20220725-DEBATE-SUSAN-08.jpg

Nader Hashim, seen here answering a question during a forum held at the Rockingham Public Library last month, won a Democratic nomination for one of two open State Senate seats for Windham County.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.  

All three Democrat candidates bidding for the two open State Senate seats for Windham County, Wendy Harrison, Nader Hashim, and Wichie Artu, participate in a forum that was held at the Rockingham Public Library, in Bellows Falls, on Monday, July 25, ahead of the Democrat primaries held on Aug. 9.

BELLOWS FALLS — Questions about electric cars and sustainable electricity, tax fairness, further decriminalization of drugs and how to pay for increasing day care subsidies dominated a Windham County Democratic Senate forum Monday night at the Rockingham Free Public Library.

Former state Rep. Nader Hashim, D-Dummerston, and political newcomers Wichie Artu of Athens and Wendy Harrison of Brattleboro all stressed their different life experiences as giving them insight into how to solve the problems facing Windham County residents.

The three Democrats vying for the two spots on the November ballot for Windham Senate agreed most of the time on many key issues of abortion rights and climate change.

All three are relative newcomers to the state, with Harrison telling the group she moved to Vermont from Florida in 2017. “I’m a Vermonter by choice,” she said.

Hashim moved to Vermont after college to become a Vermont State Police trooper, where he served for seven years, and a single dad, before running successfully for the House four years ago. He stepped down after one, two-year term to work for a law firm and study the law.

His work as a trooper, he said, brought him to every town in the county, and his work on the House Judiciary Committee in the Legislature was full of compromise and working with people from other parties.

Artu said he grew up in Puerto Rico in Section 8 subsidized housing and on food stamps, but that education and opportunity had landed him in the middle class. He is now a data system consultant and farmer with his partner in Athens.

Hashim and Artu are men of color and are active in the NAACP of Windham County, with Artu describing himself as a representative of “Vermont’s emerging multicultural future.” Hashim, born in Boston, is the child of immigrants from the Sudan and Iran.

Harrison was municipal manager in Rockingham and Bellows Falls for two years until 2020, when her contract wasn’t renewed. Since then, she has worked for the town of Vernon and the city of Winooski, as an interim manager.

The first question for the candidates was about reproductive rights, and all three candidates said they support abortion rights and the upcoming vote in November that would include it in the Vermont Constitution.

Hashim said he supports “Safe Harbor laws” that would protect women coming to Vermont for health care, whether for an abortion or contraceptive care.

Artu said the issue was personal to him as a married, gay man, with an uncle who had died of AIDS. He said he’s opposed to “laws that prohibit you from being you” and that criminalize “private sexual acts.”

Harrison, who said she too had lost an uncle to AIDS, said she supports the codification of abortion rights.

“I’m so grateful to live in Vermont. We can’t go back,” she said.

Carla Bossard of Westminster questioned the candidates for their unilateral support for the state subsidies of electric vehicles, asking whether the electricity powering the vehicles is sustainable.

Bossard said she had recently returned from a vacation in Europe where public transportation “was everywhere” and in her mind a more effective approach to battling climate change.

Support our journalism. Subscribe today. →

“Sustainable is a matter of opinion,” said Artu, as the group struggled to identify how much of Vermont’s power is “sustainable.”

Vermont is very close to having 100 percent of its electricity come from “sustainable” sources, whether that is hydro-electric or nuclear, Hashim said. “It is cleaner than coal and oil,” he said.

Artu said that lithium batteries, which power electric vehicles, are not sustainable. “We have a Band-aid solution right now,” he said.

Co-sponsored by the Rockingham and Westminster Democratic committees, the well-attended forum included advance questions and questions from the audience.

Bill Morse of Bellows Falls, chairman of the Rockingham Republican Committee, asked the candidates how they plan on paying for the increases in day care they all support.

Morse, who is a member of the Rockingham School Board, said the schools are facing an increasingly hard time maintaining staffing, with teachers burning out. The best thing is to strengthen the family, he said. “Where is the money going to come from?” he asked.

Artu described Vermont as a poor state with a working class that can’t support additional tax increases. He said the recent influx of wealthy people buying property in Vermont, including in Athens, are a potential source of revenue.

“The devil is in the details,” said Harrison, noting that schools are supported by the property tax. The state should make it easier for towns to adopt local option taxes, she said.

Hashim said that Vermont state revenue to support the state budget is “in a healthy place right now.” All three candidates agreed that a progressive income tax system would be most “equitable.”

Harrison said the state’s public transportation system could be improved, from better routes running later in the workday, to shelters for those waiting for the buses.

On the issue of decriminalization of drugs, Hashim said he helped work on the idea while in the Legislature. Initially, he said, it “sounds like a wild idea.”

But, he said, in the country of Portugal, drugs have been decriminalized, and overdoses have “plummeted.”

“It works,” he said.

The three Democrats, along with independent Tim Wessel of Brattleboro and Republicans Mark Coester of Westminster and Richard Kenyon and Richard Morton, both of Brattleboro, are vying to replace Windham County’s two longtime Democratic senators, Sen. Jeanette White and Sen. Becca Balint, who is running for U.S. Congress.

Voting by absentee ballot already has begun for the Vermont primary, which is Aug. 9.

The Windham County Senate district includes all Windham County towns but Londonderry, Stratton and Wilmington, which are part of the Bennington County senate district.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.