BRATTLEBORO — Candidates for two Windham County Senate seats shared their visions Monday for Vermont and how they believe government should support their potential constituents.
Democrats Nader Hashim of Dummerston and Wendy Harrison of Brattleboro shared the stage at Epsilon Spires on Monday night with Independent Tim Wessel of Brattleboro and Republican Rick Morton. Moderator Randy Holhut, editor at The Commons, said the other two candidates — Independent Mark Coester and Republican Rick Kenyon — didn’t respond to an invite to the event sponsored by the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, Brattleboro Community Television, The Commons, Epsilon Spires and the Media Mentoring Project.
“My concern, the reason why I’m running, is because I believe we have a runaway Legislature in Montpelier right now,” Morton said. “And therefore, you need to have a great deal more balance.”
Morton, an ordained minister and retired assistant vice president of Brattleboro Savings & Loan where he was in charge of compliance, said he can sympathize with Vermonters who are working multiple jobs or have two heads of the household in the workforce.
Hashim, a first-generation American, called for the support and welcoming of refugees. He deemed the protection and preservation of democracy a “top priority” for him.
“We’re not going to be able to do anything if we don’t have a functioning democracy, so I’d like to have the opportunity to return to Montpelier,” he said, having served as a state representative earlier, “to continue advocating for things like raising the minimum wage, paid family leave, protecting reproductive rights, and creating infrastructure for housing and workforce development.”
Hashim noted that he has spent his adult life working in public service in Windham County. Currently clerking for a local law firm in hopes of passing the bar exam and becoming an attorney, he previously worked as a Vermont State Police trooper. He didn’t seek a second term as a state representative in 2020, citing financial hardships imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, Hashim is ready to return to the Legislature. He said he wants policies that work for all parts of the county.
Harrison, who was most recently a municipal manager in Bellows Falls and Winooski, touted her skills at governance.
“I’ve worked and volunteered together with residents, businesses, property owners, taxpayers, elected officials and regulators to get things done on creating housing, managing economic development, protecting historic places, improving public transit, reducing taxes,” she said. “A long time ago, I chose to concentrate my career in local government, because of how close you are to the people you serve.”
Harrison urged Vermonters to “stay brave, bold and confident,” so the state could achieve things no other has done.
“One thing we didn’t talk about was climate change and the climate crisis — that’s huge,” she said, voicing support for the state’s plan for addressing the issue.
Wessel, a member of the Brattleboro Select Board, said he loves his town and Windham County.
“I would love to serve the entire county instead of just Brattleboro, as I have for the last five-and-a-half years,” he said. “I would love the opportunity.”
Wessel acknowledged he leans more to the left but raised concerns about “rhetoric” coming from both of the big parties. He cited state Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., as effective Independents.
Keeping communities safe with policing is an “extremely important issue” for Morton. He said the Legislature should be examining challenges, such as agencies that are having difficulty in finding officers.
“Is it the housing?” he said. “Is it the pay? Is it the working conditions? Is it the atmosphere toward law enforcement officers and first responders in the community?”
Wessel recounted how the Select Board struggled with issues related to policing and community safety when he was chairman.
“I think there’s a balance to be struck,” he said, noting there’s a place for both personal responsibility and social justice.
Having managed two towns with police departments, Harrison described being “acutely aware of the police shortage that has been going on since before COVID. It is an issue that is over much the country, but it is related to housing concerns and our lack of workforce.”
Recalling his time as a state trooper, Hashim spoke to the importance of having positive police interactions and resources for community members that reduce recidivism. He and Harrison both pointed to the need to look at root causes for crime, such as poverty.
Hashim proposed the creation of student loan repayment programs to help attract and retain workers. He suggested the state could cover certain higher education costs in increments tied to the time in which someone has stayed in Vermont.
“We’re encouraging folks to look at the trades and let their children know that not everyone needs to go to college,” said Harrison, who serves as chairwoman of the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies Board. She also stressed the need to have welcoming communities with housing, transportation, walkable areas and broadband.
Wessel said child care, housing and jobs “all have to be there” to have strong worker retention.
Fearful of turning first responders away from the area, Morton cautioned against talks of “defunding certain parts of our government.”
“I’m glad we sort of moved away from that language, and I hope we move away from that,” he said, adding that the Legislature needs to look at ways to “lighten the load” for workers.
Disappointed about universal health care not working out in Vermont, Harrison said she’s been talking to hospitals to learn about their concerns, and that she’s willing to fully participate in conversations about the subject.
“It’s a patchwork right now,” she said. “There seems to be no one who is happy with the way that health care is.”
Wessel said he supports a single-payer model but noted that “it does have to be paid for.”
“I think that effort clearly broke down when numbers just weren’t lining up for such a small state and what they were trying to accomplish at the time,” he said. He also spoke of wanting to keep on an eye on the suicide rate since COVID-19 came around, “because the collective separation we experienced on one level or another has really taken a toll on mental health.”
Hashim cited geography, population and the way regulations are set up with the Green Mountain Care Board as challenges for a single-payer system. He said he believes “the health of a society should be one of the top priorities of any government.”
Morton opposes the single-payer model, calling it “socialism” and “ineffective.”
“I feel much stronger and confident that competition drives prices down,” he said. “People who can innovate and do so effectively and not have the weight of heavy, heavy regulation can do much better with the circumstances on the ground.”
Harrison said she doesn’t have a problem with hunting, but she does have an issue with high-capacity weapons. Hashim supports waiting periods for gun sales and reasonable gun ownership laws.
Wessel called the issue “very complicated” but spoke in favor of gun safety legislation that makes sense, such as storage laws. He said the Legislature should be looking for data-driven results.
Opposing additional gun laws, Morton said he believes the Constitution is clear on what a person’s rights are, and that Vermont has “a stellar record” on gun safety. He would be more interested in firearm training in school, so students are aware of how guns work and their responsibilities for using them.
In the upcoming election, voters also will be deciding whether to support Article 22, or Proposal 5. That would codify the right to an abortion in Vermont’s Constitution.
Morton was the only candidate on Monday to speak out against the measure. He said the overturning of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision hasn’t changed access to abortion in Vermont, and he called the language in the proposal “vague.”
Harrison and Hashim said they would support safe harbor laws to protect people coming from states where they could be punished by law for having abortions, as well as the doctors providing them care, in Vermont. Wessel said he supports Article 22 and believes it would achieve that.
Hashim sees possibilities for improving child care wages without increasing taxes. During his campaign, he said, he learned how crucial child care is for families and workforce development.
“I would argue that even if taxes are required, it would be progressive taxes, and the savings to the community would outweigh those taxes,” Harrison said.
With a 4-and-a-half-year-old child at home, Wessel’s family has personally experienced the challenges of the industry. He said he wouldn’t want to take tax revenue off the table when discussing improvements to the child care system. He noted public education doesn’t currently cover children younger than 5.
Morton urged against looking at raising taxes as a potential remedy, saying that Vermont is substantially “becoming less and less affordable.” However, he called child care “critically important.”