes, as Vermont will be hard pressed to making a sweeping change on its own.
“I don’t think anyone in Vermont wants to reduce the quality of our care, because we do have very good health care,” Ralston said. “And yes, it is expensive. I honestly don’t believe this is an area we want to mess around with too much. We tried it once before (single payer). It’s a great idea and model… but it’s just too difficult and too expensive to do in a state as small as Vermont.”
Ralston said the property tax is regressive in nature, adding, “We need to look at ameliorating the property tax with some sort of income tax for education.
“Most Vermonters can’t afford increased taxes,” he added.
Baser, a financial planner, is rounding out his second term representing Addison-4. He serves on the House Ways & Means Committee.
Baser said he’s earned a reputation as someone who respects all points of view and who can work well with both major parties.
He said he’s detected particular anger in voters this year about national and statewide issues, ranging from gun safety laws to taxes.
“I’ve noted a lot of tension out there,” Baser said. “There’s a lot of fear, mistrust and anger.”
Baser said he brings three principles to his role as a lawmaker: Respect, work collaboratively, and put constituents first, as opposed to “mantras and parties.”
He said he’s been disappointed with a “lack of leadership” on statewide health care issues, and believes the United States should follow the example of some European nations in founding an independent board to control health care costs.
“(The board) says, ‘This is what you’re going to get hospital A, B and C, or Doctor A, B and C,’” Baser said.
“I think the only way to control costs at this juncture is to have some kind of a system where the reimbursement is dictated by others,” he added. “I think this might be difficult to do in Vermont; I think it might be best if it’s done nationally.”
Baser said the House Ways & Means Committee has been looking at a potential change in the state’s income tax structure that could reduce property taxes by 25-40 percent.
“I think something will evolve in this next biennium,” Baser said.
He touted paid family leave, childcare, public infrastructure and high-speed Internet as amenities that could prevent more young Vermonters from leaving the state when they graduate.
Cordes, making her second bid for an Addison-4 seat, is a longtime Registered Nurse with University of Vermont Medical Center. She’s been active in nurses’ union efforts as well as charitable outreach in countries that have suffered natural disasters and civil wars.
“I’m running because we need elected leaders with compassion and strength, who will take principles and non-party-line stands on issues,” she said. “Our successes and happiness is tied up with one another.”
Vermont, according to Cordes, “needs to completely decouple the payment of health care from employment” and opt for universal primary care.
“The insurance companies are a third party not aligned with you and me, and are actually interfering,” Cordes said.
Cordes believes the state should step up its workforce development, education programming and early childhood services as a way to keep future generations in the Green Mountain State.
Elder, who works in the renewable energy field, is a former Starksboro school board official.
He’d like to see Vermont bring more competition into its health insurance market, and also adopt a universal primary care system that he said would reduce overall health care expenses.
“At this point, the status quo is much, much more expensive every year,” he said. “We’re paying so much on premiums, we don’t have money left for care. So going to a system that incorporates some direct care is incredibly important. Cut the insurance company out of the middle at some point.”
Elder said the state should foster more business growth as a way of increasing its revenues, rather than simply raising taxes. But he added lawmakers should consider adjusting the state income tax in an effort to lower property taxes, which are the primary source for education funding.
He advocated for a “clearer pipeline” between Vermont public schools and the states colleges and career centers.
“It’s always hard to find money for any new investment,” Elder said, “but as (Cordes) said, our budget is a statement of our values.”
Like most of the candidates running this year, Elder supports laws that would allow firearms to be quickly removed the home of someone accused of domestic assault.
Mullin, a local businessperson and MAUHS graduate, is making her third run for an Addison-4 seat. She’s been very active with the Champlain Valley Canine Rescue.
She voiced frustration that all three of her children have left Vermont to search for better job opportunities and lower cost of living elsewhere.
Mullin said her legislative priorities include being “an independent voice for common sense solutions for health care costs” and starting a state registry for those who are convicted of crimes against animals.
She believes health care consumers should be able to go across state lines to buy their insurance, which she believes would lead to lower premiums. Mullin added the state could help subsidize the larger premiums owed by patients with preexisting conditions.
Mullin shared she’s had experience dealing with domestic violence, but said removing weapons from the home of an abuser isn’t necessarily the answer.
“Removing the (abuser), first and foremost, seem to make sense,” Mullin said, adding domestic violence perpetrators can evade stronger firearm laws and hide their guns from authorities. “Removing the volatility of the people is more important.”