TOWNSHEND -- Four state Senate candidates vying to represent Windham County tackled tough topics including health-care reform, school consolidation, campaign finance and alternative-energy siting during a 90-minute forum here Thursday night.
The candidates -- Sen. Jeanette White, Roger Allbee, Becca Balint and Joan Bowman -- even had a chance to expound on the meaning of being a Democrat, an apropos question given that all are vying for two party nominations in the Aug. 26 primary.
The audience consisted of more than 40 people packed into a first-floor room at Townshend's town hall. And the man leaving one of the county's Senate seats, Townshend Democrat Peter Galbraith, served as moderator.
"I think we're fortunate that they're four really outstanding candidates, each with their own story to tell," Galbraith said.
There are no other contested primary races for Windham County Senate: Liberty Union candidates Aaron Diamondstone and Jerry Levy are on the primary ballot, and no Republicans filed to run.
Galbraith's decision to not seek a new term left White as the sole incumbent in the race.
Thursday's forum, organized by the Windham County Democrats, began with introductions: White, a six-term Democrat from Putney who chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee, said it has been an "honor" to serve the county and said she is most-interested in "looking at all sides of an issue and then working together to come up with a solution that best serves the needs of Vermonters.
Allbee is the former state Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets, and he currently serves as Grace Cottage Hospital chief executive officer. Allbee has said he plans to leave that post if elected to state Senate.
The Townshend resident noted that, as a native of Brookline, "this is hometown turf to me," and he talked about his experience with economic development, working lands and higher education.
Bowman, of Putney, has been involved in nonprofits, runs her own consulting company and currently works as a navigator for Vermont Health Connect. As the state tackles big health-care changes, Bowman declared that, "I'm here because I want to see single-payer (health care) enacted."
Balint, of Brattleboro, is a former educator and now works as a consultant. She opened by talking about the importance of working with those whose views oppose her own.
"That's what we do as Vermonters: We put aside political differences and we work together on solving issues. We build coalitions," Balint said. "And that is what I feel like I do well."
While the primary election still is a month away, Balint at this point is the clear winner on the fund-raising front. Reports filed with the state show that she has raised $10,171.
In a statement released when that report was filed, Balint said the total "speaks to the fact that people here in Windham County are ready for an energetic new leader who will being fresh ideas to Montpelier."
Balint also has spent $4,209. State documents show her largest expenditures have been for lawn signs, payroll and a voter database.
Balint's fund-raising has included 40 contributions of $100 or less, accounting for $2,646 of her total. Those smaller contributions alone outpace the total fund-raising of each of her Democratic opponents.
White raised $1,510 and spent just $147 as of the July 15 reporting deadline. Bowman listed $1,500 in contributions and $1,014 in expenditures, while Allbee raised $1,350 and spent $600.
There was no mention of those totals during Thursday's forum, however. Rather, the candidates fielded questions on a variety of topics including:
-- Education: Specifically, given a controversial bill that died in the Legislature this year, the candidates were asked whether they support mandatory school consolidation.
Allbee said the recent consolidation of the Newfane and Brookline elementaries "was a decision that the local community made based on the facts." Consolidation, he said, "needs to be a local decision."
Bowman opposes small-school consolidation entirely. "I believe we need to keep local control of schools," she said.
White said she is opposed to mandatory consolidation and urged a "statewide discussion" that includes a look at educational outcomes. And Balint, while saying consolidation likely is coming, urged keeping children "at the center of this equation -- are we giving children the services they deserve?"
-- Health-care reform:
No candidate opposed Vermont's ongoing transition toward publicly financed, universal health care. "I think we all know something has to change," Allbee said.
But, as has been the case in Montpelier, there were no firm answers Thursday night on how exactly the state can pay for such a system. White said it likely will be some combination of a payroll and income tax, pointing out that such taxes will replace premiums.
Whatever the solution, Balint said, "it has to work for middle-class Vermonters in Windham County. It has to work for small nonprofits and small businesses."
-- Energy: The candidates cited driving and home-heating as two of the state's major energy burners, and they discussed the need for more efficiency on both fronts.
"The most bang for the buck is weatherization in homes," Allbee said.
-- Alternative energy sources -- while a top priority for Vermont state government -- are a thorny issue locally. In response to a question on whether they would support giving the towns of Windham and/or Grafton the power to veto a controversial wind-turbine project proposed there, only Allbee said he definitely would.
He cited Windham's town plan, which prohibits industrial wind power. But White said more weight must be given to regional plans.
"I don't think a single town should have a veto power over a project that is designed to serve the needs of the entire state," she said, adding that there is a place for carefully sited wind turbines in Vermont.
"We can't destroy all of our ridgelines," White said. "We might have to sacrifice some."
Bowman said she would not rule out any energy source but also would need to talk to constituents before taking a position on the Windham/Grafton issue.
"Everything has got to be on the table, but we have to bring it home to the locals -- we have to talk about it," she said.
Balint, like White, made a distinction between allowing local input vs. allowing a local veto on an energy project. The latter, she said, could be "an uncomfortable precedent to set."
-- On the question of whether they would ban direct corporate contributions to political candidates, Allbee, Bowman and Balint said they would.
Balint qualified that by saying she would do so only if it was possible to place restrictions on the amounts that wealthy candidates can contribute to their own campaigns.
White has found herself at the center of the campaign-finance debate in the Senate, and she has argued that the state's recent reforms were a good compromise.
She does not agree that corporate contributions are a major problem in Vermont. And she said regulating such contributions is extremely complicated: To the question of a ban, "I'm not going to say yes or no, because the devil is in the details," she said.
-- Asked about the meaning of being a Democrat, the candidates offered personal stories. Reaching back to her Midwestern roots in a pro-union family, Bowman declared that "I've been a Democrat my whole life."
Allbee could not say the same thing, noting that he ran for the state House in 2004 as a "liberal Republican." But Allbee said he is now running as a Democrat because he believes the Republican party he had identified with -- personified by a figure such as Putney native George Aiken, a former state legislator, governor and U.S. senator -- no longer exists.
-- A question about economic development elicited varied responses, with Balint proposing to create "clear pathways" to employment for students by getting schools and businesses to work together more closely.
Bowman talked about helping young people to stay here and start companies, while White spoke of loan programs with "creative payback mechanisms" as well as the need to create a culture where businesses want to locate.
Allbee talked about the beginnings of large businesses -- such as Commonwealth Dairy, which he said he helped bring to Brattleboro -- and of small businesses like Townshend's Big Picture Farm.
Looking forward, "we know that most new jobs in Windham County will come from innovators," he said. "And to do that, they need to have the tools to make that happen."
The next Windham County state Senate forum is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. July 31 at Bellows Falls Opera House.
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.