Democratic candidates dig into a range of social issues Saturday


BARRE — Democratic gubernatorial candidates faced off at a public forum in the Granite City Saturday, calling for change at the top to bring inclusive, socio-economic, racial and environmental justice to Vermont.  On Aug. 14, voters who choose a Democratic ballot will decide which of the four candidates they think can topple Republican Phil Scott after his first term in office as governor.  All four candidates — James Ehlers, Christine Hallquist, Brenda Siegel and Ethan Sonneborn — blamed Scott’s conservative fiscal politics for major economic disparities for Vermont’s poor and disabled residents and criticized him for failing to sign bills on paid family leave and a $15 minimum wage, and for school district consolidation. Candidates also asked Scott to support resistance to Trump immigration policies. Gun rights did not come up and write-in candidate Sen. John Rodgers, D-Orleans-Essex, who opposes Scott's support of new gun laws, did not attend the debate. The Democratic candidates offered — and often shared similar initiatives — to combat poverty, low wages, racism, climate change, rural isolation, the high cost of child care, the opioid epidemic and a rising prison population. They also agreed the issues were interconnected, with coordinated strategies needed to resolve them.  Organized by Rights and Democracy with the support of other social justice, interfaith, environmental and advocacy agencies, the event attracted about 75 people to the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church for a debate moderated by Rev. Earl Kooperkamp.  Each organization involved got to ask a question and there were also questions from the audience.  Margaret Blanchard, of Central Vermont Climate Action, asked the candidates to offer solutions to tackle climate change.  Bristol student Ethan Sonneborn, aged 14, said government needs to be held accountable for combating climate change or risk being voted out of office.  Siegel, of Newfane, the founder and executive director of the Southern Vermont Dance Festival, said strategies included developing a plan with a deadline that didn’t negatively impact the poor with carbon taxes but relied on reorganizing transportation methods that empowered people.  Ehlers, executive director of Lake Champlain International and a former naval officer, said he would build an economy that “protects people and the planet” by supporting  renewable energy programs in heating, transportation and commuter rail.  Hallquist, a former executive director of Vermont Electric Company, said she would continue to support renewable energy project to make Vermont 90 percent carbon-free by 2050. Ashley Sawyer of the American Civil Liberties Union in Vermont asked what the candidates would do to lower the size and cost of Vermont’s prison population, which she said costs $140 million a year or $73,000 per prisoner.   Siegel criticized racial profiling and the disproportionate jailing of African-Americans. She said those directly impacted needed to “have a voice at the table” to solve the problem.  Sonneborn said the failure of the war on drugs that stigmatized addiction and targeted people of color dated back to the Nixon years.  Kaiya Andrews of Green Mountain Self Advocates asked if candidates would honor a law to do a needs assessment before putting a state budget together, which she said Scott had failed to do.  “I feel like a broken record right now but I think it’s essential that people who face this struggle are at the table who solve this challenge,” said Siegel.  Sonneborn stressed the need to prioritize the budget, saying, “We have to work for a budget that works for everybody.”  Ehlers said Scott’s trickle-down economics were “the root of the problem. He has pitted all of us against one another,” he said. "The only way we’re going to (solve) that is to come together.”  Hallquist said she had always practiced and advocated an inclusive dialogue with employees and said her infrastructure plan to bridge the digital divide in the state would help build economic parity.  Mark Hughes, executive director of Justice For All, raised the thorny issue of addressing systemic racism in the state and in government and Scott’s failure to act on recommendations in the last session of the Legislature to do so.  Sonneborn proposed an independent commission to combat systemic racism, law enforcement and corrections department policy changes, and resistance to alt-right nationalism.  Ehlers promised to include justice rights and poor people’s advocates in his government if elected.  Hallquist said she would like to expand racial justice to “all marginalized communities.” As the first transgender candidate for governor, she noted, "It’s one thing to talk about these issues, it’s another to experience them.”  “Systemic racism in our state is a huge problem,” said Siegel, adding that a campaign against racism needed to begin in schools.  Dotty Ricks of Rights and Advocacy asked candidates to address the link between affordable health care, poverty, and wages and a range of other social issues including worker rights, climate change and access to safe water, racial and educational equity, the opioid epidemic, incarceration, and the use and abuse of immigrant children in political conflict. She said, and repeated, they can be solved by “building collective power through the election of people who share these concerns.”  The failure of the Scott administration to support disability service programs was also raised by Vermont Center for Independent Living representative Sarah Launderville, and Melissa Battah asked candidates what they would do to reduce Vermont’s 12 percent poverty rate. In other questions, candidates supported rank choice voting, and taxing the rich at a higher percentage, although Hallquist was concerned about creating division.  Asked if they had cried recently about something and why, Siegel shed tears recalling the death of her nephew from an opioid overdose.  The candidates will appear at another forum at St. Albans City Hall on Sunday, 3 to 5 p.m. 

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