During the past few weeks, we have been co-hosting candidate forums along with public access television centers in Montpelier, Barre and Rutland. The aim has been to get to know the candidates beyond the articles in the newspaper and have a robust conversation about the issues facing the community at large.
In the past, these typically have been done before a live audience, but these smaller gatherings allow for a more relaxed discussion. We have been grateful for the opportunities because we believe you need to be armed with information before you go to the polls.
Town Meeting Day is March 7, and absentee ballots have already been requested.
While we do not know how many voters have actually tuned into these forums, we know — anecdotally — many folks are watching. We (and the candidates) are hearing from the public, wanting to know more about responses given to specific issues.
While the forums are designed to complement our coverage, they also are proving to be another example of the tribalism we are seeing in Vermont politics. It is a tough tactic to watch take hold.
In the past, it did not matter whether individuals wanting to run for municipal office or school board had an R or D or I/P after their names. It didn’t matter. During the course of the brief campaign, it came down to values, effectiveness, integrity and, to be fair, name recognition.
What we have seen unfolding in the last few election cycles would indicate that R and D and I/P are becoming essential in the minds of candidates at the local level.
In our larger communities, we are seeing candidates more often running as a slate. Political signs do not list a single candidate but rather a short list of individuals who share common values, usually politically motivated. It took on a life of its own in Rutland last year, when candidates on both sides were desperate to stack the school board in their favor in order to either overturn the decision to change the Raider name or preserve it. Our journalists, who are used to lumping all of the candidates in contested races into one (sometimes massive) article, were being stonewalled by a bloc of candidates.
What was most concerning to us — and to most level-headed voters — was the singular charge from both sides. One issue was supposed to open the door to a bold agenda of broader change.
There have been other races in which there has been a push to vote for a slate, sometimes to leverage less qualified but like-minded candidates who might not be ready or able to campaign well on their own. They need the protection of name recognition or reputation of someone else. That approach is not fair to voters who want to choose the best candidate to lead — not the one who most closely covets an “agenda.”
Sure, politics is messy, and feelings (and egos) get hurt. That is the nature of competing in a race. We have always seen pressure being applied during local campaigns, but we also have seen more instances of a “February surprise” — a last-minute bomb designed to do damage, but not allow for ample time for a proper defense. Those are becoming commonplace, and in some instances, the “surprises” have not even been accurate or true. They take on a life of their own on social media and Front Porch Forum in the days leading up to town meeting. The Internet has made such a tactic effective in local politics — a disheartening and frustrating method.
Then there has been the pressure and bullying over forums and debates themselves. It used to be that any organization — whether it was the local media, a social service organization, or really any group that could muster a decent sized crowd — would invite candidates for local races in for a chat. Now, candidates will flatly reject invitations they feel might not align with their party or agenda. (It happened in Rutland last year when one bloc refused to debate with the field but later held their own discussion that was broadcast on social media without any of the other contenders.)
Three times in this short election cycle alone, candidates have objected to participating in forums because they have said either the host, the moderator or the sponsors were otherwise motivated. That short-sighted attitude deprived the voters — really the only factor that matters in an election — of opportunities to hear all sides of a particular issue. But it speaks volumes about the individual. Sometimes issues are highly political, yet it is essential — especially for uncommitted voters — to know what’s at play and who is playing.
In one instance, which still has us scratching our head a year later, an individual promised that if the newspaper did not adjust its coverage, there would be a boycott of the newspaper’s advertisers, and a push would be made to make another media outlet — one friendlier to the candidate, if elected — the newspaper of record for the community in the future. Those are intimidation and bullying tactics that are both ill-conceived and dimwitted.
That’s why we circle back to the forums and the articles that we run on these pages. Voters are smart, but they need facts. They need dialogue. Armed with information, they can make their own educated decisions.
Ultimately, what voters decide to do in in the polling booth is their preference, their decision, their right. They very well may buck the campaign or ignore the slate. They should just decide for themselves what’s in their best interest — not where some tribe says the lemmings should follow.
Leadership is about progress. Your vote matters toward where you want to go next. Getting there should not be so ugly.
Welcome to the discussion.
Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.