Legislators advocate for democracy, shared vision at candlelight vigil

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BRATTLEBORO — Woody Bernhard invited candlelight vigil attendees to participate in "the peaceful revolution."

"[The] peaceful revolution is made up of what I like to call positive, nonviolent action for democracy and civil rights for all people," the Marlboro resident told about 25 people gathered Sunday night at Pliny Park in Brattleboro. "This is a positive action."

Bernhard is part of a group making sure a banner that reads "We Celebrate Democracy/Civil Rights For All" makes the rounds. This week, it is back on Main Street in downtown Brattleboro.

Bernhard helped organize Sunday's candlelight vigil, which included speeches from several legislators who represent the Windham County area.

Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Windham-2-2, encouraged attendees to register to vote or get others to do so.

"We all need to work together," she said. "We need to have a shared vision and we need to especially get in on the elections this fall. It's going to be really important, in Vermont and the country."

Rep. Emily Long, D-Windham-5, called public education the "cornerstone of our democracy."

"I think our Founding Fathers thought the same thing," she said. "I think they thought public education should be free and it should be accessible for all; not just some, but for all. And the direction we've headed in this country and even in this state, it has been pretty concerning around public education."

Long said U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has no experience in education and she expressed concern over Gov. Phil Scott's initial memo saying that the state's next education secretary need not have a background in education. He has since shifted his perspective on the matter.

Long encouraged attendees to keep education as "local and close to home as it can be, and do everything you can to make sure it's funded and high quality."

"But make sure above all, it's equitable, that all Vermonters, all students have equal access to public education," she said.

Democracy is under threat, Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Windham-4, told the crowd.

"Education is getting shortchanged by Washington," he said. "Democracy can't exist without education. We need an informed electorate to be able to make good decisions."

Mrowicki said capitalists have been putting profit

before people and country.

"We're seeing that right at this time and we're going to see a lot more as the Mueller investigation comes along," he said, referring to the special counsel assigned to look into the Russian government's meddling in the 2016 election and any links or coordination to President Donald Trump's campaign, and "anything else that might arise."

Mrowicki said Vermont has "great voting records" and should be an example for other states to get out to vote. He was impressed when teenagers supporting stricter gun control measures at the Statehouse all indicated they would vote when they could.

A man driving in a car on Main Street began to yell obscenities as Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Windham-2-1, called Trump "a problem."

"Stir the pot and," Stuart said before trailing off and continuing her original thought. "We have a president that's putting us all in danger. So what I want to say is be active, be involved. Democracy is under fire. Fake news, woo hoo. Let's all be on it. As a person who went to school for journalism, I think that is one of the biggest problems we face."

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, called democracy "the grand experiment in governing."

"Each of us probably has a slightly different meaning but in our hearts, we know what it means," she said. "Our democracy is also a republic. A democracy because we have majority rule and a republic because we have a constitution that defines certain, inalienable rights that protect the minority from the majority. It also means that individuals must prevail against special interests of all types."

Democracy can be protected by encouraging more participation while respecting all voices, White told attendees.

Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham, considers her column in the Reformer "a platform for democracy" that has led to discussions with her neighbors over the last seven years.

"It's not about my ideas; it's about all the ideas that people share with me from week to week," she said. "They share with me their fears, their hopes and their principles."

Balint credits the column, even more than her work on the Legislature, with connecting her more with her neighbors. She said the kinds of conversations that spark her writings "bring us closer to the kind of democracy that we strive to have."

"We are facing a very dark time," she told the crowd. "And it feels like we're veering precariously close to fascism and it's very easy to get discouraged. And I know I feel fearful and I feel afraid at times. But coming here tonight and seeing the light, I'm remembering that it's the exchange of ideas and principles and philosophies and freedom that gives the light more power — not just on the national stage but in our communities."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.

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