By Luke Baynes
On Oct. 5, a month and a day before voters across the nation will decide the political future of America, a panel of candidates took the stage at Williston Central School for an hourlong Q-and-A session.
The economy, the environment, alternative energy, gay marriage, single-payer health care, immigration reform and the rising cost of education were just a few of the topics raised by a group of seventh and eighth grade students for the four Democrats and three Republicans seated in the spotlight of WCS’ Al Myers Theater.
Just two of the political offices that will be decided by Vermont voters on Nov. 6—U.S. senator and Vermont attorney general—were represented by both parties.
Jack McMullen, the Republican nominee for attorney general of Vermont, said he is opposed to Democratic incumbent Bill Sorrell’s view that the state should impose an excise tax on sodas and other sugary drinks.
“I agree with the objective of Mr. Sorrell’s proposal, but not the method,” McMullen said. “We live in a place in which people can make choices, and I would favor education and greater dissemination of information to the citizens so they can make that choice, rather than proposing yet another regulation on them.”
Sorrell had the opportunity to respond to McMullen later in the forum.
“Do you know the average adult Vermonter consumes 50 gallons a year of sugar-sweetened beverages these days, and sugar-sweetened beverages are largely responsible for our obesity rates and our skyrocketing diabetes rates?” Sorrell asked the audience. “So if you think this is a problem, we should do something about it. It’s not to punish the obese. It’s for us to all commit to being healthier.”
Notably absent from the candidate forum was Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who was in Brattleboro with Gov. Peter Shumlin and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., for the dedication of a high-speed rail system. However, Sanders’ campaign manager, Phil Fiermonte, read a prepared statement from the senator.
“The Republican Party in recent years has become an extremist party, dominated by the Tea Party,” Fiermonte quoted. “Economically, they want to give huge tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires, while making devastating cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education, environmental protection and virtually every program which supports the needs of the middle class or working families.”
Sanders’ Republican opponent, John MacGovern, later addressed the incumbent senator’s statement.
“The dysfunction in Washington is unbelievable, and I think you heard today some of the reasons for that, read by the representative of Senator Sanders, attacking Republicans, attacking the right wing, attacking the Tea Party. It’s always someone else’s fault,” MacGovern said. “That’s not what this forum is supposed to be about, and that’s not what I’m about. I’m about the future. If you’re looking ahead, realize that we’re in debt, we’re running out of money and we’ve got to start living within our means.”
Welch was also heard from, via state Rep. Tim Jerman, D-Essex Junction, who read a prepared response to a question from seventh-grader Shorya Malhotra regarding the exit strategy of American troops from Afghanistan.
“It is the responsibility of America’s civilian and defense leaders to pursue strategies worthy of the heroic sacrifice of American service members,” Jerman quoted. “Nation-building in a country that is corrupt to the core is a failed policy. It is long past time to end the war in Afghanistan and retool our anti-terrorism strategies to meet credible threats to America’s national security around the world.”
Democratic/Progressive lieutenant governor candidate Cassandra Gekas, who will oppose Republican incumbent Phil Scott at the Nov. 6 polls, spoke about the high cost of higher education in the state.
“When it comes to the cost of higher education, we need to look at things like strengthening our community colleges in Vermont, because they’re affordable and they provide great educations,” Gekas said. “I think we need to monitor more closely some of our bigger schools in the state for the tuition increases year to year, and I think we need to expand loan forgiveness programs in the state, especially around those jobs that we know we’re going to need for the future.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate Randy Brock addressed the role of government in improving Vermont’s “business friendliness.”
“Our job is not just to enforce the rules. Our job is to help businesses be successful in Vermont, while still complying with our rules,” Brock said. “We need to infuse that idea throughout government, and that will do more than any incentive program to make Vermont open for business and to make Vermont business friendly for the people who want to work here.”
Eighth-grader Jacob Parker told the Observer after the candidate forum that although he’s too young to vote on Election Day, the political issue of most concern to him is the lack of job opportunities in the state.
“I plan to be an architect, and there’s not a lot of opportunities in Vermont at the moment for a business like that,” Parker said. “I really love this state, but being able to stay here and work, right now it just doesn’t seem like the best idea. I think if we could bring more business in that would be really great.”