Oct. 16, 2008
By Tim Simard
Political candidates can expect to face tough questions from the press and the voting public, but on Friday numerous Vermont politicians had to respond to the thoughtful inquiries of Williston middle school students.
Observer photo by Tim Simard
Attorney General William Sorrell (second from left) answers a student question during the Williston Central School candidate forum, while Progressive candidate for U.S. Representative Thomas Hermann (left), independent gubernatorial candidate Anthony Pollina (third from left) and Democratic Rep. Peter Welch listen.
Less than four weeks before the Nov. 4 election, candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and U.S. Representative, among others, stopped by the Williston Central School auditorium to answer student questions and give their views on current events.
Seventh and eighth graders packed the auditorium on Oct. 10. Nine eighth graders asked questions, which were written and researched by their peers, during the student forum. Fifth and sixth graders watched the forum from their classrooms via a live video feed.
Questions ranged from the current economic crisis to the war in Iraq, and from environmental issues to how to protect children from sexual predators.
The event was not open to the general public.
Meeting House teacher Mindy Conry, who has been organizing candidate forums for 18 years with Full House teacher and event moderator John Duncan, said the event helps students have a say in the political process and interact with politicians directly.
Full House teacher Al Fletcher said the collaborative effort of the students allows for more pointed and educated questions.
Observer photo by Tim Simard
Voyager House student Andrea Joseph asks Gaye Symington, the Democratic candidate for governor, a question about school funding during Friday’s candidate forum.
“Every seventh and eighth grader came up with questions, and that’s an important thing,” Fletcher said.
Before the forum, Independent gubernatorial candidate Anthony Pollina said students have unique perspectives on politics and he enjoys taking their questions. He said he attended a Williston Central School forum six years ago, when campaigning for lieutenant governor.
“It’s important to talk with kids and interact with their teachers,” Pollina said. “Schools are, after all, where kids learn democracy.”
Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor Tom Costello, participating in his first student forum of the campaign, said he teaches an eighth grade Robert Frost class in his hometown of Brattleboro and knows students can ask some tough questions.
“There is great maturity in terms of the questions and their understanding of the issues,” Costello said.
Gaye Symington, Democratic candidate for governor, said students are concerned about many of the same topics as their parents, but also tend to be more interested in environmental and alternative energy issues.
“The answers to these questions can sometimes affect their lives more than they’ll affect our lives,” Symington said.
Full House student Evan Grey asked U.S. Representative Peter Welch, a Democrat, about his vote for the new Wall Street bailout bill after he voted against it in an earlier form. Grey asked if Wall Street executives would still be earning the multi-million dollar salaries they’re used to. Welch said the salaries were “outrageous” and that priorities have to change.
“We have owners thinking the company belongs to them and not to shareholders, some of whom are your parents,” Welch said.
Welch added later that the economy is in the worst state he’s seen in his lifetime and believed it would still be some time before it improved.
Pollina took a few shots at Republican Gov. Jim Douglas’ administration over Vermont’s weak job market. Under the current administration, Vermont has lost “a lot of good jobs,” even with the governor’s slogan, “Jim equals jobs,” Pollina said.
“We need to ensure we support our public schools, because that’s where people become good workers and don’t get fooled by slogans,” he said.
Iraq and the War on Terror was also the focus of many questions. Thomas Hermann, the Progressive candidate for U.S. Representative and an Iraq war veteran running on an anti-war campaign, said he would work to immediately bring the troops home from Iraq, where more than 4,100 soldiers have been killed in action.
“This war is illegal and it’s wrong,” Hermann said.
But Williston Selectboard member Chris Roy, representing McCain as co-chairman of the senator’s Vermont campaign, said his candidate understood the difficulties of being a soldier in wartime, but also said pulling out of the country too soon would be admitting defeat and create more instability.
“Senator McCain wants them to come home from Iraq in victory,” Roy said.
The students who asked questions said after the forum they thought the candidates were honest and answered the questions “most of the time.” Cindy Carpenter was especially impressed with Pollina.
“He answered everything right on and seemed the most confident,” Carpenter said.
Julienne DeVita liked what Attorney General William Sorrell had to say in regards to prosecuting criminals.
“He seemed really friendly and had really good ideas on what he could do,” DeVita said.
The politicians gave students good advice on a future in politics. Welch credited public interaction, such as the student forum, on getting elected to the House two years ago. Hermann said early involvement in politics can go a long way.
“Turn into politics before it turns on you,” Hermann said.
From the gubernatorial race, Independent candidate Anthony Pollina and Democratic candidate Gaye Symington took part. Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie and his Democratic opponent, Tom Costello also appeared. Gov. Jim Douglas was unable to attend, and Dubie answered questions geared toward Douglas.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Peter Welch and his Progressive opponent, Thomas Hermann participated. Attorney General William Sorrell, who is up for reelection, was also on hand.
The forum had representatives from the Barack Obama and John McCain presidential campaigns. Jake Perkenson spoke for the Obama campaign, and Williston Selectboard member Chris Roy represented the McCain campaign. Roy is also co-chairman of McCain’s Vermont efforts.
Eugene Bifano, a candidate for secretary of state, was scheduled to appear but was unable to make the forum.