BRATTLEBORO -- After months of campaigning, the four Democrats vying to represent Windham County in the Vermont Senate participated in a final -- and very cordial -- public forum Thursday night.
Aside from offering differing stances on the legalization of marijuana and regulation of campaign contributions, there were no major disagreements. Instead, the candidates stuck mostly to touting their credentials for Windham County's two spots in the 30-member state Senate.
"It's humbling, it's frustrating, it's all-consuming, it is challenging, and I'm still asking you to send me back," said Sen. Jeanette White, a Putney resident and the sole incumbent in the race. "I really love the work, and I want to go back and do it."
The challengers on Tuesday's primary ballot struck similar notes:
-- Roger Allbee of Townshend, the former state Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets and current chief executive officer of Grace Cottage Hospital: "I can make a difference, because that's what I do. I provide solutions."
-- Becca Balint of Brattleboro, a former teacher and now a part-time coach, consultant and writer: "I want you to feel like you can come to me with your ideas, and I will help put you in touch with the people who can help you realize that dream."
-- Joan Bowman of Putney, a health-care navigator at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital: "I have worked with people who are farmers, doctors -- I've worked with excavators, I've worked with the self-employed, the unemployed.
White is pursuing a seventh two-year term in the Senate, but Windham County Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Townshend, announced in June that he would not seek re-election. That left an opening for at least one new senator who will represent every Windham County town aside from Wilmington, which is in the Bennington County Senate District, and Londonderry, which is part of the Windsor County district.
No Republicans filed to run for Windham County Senate. There are two Liberty Union candidates also on the primary ballot -- Aaron Diamondstone and Jerry Levy.
With no contested state House races in Windham County's primary, the Democratic Senate race has garnered the most attention among local campaigns. That has meant some financial investment -- together, the four Democrats have reported raising more than $25,000 -- and several endorsements.
On the endorsement front, Galbraith on Aug. 20 threw his support behind Allbee and said he disagrees with White and Balint on "some key issues" including campaign contributions and wind turbines. One day later, state Senate Majority Leader Phil Baruth endorsed White and Balint, dubbing them a "Democratic dream team for Windham County."
The race also has featured public forums in Townshend, Bellows Falls, Windham and Brattleboro. The latter gathering, organized by the Windham County Democrats, was held Thursday night at Brattleboro American Legion Post 5.
It included two questions about Vermont's transition toward universal, publicly financed health care -- often called single-payer. Each candidate said they support that transition, with Bowman declaring that "there is nothing more important right now for the future of Vermont than (approval of) universal health care."
Later, the candidates were asked how the new health-care system should be funded. Each cited the possibility of payroll and income taxes, though Bowman also mentioned the possibility of a sugared-beverage tax.
The candidates also fielded questions about committee assignments; education funding; police brutality in light of recent events in Ferguson, Mo.; and this area's drug problem. On that topic, Balint proposed a special drug court in Windham County and also suggested that policy makers are "not talking to the right people about how to solve these problems. We need to be engaging youth."
Also on the topic of drug use and abuse, the candidates took differing positions on the legalization and regulation of marijuana. It's an issue that that the state is taking a closer look at via an ongoing, in-depth study by the RAND Corp.
Only White said without equivocation that she fully supports legalizing marijuana.
"The war on drugs has not worked. Prohibition of alcohol didn't work," White said. "We are creating a black market for it that only increases the criminal aspects of the use of marijuana."
White said many key questions have to be answered before legalization. But she cited as a model the state's carefully crafted system for dispensing medical marijuana, calling it "the best dispensary law in the country."
Allbee mentioned the benefits of medical marijuana and said he has supported the full legalization of hemp. But he said Vermont officials need to examine other states' experiences with marijuana legalization.
"We ought to follow the governor's lead in trying to see how it can be done in some sort of way that's responsible," he said.
Bowman said she understands legalization arguments. But she also served on the board of the Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition, and Bowman is worried about kids' access to drugs including marijuana.
"I want to be sure that everyone understands what happens to a human being when they're high," she said. "And we really (need to ) help children to understand, brains do matter, and marijuana at a young age seriously affects development."
Balint said she has been receiving e-mails about marijuana legalization and admitted being "really torn." She called for "really careful conversations with law enforcement" and those who work on drug-abuse prevention.
"As an educator, and as someone who has also worked on wellness issues, it's complicated," Balint said. "It is not an economic silver bullet. And that's how I hear people talking about it in the county. And I cannot get behind it for that reason."
Another issue that showed subtle differences among the candidates is corporate campaign contributions. Bowman said her campaign is largely self-funded; Balint, the race's top fund-raiser, said she has accepted money from a local law firm but said "I don't intend to take any large donations from corporations."
Allbee, who lists a farm donation among the individual contributors on his most-recent campaign-finance report, declared that "money is influencing too much these days" and said he will not accept cash from corporations or political-action committees.
"We're a citizen legislature in Vermont, and we should act like one," he said.
White said she has taken money from two PACs in this cycle -- the Vermont State Troopers Association and the Vermont State Employees Association. A political action committee "is simply a group of people -- a group of voters -- who get together to pool their resources," she said.
White also reiterated her stance that banning all corporate contributions to candidates is a complex issue, and she cannot back such a ban at this point.
"The devil is in the details here, and so far, nobody has presented a bill that I feel comfortable supporting," White said.
The Brattleboro forum was recorded by Brattleboro Community Television and will be available on the station's website, brattleborotv.org.
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275. Follow him on Twitter @MikeReformer.