SUNDERLAND — A debate held Wednesday between the five candidates for the Bennington County and Wilmington seat in the Vermont State Senate left little question as to whether the candidates agree on many issues: They don’t.
Incumbent Sens. Richard Sears and Brian Campion, both Bennington Democrats, made the case for their experience and track records, while Republicans Meg Hansen of Manchester and Mike Hall of Sunderland and independent Kevin Hoyt of Bennington said Montpelier in general, and the district in particular are in need of new voices.
Hansen, a communications consultant and health care advocate, and Hall, the retired police chief of Manchester, made the case throughout the two-hour debate on Greater Northshire Access Television that regulations are hurting the state economy.
All three challengers criticized the Global Warming Solutions Act, which both Campion and Sears supported. Hall was also sharply critical of S. 119, a bill which sets standards for the use of force and deadly force by law enforcement.
That set the stage for pointed exchanges at the end of the two-hour debate, during an open-ended discussion section, between Campion and Hansen over regulations, and between Hall and Sears on criminal justice.
Hansen, who earlier this year ran for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, had cited the need to cut regulations in responses to questions on the economic recovery from COVID-19, updates to Act 250, and the need for more affordable workforce housing.
During the open discussion session, Campion pointed out that greater Bennington sustained a great deal of damage thanks to a lack of regulatory oversight over emissions at the former ChemFab factory in North Bennington, leading to PFOA contamination in groundwater in three towns.
“You had people who were completely impacted with a cancer-causing carcinogen that they drank for decades,” Campion said. “We have got to protect Vermonters. We have to protect their health. We have to make sure that when you drop your child off at daycare you know your child is going to be safe.”
Hansen replied her position is not that deregulation should be limitless — but it should address regulation that “shackles economic growth.”
“I don’t believe any proponent of cutting overregulation wants a free-for=all society where there are no safety standards, not at all,” Hansen said.
“When we talk about regulation that prevents people from making a living, that’s the kind of regulation we need to cut down,” she said. “When you have monopoly-creating health care policies where we have Blue Cross Blue Shield with a monopoly, when people don’t have access to services in underserved areas, those are the regulations we need to cut down.”
The discussion then turned to criminal justice, and the fireworks began.
It started with Hoyt making the case for re-investing criminal justice funds into addiction treatment centers. “I’d like to treat the thousands who are struggling as a sick part of society rather than a criminal part of society,” he said, adding that building facilities across the state would create jobs.
Sears followed that up with a discussion of the state’s justice reinvestment initiative — in which money saved by reducing the prison population is re-invested in strategies to improve public safety.
Hall then pointed out a study showing 78 percent — he called it 80 percent — of the state’s furlough program participants were winding up back in jail, many on technical violations such as failure to observe curfew and stay away from alcohol and other drugs.
“If you can’t abide by something as spline as being back by 9 o’clock, not smoking dope and not drinking and causing fights, what makes you think these people are going to behave?” Hall asked Sears about the program.
He also questioned why Sears supported a Senate bill limiting a sentence of life without parole to aggravated murders. (That bill, S. 261, passed the Senate but was not voted on by the state House.) “Why would you do that?” Hall asked. “Why do you lobby for the bad guy?”
“Mike, your campaign of misinformation is quite amazing,” Sears replied, contradicting Hall’s assertion that Vermont is growing less safe by noting its low incarceration rate. “It depends who you want to lock up, Mike. I want to lock up people who are dangerous people ... you want to lock up the pain in the neck.”
Earlier in the debate, the candidates were asked about the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and what it should do to help Vermonters recover.
Campion pointed to his support for Communications Union Districts in addressing the state’s broadband gap, which COVID-19 exposed as children were asked to learn from home. About 15 percent of Bennington County and Wilmington do not have high-speed access, he said.
“It’s good for economic development and essential for children,” Campion said.
Hall said he was pleased with the state’s COVID response, but said the Legislature should have tended only to “mission-critical” bills, then adjourned. “Quite frankly I was a little annoyed the Legislature took it upon themselves to use this as an opportunity to push bills through in a remote session where the public didn’t have the opportunity to weigh in,” he said.
Hansen said the pandemic’s damage will only become apparent in the next year. But she warned of Vermont’s economic weaknesses, citing its low rankings in business startup cost and property tax burden.
“Cutting overregulation and opening up business climate to support small business is not just lip service. You have to act on that,” she said.”
Hoyt was dismissive of the COVID-19 pandemic — later he called it the “plandemic” — and more concerned with the effect of the shutdown on the state economy and its people.
“As far as the pandemic, I didn’t know we were still playing,” said Hoyt, who is also running for governor. “This is another catastrophic failure on behalf of the current administration.”
“The fallout from the shutdown ... the loss of everything — is going to be much more substantial,” Hoyt added.
“I believe the pandemic is real,” Sears responded. “I believe 215,000 Americans have died … I will argue that during this pandemic I personally fought hard for the tourist industry, and for economic divers in the Bennington community, in how we allocated CARES Act funding.”
In closing statements, Sears said he and Campion have “a record of accomplishment for constituents and the State of Vermont.” And alluding to his disagreement with Hall, he said “by in large Vermont is the second safest state in the nation and I want to keep it that way.”
Hansen asked voters if they felt better off than they were 5-10 years ago. “With a combined 37 years in office the incumbents are the ultimate political insiders,” she said. She added that voters “want new, authentic legislators who think independently and prioritize our local communities.”
Hoyt said the problem with Montpelier is the “same people going on 60 years,” an apparent reference to Democrats. He also underscored his support for gun rights.
“If you liked what you experienced over the last number of years you know how to vote. If you want to see a change you know how to vote, Hall said.
“Leadership is always important but it is particularly so during a pandemic,” Campion said. “We have a proven track record of getting things done and I’m excited about the possibility of being re-elected and returning to Montpelier, where there’s a lot of unfinished business and a lot of important work to get started.”